Monday, November 28, 2011

Joey's Ratatouille & Ricotta Stuffed Shells

 Here's a little piece of heaven that I whipped up once upon a not so long ago. I thought of making stuffed shells, but wanted to do some kind of veggie stuffing. By the time I was finished browsing the fresh produce at the store, I realized my basket was filled with ingredients for a basic ratatouille, so I went with it! The result was DEE LISH!! And the ricotta cheese just pushed it right over the top. SO YUMMY!! I'll definitely be making this one again soon!
Try it!

1 medium eggplant
salt for sprinkling
1 medium zucchini
1 medium onion
1 red bell pepper
12 button mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
10-12 fresh basil leaves
 salt and pepper

1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1 egg
Parmesan cheese

25 jumbo shells
your favorite purchased or home made marinara sauce
Shredded mozzarella cheese

Peel eggplant and slice into fairly thick slices. Arrange slices on a baking tray in one layer. Sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for at least 1/2 hour. This will pull all the bitter juices out of the eggplant. Drain. Give the eggplant a super quick rinse under cold water, then pat dry with paper towels. Chop the eggplant, onions, zucchini, and bell pepper into small dice.
 Add a few glugs of oil to a large saute pan. Add veggies to the pan and saute over medium heat until they slowly begin to soften. Add chopped mushrooms, garlic, and basil. Season with salt and pepper. 
In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, the egg, and the Parmesan cheese. When the vegetables have cooked down, add the ricotta mixture to the pan and stir until completely combined and creamy.
While the veggies are cooking, boil a large pot of salted water. Add the shells to the pot and cook for about 10 minutes, just until al dente. Drain. Now it's time to put it all together.
Place about a cup of marinara sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Fill each shell with a heaping tablespoon of the ricotta/veggie mixture and then place it in the dish, making 5 rows of 5. Top each shell with a tablespoon of marinara sauce. Sprinkle a handful or two or shredded mozzarella cheese over all. Cover with foil. Place in a 350F oven for about 30 minutes. Remove foil, sprinkle more Parmesan cheese over the top, and place it back in the oven for 10 more minutes. Let it stand for a few minutes before serving, otherwise you'll burn your tongue.

You really don't have to salt or even peel the eggplant, but I always do. I just think it tastes better and is less likely to be bitter. Oh, and I always do the super quick rinse, just to get rid of the excess salt. Yeah, I found that one out the hard way...
I only do a VERY small amount of the marinara sauce because I don't want it to drown out the flavor of the veggie filling. You just want enough in the bottom of the pan so they won't stick, and you want just a little drizzled over the top of each one so they're not dry.
Once again, the amounts of the ingredients are just guidelines. If you like a lot, add a lot! And if any of the veggies is not your thing, then substitute something that is!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving Rescue 911!

  I've always loved this famous Norman Rockwell painting. It's clearly the image of what we all perceive as being the perfect Thanksgiving. But what do you do when some of your dishes don't turn out?? We've all heard the horror stories about kitchen disasters on Thanksgiving, right? The turkey is still frozen, the side dishes aren't hot enough, the pumpkin pie is cracked, the gravy is lumpy, the mashed potatoes are gluey, and on and on.  Let's face it...  things don't always go as planned! The most important thing to do is to relax and don't panic! Everything will be fine! I know you want everything to be perfect, but no one will judge you if you have to resort to a plan B. We can all use a little help every now and then, so here are a few quick fixes for Thanksgiving's most common dilemmas.

1. The turkey is still frozen.
 It takes a long time to thaw a turkey in the fridge -- about 5 hours per pound. To speed up the process safely, you can defrost the turkey in cold water, which is a lot faster. Simply put the turkey (still in its wrapper) in your kitchen sink and cover it with cold tap water. Every half hour, drain the water and refill the sink. The turkey will thaw at a rate of about 30 minutes per pound. Meanwhile, call your guests to tell them that dinner will be delayed, and have some extra hors d'oeuvres on hand. And don’t forget to remove the giblets after the bird is thawed. If you're way past the point of thawing the turkey in time to cook it for dinner, put the frozen turkey back in the freezer and go to the store and buy a fresh one. Oh, and remember, it’s never a good idea to thaw the turkey on the counter overnight.

2. The turkey is dry.
Preventive measures are the best way to address this potential problem: brining the turkey, or using an oven-roasting bag, or tenting the turkey with foil while it cooks. If it's dry anyway, that's what gravy is for.

3. The turkey is cooked, but the stuffing hasn't reached 165°F.
This one's an easy fix. Just scoop all the stuffing out of the turkey and place it in a casserole dish. Place it back in the oven, uncovered, and let it finish cooking. To avoid this in the future, stuff the turkey with aromatics like onions and celery and fresh herbs, and leave the stuffing in its own dish. You get the bonus of a nice crispy top! Btw, if the stuffing comes out too dry, just drizzle with a little chicken broth, dot with butter, cover, and then pop it back into the oven to quickly reheat.

4. You only have a small oven, and you're not sure how to manage cooking a turkey plus all the side dishes while keeping everything hot.
The key to this dilemma is all in the planning. The best thing to do is to make as many things as you can in advance. Have a quick look at my previous article about Thanksgiving Planning. And when all else fails, be sure to have plenty of hot gravy in a pot on the stove. It's the easiest way to warm up your turkey or stuffing or mashed potatoes.

5. The pan drippings have burned, and now there are no browned bits left for making gravy.
Yes, you can still make gravy. Just cut a couple tablespoons worth of nicely browned bits of skin and meat from the underside of the turkey, chop finely, and in a clean skillet, sauté them in bacon fat or butter with minced onion and fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, and sage. When the aromatics are well browned and soft, sprinkle flour into the pan and cook the roux until golden; slowly add your broth, and cook, stirring, until the gravy is as thick as you like.

6. It's too salty.
This one's a little tricky. Depending on how much you've oversalted, you may not be able to salvage the dish. I've heard of adding something acidic, like lemon juice or wine or vinegar, but it really doesn't fix the situation. It just tricks your taste buds into tasting acid instead of salt. You can try adding more of the other ingredients, which will balance everything out, but that's not always possible. The best thing to do is to make sure you go easy on the salt in the first place. If it's an easy recipe and you have the ingredients on hand, the obvious solution is to just start over. And use Kosher salt instead of iodized table salt. I find that even when you use a little too much, Kosher salt wont make the dish taste too salty the way that iodized salt does. It'll just make the flavor of the dish more intense, which is a much better trade. Oh, and never believe anyone who tells you that an extra added potato will absorb the extra salt. That never works. 

7. The vegetables are overcooked.
The easiest thing to do is to add something that has a little texture, like bread crumbs or toasted pine nuts. Toss them with a little melted butter, sprinkle over the top of your veggies, then place it under the broiler for a minute or two, then tell everyone that it's a gratin. (oh, and make sure you pronounce it "graTAN" instead of "grotten".. Everyone will think it's more gourmet. hehehe)

8. The gravy is lumpy.
Those little white lumps in the gravy are just clumps of undissolved starch. Simply pour the gravy though a sieve and serve. If it's not thick enough, you can put it back on the stove and let it reduce until it reaches the desired thickness. You can also thicken it quickly by adding cornstarch or flour to some COOL water until it's dissolved, then adding it to the gravy. It'll quickly thicken as it comes up to heat. If your gravy is too thick, simply thin it down with a bit of chicken broth or wine, or even just a bit of water. If you add wine, be sure to simmer it for 5-10 minutes.

9. The mashed potatoes are gluey or lumpy.
This is another one of those problems that's hard to fix once things have gone south. The thing that makes the potatoes gluey is over mixing. I've also heard that adding milk or cream to the potatoes before you mash the potatoes will make it impossible to get out all the lumps. Solution for both problems: Instead of using a hand masher which leaves lumps, or an electric mixer which makes glue, try using a food mill or a potato ricer. You won't have any lumps and your potatoes will be smooth and satiny. If your potatoes are already like spackle, spread them into a shallow baking dish. Top with buttered bread crumbs or even Parmesan cheese, then bake in the oven until golden on top. The crunchy gratin topping will help disguise the consistency of the potatoes. If your potatoes already have lumps in them, just declare them as being "rustic", as if you had planned it that way. Never apologize!!

10. Pie Problems!
I once heard of someone asking what do to after she dropped the pumpkin pie. Lordy! That could be a mess! If that ever happens, see if you can salvage any of it, then spoon it into decorative glasses , layered with whipped cream. Top with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon or some chopped pecans.
If your pecan or apple pie is a little soupy after you've baked it, you can either put it back in the oven and see if that'll help it to set up, or you can spoon some of the pie filling over a dish of ice cream. Soupy pie fillings make excellent ice cream toppings!
If your pumpkin pie has a huge crack down the center of it, don't fret! If this is the worst thing to happen, then you're way ahead of the game. I doubt anyone will really care, because it'll still taste delish! But if you still want everything to be perfect, all you need to do is pipe some whipped cream on top of the pie to hide the San Andreas Fault. No one will ever know the difference! You can also keep the cracked pie in the kitchen, then cut it into slices and place each slice on a dessert plate, topped with some whipped topping. Then serve the individual servings to your guests when it's time for dessert.

Of course, we never expect things to go wrong, but it's always nice to have a little back up plan, just in case!
 Be sure to have lots of extra butter, cans of chicken broth and jars of gravy on hand. I've heard of these items as being "the duct tape of Thanksgiving", which cracks me up. It's also not a bad idea to have extra cream, bread crumbs, and some fresh herbs on hand. They'll fix a multitude of sins.
Garnish your dishes, present your meal with a flourish, and whatever you do, DON'T APOLOGIZE FOR ANYTHING! You're guests will love everything because YOU cooked it for them!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Praline Pumpkin Dessert

Here's a quick and easy dessert that would be a PERFECT ending for your holiday meal. It's kind of like one of those old timey "dump" cakes, where you just dump everything into the pan and bake it. Simple, huh? It's sweet and yummy and festive, all at the same time! And it's a Betty Crocker Recipe, so, you know it's tried and true. Oh, and don't forget the whipped topping!
Try it!

1 can (15oz) pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
1 can (12oz) evaporated milk
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 box Betty Crocker Super Moist golden vanilla cake mix
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts
3/4 cup better, melted
whipping cream, whipped, if desired
additional pumpkin pie spice, if desired

Heat oven to 350°F (325°F for dark or nonstick pan). Grease or spray bottom and sides of 13x9-inch pan. In medium bowl, beat pumpkin, milk, eggs, sugar and 4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice with wire whisk until smooth. Pour into pan. Sprinkle dry cake mix over pumpkin mixture. Sprinkle with pecans. Pour melted butter evenly over top. Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 30 minutes. To serve, cut dessert into 4 rows by 3 rows. Serve warm or chilled with dollop of whipped cream sprinkled with pumpkin pie spice. Store covered in refrigerator.

This recipe is perfect for a holiday meal because you can make it up to 2 days ahead of time and then just store it covered in the fridge.
Instead of using whipped cream, I decided to use Cool Whip. It's easier and lighter and you can keep a tub of it in the freezer until you're ready for it. Then just defrost and top your dessert. Easy!
I know the directions say to serve it warm or chilled, but I think it's SO much better when it's chilled. The top sets up a little more and becomes a little more crumbly, more like a crumb topping. Love.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chunky Apple Cake

 Ok, so, I'd like to introduce you to my new favorite person, Joanne Pasold. Well, wait...actually, I've never met her... lemme 'splain..
  Her husband, Ray, works with my brother, Tom, in landscaping. Joanne once made an apple cake to give to all the guys on the tree crew, and they all loved it so much, it was gone in no time. My brother told Joanne of my cooking website and suggested that maybe she might like to share the recipe with me. Well, not only did she share the recipe, but she baked me the cake to go with it! Isn't that awesome? And can I just tell you how yummy it was? It's kind of like a cross between a spice cake and an apple cake. Dense and rich with cinnamon, but moist and sweet from the apples. SO good! So, Thank you, Joanne, for the recipe and seriously OMG Thank You for the cake!!!
 It was delish!!!

1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 cups thinly sliced apples
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350F.
Grease and flour (or spray with baking spray) a Bundt pan or a 9x13 baking dish. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until fluffy.
Beat in eggs, one at a time.
Add vanilla extract.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.
Add the flour mixture slowly to the batter.
Stir in apple (and nuts, if using).
Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Cool 10-15 minutes before serving.

Joey's Tips:
If you're using a nonstick spray, be sure to use one that is specifically for baking. In other words, choose a spray that has flour in it. Regular cooking oil spray such as Pam isn't always as reliable for cakes.
Always use pure vanilla extract and NEVER imitation vanilla flavoring. Yes, I know the imitation is much cheaper, but it has a noticeably different taste and it's just not as good.
If using a Bundt pan, why not drizzle a little caramel sauce over the top and just let it ooze down the sides? Sounds like Heaven to me!  If not, I'd probably just dust it with a little powdered sugar. Yum.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Jenny P's Vegan Fall Fry Up

  One of my mostest favoritestest people in the whole wide world is my fabulous friend Jenny Pilong, or Jenny P, as I like to call her. She's hilariously funny and wrote the book on what is and isn't cool. She's mad crazy talented and I'm thrilled to say that I've had the honor of sharing the stage with her on several occasions. As if that isn't enough, she's also an amazing cook. I love that she sort of looks at each meal as a culinary adventure. She usually doesn't use a recipe and just throws something together using whatever she has on hand, and the final result is always a huge hit with her main squeeze, Louie Louie.
 We both recently attended a party and she was telling me about her culinary experiments. I IMMEDIATELY begged her to write down what she cooks and take photos since I'm always getting requests for Vegan or Vegetarian recipes. And she did! So here is the first of what I hope will be many culinary creations by my amazing friend, the one and only Jenny P!
Thank You Please!

1 sweet potato
1 red skinned potato
1 plantain
tofu (thankfully!)
1 apple
1/2 a red onion (of which I only used a's a big onion!)
ginger root
1/4 of a lemon
fresh herbs (sage, parsley, coriander, Thai basil)
a few tbs unsweetened almond milk
Earth Balance Buttery Spread

And here goes....I knew I wanted a tofu scramble. Normally we do it "potatoes and eggs" breakfast-style (I know some people have never heard of this (insert gasp here)...but if you watch Jamie Oliver at know what I'm talkin' 'bout) but, considering the ingredients I had on hand....I decided to go a bit more fall festive. This probably took about 45 minutes total to make, but that's because the potatoes take a bit to cook through. You can nuke them ahead of time if you want, but I'm trying to phase out all things microwave so I fry 'em up old school.

First I diced the potatoes (peeled the sweet potato, but not the red skinned) and put them in a medium sized tupperware with a little chopped onion, minced garlic, sage & parsley, salt,  pepper and a couple TBSP of olive oil. Then I put the lid on and shook it all up. I like how this evenly coats all the potatoes with all the spices (I do homemade french fries this way too). Then I dumped them in a hot skillet coated with Earth Balance Buttery Spread. You want to get them going over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Next I cut the tofu block (firm tofu) in half and smooshed it all up in a bowl with my hands. Then I grated some lemon zest over it, salt, pepper, fresh parsley, cumin and a few tbs of unsweetened almond milk. Stirred it all up with a fork and set aside.

Then I sliced up the plantain, diced up half the apple and a smidge of red onion, and put them in the same tupperware the potatoes had been. Some fresh, grated ginger, salt, pepper, coriander & fresh Thai basil. Cover and shake it up yo! (there was still plenty of olive oil in the tupperware already) Then I dumped it into a separate heated skillet also coated with buttery spread.

*At this point you can add the tofu scramble to the potatoes and start frying it up together. You want the potatoes to be mostly cooked before you add anything else to the pan. *

I fried up the plantain/apple mixture on high-ish heat, adding a hearty drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a little drizzle of honey. I gave it a stir and then let the plantains fry up on the one side all nice a golden brown before flipping them over.

Once everything has cooked thru, I put the plantain mixture in with the tofu/potato mixture, stirring it all together. Add a light drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Top with fresh Thai basil and serve.

Vegan deliciousness that sticks to your ribs on a chilly fall eve.

Altho....truth be told, if I had French feta in my sooooo would have been crumbled on top....negating the previously stated vegan status and bumping it to mere vegetarian deliciousness. If I was feeling fancy pantsy I would have made a balsamic reduction to drizzle on the top....and def crumbled the feta on top!  But it turned out super yummy. It's always an experiment! LOL.

Either way....bon appetit!