Friday, April 17, 2015

Parmesan Spaghetti Squash

I can't pass up a giant vegetable. When I was perusing the stack of squash at the grocery store, all the other orbs paled in comparison to this glorious gourd. So I popped it into my car-shaped grocery cart, and my son steered us through the rest of our shopping trip. (He's the designated cart driver.)

It wasn't until the clerk rang us up at check-out that I discovered my squash was five pounds. FIVE POUNDS. All the recipes I read for preparing spaghetti squash called for a two pound squash. Whoops. Guess I got a little greedy there.

If your spaghetti squash isn't quite as ginormous as mine, you might not need to bake it for quite as long. But I wouldn't cut down the amount of Parmesan cheese. You can never have too much cheese.

Let's get cooking!

Parmesan Spaghetti Squash

1 large spaghetti squash
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, microwave squash for about five minutes. This will soften the squash and make it easier to cut in half. Allow the squash to cool for a minute so you don't burn your fingers, then slice it in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds.

Season cut sides of squash with salt and pepper and place cut-side down on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the flesh is tender, about 45 minutes if your squash is a five-pound behemoth. It will probably take closer to 30 minutes for a smaller squash. Use a fork to shred the squash into strands and place in a bowl.

If your squash has released lots of liquid into the bowl, try to drain some of it off. Stir in butter, basil, Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with extra Parmesan sprinkled over the top.

P.S. Want more squash? Try making acorn squash in the microwave. Yep. The microwave, people. Too easy for words.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sunday Gravy (Tortora family tomato sauce)

Confession time. I rarely make my own tomato sauce – or 'gravy' as us East Coast Italians call it – because it takes time to develop the deep, rich flavor that is its signature.

When I was a kid, my grandmothers made gravy nearly every Sunday, to go with the 'macaroni' we were having at that week's family gathering. When Amy asked for the Tortora tomato sauce recipe, I finally put it down on paper. In the process, I discovered many family variations: My brother adds grated carrot for sweetness. My Dad pours in some red wine. My mom tosses in a pinch of thyme and maybe a dash of sugar. My Grammy Marie always spiced it up with lots of red pepper.

The one component no one ever changes is what makes this gravy special. The tomato sauce simmers for hours with browned Italian sausage links and homemade meatballs. For special occasions such as Christmas, browned beef short ribs and brachiole (thin slices of beef rolled with parmesan cheese, parsley and basil, and tied with kitchen twine) are added.

Prefer chicken? Do what my Grandma Lucy sometimes did: Brown some chicken breasts and thighs and add them to the sauce instead of meatballs and sausage.

Vegetarian? Simply skip the meat.

If you happen to overdue it on one of the spices, as I may or may not have done recently with the red pepper flakes, fear not! Just toss in another can of tomatoes (crushed, diced or sauce) to dilute the strong flavor. You will be rewarded with extra gravy to use for making lasagna or another meal.

Finally, a warning: This recipe makes A LOT of tomato sauce. I use a 22 quart pot. This ensures plenty of room for the meatballs and sausage. If you don't have a pot this large, cut the recipe in half.

My recommendation? Buy or borrow a giant pot, invite your friends and family to dinner and make room in your freezer.

Mangia! Mangia!

Sunday Gravy

1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil to cover the bottom of a large pot
About 2 cups diced yellow or white onion
3 to 5 minced garlic gloves
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 to 2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 (6 ounce) cans of tomato paste
3 (28 ounce) cans of crushed tomatoes
2 (14.5 ounce) cans of diced tomatoes
1 (14.5 ounce) can of unseasoned tomato sauce
1 (8 ounce) can of unseasoned tomato sauce
1 cup dry red wine, optional
12 or more large cooked meatballs, optional
1 or 2 pounds of browned or baked Italian sausage links, optional

Warm oil in bottom of pot. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is translucent. Add in spices and salt and pepper and cook until golden, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir, cooking until mixture is caramelized. Taking the time to brown the aromatics gives the gravy a richer flavor.

Stir in all cans of tomatoes and tomato sauce. (Note: You can vary the types of tomatoes you use. For example, if you like a chunkier sauce, substitute diced tomatoes for the canned tomato sauce.) Add red wine, if using.

Bring gravy to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower heat and let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring a few times. Add meatballs, sausage, etc., and continue to simmer on lowest setting for at least 1 hour but preferably more (you can simmer it all day,) stirring occasionally to prevent sauce from burning in the bottom of the pot.

I recommend tasting the gravy here and there. It's OK to add in more spices as the sauce simmers to achieve the flavor you prefer.

Serve hot with your favorite pasta.

Monday, April 13, 2015

No Sugar Banana Bread

I recently had dates on hand for a cookie recipe that I never made. I lost track of the recipe, so I thought I'd experiment with my sister-in-law's tried-and-true banana bread. Note that I decided to try this while the kids were out at the park with their dad, so they wouldn't see me chopping dates and skipping the white sugar. Genius, I know.

I was afraid the bread wouldn't be sweet enough with  just the dates, so I did add in a little honey. I also decided to use butter instead of Crisco, because that seems healthier. I used up some whole wheat flour. I tossed in some chocolate chips as a little treat since we we're being good by using dates. I would have added chopped walnuts, but I didn't have any on hand. I had pecans in the pantry, but Penny -- who had returned from the park, never the wiser about the dates -- vetoed the pecans.

Guess what? Lucy and Penny gobbled up this bread and begged for seconds. Lucy commented on liking the texture better. This bread is indeed more moist than the original we'd been making for years. (Ssssh, don't tell Aunt Jennie.) Penny commented on the chocolate chips, which was not at all surprising. Thing is this bread would be super yummy -- and truly no sugar -- without the chips and that's how I plan to make it next time.


No Sugar Banana Bread
2 cups flour (I used up the remaining 1 1/2 cup white whole wheat flour I had; the rest was all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup packed dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup butter, melted
Honey, just shy of 1/4 cup
2 eggs
1 cup mashed bananas (about 2 or 3)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup (or less) chocolate chips (optional)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.

Stir together the first four dry ingredients and set aside.

In large bowl, mix dates and melted butter on medium to medium high speed. Add the honey, eggs, bananas and lemon juice--mix until combined and the dates are no longer lumpy. Sift in dry ingredients, little by little.

Pour mixture into greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 for 60-65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Grilled Mozzarella and Fig Jam Panini

I've told you time and time again about my love for peanut butter and jelly, but I have a confession to make...

I'm having a lunch affair. I'm cheating on PB&J with Grilled Mozzarella and Fig Jam Sandwiches. I'd say I'm ashamed of myself, but something this delicious can't be denied. Make one today, and you'll see what I mean. You'll have a new lunchtime love, too.

Let's get cooking!

Grilled Mozzarella and Fig Jam Panini
Makes one sandwich

1 small baguette, sliced lengthwise (or your favorite bread or roll)
2 teaspoons fig jam
2 ounces (approximately) fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

Heat panini grill. Spread a thin layer of fig jam on cut sides of baguette. If your mozzarella seems too wet, blot it dry with a paper towel so it doesn't make your bread soggy. Arrange mozzarella on the bottom half of the baguette, then close up the sandwich with the top half. Place in the panini grill and cook until the cheese is melted and the bread is crisp, about five minutes.

P.S. Don't have a panini press? No problem. Simply wrap your sandwich in aluminum foil and bake at 425 degrees for 12-15 minutes. Crispy, melty perfection.

P.P.S. Missing the meat? Add some prosciutto to take this sandwich to a new level.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Buttermilk Spoonbread

What to do with half a carton of buttermilk? Make spoonbread!

I stumbled on this easy and light recipe a few summers ago while looking for culinary inspiration beyond banana bread to use up the buttermilk sitting in my fridge. The result is a tangy and souffle-like concoction that makes a great side dish to any grilled meat. It's also a tasty vegetarian entree when accompanied by a salad or some green vegetables.

This spoonbread is in my favorites file because my son Sam asked for it again more than once.

Mangia! Mangia!

Buttermilk Spoonbread
Adapted from

Butter to coat casserole dish
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup stone-ground yellow or white cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, separated
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup shredded cheese such as cheddar or colby, optional

Preheat over to 375 degrees. Butter the sides and bottom of a 1 1/2 quart (4 cup) casserole dish.

Warm buttermilk in a saucepan over medium heat. Add cornmeal and stir frequently, until thickened and smooth. This should take about 3 minutes. Stir in butter and salt. Remove from heat and let cool.

While buttermilk mixture cools, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form.

Whisk egg yolks into the cornmeal mixture. Stir in green onions and the cheese, if using. Gently fold in the egg whites, a little at a time, into the cornmeal mixture. Be careful not to mix or you will deflate the egg whites.

Pour batter into prepared casserole dish. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The spoonbread should be puffed and golden brown on top and set in the center. Note: The top may split, which is totally OK! Serve warm.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Roasted (Kitchen Sink) Brussels Sprouts

One major coup of my marriage: I got my husband to eat--and like--Brussels sprouts. Now if I could just get him to like mushrooms.

I have followed recipes for Brussels sprouts. They often call for honey or maple syrup and maybe bacon. Mmm, bacon. Now, I just kinda use whatever I have on hand--hence "kitchen sink." Sriracha is nice for balancing out the sweetness.

Anyhow, I recently roasted what I call "kitchen sink" Brussels sprouts and the younger daughter ate two (victory!) and the hubby ate many more. The point is to be adventuresome, use what is on hand, and make sure to cook them long enough that they aren't hard (hubby hates that).


Roasted (Kitchen Sink) Brussels Sprouts
12-16 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed
1 shallot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Honey -- generous squirt (No honey? Use maple syrup. What's really good is maple syrup and bacon or ham)
Sriracha -- to your liking
Ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425. Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl. Spread onto a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with Pam. Bake at 425 for 20 minutes.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Are you ready for Easter?

Easter weekend has arrived! In celebration, I'm rounding up some of my favorite springtime recipes, perfect for your Easter gathering.

Let's get cooking!

Rhubarb Muffins: Rhubarb is the ruby announcement that Spring has arrived, and it absolutely shines in these lightened-up muffins.

Stuffed French Toast: Tangy cream cheese, sweet jam, and warm cinnamon make this an immediate brunch classic.

Apricot Mustard Glazed Ham: For me, Easter dinner isn't complete without ham. The apricot mustard glaze on this beauty is unbelievably simple and delicious. I made it just last week, and it's one of my all-time favorite meals.

Lamb Kabobs: If you live in a climate where it's warm enough to grill, these Mediterranean kabobs are for you.

Mom's Cheesy Potatoes: These potatoes are an essential accompaniment to ham. Salty, creamy, and crunchy, they will steal the show.

Crispy Parmesan Asparagus "Fries": Asparagus is the quintessential spring vegetable, and it's perfect for your Easter dinner table. Since these are "fries," you might even be able to convince your pickiest eater to try them.