Because I said orzo……

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Mediterranean Orzo Salad

It’s cookout time, which means the endless search for sides has begun. I love my mayo, but sometimes you want something different. I searched the internet for an orzo salad similar to one at a local grocery store. I don’t go there often since they moved things around, including staff. It’s not like home any more. My photo is a little fuzzy because I was dizzy at the thought of sampling….a little more. For any orzo salad, it’s about colors and flavors. The dressing for this recipe makes it special. With the saltiness of the feta and the Kalamata olives, you need some balance, some sweetness. The lemon juice and honey are the perfect harmony of sweet and salty. I used it on a regular green salad the next day. It’s different. It’s fresh tasting. It’s new and improved……it’s got lemon!!! (old marketing major joke…..add lemon for more shelf space).

Enough yapping, let’s make some orzo salad!

12 ounces orzo pasta, cooked, drained and cooled

1 cup red grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup yellow grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup Kalamata olives, halved

1 7-ounce package Feta cheese, crumbled

1 cup chopped green onions

1 cup chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1/2 whole red onion, diced-or as much or as little as  you want!

3 tbsp. fresh parsley, minced

1 cucumber peeled and diced

Dressing/vinaigrette

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. honey

1/2 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Let me just warn you. A whole box of orzo, is A LOT OF ORZO. You may want to reduce it to half of a box, for your first go around. It’s more than plenty, as a side, for 4 or 5 people. You may have noticed there is a lot of mincing and chopping. Get some cereal bowls for the veggies, and get busy. Turn on some tunes to make it less tedious. It’s worth the work. You will admire all the bright colors that will become a delicious salad. If you don’t like some of the ingredients, exclude them, change them, do what you’d like. It’s your salad. Pro tip for the cucumber. After you peel it, slice the cuke lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scrape out the seeds, and toss them. Then you chop the cucumber. This prevents your salad from getting watery. Place the orzo and other ingredients in a big bowl. Give them a stir.                                                                                                                                         Whatever you do, do not omit the dressing. Whisk the vinegar, lemon juice, and honey in a small bowl. Whisk the olive oil in gradually. You can also put it in a glass canning jar and shake…or stir. Season with salt and pepper. Honestly, the only thing I measured was the red wine vinegar. I guesstimated the lemon juice and honey. Get a spoon and taste. Isn’t it great? Lemon and honey! This can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill if making ahead. Drizzle the dressing over the exquisitely minced veggies and feta. Feta is bettah! (I’ve been waiting for 500 or so words to say that!) Mix it together. Stand back and admire your work. If you are reducing the salad by half, reduce the dressing too. If you have any left over, try it on a regular green salad, to fancy it up.

Enjoy!

Easy Tomato Soup

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It’s Memorial Day weekend, and the weather is not cooperating. Damp and cold is the forecast. I predict there is soup in your future. I stumbled upon this Ina Garten recipe, using my time oh, so wisely. I choked down many bowls of the canned soup, not-to-be-named, in my day. The aftertaste is what I remember, and not in a good way. Ina is correct when she says its easy, except for the grilled cheese croutons. She lost me on that one. I’d rather just have a grilled cheese. I adapted her recipe by using my immersion blender to make it creamy, and I cooked the orzo in the soup. I like my soup thicker otherwise I tend to wear it on my shirts. My problem, not yours. I also did not want to spend the money on saffron threads. I needed 00 flour more than saffron. Shoutout to Amazon for that Sunday delivery! Instead of chicken stock I used vegetable stock because I had it in my closet pantry.

Let’s make some tomato soup!

Ingredients

3 tbsp. “good” olive oil

3 cups yellow onions, chopped (2 onions)

1 tbsp. minced garlic, (3 cloves)

4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock (store-bought is perfect)

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

3/4 cup uncooked orzo or other small pasta

1/2 cup heavy cream

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook over a medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. I like to sprinkle a little salt over my onions when I saute them,Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the stock, tomatoes, 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. To make this creamy, use an immersion blender. You can leave it a little chunky, or cream it up. Your choice.

Add your uncooked pasta to the soup. I suggest the orzo, but ditalini worked great too. Let the pasta cook until it’s soft. I don’t like my pasta a la dente, (GASP), especially in a creamy soup. This may take about 12 minutes depending on your pasta. Cooking the pasta in the soup makes it thick and soup spoon worthy.

Once the pasta is to your desired texture, stir in the cream. Please do not omit it. This is the game changer. Look, it’s so pretty! Let it simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring to blend it into the tomato mixture. You now have a creamy, thick tomato soup, that was, indeed, easy. Season it with salt and pepper, to taste.

Now go make yourself a grilled cheese sandwich and put on some long sleeves for goodness sake!

Breakfast of Champions?

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It’s another holiday weekend, and I have decided to broaden my food experiences. No, I do not plan on eating kale. I’m talking about trying another breakfast casserole. I have company for three mornings this weekend. I needed one more breakfast that will feed a table of people, without much prep work. I found the recipe for Baked Cream Cheese French Toast Casserole. It was delicious! Anything that I can prepare the day before, is my kind of dish. I don’t mind turning the oven on in the morning when it’s going to be near 90 degrees,  You have the rest of the day to cool off the kitchen. This recipe has some of my favorite ingredients – eggs, challah bread, and cinnamon. How can that be wrong?

Custard Ingredients

8 large eggs

2 1/4 cups whole milk

3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

2 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Main Ingredient

1 (12-14 ounce) loaf french bread, sourdough bread, or challah (my preference)

Cream Cheese Mixture

8 ounces brick-style cream cheese, softened to room temperature – use full fat

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tbsp. confectioner’s sugar

Streusel Topping

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

6 tbsp. butter, cold and cubed

Don’t panic. It may appear to be many steps, but it’s not. It’s a custard with bread, a cream cheese filling, and a topping. You cube the bread earlier in the day, so it can get stale. Right? This is the one time you want stale bread. This is all assembled the night before. You don’t add the topping until you bake it. Make the streusel the night before, put it in a container, and pop it into the fridge next to the casserole. You don’t want to forget it. If you have company, it’s easy to get distracted.

Grease a 9 X 13 pan with butter of nonstick spray. Slice the bread into 1-inch cubes. Don’t get a ruler, just eyeball it. Spread half of the cubes into the prepared baking pan. You’re going to add the cream cheese mixture on top of the bread. The original directions call for a hand mixer. I am not looking for more things to take out, put away or wash. I use a fork to soften and mix cream cheese. Those fork tines are mighty mighty. I just mash away at the cream cheese, adding the vanilla extract and confectioner’s sugar. Done. Drop spoonfuls (or forkfuls?) of cream cheese mixture on top of the first layer of cubed bread. Layer the remains bread cubes on top of the cream cheese. Set aside.

Whisk the eggs, milk, cinnamon, brown sugar, and vanilla extract together until no brown sugar lumps remain. This could count as a cardio workout if the brown sugar isn’t soft. Pour over the bread. Make sure you pour it all over the bread, and not in one spot. It needs to hit every tiny piece of bread. We are looking to soak the bread people. The bread has transformed from stale cubes to wet cubes. I won’t use the word “moist”. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and stick in the fridge for 3 hours or overnight. Overnight is best.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove pan from fridge.

Sprinkle the streusel topping all over the pan. You make the streusel by whisking together the brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon together in a bowl. Cut the cubed butter into this mixture. You can use two forks, a pastry blender or your hands. I like to make it ahead of time, so it can harden. Then you can crumble the topping onto the bread mixture.

Bake uncovered for 45-55 minutes or until golden brown on top.

You can serve this with maple syrup and/or sift confectioner’s sugar over the top.

Enjoy!

 

Vinaigrette dans un pot

Vinaigrette in jar

 

Everything sounds better in French, especially a vinaigrette in a jar, right? Why buy bottled dressings when you can make your own? Hey. We’ve all been there. Everyone likes a specific salad dressing. Ranch dressing was a big hit in my house. Who knew it was a pizza dip too? Amazing. Often those dressings sat on the fridge shelf, counting their expiration days away. Blech. Sometimes I forgot to check those dates. Sorry kids! Why is it when you buy a lot of something, the kids decide they no longer like it. WHY?

Here’s another question. Do you have 5 minutes? Then you can make a delicious vinaigrette for the week. You can use this for a lunch or a diner. For lunches, I like to put the vinaigrette on the bottom of a container and top it with chopped vegetables and beans. You add the lettuce and protein on the top so it doesn’t get soggy. Give it a good shake and lunch is ready!

There will be three commands. Mince, pour, and shake. Let’s make some vinaigrette.

 

1 16-ounce (or so) glass jar

2 tsp. minced garlic or shallots

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Remove lid from clean jar. That’s very important. Place the garlic or shallots, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and vinegar in the jar. Can you follow these complicated directions? Should I write slower? Give the lidded jar a shake. That’s right, put the lid on tight. Now, you can add the olive oil and really shake it. This will become a creamy, dreamy vinaigrette. It’s magic. The olive oil emulsifies when you shake it. If you want to make less dressing, remember that you use 4 times the oil for vinegar, so you can reduce the proportions. Use more or less garlic and seasoning. Always taste it and add accordingly. I like to use a glass jar as it cleans well, with no garlic odor or oily residue. Store this in the fridge for about a week.

Here is a video of Jacques Pepin making this vinaigrette. He’s much more entertaining than moi.
Enjoy!

 

 

For the love of Strawberries

fullsizeoutput_20bWe go through a lot of strawberries. Hubs is sent to work with fruit to accompany his lunch. This time of year it’s strawberries and blueberries. In the cooler months it’s homemade applesauce. I’ve found there are two ways to keep strawberries fresh and not rot in the plastic container. Either you roast them (I KNOW!), or wash them with a vinegar-water bath. I put one cup of vinegar in a bowl with three cups of cold water. I pull out any that are already rotting. I let the berries sit in the vinegar-water bath, as I slosh them around gently.  The vinegar kills the spores and bacteria. After about 5 minutes I drain and rinse the berries. I put them on a paper-toweled line baking sheet. Pat them dry and let them air dry on the counter for a bit. I wash and line the plastic container with a paper towel and put the strawberries back in the container and put into the fridge. It really does work.  Don’t worry, there is no vinegar flavor, as long as you rinse them well.

My new way of “preserving” these delicious nuggets is to roast them. They are amazing. I put them over store-bought meringue cookies. I ran out of time to make my own meringues. I should have bought some Brigham’s vanilla ice cream. They would be so wonderful on top of ice cream. Sigh.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Cut one pound of strawberries into quarters, if they are large, or halves if they are smaller. In a medium-sized bowl, toss the strawberries with a scant 1/2 cup of granulated sugar. Each time I’ve made these, they have come out differently. I used a heaping 1/2 cup of sugar with very ripe berries. I kept adding strawberries because it was too sweet. This led to the strawberries bubbling up and leaking under the parchment paper. There was a delicious gooey mess to scrape off the pan. The second time the berries were smaller and not as ripe. I used a 1/4 cup of sugar, and lined the pan with foil and parchment paper. The berries weren’t as juicy and could have used a little more sugar. This is why I suggest a scant 1/2 cup.  Nothing ever turns out like they show online!

Arrange the strawberries in an even layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment, and if you are not daring, aluminum foil.

Bake for about 15-20 minutes. The berries will release a beautiful red juice. Cool  slightly and then transfer to a container. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate in a covered container.

Enjoy!

Pizza Dough 101

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I’ve made and bought a lot of pizza dough. This one is a keeper. I stumbled upon this recipe in the New York Times Cooking section. It’s called “Roberta’s Pizza Dough.” It’s from a restaurant in Brooklyn, so how can it be wrong?  The secret to this pizza dough is the flour used. To get a more elastic and flavorful dough, they use 00 flour. This is a superfine Italian flour that has high levels of protein and approximately 12.5% gluten. Gluten levels are controlled by the selection of different wheats for processing. The gluten and protein levels appear to vary somewhat between brands. They all are finely milled. The original recipe includes weights. I don’t have a scale so I went by measurements.  It’s a little finicky about the measurement of flour. I read in the comments that you could do equal parts. I’ve always followed the recipe. There is also a video demonstration on how to make it. I strongly suggest you watch it. It’s a simple recipe that requires only one tool…..your hands. You don’t need a mixer or food processor to make this. It keeps in the fridge for up to a week, and it freezes well. I didn’t think it would make a difference but it does. As my grandmothers would say, “Feel the dough.”  It’s much lighter than doughs made with all-purpose flour. It doesn’t pull back when you stretch it out in a pan. It feels more delicate. It’s delicious.

Let’s make some pizza!

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon 00 flour

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons of all-purpose flour

3/4 tsp. yeast

1 tsp. fine sea salt (3/4 tsp. kosher salt is what I used)

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours and salt. To measure the flour, scoop flour into measuring cup. Don’t dig down into the flour container with the measuring cup. The amounts are different. I level off the measuring cup with the flat side of a knife.

In a small mixing bowl, stir together lukewarm tap water, yeast and olive oil. I used the rapid rise yeast, so I mix it in with the flours. Make sure the water is under 110 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer to measure it, pour warm water into the measuring cup and let it sit for 20 minutes. If it’s too hot, the water will kill the yeast. Cooled water will just add to rising time. This recipe called for a little less than one cup of water. I found it works best at the halfway mark between 3/4 and 1 cup. Look at the glass measuring cup at eye level. I found the dough worked better with this amount of water. Pour the liquids into the flour mixture. I cupped my hand and just stirred it until it all came together. Knead it in the bowl for about 3 minutes, after it comes together. Let the mixture rest for 15 minutes. Set a timer!

Knead the rested dough for another 3 minutes, in the bowl. I read in the comments to let it sit on the counter for a half  hour at this point. The yeast starts to work its magic. After a half hour, you cut the dough into half if you’re making two 12″ pizzas. I use a cookie sheet, so I don’t divide my dough. I leave it in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap. I usually do this the night before I want to use the pizza dough. I put it in the fridge overnight. Take it out at least one hour before using it. To hurry up the rising process, I turn my oven on to 200 degrees, and place the covered glass bowl on the stove top. The heat comes up from the oven and helps the dough rise, faster. You can take it off and put it on, if the glass bowl feels too hot. If you have the time, you can let it rise on the counter, still covered, for a couple of hours.  I like to see the dough bubble. If you are using it the same day, let it rise at room temperature for up to 4 hours. The dough pictured below was just a little mound that barely covered the bottom of the bowl. Yeast is magic! It’s a great science experiment.

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I put a coating of olive oil on my pan. Sometimes I sprinkle cornmeal on the pan (cookie sheet) too. Make sure it’s only under the pizza or the cornmeal will burn. It’s optional. My mother uses oiled glass pie plates. Place the dough in the pan and gently stretch it. It’s elastic, but it doesn’t pull back as much as other doughs. Slowly stretch the dough to the edge of the pan. I like to start in the middle and stretch it outward. Once it’s where you would like it to be, put on your sauce, cheese, and other toppings, then bake. I like to bake it between 400-425 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. I like the edges a light brown. I slip a spatula under the pizza and look to see how golden the bottom of the crust is. It usually sets off the smoke detectors if it’s any higher. The oil is the culprit. The sounding smoke detectors are like a dinner bell in my house. The dough is crisp, light and delicious. Let me know if you like it too.

 

Sausage, Spinach, Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells….say that five times fast!

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You had me at jumbo pasta shells. I don’t recall ever making stuffed shells. Shameful. What’s a Sunday without a confession or two. I always thought that it would be more complicated. I made these on a weeknight with little effort. It was a rare night where I didn’t have to make 2 train station runs. If you want to do it in steps, prepare the stuffing the night before and refrigerate it. I love doing things in steps. Here’s my dirty little secret. I used Ragu spaghetti sauce. Yup. Another confession on this rainy Sunday. When the kids were little I used to make my own, but they fussed at the sight of onions in it. I waved the white flag and started buying it. Sometimes on the weekends, when feeling my inner Italian calling, I make it. But, I.AM.BUSY.

This is a public service announcement. Use good quality ingredients. When you invest time and effort into cooking, use the best ingredients you can find, especially if there are only a few ingredients in the recipe. (Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Ragu!) I implore you to use a good ricotta. What’s a good ricotta you ask? It should taste sweet and creamy. It should not be rubbery.  Google it. I really like Calabro ricotta. You can taste and see the difference between this and most grocery store brands. Also, use real Parmesan. Try to find Parmesan that looks like it was chiseled out a big Parmesan wheel. Don’t buy the pre-grated Parmesan. You want to use real Parmesan Reggiano. Cut off a piece and taste it. It’s a hard, dry cheese with a rich sharp flavor. It’s made in Italy and has a superior taste to grocery store Parmesan. It’s expensive, but it makes such a difference. I freeze the rinds and pull them out to help flavor soups.

So, as usual, read through all recipes before attempting to bake. Because I didn’t, you should!

1 12-ounce package jumbo pasta shells

1 tbsp olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 large egg

16-ounces ricotta cheese

10-ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, and chopped further

1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided

1 tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp dried basil

1/4 cup breadcrumbs, seasoned or unseasoned

8 ounces fresh mozzarella pearls or 2 cups of shredded/grated mozzarella

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

28 ounces of tomato sauce, or so

*2*   9 X 13 baking dishes

First, cook your shells according to the package directions. When they are done, drain them in a colander and run cold water over them. Shake, shake, shake the water off. Put them aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened. I may or may not have used more than one onion. How could it hurt? Add the sausage to the pan, breaking up the sausage into smaller bits. You can use chicken or turkey sausage if you prefer. Make sure there is no pink in the center of the sausage. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Dropped food on the floor has a 5 second rule, cooking garlic has a 30 second rule. Remove the pan from the heat.

Beat the egg slightly in a large bowl. Mix in the ricotta, chopped spinach, 1/2 cup Parmesan, basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, sausage mixture and the pearls. I cannot tell you the sheer joy mixing in the pearls brought me. They are so cute. Shredded mozzarella does the trick, but these are just pearls of joy! Fill each cooked pasta shell with some of the mixture. Don’t forget to taste test it!

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Spread about 1/2 cup of tomato sauce over the bottom of both pans. Full disclosure, I did not pay attention to this detail, and crammed “most” of the stuffed shells into one pan. I would suggest using two. Use an aluminum foil pan and freeze it for another dinner. Also, I did not heat up the sauce. I just poured it from the jar. A big no-no, but it worked.  Sorry Nonni. Just eye-ball it and use a little less, knowing as it heats up, it thins out. If you are a stickler for rules, heat it up in another pan. It.was.a.week.night. Yes, this is my third cooking confession. (Maybe four) Arrange the stuffed shells in the dishes (sigh). Spread some sauce over the top of the pasta shells. Again, guesstimate it. You don’t want them swimming, or, too dry.

Place foil covered pans in a 375 degree oven, and bake for 30 minutes, until hot and bubbling. Remove foil and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over the shells and bake uncovered for 10 more minutes. I may have grated more Parmesan “by accident” (ahem).

Let it set for about 10 minutes. Serve with a salad to make yourself feel better.

Enjoy!

 

Here is the original recipe. It uses canned tomatoes instead of tomato sauce. It also did not include mozzarella, which is madness. Sheer madness.