Tag Archives: cheese

the can-can gratin

My food snobbery diminishes by the day. I like to think.

In the past eight months, I visited six food banks—even as recent as yesterday. I’m learning how they operate, feed, support, and educate the hungry working poor they serve. In two weeks, I get to demo “creative cooking with canned spinach” at an incredible food bank in Maryland with a strong Nutrition Education emphasis. It has me thinking about canned food—where and how it has a place in the American diet.

In my blog profile, I reference my soggy canned corn/green bean childhood. (Allow me to mention here that I was raised in a loving, stable, incredible family and blessed to have canned vegetables as my main complaint). Indeed, my fresh-food-filled adulthood has thus far proven crunchy and delightful. I love witnessing how many food banks are providing seasonal produce to their clients when there are abundant markets. They wisely save canned products for colder seasons. Some local food banks are even sorting canned produce by nutrient priority: orange vegetables, beans, low-sugar fruit, low-sodium soup.

Canned vegetables are not ideal: fresh and frozen are more nutrient-dense and contain less sodium. However, my feelings here resemble my feelings toward the organic-local movement. That’s great if you have access to fresh, local, organic foods. That’s seriously awesome you can afford it. I, in fact, envy this privilege—my farmer’s market has been beyond our budget for the past two years. Hunger is a real and prevalent problem for more Americans than we imagine. Yes, canned vegetables are more susceptible to BPA and sodium. But for thousands of families living within ten miles of me, rent payments and medical bills take precedence over seemingly invisible issues like BPA.

It’s important to note that I don’t believe for a minute economically disadvantaged families should have to choose between nutrition and every other financial matter. I find it appalling it’s often acceptable to donate our leftovers and junk food to “the poor”.

As I am turning my own home into a novice test-kitchen for interesting and healthy canned-food recipes, it only seems appropriate to revisit this dreamy artichoke gratin I made in Brennan and Alejandro’s kitchen. Oh yes, a gratin—pronounced gre-tan—from a can.

Artichoke Gratin

from Plenty, serves 4-6

2 pounds frozen artichoke hearts (sold out, so I used 32 oz. canned in water, rinsed well)
4 lemons, grate zest and reserve juice
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons thyme, chopped (the thyme is crucial!)
6 tablespoons flat-leafed parsley, chopped (I omitted the parsley)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups milk (lower fat is great)
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup ricotta
6 tablespoons parmesan, grated 

Place frozen artichoke hearts in a large pot and cover with water. Add the lemon juice to the pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes or until tender. If using canned artichokes, no need to boil just rinse well. Drain.

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While artichokes are cooking, heat saute pan over medium heat and add olive oil. Add onions and some salt and pepper. Saute 15 minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally. Add cooked onions and artichoke hearts to a bowl and mix with lemon zest, thyme and parsley. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and then add the flour. Stir mixture constantly for 2 minutes. Add milk slowly, whisking as you pour. Add salt and whisk on low heat for 10 minutes or until sauce is thick and creamy. When the sauce coats the back of a spoon, it’s good to go—give it a taste (I like to add an extra tablespoon of parmesan into the sauce at this point).

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Mix bechamel—the groovy french word for the white sauce you just made—with the artichoke mixture.

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Lightly grease a medium-sized casserole dish and pour in mixture. Make small holes in mix and drop in teaspoons of ricotta. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.

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Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees and remove foil. Top gratin with Parmesan. Continue baking for 20 minutes or until golden brown and bechamel bubbles. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes. Serve warm. Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

The thyme is a surprising match to the artichokes—and believe me canned vegetables deserve to be featured in such a decadent meatless entrée. Even Andrew and Alejandro—carnivores of carnivores—scarfed up spoonfuls. The best part? Company in the kitchen.

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For more recipes from the cookbook Plenty, check out this zucchini pasta and this unforgettable yogurt-pomegranate eggplant.

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emerging from hibernation

Good evening readers and eaters! As I mentioned two posts ago, I have an exciting life project that occupies my evenings—hence the lack of recent recipes. I have indeed been cooking and photographing lovely meals to share with you. Warning: this blog is about to grow in its proportion of heart-healthy, veg-filled delights.

Andrew and I are really cutting back on saturated fats these days: it’s not about a fad diet or vegan trends. As we venture into our fifth year of marriage, we’re unhappy with the weight gain we’ve experienced in this brief time—over 20 lbs. between the two of us. Neither of us is overweight, but 20 lbs. in 5 years is a scary trend considering the inevitable metabolic slow in the coming 5 years. A generous topping of high-fat cheese was making its way into too many of our meals.

My two years immersed in Nutrition grad studies taught me that the most realistic way to weight loss is small, simple dietary substitutions. One less soda a day, less fattening milk, etc. For Andrew, this meant switching from sandwiches to soup for most workday lunches. For me, this meant cut-up fruits and veggies as snacks before meals insteaPhoto & Video Sharing by SmugMugd of my infamous feed-a-family lunch portions. Smaller portions, more frequent meals. Now Andrew eats breakfast. We eat smaller dinners and finish the evenings with yogurt fruit smoothies.

So now I must share my thrilling very-recent discovery: ethnic markets. I had heard about the affordable produce prices for years, and finally visited my local Korean and Hispanic supermart. Not only were the prices one-third of what I paid at Shoppers (which I had found less expensive than my other local chains), but the produce was fresh, abundant, and varied beyond my imagination. Where Shoppers has carried three to four moldy eggplants the past five months, Fresh World had hundreds of firm, blemish-free eggplants—five different varieties! I realize I am spoiled in my metropolitan area, but if you have the opportunity to explore an international market, this is a wonderfully affordable way to incorporate far more fresh ingredients into your meals. I left with seven stuffed produce bags  for barely $40.

Sometimes, we’ve just got to stop complicating dishes with steps and stress. Have a simple, fresh meal. Give yourself a break, your body a boost. Here was our light Friday night…Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Pita and Feta with Vegetables

inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Very Full Tart” recipe (minus eggs, heavy cream, buttered pie crust)

do substitute/omit ingredients per availability

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 yellow bell pepper, chopped

1 medium eggplant, peeled and diced

handful cherry tomatoes, halved

1 sweet potato, peeled and diced (1-inch)

1 zucchini, diced

1 large onion

4 tbsp. grapeseed/vegetable oil

4 oz. feta, crumbled

whole wheat pita for serving, cut into wedges

Preheat the oven to 400F. On at least two baking sheets, scatter the chopped vegetables into an even layer. Drizzle with oil and toss to coat. Sprinkle with dried thyme or oregano as you like. Roast the veggies about 30 minutes, tossing halfway through, until potatoes are fork tender and browning occurs. Season with ground pepper and sprinkle with feta. If you have fresh oregano or chives, add them here.

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We spooned this vegetable mixture into whole wheat pita pockets, dunking the pita into homemade baba ganoush as well. Surprisingly satisfying.

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radical radishes

“What do I know of man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.” —Samuel Beckett.

Despite abundant radishes atop this blog page, I never before enjoyed these reddish roots (beyond their photogenic appeal). Oh but my destiny was to find a simple recipe where they would shine!

Friends, those of you popping over here for the convenient, 10-minute dump-and-stir recipe will quickly click over to my prior post. And those Tuscan beans are true winners. Oh but here, my adventurous home cooks, my “I’ve never tried quinoa and it’s about dang time” flavor-seeking readers, HERE is a truly delicious undertaking.

My love for feta cannot be overstated. I think there is surely no more delicious combination to enjoy feta (God bless Gourmet for tossing feta with only brown butter and egg noodles)… and then here is this crunchy, fresh, tangy salad you must double because a One Night Only performance does not satisfy. And it’s charming served cold.

The recipe truly works as written, despite my skepticism about steaming multiple grains. But I am certain this recipe would not be diminished by using couscous or quinoa alone, as the dressing and veggies pack the [tastebud] punch.

Note: I just scooped a bit of bulgur from the grocer’s bulk bin, don’t worry about purchasing large containers of multiple grains if you’re trying them for the first time. I do not typically enjoy olives, but a few silky oil-cured babies from the olive bar were lovely to savor with the minty lemon dressing. I also added more olives and more radishes when I fell in love on the first bite.

Quinoa and Bulgur Salad with Feta

from Gourmet, October 2005 serves four

active time: 20 min total time: 40 min

1/3 cup quinoa, rinsed well

4 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/3 cup medium bulgur

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp chopped fresh mint (or ¾ tsp dried mint, crumbled)

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 oil-cured (or brine Kalamata) black olives, pitted and cut into slivers

2 radishes, quartered and thinly sliced

2 oz feta, coarsely crumbled (1/2 cup)

2 cups baby spinach, (or shredded Bibb lettuce)

Wash quinoa in 3 changes of cold water in a bowl, draining in a sieve between changes of water. Stir together quinoa, 4 cups water, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan, and simmer, uncovered, until quinoa is just tender and germ starts to separate from grain, about 20 minutes. Drain well in sieve, then transfer to a medium bowl.

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While quinoa is simmering, cover bulgur with warm water by 2 inches and soak until tender and chewy, about 10 minutes. Drain well in a sieve, then stir into drained quinoa. Cool grains completely, about 20 minutes.

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While grains cool, stir together oil, lemon juice, mint, pepper, and remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and let stand 15 minutes, then stir into grains along with olives, radishes, feta. Serve over lettuce (and keep the spinach / lettuce separate for leftovers).

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Cooks’ note: Grains can be made ahead and kept, chilled and covered, 1 day. Bring to room temperature while dressing stands.

Hooked on quinoa? Try this very different, equally surprising grain salad…

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corn off the cob: barley risotto

Welcome to a new summer series on A Pear to Remember: corn. Corn is not so exciting—or appealing—when processed for sandwich bread, condiments, granola bars, candy. But let’s consider an ear of corn picked from tall green fields: a 63-calorie vegetable with less than 1 gram of fat, 2.4 grams of protein, and 8% of our daily requirement for dietary fiber. Not so evil.

Sure, we could boil cobs to death and slather with butter. Or, we could slice off the kernals for something a little more exciting. Risotto would not be my go-to summer dinner, unless we’re stirring in seasonal herbs and veggies. The wonderful thing about substituting barley (a fiber-packed whole grain) for arborio rice is how much better it holds up to the cooking process. Risotto is lovely, but there is a fine line before arborio rice becomes thick, gummy and impossible for leftovers. Barley is hearty, more forgiving, and stands up to reheating for lunch. And risotto need not be intimidating: pour, stir, pour, stir, pour and stir under tender—you can do it. Play music, relax.

everyday food, barley risotto, corn, basil, a pear to remember

Here is a substantial summer supper, and a new use for your basil bush beyond pesto.

Barley Risotto with Corn and Basil

from Everyday Food, serves four

1  32 oz. carton reduced-sodium vegetable broth

2 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

coarse salt and ground pepper

1 cup pearl barley

1/2 cup dry white wine

corn kernels from 3-4 ears or 10 oz. package frozen corn kernels

2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces

1/2 cup grated (about 2 ounces) Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

trader joes, vegetable broth, low sodium

In a medium saucepan, bring broth plus 4 cups water just to a simmer. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large saucepan (or Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add onion, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add barley; cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.

quaker brand, barley

Then add wine; cook, stirring, until evaporated, about 1 minute.

Add 2 cups hot broth mixture; simmer, stirring occasionally, until almost absorbed, 10 to 12 minutes. (I find it’s better to leave a little broth-y than to let the grains overcook and dry out).

Continue adding broth mixture in this manner until barley is tender and mixture is creamy, 40 to 50 minutes (you may not have to use all the broth, but I save it for re-heating the next day). Add corn; cook just to heat through, 4 to 5 minutes.

Stir in basil and Parmesan; season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, with extra cheese.

My servings may look a little corn-heavy (I used four ears!), but it was sweet, crunchy corn I (literally) purchased in the middle of a field from an overall’d Delaware farmer and I wanted to use every last bit.

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plenty: color splash

The long blank wall behind the couch has had me stumped for the 11 months Andrew and I have lived in our suburban condo. Of course we all find things when we’re not looking (like yesterday when I hunted 10 minutes for my ipod that was smack in the middle of the empty kitchen table). I spent last week catching up Mom and Pops in Delaware, and the hot weather had us exploring air-conditioned antique stores throughout the week—the very place I found Mastisse’s “The Parakeet and the Mermaid”, framed decades ago in Belvedere Square where the hubs and I spent much time in Baltimore. The print is my perfect mix of sophisticated and quirky. Hello, wall funk.

Matisse, Parakeet and the Mermaid, Living Room

Pasta is another blank canvas enriched by bright color, and plenty of it. It’s the perfect excuse to return to our Plenty reader’s series, where I interpret select recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s enchanting new cookbook.

The printed recipe calls for deep-frying zucchini and whipping up a homemade herb puree. Time limitations and nutrition concerns had me adapting this recipe to a faster, lower-fat version well worth sharing with friends this summer.

plenty, yotam ottolenghi, pasta and friend zucchini salad, crate and barrel bowl, sweedish

Please, if you can, pick up some beautiful buffalo mozzarella (in brine) for this one—it’s where the magic resides. I accidentally grabbed Burrata mozzarella, which has a creamy center, and is easily the last cheese I ever need eat on this good earth.

Pasta and (Not) Fried Zucchini Salad

from Plenty, serves four

3 medium zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch slices (a mandolin makes this a breeze)

1  1/2 tbsp. red wine vinegar

3/4 cup frozen edamame

1 cup basil, shredded coarsely

1/4 cup pesto (I used storebought)

9 oz. strozzapreti or penne (I used rotelli)

grated zest of 1 lemon

7 oz. buffalo mozzarella, torn by hands into chunks

1  1/2 tbsp. small capers (optional)

1 cup heirloom baby tomatoes (my addition)

squash, yellow squash, mandolin, crate and barrel cutting board

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat a grill (or stovetop grill pan) to medium high—heat a cast iron/heavy skillet over high heat if you do not have a grill. Using a pastry brush, brush both sides of the zucchini slices with vegetable/canola oil. Grill the thin zucchini slices two minutes on each side, or until charred and slightly tender. Transfer the grilled zucchini to your serving bowl, pour over the red wine vinegar, stir, and set aside.

staub, staub grill, french blue, grill pan, zucchini

Blanch the edamame for 3 minutes in boiling water; drain and toss into the zucchini and vinegar bowl. (I only had frozen shelled edamame, so I blanched, cooled, and then popped the beans out of the pods into the zucchini).

Cook the pasta until al dente; drain and rinse under cold water. Add the pasta to the zucchini, vinegar and edamame; add the pesto, lemon zest, capers, tomatoes (if using), and mozzarella. Stir gently together, then taste and season with  coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Before serving, stir in the torn basil.

basil, plenty cookbook, mozzarella, zucchini, pasta saladStick around and check out another of Yotam Ottolenghi’s exquisite recipes: Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce. You’ve never seen anything like it.

What is the best cookbook on your shelf?

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pizza: it’s what’s for dinner

Let’s get in the mood with a scene from a beloved childhood film. In this clip from Back to the Future II, we glipse at the McFly family in the Future: the year 2015. Ha!

I am impressed the writers in 1987 foresaw caller ID. Still waiting on Black & Decker to release The Hydrator.

Yes, it’s a cherished dish since I was born in the 1980s when Mom, Dad, Jason and I would lay the picnic blanket on the family room floor to watch TGIF around a piping hot pizza box. Even on a scorching summer night, 26 years later, pizza is still the ultimate end-the-week dinner. Now that I’ve wrapped up nutrition classes, it seems an apt time to talk about up-ing the nutrient value of our favorite foods. Let’s start perfecting the pie.

OVERLOAD

Carry-out pizza, despite the presence of carbs, veggies, dairy and in one serving, can be nutritionally void and calorically perilous. Fat and salt reign. The sodium overload in the sauce, pepperoni, and cheese cancels out much hope of absorbing calcium. Pizza also often lacks fiber so crucial to our diet; I found a way to include it in my version, with a flavor just as appealing.

RETHINK PIZZA

What do we love about pizza? The crust’s crunch, rich tomato flavor, the alluring salty cheese? Here’s just one way to enjoy this essence without sacrificing our heart’s health. Using an appropriate portion of salty cheese provides ample cheesiness and significantly decreases the saturated fat. I added toppings high in vitamins, low in calories—then baked it to that golden brown we all adore.

Heart-Healthy Pizza

A  Friday Night Linvention

1 cup baby spinach leaves (use arugula for peppery kick)

1 cup mixed basil and mint leaves

2 tbsp olive oil

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 bell pepper, sliced thin

½ cup shaved parmesan cheese (pecorino, romano, asiago are all great options)

1 prepared pizza crust (mine was only about 9 inches diameter; whole wheat is a great choice)

budget tip: purchase a wedge of romano or asiago cheese and shave with a vegetable peeler. this can be several dollars less than pre-shredded parmesan.

Note the sodium per serving size on this Trader Joes’ pizza crust! It would have been all too easy to eat this entire pie. It’s not just about fat: it’s about the whole picture.

Preheat the oven to 450F.

In a food processor (a 2-cup machine is sufficient), puree the spinach and herbs with 2 tbsp olive oil. If you don’t have a food processor, finely chop all of greens and stir into the olive oil. A traditional pesto with nuts and cheese would add much more fat than I desired here.

Spread the pesto over the crust. Place the tomatoes, cut side up, on the sauce along with the peppers. Sprinkle a pinch of kosher or sea salt over the tomatoes—this will help them roast in the oven. Scatter the cheese in between the tomatoes and peppers, leaving the tomatoes exposed.

Bake directly on the rack according to the crust’s package directions, or until the cheese browns. I place a large baking sheet beneath the pizza to catch any dripping oil or cheese as it bakes. Cool slightly before cutting; I prefer a long knife instead of a pizza wheel.

Other ideas:

Rather than high-sodium pizza sauce, top your crust with thin slices of salted beefsteak tomatoes (and herbs if you like) and bake until the tomatoes begin to dry out. Top with ½ cup of salty cheese, and the veggies/meat of your choosing and bake until brown. Of course, the tricky part is not eating the whole pie! Serve with a salad and munch on fruit or nuts before dinner. Eating a salad (tossed with peaches or berries) while our pizza is in the oven helps with smaller portions.

Pizza is a favorite is our home, and we’re always playing around with new ways to make it memorable in our own kitchen. Find more pizza inspirations here and recent medical news on life-saving fiber from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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cheap eats

For over twenty years I was the vegetarian who didn’t like beans. It was a texture and taste thing, mostly a texture thing. So I found ways to disguise them: crunchy, roasted chickpeas became a favorite snack, followed by white bean dip.

As it’s important to vegetarians to consider iron-rich foods, I have been on a quest for more enjoyable bean recipes. I have two stellar recipes to share—the Tuscan Beans in next week’s post is unforgettable. Both are best enjoyed with fresh grilled bread, which makes such inexpensive dishes a dash more decadent. This lunch manages to be an elegant 5-minute meal as simple as it gets: bread and beans.

Mixed Bean and Parsley Salad

from Cooking After Five, serves 4, or 2 with leftovers


2 cans chickpeas, drained

2 cans canellini beans, drained

1 cup parsley, lightly packed, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced (on your microplane)

Juice of 1 lemon

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

In a large bowl, combine beans, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, and a couple splashes of extra-virgin olive oil. Toss to combine and season with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Grate enough cheese so it looks like a mound of snow, about 1/2 cup, then toss. Taste. Serve with grilled bread.

For grilled bread:

Slice a fresh loaf (cheese or herbed bread is extra fun)  into one-inch pieces. Brush both sides lightly with olive oil and grill over medium heat. If you don’t have a grill, place the oiled slices on a flat baking sheet and grill under the broiler until golden brown. With tongs, turn the slices and brown the second side. For fun, rub a halved garlic clove over each hot slice—it adds a special, tangy touch.

Note: Parsley has a grassy flavor not everyone prefers. Chives, basil, or a combination of fresh herbs would be a fantastic substitute for the parsley here. Basil and white beans are a wonderful combination.

Click here for my other favorite recipes featuring garbanzo beans.

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five out of five

My college dining hall had very few vegetarian entrées, and I ate vegetable lasagna at least four days a week in my undergraduate years. It was one of those carrot-zucchini lasagnas with white sauce and cheese, and it was so comforting. The Mongolian grill installed during my senior year increased the variety in my dining hall diet, but I couldn’t resist the creamy lasagna every once in a while still.

I have always been intimidated by lasagna—making it, that is. The layers and the prep and the waiting all that time for it to bake just seemed like too much work—this from the gal willing to make homemade pasta. But I’m conquering all kinds of new dishes these days. You can, too.

Here’s what makes my adaptation of this lasagna simple in preparation: use packaged artichoke hearts, no-boil lasagna noodles, and pre-trimmed leeks. Trader Joes even has pre-chopped leeks in their freezer section! (Click here to watch a demonstration on cleaning and slicing leeks).

I came across this 5-star recipe and said to myself, This sounds amazing. and it’s screaming to be simplified. and I wonder if it would work with mushrooms?

The Ultimate Vegetable Lasagna

simplified a smidge from williams-sonoma.com

serves 8-10

1 box no-boil lasagna noodles

2 cups ricotta cheese

3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

2 Tbs. olive oil

5 leeks including 1 inch of  green, rinsed well and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 cup artichoke hearts (frozen or jarred), chopped

about 10 baby bella mushrooms, brushed clean, stems removed, and sliced

5 garlic cloves, minced (on a microplane)

3 cups milk

4 Tbs. unsalted butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

a pinch of nutmeg

1/2 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese

Make the vegetable filling

In a fry pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the leeks and sauté until very soft and lightly golden, about 15 minutes.

While the leeks are cooking, heat 1 tbsp. butter in a medium pot (large enough to use for white sauce) over medium-high heat. Sear the mushrooms by adding them in batches, leaving plenty of room between the slices. Set aside.

Once the leeks are tender, drain the artichokes and add to the fry pan with a pinch of salt and pepper. Continue to cook over medium heat until the artichokes are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.

Add the mushrooms, stir, and transfer the mixture to a bowl. Set aside.

Make the cheese filling

In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta, parmesan, salt and pepper; set aside.

Make the white sauce

In the buttered saucepan (from the mushrooms), melt the remaining 3 tbsp. butter over medium-high heat.

Whisk the flour into the butter and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. It should look like this.

Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the hot milk. Set over medium-low heat and cook, stirring, until thick and smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove the sauce from the heat.

Assemble and Bake

Position a rack in the upper third of an oven and preheat to 375°F. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with olive oil.

Cover the bottom of the prepared dish with a layer of the noodles. No-boil lasagna noodles just go into the pan straight from the box; it’s fabulous. Spoon one-third of the ricotta mixture over the noodles—this doesn’t need to be neat.

Top with one-third of the leek-artichoke mixture and then with one-third of the sauce. Repeat the layering twice.

Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the top. Bake until golden and bubbling, 40 to 50 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes (painful, I know!), then cut into squares and dig in.

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food of the gods

There are things in life for which Americans offer incessant apologies: sneezing, asking questions, arriving early, arriving late, and the worst offender: apologizing for apologizing. This is why I am not sorry to  make—yet again—a fuss over feta.

Andrew and I ventured into Whole Foods last weekend to recycle wine corks from our wedding (three years is not too late to consider Mother Earth). At the entrance, a young woman offered eight locally-made dips. One particular feta dip was so phenomenal, we talked about it the whole way home. It was a life-changing cheese moment for us both. Though still not worth the $10 for  4 measly ounces.

A single glance at the ingredient list made this simple to re-create at home. Imported feta—essential here—is a creamy experience that shames all fetas you’ve known before. For $6, this high-end tub of feta was still far less than the gourmet dip, and made a generous batch.

jalapeno feta dip

1/2 large red onion

1/2 jalapeno

about 1 lb. imported feta block, in brine (sheep & goat milk blend)

2 tablespoons olive oil

On the large holes of a box grater, grate the red onion. With a paring knife (and gloves on), slice the jalapeno in half, scraping out the white ribs and seeds. Dice the jalapeno and wash your hands well—do not touch your eyes or nostrils… even an hour later!

In a large skillet, heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and soften for about five minutes. Add the jalapeno and soften two minutes more. The onions should be translucent, not brown.

Break the feta into a large bowl, and pour the hot contents of the skillet directly over the feta. With a wooden spoon, gently break the feta to incorporate the pepper and onion.

Spoon onto toasted pita (I love whole wheat pita, torn and baked at 250F until crisp). This appetizer is even more phenomenal paired with my slow-roasted tomatoes. This can be made, along with pita chips, within 20 minutes… just in time to take to a friend’s house to share!

 

A note on spice: I can handle only mild heat, and this dip barely approaches medium. The creamy feta balances the pepper well so it’s not too hot. If you want a little more kick, consider using the entire jalapeno.

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the perfect party dish

I cannot describe how grateful I am for the women with whom I share a classroom. Besides that we get along splendidly, we linger daily—after the students have been bussed away—to talk and talk and talk food. Yesterday, Brennan and I shared an intense conversation about feta that left us both breathless… and running to the grocery store. And then calling each other from the feta aisle. I’m serious. My week is building towards a feta-jalepeno puree.

While I was planning my birthday bash menu, I wanted a budget buffet of unique, memorable food. I knew this would involve feta. Affordable proteins (shrimp, chickpeas), a three-course dinner with simple hors d’oeuvre, and filling starch allowed me to

feed 17 people

for less than $100

with enough leftovers to act as party favors.

My sister-in-law brought cake, guests contributed their favorite beverages. Entertaining demystified. We don’t have a microwave, so I needed a dish without need for reheating and attention during the party. We’ll talk about the rest of the menu another time. My absolute favorite dish of the night without further adieu:

Roasted Shrimp and Orzo

from Ina Garten, serves 6

Kosher salt

Good olive oil

3/4 pound orzo pasta (rice-shaped pasta)

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3 lemons)

Freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds (16 to 18 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 cup minced scallions, white and green parts

1 cup chopped fresh dill (I used generous pinches of dried dill)

1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (fresh is crucial here)

1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and medium-diced

1/2 cup small-diced red onion

3/4 pound good feta cheese, large diced (I used Dodoni; definitely use imported)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Fill a large pot with water, add the orzo and simmer for 9 to 11 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it’s cooked al dente. Drain and pour into a very large bowl (or ceramic casserole, whatever you will use for serving). Whisk together the lemon juice, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Pour over the hot pasta and stir well.

Meanwhile, place the shrimp on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and spread out in a single layer. Roast for 5 to 6 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through. Don’t overcook!

To avoid watery cucumbers: slice the cucumbers in half both directions. Drag a small spoon through the seeds and discard. Slice the hollowed halves lengthwise, and dice.

Add the shrimp to the orzo and then add the scallions, dill, parsley, cucumber, onion, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss well. Add the feta and stir carefully. Set aside at room temperature for 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend, or refrigerate overnight. If refrigerated, taste again for seasonings and bring back to room temperature before serving.

The second day, I tossed in a little more olive oil and freshly ground pepper before serving. Taste first! This is just as lovely without the shrimp, for finicky vegetarians like me.
 j
Yes, this is an affordable, easy and guaranteed dish for entertaining, but just as lovely weeknight with a platter of pita and olives. Enjoy them, as we did, with homemade foolproof-falafel!The leftovers are even better.

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