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Crockpot Lasagna

10 Aug

I had a girls-night-out date with friends last night, which meant whatever dinner I made at home was only for DH and the kids. And it was one of those days I felt like I was flying–this one has a doctor’s appointment, that one has a playdate, gotta register for ballet, grocery store run, and wow, gotta actually work a few hours–without a whole lot of spare time for playing with food.

My gang is an easy one to feed, generally speaking, and peanut butter sandwiches or cereal would have done them just fine. But I really did want them to have a hot meal, and so I gave them cow.

I’m not a red meat eater, but the rest of my crew loves beef from time to time. There’s no better time to indulge them than on a night I’ll be out, and there’s not an easier way than Crockpot lasagna.

This was a Weight Watchers recipe that was actually really good on its own. I’ve doctored it up to boost its heft a bit: I added an egg to the ricotta layers (and a bit more ricotta than the original recipe) to give them a little more substance, boosted the meat a little bit (you could also add mushrooms to this if you wanted even more oompf), and messed with the spices to simplify matters. The original recipe called for basil and oregano, and in my house, that translates to a shake or two of Italian Seasoning instead. I also used less onion than the recipe called for and upped the garlic.

A word on the meat: If you’re a beef eater, this is a great meal. My family gobbled it up. If you’re not, it works really well with ground chicken. I know. Turkey. Everybody uses ground turkey. But slow-cooking ground turkey results in a kind of odd chewy texture to the sauce. I love me a good turkey burger (we’ll talk about that soon), but turkey in spaghetti sauce doesn’t rock my world. Ground chicken holds up just like beef and since it absorbs the flavor of whatever you cook it with, is a great substitute in this recipe. My pathetic excuse of a Soviet-era supermarket carries ground chicken breast meat, but your butcher will grind a few breasts for you if you don’t see it pre-wrapped in the meat case at your store.

This recipe is super saucy when you put it in the crock. Fear not–you’re not cooking the noodles first, so they absorb a whole lot of the moisture. You’ll end up with a traditional lasagna texture here, not a soupy mess (as I feared the first time). I use the no-cook noodles, but I hear that regular noodles work just fine; if you’ve tried that, leave me a comment and let me know. 🙂 A friend of mine uses jarred spaghetti sauce instead of tomatoes and sauce and she says it comes out really nicely that way. This also freezes beautifully if you have leftovers and want to hold onto them.

Haul out the slow cooker and give this one a whirl. I hope your family likes it as much as mine does.

You’ll need:

1 1/4 pounds lean ground beef (I use 7% fat) or ground chicken

1/2 small yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

15 oz can tomato sauce (I use the pre-seasoned)

1 tsp dried Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 1/4 cup part-skim Ricotta cheese

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

6 no-cook lasagna noodles

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and coat with olive oil. Add meat, onion, and garlic and saute until the meat browns (you don’t have to cook it all the way through). Add the tomatoes, sauce, and spices. Simmer about 5 or 10 minutes to let flavors meld together.

In a medium bowl, stir together ricotta, egg, and 1 cup of the mozzarella.

Spoon 1/3 of the beef mixture into your Crockpot (at least 5 quart size). Break three of the lasagna sheets into pieces and arrange over meat mixture to cover. Top that with half the ricotta mixture. Repeat layers, ending with a layer of meat sauce.

Put the lid on your Crockpot and cook on low 4 to 6 hours. Turn cooker off. Sprinkle top with Parmesan and remaining mozzarella and put the lid back on for about 10 minutes to let the cheese melt. Uncover and let sit about 15 minutes to firm up the lasagna.

I get about eight servings from this recipe. Your mileage may vary…

Fettucini with Garlic and Olive Oil

3 Aug

Way back when, when the dinosaurs roamed, DH and I honeymooned in Italy. I hadn’t yet caught the playing with my food bug back then, but I liked food a lot and exploring restaurants and bistros and cafes was a highlight of our trip.

I wasn’t that far out of college then and still had one foot mired in ramen noodles and the occasional delivery pizza. In other words, I didn’t know much about real food. I couldn’t sniff out the herbs and individual flavorings in a dish and had no aspirations to eat something in a restaurant and then go home and re-create it; I still followed recipes to a T, fearing the apocalypse if I strayed.

Even with so much ignorance, I knew the food in Italy was different. Part of that was that everything was fresher–people really did get up in the morning and shop at outdoor markets for that night’s meal. But a huge revelation to me was that flavors there didn’t just jump off the plate and pop you in the lips with a big “HI THERE!!”

Italian food was subtle. Garlic was a sparingly-applied perfume, not something that haunted you for hours after a meal. Pizza focused on an amazing crust topped with slices of fresh tomato and tiny bites of cheese–nothing dripped off the sides when you raised a slice to your mouth. Seafood merely kissed the grill before meeting a few drops of lemon, and meat was tender and tasted like meat instead of sauce.

I didn’t know much about food back then, but I knew I liked this way of eating. And a prime example is a simple dish of noodles with garlic and oil. Fresh flavors shine through, and the meal isn’t dominated by one taste over another. Done right, this is comfort food at its best–simple and easy and completely satisfying without screaming at you from the plate.

I made fettucini with garlic and olive oil this week, melding together a few recipes I found online and adding two ingredients I’d never used before in this dish. One is lemon zest, which, like those meals I had in Rome and Positano, provides an undernote to the pasta. You don’t taste lemon, but you do taste something extra that freshens everything up.

The second is mint. Just a touch of mint brightens the whole recipe. I grow mint in my deck’s herb garden so grabbing a handful of leaves was simple. If you don’t and can’t buy just a stem or two at your market, you can leave it out without regret. Again, you never really taste it. It works in harmony with everything else.

You’ll notice my recipe doesn’t use parsley. That’s because I loathe parsley. If you like it, by all means add some. This would also be good with shrimp or clams.

If you’ve never seeded tomatoes, it’s super simple. Cut your tomatoes in half so you’re cutting through the stem end and squeeze them over a trash can. Presto-chango, the seeds will flop out and you’ll be good to go.

I served this with a very simple garlic bread and glass of red wine, and I have to say it’s among my favorite meals. I hope you enjoy it.

You’ll need:

1 pound fettucini

4 cloves garlic, minced very finely

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (do NOT make this with anything but EVOO)

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

4 or 5 fresh tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

About 10 mint leaves, finely chopped

The zest of one lemon

Grated Parmigianno cheese

In a pot of salted water, boil the fettunici noodles until just on the hard side of al dente. Drain but leave the cooking pot on the hot (turned off, but hot) burner.

While the pasta cooks, combine the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a cold small saucepan. Turn your burner to medium-low and heat the oil mixture, stirring frequently until the garlic just starts to turn golden and you smell it (about six or seven minutes). Don’t go any farther than that with the heat–you’ll burn the garlic. Add the tomato for the last minute of cooking and stir continuously, until it softens a bit and has a chance to absorb some garlic flavor.

Return the pasta to the hot pot. Pour the garlic and oil mixture over it and toss with tongs until each strand is coated. Sprinkle the lemon zest and herbs over top and toss again. Serve, sprinkling each portion with Parmesan cheese.

Cup of Comfort Chicken Noodle Soup

31 Jul

A few years ago, my doctor asked me to go on a salt-free diet. Which wasn’t easy–you’d be shocked at how much salt is in seemingly innocuous pantry fare. Canned tomatoes: full of salt. Canned beans: full of salt. Frozen meals: full of salt.

And canned soup: FULL OF SALT. Cups and cups of it. Really, really bad.

I’m not a big soup eater, but every so often, a girl just needs a cup of chicken noodle soup. And so I came up with a recipe that is super easy and tastes really good, without the salt of canned soup. It also freezes beautifully, which makes it perfect to keep around the house for those I-feel-icky soup days. More on that in a moment.

To make healthy (really) chicken noodle soup, you’ll need:

1/2 lb chicken breasts (about two boneless, skinless breasts), diced (this is easier if it’s partially frozen)

1/2 cup carrot, diced small (running a knife through the shredded carrots at the salad bar works great)

1/4 cup celery, diced small (ditto for the salad bar)

1/2 medium onion, finely minced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 tsp salt-free poultry seasoning (I get mine at

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

6 cups no-salt-added chicken broth (that’s 1 1/2 cartons)

2 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 cup egg noodles

Coat the bottom of a large stockpot with olive oil and place over medium heat. Once it’s hot (you’ll see ripples in the surface of the oil) add the onion, celery, and carrot, and stir those around until they start to soften–about five minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper and stir, and immediately add the chicken and 1 tsp poultry seasoning before the garlic burns.

Cook the chicken, stirring occasionally, until it’s starting to brown just a bit on the outside but don’t cook it through. Add the broth, water, remaining poultry seasoning, and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Let that simmer about 15 minutes, or up to an hour.

Add the noodles. Cook for five minutes or until on the hard side of al dente and remove soup from heat. Fish out bay leaves and serve immediately or freeze.

I freeze this recipe for my in-laws regularly, putting it into individual serving containers and labeling those with the date. And it does really well–best of all, no salt!

Pad Thai with Shrimp

27 Jul

The headline of this entry should probably be “Kim finally figures out rice noodles and smacks herself in the head as a result.”

Rice noodles are just that–noodles made of rice–and if you’ve ever had Pad Thai at a restaurant or eaten any other Thai noodle or gluten-free pasta dish, you’ve had them. They’re clear-ish and a smidge more al dente than wheat noodles (if they’re cooked right), and until last night, they were the bane of my culinary existence.

There are two sets of directions on the back of the box. You can either soak these noodles in hot water for about a half-hour and then finish cooking them in a wok or skillet with whatever sauce you’re using, or you can boil the noodles just like you’d cook spaghetti. I’ve been a boiler–it’s my comfort zone–and have always ended up with noodles that taste good, but clumped up into random chewy lumps that made me grimace and my kids howl.

Last night, I tried the hot water soak. And I have to tell you, I wasn’t optimistic when after 30 minutes in a bowl of very hot tap water, the noodles were still stiff and inedible. Wracking my brain for a fast plan-B dinner, I followed the directions and drained the water off and then stir-fried the noodles in the Pad Thai sauce, and somewhere around minute 6, a miracle happened. The noodles softened and soaked up the sauce, and the Pad Thai was perfectly al dente with nary a chewy lump.

The rest of this started as a Weight Watchers recipe. It was too salty for me and called for peanuts and bean sprouts, neither of which I’m wild about in this dish (you can add them at the end if you like them). It was also super dry, and I like my noodles with a little more sauce to them, and it was way too hot for the kids to eat, so I toned down the spice. This would be great with tofu or chicken if shrimp isn’t your thing. My fiddled-with version follows.

My kids love this dinner, so it’s a staple in our house. This recipe feeds four of us for two nights–it reheats really well. Hope you like it too.

Pad Thai with Shrimp

16-oz box rice noodles (find them in your Thai/Chinese aisle)

2 tbsp vegetable or canola oil

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and de-veined (I use frozen peeled cooked shrimp from Trader Joe’s)

6 scallions, chopped (only the green parts)

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 eggs, lightly beaten

4 tbsp Thai fish sauce (same aisle as the rice noodles)

4 tbsp sugar

1/2 tbsp hot chili sauce

1 1/2 tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce

Soak your rice noodles according to the directions on the package. Have faith–they’ll cook up fine.

Whisk together fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce, and hot chili sauce, and set aside.

Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and the shrimp (if you’re using uncooked shrimp; hold off if you cheat like me and used cooked). Cook shrimp about 3 minutes, until pink and opaque. Add scallions and garlic and cook about 10 seconds (really–don’t burn the garlic).

Push the shrimp, garlic, and scallions to the edges of the pan, and pour the eggs into the center. Scramble them until they’re just set. Give your sauce mixture a quick whisk and pour it into the pan. Stir fry about 1 minute to let everything mix together, and then toss in your noodles. Toss and stir fry those until they soften up; this took about 6 minutes for us using a large wok. If you’re using pre-cooked shrimp, add those next and stir until they’re just hot. Remove from heat and enjoy.

Tuna Casserole, Minus the Cream of Mushroom Soup

7 Jul

I know, I know. Tuna casserole went out in 1962. Nobody cooks that way anymore.

Think again, y’all. This recipe is decidedly healthier than its Leave It To Beaver counterpart–no cream of mushroom soup, anywhere–and it’s quick and easy and family-friendly and darned good comfort food. Also reheats and freezes beautifully, which makes it fantastic to bake up in a foil pan and take to a new mom (which is what I did this morning), sick friend, or anyone else you’d take dinner to. Add a salad and you have a hearty, filling meal.

Funny story: I made this about three weeks after my son was born and in my sheer exhaustion, I left out the tuna. It was still delicious. I bet chopped chicken, turkey, or ham would be great too, if you’re not a tuna eater.

This one started as a Susan Powter recipe–remember Stop the Insanity? I’ve adapted it to our family’s tastes. It’s creamier than the original (she added milk), less spicy than the original (for the kids), and makes more than her recipe did. I also did away with a few steps–sweating vegetables and that sort of thing–and found the dump-and-bake method worked deliciously. It’s one of my family’s favorites. Let me know what you think.

Tuna Noodle Casserole

12 oz egg noodles

2 5-oz cans of tuna (go for the white lump Albacore here–it makes all the difference)

8 oz sliced mushrooms

1/2 cup chopped celery (from the salad bar if you don’t keep it around)

16 oz reduced-fat sour cream

1/2 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs

1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 tbsp Mrs. Dash Original Seasoning (I use a teaspoon, if we’re being honest. A tablespoon is too much for my kids)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and coat a 9 x 13 pan with cooking spray (you can also use a deeper round casserole dish if you prefer–it makes the recipe creamier without as much crunch from the topping later).  Cook the egg noodles in boiling water, but drain them a few minutes early–you want them on the harder side of al dente.

Combine the cooked noodles, celery, mushrooms, sour cream, tuna, and Mrs. Dash and stir well. Spread into your casserole dish. Top with the bread crumbs and Parmesan, and spray the top with cooking spray. Bake it for a half-hour, or until the top is crunchy.

Creamy, comforting goodness. Yum.

Simple Tomato Sauce

2 Jul

Tonight, the simplest tomato sauce in the world. I whipped it up in about five minutes of hands-on involvement and an hour of simmering time. I used…

about 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 a Vidalia onion, finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes

1 8-oz can tomato sauce

about 1/4 cup basil leaves, from the windowbox on my back deck, chopped into thin ribbons

about 1/8 cup oregano leaves, from the neighboring box, roughly chopped

I heated the oil (you’ll need enough to thickly coat the bottom of a saucepan) over medium-low heat and then added the onion. That sauteed until it started to soften, and then I stirred in the garlic for a few minutes. Let that go until you smell the garlic, but don’t let it brown! Then I stirred in the tomatoes, sauce, and about a third of the herbs (I’d have stirred in a pinch of salt if we were a salt-eating family, but we’re not), took the heat all the way down to low, and let it simmer (uncovered) for an hour, stirring very occasionally. After that, I took it off the heat, stirred in the remaining herbs, and served it over Rotini pasta with a sprinkling of shredded Parmesan on top.

This was wonderfully thick and rich and yummy. I think I’ll stir in a bit of white wine and maybe some pepper flakes next time, just for kicks. I also think it would do fine in the slow cooker and freeze beautifully.  The family ate it quite happily. 🙂

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