Category Archives: Pasta

The Greek in me!

Ok so I don’t actually have any Greek in me since I am all Italian but I am a big fan of most things Greek, especially their cuisine! Pastitsio is one of my favorite things to eat, especially if it is from the Greek Islands Restaurant! (others have been known to overwhelm me with nutmeg and/or cinnamon….spices I feel are better left for dessert)! For those that are unfamiliar, pastitsio is a Greek lasagna, with layers of hearty meat, a rich tomatoey sauce and luscious, creamy, cheesy bechamel (my favorite part). My mom’s good friend Diane, one of the Real Housewives of Glen Ellyn as the ladies are commonly referred to by us kids, gave me a recipe a while back which I have been dying to try out! Diane is Greek and gave me her mother’s pastitsio recipe months ago and I finally got the opportunity to try it out last Sunday when I was home for more than an hour on a weekend day (how nice that was by the way….so rare it’s sad)! Good thing I had all the time in the world to make it too because it was definitely time-consuming…not so much that I won’t make it again, but enough to know to really plan ahead! The tricky part is that you are essentially preparing three separate items that get combined together; the chunky tomatoey meat sauce, the pasta portion and saving the best for last, the rich, velvety bechamel part. Another heads up, this makes a very large portion, we have been eating it for dinner since Monday and lunch yesterday and today, and I brought a few good size portions home for my mom and grandma to try last night…and I still have nearly a third of the pan left! So be aware, up to your ears in pastitsio with this recipe!

View from above!

Pastitsio:

Meat Sauce:

  • 1.5 pounds ground lamb (can use ground beef but I was trying to be ‘traditional’)
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 small-medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 can filled with water
  • 1 t rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste

Pasta:

  • 1 pound penne
  • 2 T olive oil (I used garlic infused olive oil that I had made myself just to add a little more flavor)
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/2 cup Kefalotyri (can use Parmesan but again, I was attempting to be ‘traditional’)

Bechamel:

  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 glasses milk, warmed
  • 3/4 cup Kefalotyri
  • 3 egg yolks
  • salt and pepper to taste

For meat sauce: Brown ground lamb in a butter with onion until onion is soft and meat is browned. Add in garlic. Let cook a minute more. Deglaze pan with white wine. Add in rosemary, bay leaves and tomato paste diluted with water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let cook about 15 or so minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed. Discard bay leaves.

For the pasta: Cook pasta until al dente (undercook by at least a few minutes). Once done, strain and return to pot. Toss with olive oil and let cool a few minutes. Once relatively cool, add in Kefalotyri cheese and egg whites, toss to coat.

For the Bechamel: While the pasta is cooking, melt butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in flour, and let cook a minute or two, do not let brown. Whisk in milk, slowly, whisking the entire time, so no clumps remain. Once no lumps remain, remove the pan from the heat and add in the cheese, salt, pepper and egg yolks, in that order while continuing to stir the entire time. Set aside when smooth and fully mixed.

Assembly: I mixed half of the meat sauce with the pasta and poured half of the pasta mixture on the bottom of a greased, large casserole pan. Then the other half of the meat mixture, then the other half of the pasta. Lastly, pour the bechamel over top and cover with more Kefalotyri. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes, depending on how brown you like it. We did not eat ours Sunday night but let it sit in the fridge overnight then reheated pieces for dinner Monday which I was told really escalates the flavor. Josh ate a small piece Sunday night and said that it was a slightly stronger taste the following evening but not terribly noticeable or obvious! Also, next time I would try to find smaller pasta noodles, even the true Greek number 2 ‘traditional’ noodles if possible and use a little more tomato sauce or make extra tomato sauce to drizzle over top like they do in the restaurants! And there will be a next time, that’s for sure!

Good view of the layers!

Orzotto with Fresh Mozzarella and Tomatoes!

A while back I posted about a risotto I made with orzo pasta instead of Arborio rice. This is something I do frequently,  so I figured I needed a name for it, hence orzotto! You  make orzotto the same way you  make risotto; it takes about the same amount of time and is just as versatile as risotto, meaning you can add pretty much anything you want in there! This time, I made it with orzo, zucchini, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. It was very light and fresh, and oh so cheesy! To me though, it tasted as if it was lacking something…and it took me until this morning to pin point what…this was the first time I have ever had any form of risotto without spinach or arugula or some type of green! This one was still delicious and I love the cheesiness of it, but I think I would add in some spinach next time!

Orzotto with Fresh Mozz and tomatoes:

  • 3 T olive oil
  • 2 T butter
  • package of pancetta from Trader Joe’s (obviously this is optional or you can use whatever kind you want/have/like)!
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 zucchini, sliced and quartered
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced thinly
  • 1 package orzo pasta (can use Arborio rice in place as well)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups chicken broth (simmering on low heat on the stove)
  • 1/2 cup pecorino-romano or parm
  • fresh mozzarella, cubed into small pieces
  • tomatoes (I used grape tomatoes and halved them but use whatever kind and as many as you like)!
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat up the chicken broth in a small saucepan and let simmer. Meanwhile, heat oil and butter over medium high heat until butter melts. Add pancetta, onions and zucchini, saute until veggies are soft and pancetta is crisp, about 5-7 minutes, salting and peppering to taste. Add in garlic and orzo pasta, toasting orzo until lightly browned. Deglaze pan with white wine, cooking until reduced by at least half. Add in broth a cup at a time, letting the pasta absorb it after each addition and stirring frequently to avoid burning the bottom or having it stick too much to the pan. After orzo is cooked to your liking ( it took me exactly the 6 cups of broth but you may or may not use it all), shut off heat but leave pan on hot burner, and add in cheeses, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Let cook until cheese melts and tomatoes are heated through. Serve with more romano or parm and some warm bread!

Since I already have a post going, I would like to mention a restaurant that we ate at Friday night as well. Josh took me there a few years ago for my birthday and we ended up going back to see if it was as good as we remember…to our delight, it certainly was! The place is called Chilipan, it is a very small, BYOB restaurant located in Logan Square on Armitage. It is incredibly good and the prices are very reasonable! I ordered a chicken that was stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and cheese and smothered in a mole poblano cream sauce and served with cilantro potatoes and garlic spinach and Josh ordered a skirt steak that was rolled with spinach and cheese served on top of sauteed mushrooms and garlic pureed potatoes with a tomato salsa type sauce! The couple we were with also enjoyed the restaurant and ordered the same dish as Josh and enchiladas which they reported to be tasty as well! We were going to a movie afterwards so did not order dessert so we can enjoy some candy during the show, but the chocolate tamale is not to be missed if you go!

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Josh and I have been celebrating our one year wedding anniversary for a few weeks now…we have already had three celebrations so far and a fourth is yet to come in June! I say after such a spectacular first year of marriage, why not celebrate the hell out of it!? We started a week early when Josh surprised me with a Tiffany necklace and we went out to a wonderful dinner at Kinzie Chophouse. What a great restaurant, we had been there a few times before for dessert and drinks (fantastic wine list and molten chocolate cake)! I knew it would be good, after all it’s a Chicago steak house but it really surprised me how good it really was. My filet was cooked absolutely perfectly and was so tender and juicy, and they serve their steaks with four different dipping sauces, all of which were fantastic additions, even though, not necessary since the steak was so good on its own! We also shared a baked french onion soup that was better than most I have had in French restaurants and a roasted red pepper pureed soup that was also smooth and flavorful. We also shared a broccoli fondue, which was not awesome but very tasty…can’t go wrong with broccoli and cheese! Lastly, they brought us out a buttered rum cheesecake that was to die for! I was a little upset at first, thinking I wasn’t getting my molten chocolate cake, but what a welcomed surprise, it was sooo good and went perfectly with our wine and cappuccinos! I definitely cannot wait to go back!

photo.JPG

Our next mini-celebration took place on our actual anniversary, May 14th. We were working late and Josh had to coach a hockey game late that night, so I stuck around and we had some dinner, went to see the Avengers and ate some of our wedding cake! Nice romantic, not fancy way to spend our night together!

Third celebration took place last night, our first night home together for dinner in a while! So we teamed up in the kitchen and cooked an amazing dinner of basil orzotto with goat cheese stuffed chicken and a nice bottle of wine, followed by yet more wedding cake! Orzotto is risotto made with orzo instead of Arborio rice! The orzo was super creamy and cheesy and the chicken was a perfect highlight for the pasta. The goat cheese and lemon from the filling paired perfectly with the basil and parmesan in the orzo.

Basil Orzotto:

  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, sliced or minced
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 1/2 cups orzo
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 T butter
  • 3 T chopped fresh basil

Heat oil in pan over medium, add shallots, cook 3-5 minutes until softened. Add garlic and orzo, cook until orzo is slightly browned. Deglaze pan with white wine. Cook until wine is evaporated. Add the broth, salt & pepper to taste and let come to a boil. Simmer over low, cover and cook until liquid is evaporated, about 12-15 minutes. Uncover, remove from heat, add in peas, parmesan, heavy cream, butter and fresh basil.

Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken:

  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 4 ounces goat cheese
  • 2 t lemon juice
  • 1 t chopped fresh basil
  • 1-2 T grated parm
  • Salt & pepper to taste
Mix together the goat cheese, lemon juice, basil, parm, salt and pepper. Pound each chicken breast until thin but not too thin that it will fall apart when rolling. Place 1/3 of the filling in the center of each pounded chicken breast, roll up tightly. Salt and pepper outside of each breast (or use lemon pepper or any other seasonings you prefer). Grill or bake until cooked through. Serve atop the orzotto! We followed this decadent meal with the top-tier of our wedding cake…pistachio, Josh’s absolute favorite and a Ma Crawford special! She had never made pistachio for a wedding before we put in a special request…it came out sooooo good!!
And last but certainly not least, our fourth celebration is yet to come! We are going to Italy in June! We debated going for our honeymoon but in the end decided we would rather sit on a beach, relax and do nothing but be waited on hand and foot! Best. Decision. Ever. I don’t think I would have truly been able to appreciate Italy having gone right after my wedding, being exhausted, excited, overwhelmed, etc!  But when we got married, Josh promised we would go for our one year anniversary and I thought he was full of it! But much to my extreme delight, he is making it happen! I. Cannot. Wait.

Party Time!

So this past weekend was spent celebrating my best friend’s last few weeks as a ‘single lady!’ The wedding is set for May 11, and is rapidly approaching! The bride and groom decided to do a combination bachelor/bachelorette party weekend and have events planned throughout the entire weekend. Friday night we all went out together to an Irish bar called Fado where there ended up being a very good one man band! Of course, we stayed out just a little bit longer than we should have, which made for a fun Saturday morning, lol! Saturday’s events were all split up, boys going golfing and the girls getting manis and pedis! We followed up our nails with a boozy Italian lunch at Maggiano’s…just the thing we needed to bring us right back to normal! Saturday night, the ladies were all meeting by my apartment for some food, booze and gift opening before heading out for the evening. I planned my menu so I wouldn’t have to spend majority of the get together in the kitchen, taking things in and out of the oven, etc! I tried to plan a booze themed evening, filled with drunken gummy bears (highly recommended), jelly bean vodka for jellybean martinis (which I forgot to serve, it’s fine), Arnold Palmer Jello shots, Irish Car Bomb cupcakes, and Kahlua laced puppy chow! For food, I went with macaroni and cheese cupcakes (delicious but difficult to eat), a savory basil cheesecake (was nervous about this one but it turned out great), a vegetable pizza and some cucumber tea sandwiches. The food was just light enough to not overfill us up but heavy enough to help soak up some of the alcohol we were over-indulging in!

Car Bomb Cupcakes:

Recipe adapted from of Annie’s Eat’s Blog

Cupcakes:

  • 1 cup Guinness
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 cup creme fraiche (or sour cream)
Ganache:
  • 10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 2 T butter
  • 3 t Kahlua (Annie’s Eats uses Baileys, which is thicker and creamier, so I just added more chocolate to thicken it up a little)!
Frosting:
  • 1 stick butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 8 T Kahlua (same as above, didn’t use Baileys, used Kahlua instead, went with the full 4 cups powdered sugar so it was thick enough)!

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cupcake pan with liners. Combine the Guinness and butter in a saucepan over medium low heat.  Once the butter is melted, whisk in the cocoa powder until smooth. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. In another bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Mix together. In bowl of electric mixer, beat two eggs with creme fraiche, add in the Guinness butter mixture (this is why it’s important to let this cool or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs)! Slowly add in dry ingredients. Fill liners 3/4 full and bake 15-17 minutes.

For the ganache, heat heavy cream over low heat until just simmering. Pour over chocolate. Wait 1 minute, then whisk until smooth. Add in butter and Kahlua and mix until smooth and glossy. Set aside to cool completely. To speed this along, you can throw it in the fridge for about an hour, but be sure to check on it and give it a stir every so often.

For the frosting, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add in powdered sugar, mix until fluffy and combined. Mix in Kahlua. I think that next time I make these, I will add cocoa powder to make a chocolate version!

Once the cupcakes have cooled completely, cut out a portion of the center of each cupcake (I used an apple corer, just didn’t go all of the way through the bottom). Fill hole with ganache and top with frosting! Enjoy!

Basil Cheesecake:

Recipe adapted from Giada.

  • 4 ounces ricotta
  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 3 ounces goat cheese
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh basil
  • pinch of garlic powder, onion powder, thyme and rosemary (any herbs of your choice really, and this may not even be necessary)!

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a food processor, fold in chopped basil and bake 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees!

Macaroni & Cheese Cupcakes:

  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 4 T butter
  • 4 T flour
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 t dry mustard powder
  • 1/2 t garlic salt
  • 1/2 t onion powder
  • pepper to taste
  • dash of oregano and thyme
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 6 ounces Velveeta, cut into cubes
  • broccoli florets
  • mushrooms
  • pancetta, diced (I used the pre-diced package from Trader Joe’s)
  • 1 egg
  • Bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta until al dente, adding broccoli for last few minutes of cooking…drain pasta and broccoli. In a small saucepan, cook pancetta with some olive oil until nice and crisp. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, keeping juices in pan. Add butter to pan of drippings, once melted, sprinkle with flour, cook about 2 minutes. Add in cream and milk, whisking until smooth and begins to thicken, about 5 or so minutes. Add in seasonings. Turn off heat and add in cheeses, whisking until melted. Add in pasta, pancetta, mushrooms and broccoli. Beat in one egg. Pour into lined muffin pan, cop with breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Bake 14-16 minutes or until golden on top and heated through. Next time  I make these, I will add in another egg so it binds better, these were kind of difficult to eat!

Veggie Pizza:

  • 2 packages crescent dough
  • 2 (8-ounce) packages Neuchâtel cheese, softened
  • 1/2 package ranch dressing mix
  • 1/2 t onion powder
  • 1/2 t garlic powder
  • 1 t parsley
  • 1 t seasoning salt
  • 1/2 t black pepper
  • chopped veggies
  • 4 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Roll crescents onto greased baking sheet, pressing together all perforations, making one large rectangle. Bake as package directs and let cool completely (if you spread the Neuchâtel mixture onto warm crescents, it will become watery/runny). Mix together Neuchatel, ranch mix and seasonings until fluffy and combined. Spread over cooled crescent dough. Top with shredded cheese and any veggies you want. I went with broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, red, green and yellow peppers. Refrigerate until ready to serve!

Cucumber Tea Sammies:

  • 2 avocados
  • 1 cup peas
  • 2 T lemon juice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • good, soft bread
  • cucumbers
  • carrots
  • sprouts

In food processor, combine avocados, peas, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pulse to smooth and combined. Remove crust from bread, spread each slice with a generous helping of avocado mixture, top with cucumbers, carrots, and/or sprouts (or any combination of these you like, I mixed and matched with all three)! Form sandwich and cut into fours.

Arnold Palmer Jello Shots:

  • 1 package lemon jello
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup chilled sweet tea vodka
  • 10 lemons, halved, juiced and insides removed (this is way more difficult than it sounds, honestly took me an hour to accomplish this)!

Combine boiling water and jello until jello dissolves. Once dissolved, add in cold sweet tea vodka. Stir a minute or so to combine. Pour into halved lemons. Set in the fridge to harden. Before serving, cut halves in half (into fourths).


For the drunken gummy bears, I just combined gummy bears with vodka, pouring in enough vodka to cover the bears, and put it in the fridge. After the first day, I had to add move vodka since they little guys soaked it all up! I added enough to cover them again and let them sit in the fridge for another 4 days. They swelled up and not only looked super cute but were also very delicious! For the jellybean vodka, I separated out the jellybeans into colors, and put red, orange and pink each in 1 1/2 cups of vodka and let them sit in the fridge for 3 or so days. I then drained the vodka and it would have been ready to drink/serve, had I remembered! Oops! And lastly, for the puppy chow, I just added in a few tablespoons of Kahlua to the chocolate, butter, peanut butter mixture before coating the chex cereal!

 

All in all, the menu was a hit and the weekend was amazing! After our get together the ladies headed out to Whiskey Sky, on top of the W hotel for some martinis and an amazing view! We then headed to one of the bride’s favorite piano bars, Zebra Lounge; a cute little place with the same piano player every night! We then headed to Vertigo Sky in the Dana hotel to meet up with the boys, making this quite a brief stop for the debacle it was to get in! And then finally, ending our night at Local 22 for some karaoke! Sunday, we met at 25 Degrees for some brunch and bottomless mimosas (as if this was necessary after the weekend we had)! We all collectively stated that we will definitely be returning to 25 Degrees. The food was delicious, the mimosas were continuously flowing and the atmosphere and staff were very nice and accommodating! So to recap, I will be recovering until Wednesday! No seriously though, fantastic weekend, well worth it, even if I am dragging today!

Italian overload!

Last Friday night, Josh and I didn’t have any plans (a rare event in our household), so we decided to go out to dinner. We had to choose somewhere with good vegetarian options because of lent. We were originally leaning towards French since the hubby is obsessed with Bouillabaisse (seafood stew…not my thing), but after browsing some menus online, Osteria Via Stato had a similar, Italian version of a seafood stew, so we went with that! I’ve been to this restaurant a few times but not in the past few years so I was excited to go back! I was not let down at all, what a great experience overall. Our waitress was very good and helped us pick out a fantastic bottle of wine to pair with our entrees, the atmosphere was great, dim, romantic, quiet. We decided not to do the family style menu since it was only us two and ordered everything a la carte. Traditional to Italian restaurants, they start you off with some bread and oil at the table, but theirs kicked it up a notch, having cloves of roasted garlic (one of my favorite things ever) infusing the oil; with a little bit of parm, this was a wonderful start. The garlic had a nice sweetness from roasting and the bread was served warm with a soft, chewy center and crusty outside. For entrees, Josh of course ordered the seafood stew and loved it. The broth had a nice spice to it and the scallops were the best I’ve ever had; cooked perfectly with a wonderful caramelized crust. I ordered the shrimp, spinach and leek risotto from the specials featured that evening. It was very good, but I should have known better than to order risotto when we can make an amazing one ourselves at home. I wasn’t disappointed by any means, but I should have gone with something I don’t or can’t make at home….but all of that aside, it was very rich and creamy, thinner than I am used to but all the cheesy goodness was there. We actually skipped dessert and ordered dessert coffees and wine instead. Their spiked cappuccinos came out piping hot and very thick and creamy. A wonderful ending! http://www.osteriaviastato.com/

We had friends coming in to town Saturday that we were planning to head to dinner with that evening. Since they were guests, we told them to let us know what kind of food they wanted and we’d find a great, under-the radar, non-touristy, non-chain ‘Chicago’ place to take them. Unexpectedly, they settled on Italian and wanted pasta! Had we known this ahead of time, we probably wouldn’t have gone out for Italian the night before, but maybe it’s the Italian in me but I could eat pasta every night and be quite content!! We decided on a place in the West Loop called La Luce. We’d been there once before and the food was delicious and we’ve been wanting to go back ever since and finally had the perfect opportunity. We made a reservation for the upstairs portion of the restaurant; a quieter, more open atmosphere, and usually fairly empty. Josh and I got there a little early and made ourselves at home at the bar to wait. The bartender, whom ended up being our waiter, was fantastic. Such a tremendous help and super nice. I was in one of those moods where I couldn’t decide what I wanted to drink, so he let me try two different proseccos and two different wines, even opening two bottles specifically for me to try. He also helped quite a few people at the table choose entrees and no one seemed disappointed. Same as usual, they started us out with some warm bread and bottle of olive oil and jar of parmesan at the table, which I love and much prefer….I’d rather make my own dipping oil, but that’s just me! For the table, we ordered calamari and mussels, neither of which I tried but everyone said they were good and there were none left on either plate, so I take that to mean they were good! For entrees, Josh ended up with seafood linguine (it’s fine, apparently he’s addicted to seafood medleys) and I went with the scallops. His was very tasty, the white wine marinara sauce was delicious and I couldn’t help but sop some up with some warm bread! My scallops were also very good, cooked well, but I was biased from the ones I tried the night before at Osteria Via Stato. Those were just cooked so amazingly that these were not quite as good…had I not had those though, I would have thought there were very good! And to boot, one of the men in our party is a chef in Michigan and he said the meal was good, and to me, that says a lot! http://www.lalucewestloop.com/

As if we didn’t eat enough Italian, we decided to make a different version of baked mostaccioli Sunday night…we have a sickness, it’s fine!! Instead of using ground beef, we used sausage and instead of using homemade gravy, I used a bottled sauce from Trader Joe’s to save some time. Here’s the recipe I used:

Baked Mostaccioli:

  • 1 lb. mostaccioli
  • 1 container ricotta cheese
  • 1 package mozzarella cheese (thanks Em)!
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • garlic
  • 1 egg
  • parmesan to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Italian sausage
  • Trader Joe’s marinara sauce (bottled sauce, I know, I’m embarrassed)!

Cook mostaccioli al dente, drain. Brown sausage and cook in pan. Meanwhile, mix ricotta with a lot of parm, the egg, a few cloves of minced garlic, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Mix together pasta, ricotta mixture, sausage, 1/2 the mozzarella, and the sauce. Pour into a casserole pan and top with remaining mozzarella cheese and parm. Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes, or until center is hot. Let stand 10-15 minutes before eating.

Overall, a great weekend for food and I would highly recommend both restaurants if ever looking for a delicious Italian meal in Chicago! As for the baked mostaccioli, it was pretty good, but doesn’t even come close to my gram’s! Had I used homemade gravy, it definitely would have been better, but time was not on my side that day my friends!

On the Wagon…

Here is one wagon to get onto my friends! My family has this recipe they call ‘Chuck Wagon Mac’ that is so simple yet so tasty at the same time! It is basically a fancier, home-made version of a cheesy hamburger helper. And my favorite part about it is how versatile it is! You can literally add anything you like or change it up any way you like to suit your tastes. I made a version of this Sunday night, with more of a Mexican flair and it turned out to be, well in my opinion at least, the best one yet! I’ll give you the basic recipe first and then the one I made up on Sunday:

Original Chuck Wagon Mac

  • Box of macaroni & cheese, prepared
  • 1 can tomato paste, with a few tablespoons of water to smooth it out
  • 1 can of corn, drained
  • 1 1/2 – 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 ribs of celery, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1/2 – 1 onion, diced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a casserole dish. Cook ground beef with onion, green pepper and celery until cooked through. Mix together with the corn, tomato paste and macaroni and cheese. Pour all together into casserole dish and bake 45 minutes – 1 hour, until heated through.

Honestly, how simple is that?! And this variation alone is incredibly delicious, it used to be a favorite of mine growing up! (I must admit though, I’ve never made this using a boxed mac & cheese, I always make my own or at least do my own with chopped up velveeta and butter)! But it is good even with the box! I just like to have control of the amount of cheese, since I loooove cheese and am able to add as much as I want!!

Mexican Chuck Wagon Mac

  • 1 lb elbow macaroni, shells, rotini, whatever
  • 20 ounces velveeta cheese, cubed (at least 20 ounces)!
  • 3-5 T butter (add as much or as little as you’d like to reach desired creaminess…you can use milk instead or also but butter gives a much better flavor)!
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, diced (I kept the ribs and seeds because we love spice)!
  • 3 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 – 2 T cumin
  • 1 can corn, drained
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes, pureed in food processor to make tomato sauce
  • 1 small can diced tomatoes and green chiles
  • bag of shredded cheddar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a casserole dish or 9X13 pan. Cook pasta to al dente. While cooking, cook ground beef with onion, peppers, celery and cumin until cooked through. Drain if necessary. Once the pasta is cooked almost through, drain and add back to the pan with the velveeta and butter. Stir over low heat until velveeta is melted. Mix everything together, with a cup of the shredded cheddar and put in casserole dish. Top with remaining shredded cheddar and bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour.

I really liked the spice the jalapeno added and the flavor the cumin added! I think this combination worked great and am going to try more and more…after all, ground beef with mac and cheese could never get old in my book! Hell, mac and cheese with anything will never get old, Josh and I still eat it at least once a week, but usually a few times a week! Enjoy and let me know of any variations you guys try out and like or dislike!

Also, on a side note, I posted about home-made pasta we tried the other day and how well it turned out. Not surprising, I’ve been playing around with it and have made home-made noodles a few times now and Friday we made our own lasagna noodles and they were amazing! And the entire process took less than 45 minutes, including the 30 minutes for the dough to rest! I highly suggest giving your own a shot, it was much easier and tastier than  I imagined it would be!

 

A Valentine’s to remember!

Who doesn’t love Valentine’s Day?! But I must begin by saying, we are one of those couples that doesn’t really go all out and celebrate the so-called ‘Hallmark Holidays!” We came up with an idea/agreement that I treat him to dinner on Sweetest Day and he treats me on Valentine’s Day (but not on the actual days to avoid the crowds and pre-fixe menus, etc) but no elaborate gifts or anything! I am one of those lucky girls you always hear about or see in movies, the ones with the boyfriends/husbands that constantly bring them with flowers for no reason, surprise them with gifts, cook them dinner, etc. So I don’t need a Valentine’s Day to feel appreciated and spoiled, but it surely doesn’t hurt to feel special!Unfortunately this year, I dropped the ball on Sweetest Day and we didn’t do a darn thing and we recently purchased our first home and are trying super hard to save as much money as possible so we weren’t even planning on doing dinner for Valentine’s Day.  But I still wanted to do something sweet for my sweetheart and make him feel special for a change! Instead of going out, I decided to make a meal I think he’d order out at a nice restaurant! I went with homemade angel hair pasta with scallops in a white wine, tomato, butter sauce and mussels. And for dessert, 7 layers of pure amazingness!

I’m not going to lie, I decided to do homemade pasta so I can try out some new gadgets I got and the cake, well that was also mostly for me too! But he surely enjoyed it, so it was well worth it! The mussels though, those were all for him!

Homemade Angel Hair:

  • 3 1/4 cups flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 T water
  • Salt to taste
By hand: pour flour on working surface, make a well in the center, add the eggs and mix by hand, add in olive oil, water and salt and hand knead until dough comes together. If sticky, add more flour, if dry, add more water or oil. With Kitchenaid mixer (preferred method): with paddle attachment, mix together eggs, olive oil, water and salt. Switch to dough hook and add in flour a little bit at a time until dough comes together. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand until perfectly smooth and together (same rule as before, if sticky add more flour, if dry, add more water or oil). Divide dough into 6 sections and feed one at a time through Kitchenaid mixer attachment or roll out by hand. Feed through pasta cutter attachment or cut by hand, set out to dry. I left mine out overnight and it was very dry and tasted wonderful!
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Sauce (adapted from Giada):
  • 3 T cup olive oil
  • 3-4 T butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/2 t crushed red pepper and/or flakes
  • 1 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cans diced tomatoes
  • package of mushrooms
  • fresh scallops

Melt butter and heat with olive oil. Saute mushrooms and shallot until soft, add in garlic, bay leaf, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper to taste and cook for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add white wine to deglaze, let cook until reduced by half. Add in tomatoes and let cook down until thickened a bit. Add in scallops and mussels, cover and cook in sauce for 3-5 minutes. Add in some Parmesan and serve over pasta…adding more parm as necessary while eating! Be sure to serve this with some hearty, crusty bread (we baked some Ciabatta rolls and they were perfect for slopping up any extra sauce)!

Dessert is a wee-bit more complicated and took about 3 hours in total to construct…but it was definitely worth it! You essentially bake your favorite brownie, chocolate chip cookie and cheesecake recipes, splitting each batter between 8X8 or 9X9 pans so you end up with 2 brownie rounds, 2 chocolate chip cookie rounds and 2 cheese cake rounds. You  make two different frostings and then assemble from there! Here are the recipes I used:

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This is what it looks like when it is all said and done! Standing at least one foot tall!

Brownies (courtesy of my lovely sister-in-law Mandy):

  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 11 ounces dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 5 eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the sides and bottom of two 8X8″ or 9X9″ round pans. Line the pan with parchment paper and spray again.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, and cocoa powder together.

3. Put the chocolate, butter and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the sugars. Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The mixture should be room temperature.

4. Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Add the remaining eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter at this stage or your brownies will be cakey.

5. Sprinkle the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a rubber spatula (not a whisk), fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then lift them out of the pans using the parchment paper. Cool completely on a wire rack before assembling cake or frosting!

Cheesecake:

  • 16 ounces cream cheese
  • 4 ounces ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Butter two 8X8″ or 9X9″ round pans, line with parchment paper and spray again. Beat cream cheese until light and fluffy. Add in Ricotta and sugar, mix until smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in vanilla. Finally, beat in sour cream and blend until smooth. Pour batter into prepared pans, evenly and bake in oven for 15 minutes, turn temperature down to 350 degrees and bake for 45 more minutes. Let cool before removing from pan, freeze until ready to use.
Chocolate Chip Cookies (I used the bake-shop cookie recipe from a previous post):
  • 3/4 cup salted, butter, room temp (if you use unsalted, just add about 1/4 – 1/2 tsp)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 bag chocolate chips
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8X8″ or 9X9″ round pans, line with parchment paper and spray again. Sift together flour, cornstarch and baking soda; set aside. Beat butter until light and fluffy, cream together with sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add in flour slowly. Fold in chocolate chips. Pour half the batter into each prepared pan and bake for 10 minutes or until golden and still soft. You definitely want a soft cookie, not a crunchy one for this recipe…make sure they are completely cooled before assembling cake!
Marshmallow Frosting:
  • 1 jar (7 oz) marshmallow fluff
  • 1 stick butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract

To make the butter cream, beat together the marshmallow fluff and butter, on medium speed, until the mixture is smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low, add the powdered sugar and vanilla, and beat for another minute. Increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes until it’s light and fluffy. Set aside until cake assembly time (will need to be divided into four equal parts)!

Chocolate Frosting:

  • 6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled (I let it cool about 1 hour, stirring occasionally)
  • 4 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar (no need to sift)
  • 3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Blend all ingredients together in a food processor until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use. (will have to be divided in half, and then on of the halves in half so you have 1/2 of the mixture, 1/4 and 1/4).

 

Whew, that’s a lot of components! Ok, now that everything is done and cooled completely, here’s how the layering goes: one brownie layer, marshmallow frosting, one cookie layer, marshmallow frosting, one cheesecake layer, chocolate frosting, graham crackers broken to fit around circle, chocolate frosting, other cheesecake layer, marshmallow frosting, other cookie layer, marshmallow frosting, other brownie layer, chocolate frosting to cover top and sides!

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So the layers will look like this, maybe even a little neater than mine!

Obviously you can arrange the layers  in whatever way you want but I saw this on a blog through Pinterest ( http://www.fatgirltrappedinaskinnybody.com/2011/06/ultimate-smore-anniversary-cake/) and that’s how she did it so I figured I’d follow it! After seeing this, I knew I had to make it, and boy was it amazing, what a creative and great idea!

A new take on an old favorite!

When my mom told me about a recipe she found in one of her cooking magazines, I was intrigued. The combination of brussels sprouts and cream cheese with pasta had me wondering…I knew we would have to try it out! I have tried just about every veggie with pasta, but never brussels sprouts for some reason! And using cream cheese seemed like a cop-out to make an alfredo-ey type sauce without having to do any sort of work but I’ve seen more and more pasta recipes recently that use cream cheese so I figured why not jump on the bandwagon?! The dish ended up being a great weeknight dinner idea, very creamy, thick and rich and fairly easy to make. And the best part being, I usually have all of the ingredients on hand to make it, they are more or less staples for us!

Roasted Brussels Sprout Pasta

  • 1-2 pounds brussels sprouts, trimmed and quartered
  • 3 T olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • 1 pound pasta (I used a shell type, but you can use elbow, orecchiette, etc)
  • 3-4 T butter
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 onion, chopped or 1-2 t onion flakes
  • 1 cup chicken broth or white wine
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened at room temperature
  • 1-2 T olive oil
  • Parmesan cheese, to taste
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

First, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper. Lay on sprayed baking sheet in one layer and roast about 30-40 minutes or until soft and slightly browned. Meanwhile, bring water to a boil for pasta, heavily salting as soon as it comes to a boil and cook pasta. While that’s cooking, saute onion and garlic in butter until softened, 3-4 minutes, add in chicken broth or wine and bring to a boil until reduced by half. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of the water. Toss pasta and brussels sprouts with butter mixture, reserved pasta water, 1-2 T olive oil, some parmesan cheese and cream cheese. Heat until cream cheese is melted, add more pasta water as necessary to get to desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with more parm while eating! I like to add parm in layers as I eat…usually going through an additional 1/4 cup at least…I do not suggest this, however it is one of those habits I just can’t stop!

When we were younger, my best friend and I would go to my gram’s house during lunch and she’d make us pastina and egg. Another amazingly simple yet delicious recipe (seriously, just add a cracked, beaten egg or two to drained pastina, with a half a stick (or more) of butter and a ton of parmesan cheese)! We would eat an entire pound of pastina and go through half a container or more of parmesan cheese….glad to have someone to share my love of parmesan cheese with, mostly because at least I know I’m not the only one!!

Gravy Train!

I realize it has been a while since my last post but luckily I’ve been really busy! And sadly we didn’t have internet at work this week…which forced me to do actual work, blah! No seriously though, I do have a new recipe I’d like to share with everyone! I saw an episode of Giada over a year ago that I’ve been wanting to make but never did, until last Friday! It is for a lamb ragu….I used her recipe, omitting the mint leaves and using a smidge more garlic and lamb meat…and used my mama’s gravy recipe for the ‘marinara sauce’ part! The lamb added such a unique, peppery flavor and the ricotta added an unexpected creaminess. It was well worth the wait, and was easier than anticipated to make which was a definite bonus!! So here it is:

1 lb Pasta (rigatoni, shells, rotini: any that hold on to a hearty meat sauce)!

2 T olive oil

2 lb ground lamb

2 shallots, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup red wine

4 cups marinara (Gram’s gravy recipe to follow)!

1/2 cup ricotta

Heat large pot of water to boiling, add salt, and add pasta….cook until al dente. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, add the shallots and garlic, cook until softened. Add the ground lamb, salt and pepper and cook until browned and juices have evaporated. Add wine, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of the pan. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half. Add the marinara sauce and cook over low heat until flavors meld, at least 15 minutes. Add the ricotta and mix through. Add the pasta (I chose shells, mostly because that’s what I had in my pantry but also because the shells would hold on to the meaty chunks in the sauce). Top with some fresh parsley and of course, serve with parmesan and a big glass of red wine!!

Picture of Lamb Ragu with Mint Recipe

This is the pic of Giada's with the Rigatoni! Unfortunately I do not have a pic of my own to share!

Mama’s gravy recipe (and I apologize in advance for not having exact measurements of any sort, but I had to learn how to make this through watching):

Heat enough olive oil  and vegetable oil (more olive than vegetable) to coat the bottom of a deep, large pot. Add a lot of chopped garlic and little chopped onion and soften for a few minutes. Add pork neck bones and fry until browned. Add a large can of tomato puree. Salt and pepper to taste. Add a lot of oregano, a little basil, a dash of red pepper flakes and a few splashes of red wine. Let that come to a boil, then simmer. Mix a small can of tomato paste with a can of water and add that to the gravy.  Add a bit of parmesan cheese and let simmer for a few hours. Be sure to stir occasionally, making sure to scrap the bottom and sides of the pot. (Sidenote: you can use any combination of pork neck bones, beef shank, Italian sausage, meatballs, etc for the beginning part)!

Urban Fresh!

We are lucky enough to have a pretty spacious patio at our new apartment which allowed us to plant some veggies and herbs for the first time ever! Even more exciting, they are all starting to grow and we were able to pick quite a few tomatoes and a whole lot of basil! I wanted to make something fresh, easy and delicious with our homegrown goodies so I settled on a caprese pasta…I just had to run to the store to buy some fresh mozzarella! This recipe is as easy as can be and was very light and fresh…sadly my husband and I ate an entire pound of pasta so the ‘lightness’ aspect went right out the window, but I guess it meant that it tasted pretty darn good!!

While my heavily salted water was coming to a boil, I started sautéing a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil with some garlic until the garlic became aromatic and then added the cherry tomatoes from our garden, along with some salt and pepper. Once the tomatoes softened a bit, I mashed them with a spatula, creating somewhat of a sauce. Once the campanelle (the pasta I chose to use, but others such as angel hair, ziti or fusilli would work just as well with trapping the lighter, chunkier sauce) was al dente, I used a slotted spoon to remove it and add it to the pan with the tomatoes so it could finish cooking while also adding a bit of pasta water with each addition. I turned off the heat and added the fresh basil, a lot of fresh basil, and some diced up mozzarella so it would start to get a little melty! I then added a few more sprinkles of salt and pepper, and of course some parmesan cheese! One small issue I would definitely avoid for next time is letting the mozzarella sit too long in the heat. It ended up melting a little too much, causing clumps of cheese in the pan which prevented it from distributing evenly. I would recommend pouring the tomato pasta mixture over the diced mozzarella in your serving bowl and just let the heat from the pasta and sauce melt it down! All in all, with some fresh, crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside Italian bread, this was a simple and delicious weeknight meal!

Ours looked very similar, minus the olives!

And of course, as you already assumed, no meal is complete without dessert! As I mentioned in my last blog, we were fortunate enough to be given two enormous zucchinis, which I am still trying to use up before they go bad…so I decided to make some chocolate chip zucchini muffins….a little different than the zucchini bread I made last time! These turned out to be amazing, even better than I anticipated which made breakfast this morning a hell of a lot more exciting! Here’s the recipe I used:

3/4 cups white flour

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

3/4 cups oat flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

2 3/4 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp ginger

3 eggs

1 cup oil (can use 1/2 oil, 1/2 applesauce for a healthier version)

6 ounces vanilla greek yogurt

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

3/4 cup honey

2 tsp vanilla

2 cups zucchini, shredded

Milk chocolate chips

Bake at 350 degrees for 23-25 minutes. I used a jumbo muffin pan (because bigger is always better right?!) and it made 9 very large muffins! With the combination of whole wheat flour, oat flour (which you can grind up regular old oatmeal if you don’t have oat flour), greek yogurt and zucchini, these muffins are pretty healthy, filled with fiber and protein, especially if you replace half the oil with applesauce…ok and omit the chocolate chips! These were better than the zucchini bread I made the other day in case you are thinking of trying one of the recipes out yourself!!

The finished product!!