Shells and Cheese

I wanted to make macaroni and cheese this week because we’re into casseroles right now. It gets harder and harder to eat before 7PM these days so I try to make meals on the weekends that I can refrigerate and then heat up during the week. Shepherd’s pie has been our go to lately because that has everything the kindergartner will eat – red meat, corn, and mashed potatoes. But you can only eat the same thing so many times before it gets boring. And while the kindergartner is happy to eat Shepherd’s pie, pancakes, and blue box mac’n’cheese as often as possible, I need something else.

I googled a couple recipes just to get an idea of what people were doing to make macaroni and cheese and sort of combined a bunch of recipes. The topping didn’t brown as I had hoped – next time, I’ll use melted butter instead of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray. This is not in any way, shape, or form good for you, so I was trying to cut down a little bit by not using butter in the topping, but it didn’t brown at all. It still tasted good, but visually it wasn’t as appealing.

You can use whatever shape pasta you want for this, but I liked the mini shells.

You can make this ahead of time and not bake until ready to eat (which is what I did) or you can bake as you make. Either way, you’re getting a dish of hot, bubbly mac and cheese at the end of the day and that’s never a bad thing.

Shells and Cheese

  • 1/2 pound small shells, cooked a couple minutes shy of al dente
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 3 cups of milk (I used 1% and it came out fine)
  • 1 tbsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • salt to taste
  • 12-14 oz shredded cheddar cheese – sharp or mild (I used mild, but I make it sharp next time)
  • 1 cup panko crumbs
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 tbsp melted butter (I’m guessing since I didn’t do this part) or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray

In a pot of salted water, cook pasta a couple of minutes shy of al dente.

(If you are not making ahead, pre-heat your oven to 350)

In a medium sized pot, melt butter. Once butter is melted, add flour, pepper, mustard, and onion powder. Whisk together until golden brown.

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Add in the milk and continue to whisk. The mixture will thicken up, but this will take time, about 10-15 minutes. Once mixture is thickened, add in cheese. Stir until cheese is completely melted. Taste and decide how much salt you want.

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Stir drained pasta into cheese mixture.

Spray casserole dish with cooking spray. Pour shells and cheese into casserole dish. If you are not baking now, refrigerate until ready to use.

 

If you’re baking now, make the topping.

To make the topping: Decadent version: melt butter, stir in panko crumbs. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan. Spread over shells and cheese. Leaner version: mix parm and panko in a bowl, spread over shells and cheese, spray with fake butter spray.

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Place tray in oven and cook about 30 minutes for non-make ahead, about 40 for refrigerated tray.

It’s not figure friendly, so I wouldn’t make this every week, but it’s really good on a really cold night.

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Vegetable Soup

I’m always looking to expand my repertoire of soups. There’s nothing better in fall and winter than a bowl of warm, comforting soup. I like meat based soups and chilis and stews better than veggie based ones, but sometimes I’m tired of meat. I made a black bean soup in a crock pot one year, but we had so much left over Steve said he never wanted to eat it again. Ina Garten has a to die for potato and leek soup that I love, but it’s so rich and fattening that I only make it when company is coming because the leftovers would raise my cholesterol level for the year.

A few weeks ago I finally had my gallbladder out. Not by choice, unfortunately. A raging infection and gall stones landed me in the ER. It had to come out, so that part was fine. Well, not fine because I had a c section nine weeks prior to that and I don’t recommend major abdominal surgery twice in two months. But while I was home I had a bowl of Progresso’s vegetable soup – low in fat and comforting. It got me thinking how I could make my own with less sodium. I googled a few recipes and I’ve come up with something that I think tastes pretty decent.

Vegetable Soup

  • 3-4 carrots, chopped
  • 3-4 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium zucchini, quartered and sliced
  • 2 medium russet potatoes, diced
  • half a bag frozen green beans
  • 4-6 cups vegetable stock or broth

In a large soup pot over medium high heat, saute onions, carrots, and celery in about a tablespoon of olive oil.

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Add tomato paste and dried herbs.

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Stir in zucchini and let soften. Then add potatoes and stir.

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Add frozen green beans and stir. Then add broth. Use enough broth to cover veggies. Bring to a boil, then cover and let simmer until potatoes are tender, but not mushy.

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Serve with crusty bread and a cold glass of wine.

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Chicken Noodle Soup

It’s been a bitterly cold winter here. And even though it’s March, it doesn’t feel like spring will ever come. In fact, we’re being promised another snow storm this week. I’ve had it with winter. I’ve had it with the cold and the snow and the freezing walks to and from my car at work (I park six blocks from my office). I’ve had it with the neverending runny noses and coughs and constant feeling like the cold is into my bones.

But I’m not done with “winter” cooking yet. Soups, stews, hearty meals that make you feel warm inside – that’s winter cooking. I’m limited in some ways on what I can safely eat (thanks, stupid gallbladder), but my chicken soup is heavy on veggies, low on fat, and huge on bright flavor.

I made a similar soup last year, with rice, but this one is a little different. For one thing – egg noodles. For another, I’m cooking the chicken in the soup and using more traditional veggies. And this time, I also included a little (like half a teaspoon) of horseradish because Steve has a vile, vile cold (it might be more than that, but we’ll find out when urgent care opens tomorrow) that needs some clearing out.

The soup doesn’t actually take that long to make and it’s relatively easy to do, even on a weeknight. It makes really good leftovers and it’s hearty enough to serve on its own with some crusty bread.

Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 2-3 large carrots, chopped in bite size pieces
  • 2-3 large stalks of celery, chopped in bite size pieces
  • 1 medium onion, chopped in bite size pieces (all the veggies should be chopped about the same size)
  • 1 lb chicken, cut into bite size pieces (I used thin cut chicken breast cutlets. They cook faster and they’re easier to slice up)
  • 1 tbsp minced, fresh dill
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp prepared horseradish (optional)
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 8 cups low sodium chicken stock or broth
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 6 oz medium egg noodles

In a large soup pot or dutch oven, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium high heat. Add chopped veggies, dill and garlic. Cook until veggies are soft, but not browned. Add horseradish and mustard, if using, and stir.

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Add chicken and stir. Cook until chicken is no longer raw, then add lemon zest and juice and salt and pepper. Pour in chicken stock and bring to a boil. Let simmer, covered, at boil until chicken is cooked through, then uncover and add noodles. Cook 5-7 minutes, uncovered, at boiling until noodles are done.

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Cover and remove from heat. Let sit for five minutes, then serve. It’s perfect for a cold day.

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Smoky Turkey Chili

My house has been run by illness lately. Steve had a cold, then it was gone, then it was back, except worse. Thomas has the runny nose that won’t quit and a cough that rattles. Even I didn’t escape it this year, getting a cold that kept me bedridden for a weekend.

I’ve tried chicken soup, but sometimes you need something that just clears you out. Chili is always good for that.

I’ve never cooked with chipotle chiles in adobo before, but I thought this was a good opportunity to try something new. They’re not so much spicy as they are smoky and the heat they leave is different from what I’ve had before. I went easier on the cumin than I might have otherwise.

This is very, very thick chili. If you need to thin it out a little, use a little chicken stock. I used about a quarter of a cup at the end to thin it out a bit.

Smoky Turkey Chili

  • 1/4 lb (about 4 slices) bacon
  • 1 1/3 lb lean ground turkey
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced (plus a teaspoon of the sauce, more if you want more heat)
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1 cup frozen corn (I used Trader Joe’s fire roasted corn)
  • 24 oz low sodium tomato sauce
  • 2 15 oz cans of black beans

In a cold pan, cook the bacon over medium heat (I snipped mine into the pan with kitchen shears; you can just chop it on a cutting board). Once bacon is browned, drain some or all of the fat out of the pan. Return bacon to pan and add turkey meat.

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Once turkey meat is partially cooked, add onions, peppers, and garlic. Mince up the chile and add to the pan along with the adobo sauce. Sprinkle oregano and cumin over the mixture.

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Add tomato sauce and corn and let simmer five minutes. Stir in beans. Cover and cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Thin out with chicken stock if necessary and cook another 5.

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(Note: this was written back in May – I am clearly behind in posting)

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Stuffed Peppers

Having gall stones sucks major ass. It puts you on a virtually no fat diet, which is practically impossible. I track everything I put into my mouth. It sometimes makes comfort food completely out of reach.

I wouldn’t have thought of stuffed peppers as comfort food when I was a kid. Truthfully, when I was a kid, I ate the filling, not the peppers. I’ve come around on the peppers (although I will probably never come around on cabbage. You can use this filling for stuffed cabbage as well, but I never would. My sister would and has, but it’s a world of no for me). But Steve loves stuffed peppers. I make them much differently than the way he’s used to (he apparently ate them with cheese? Is that a real thing? Because, again, no.), but he’s kind enough to eat my version and not complain (he will also sprinkle cheese on his when I’m not looking).

My sister and I both agree that we remember the sauce as being much sweeter when we were kids, almost like a sweet and sour sauce, but my mother swears up and down that she never used anything but what’s listed below and doesn’t know why we remember it like that. Next time I see one of my uncles, I’ll ask them what they remember about their mother’s version. Because of course this is a Hungarian version. Comfort food doesn’t have to be deliciously fattening to be tasty; sometimes it can just be something you remember your mom making.

This is a lightened up version (I used ground turkey instead of ground sirloin, but you could absolutely use ground sirloin) of comfort food. Like I said, I live on a mostly low fat diet these days and will until I get the stupid gall bladder out.

This is a multi step recipe, so make sure you have plenty of room on your counter and stove to do this as in sync as possible. I made the rice while the peppers boiled, then did the onions and meat while the rice and peppers cooled. My kitchen’s a mess right now and my counters are crowded, so I ran out of room to do all this, but you’re probably better organized than I am.

I am including a picture of true sweet Hungarian paprika. Please, please do not use smoked paprika with this recipe. Smoked paprika will completely change the flavor. If you can get really good quality, sweet Hungarian paprika I recommend it. I will never forget the look of horror on my sister’s or mother’s faces when they realized I had bought generic paprika (it wasn’t even labeled sweet!) when I got my first apartment (of course the extent of my culinary skills back then was Kraft macaroni and cheese). I actually can’t find this paprika at my grocery store, so my mom buys it for me where she is when I run out. That’s comfort food, right there.

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Stuffed Peppers

  • 6 red and green bell peppers, tops removed, seeds and ribs scraped out (save the tops for snacking). They should be able to stand up in a casserole pan/dish
  • 1 cup uncooked white rice, cooked to package directions
  • 1 lb ground sirloin or turkey
  • 1 medium sweet onion, diced small
  • 1 large (28 oz can) Hunt’s tomato sauce (do yourself a favor. Don’t skimp and get the generic. There really is a difference in the flavor. I’ve made it with both and I vastly prefer the Hunt’s version)
  • sweet Paprika
  • cider vinegar
  • Sour cream, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to boil, with a splash of cider vinegar. Once water is boiling, add peppers and cook for six minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Let sit until cool enough to handle.

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Saute the onions until soft and golden, but not browned. Remove from pan and saute meat until no longer pink. In a large mixing bowl, combine meat, onions, and rice. Add enough paprika until you get the color you want (mine’s pretty red as you can see).

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Spread some of the Hunt’s sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish. Stuff peppers with filling and stand up in the dish. Pour remaining sauce over the stuffed peppers. I had a lot of left over stuffing, but it’s great to eat with some sauce over it.

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Bake in a 350 oven for 45 minutes. Serve with a dollop of sour cream on top (use full fat – the light doesn’t taste right with this).

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What’s your favorite version of comfort food?

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Antipasto Pizza

Christmas in my house usually means one thing: lots of Italian food on Christmas Eve. And not just any Italian food – my mom’s Italian food. This year, amongst my mother, sister and I, we made two trays of stuffed shells with meat sauce, risotto, marsala chicken, garlic bread and of course the best thing about Italian food, a huge antipasto.

For those who have never experienced antipasto, it’s the yummiest. Cured meats, cheese, lots of salty, briny olives, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and, for the weirdos, anchovies. My in-laws love my mom’s antipasto platter and it’s a great starter for everyone.

This year, I bought a ton of prosciutto, salami, and provolone at the store. There was also hot capicola and sopressata. That I didn’t have an excess of, but I do still have a lot of salami and prosciutto and provolone. I bought another jar of roasted red peppers and marinated artichoke hearts because I planned on making a second antipasto one night just for Steve and me. But as we were talking about what to make for dinner tonight, I thought of something better – take all of that salty, cured goodness and throw it on a pizza. How can you possible go wrong?

I used a premade pizza crust, but you can certainly make your own dough if you’ve got that much ambition. If you have different things you use for your antipasti, include them too.

Serve with a salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar and you’re done.

Antipasto Pizza

  • 1 pizza crust or dough
  • 1/2 cup or less (depends on how saucy you want your pizza) of your favorite tomato or pizza sauce (I like Trader Joe’s for premade sauce)
  • thinly sliced salami, cut into strips
  • thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into strips (although my prosciutto was paper thin so I just tore it apart)
  • thinly sliced provolone, cut into strips
  • 1-2 roasted red peppers, chopped
  • marinated artichoke hearts (4-5 or more depending on how much you love them)
  • anchovies (optional. And only included my sister loves anchovies and she would protest heartily at their exclusion, but no. Just no anchovies for me)
  • Sicilian olives or garlic stuffed olives or kalamata olives (pitted) (also optional. There’s already a lot of sodium on this pizza so if you want less salt, leave off the olives)
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, torn (optional)

Preheat your oven to whatever temperature your dough needs to cook at. You want your oven nice and warm. If you have a pizza stone, use that instead of a pan.

Spread a layer of sauce over the dough. Slice your cured meats and cheese into strips with kitchen shears. You want enough meat and cheese to cover your pizza, but not so much that it’s too salty. Layer on your meat, then add the roasted peppers and artichoke hearts, then cover with cheese. Sprinkle with basil if using.

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Bake until cheese is melted and slightly brown.

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Honey Soy Marinade

Normally, I like to add citrus to my soy marinades. I think it’s a nice balance between the tart and the salty. But Steve is on an anti acid reflux diet, which does not allow for citrus. Since I like him not to have crippling heartburn, I’ve been experimenting with other ways to flavor my foods that don’t include my lemons and limes.

This is a very simple recipe, not a lot of ingredients, but it tastes more complex because of the Chinese five spice powder. I was originally going to just use ginger in this – and I think that’s a great choice as well if you have fresh ginger, not powdered – but my bottle of Chinese five spice powder hasn’t gotten much of a workout lately, so I thought I would see how it came out.

Honey Soy Marinade

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3 – 5 scallions, chopped (my scallions were huge, so I used 3)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese five spice powder
  • 1-2 teaspoons minced or crushed garlic

Whisk together all ingredients. Marinate meat (I used chicken the first time I made this)  for up to an hour.

I used a little bit of canola oil because I thought it needed something to help it emulsify, but I think you’ll be fine without.

I made a second batch of the marinade (same proportions), but whisked in a teaspoon or so of cornstarch and poured it over the veggies I’d stir fried before I added the chicken. It was really good – not too salty, not too sweet.

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