Easy Vegetarian Baked Ziti

8 03 2012

I have been on a serious Italian food/pasta kick lately…

I dunno why.

Seriously.  It’s getting out of control.

I crave tomato-ey based food.

I crave pasta.

I crave cheese.

[Duh.  When do I not crave cheese???]

Pasta… Hmmm.  Craving carbs, I suppose…  It could be the intense lifting workouts lately… And the 1/2 hour stints on the stair mill…


[What?  I got 2 weddings to get ready for!!]

No pain, no gain.

Oh, and I can’t give up wine.

So, an intense gym regime, it is!!


Enjoy, Friends!  Sometimes, pasta is the spice of life!

* 1 lb whole wheat ziti (usually about 1 box)

* 3 Tbsp olive oil, divided

* 3 garlic cloves, minced

* 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or 1/4 tsp for a little less spice)

* 1/2 tsp dried oregano

* Salt and pepper

* 2 (28 oz) cans crushed tomatoes

* 1 (15 oz) container part-skim ricotta cheese (skinnier recipe – cut the ricotta to 8 oz)

* 1 tsp dried parsley

* 1 tsp Italian Seasoning

* 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded (skinnier recipe – cut mozza to 1 cup)

* 1 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese (don’t used the container-ed stuff)

* 1/4 cup fresh basil, torn into small pieces

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (think 1 Tbsp kosher salt to 12 cups water).  Add ziti and cook until just al dente.  Reserve 1 cup pasta water.  Drain ziti and toss with a bit of olive oil (to prevent stickage).  Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Wipe the same pot out with paper towels.  Heat 1  1/2 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat.  Add garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano.  Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute (be careful not to burn/over-brown the garlic; it will taint your dish).  Add the tomatoes.  Bring to a simmer and gently continue to simmer until thickened a bit, about 10 minutes.  Add the pasta water and ziti.  Toss to coat.  Remove from heat.

Mix ricotta, parsley flakes, Italian Seasoning, 1  1/2 Tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper in a small bowl.

Pour half of the pasta mixture into a 13X9 oven-safe dish.  Dollop the ricotta mixture evenly over the first layer of pasta.  Cover with remaining ziti mixture.  Top evenly with mozzarella and Parmesan.

Bake until cheese is melted and dish is heated-through, about 25 minutes.  Remove from oven and top with torn basil pieces.  Serve with warm, buttery garlic bread and Caesar salad.

Want some meat?  Consider adding browned and crumbled sweet or hot Italian sausage to the ziti-tomato mixture…  Oooh-la-la!

Did this recipe make you Smile?  I would be honored if you’d become a Facebook fan of mine!  Click here (or copy and paste this link into your browser:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Smiles-in-the-Kitchen/143789102327574).

Weeknight Vegetable Lo Mein

7 09 2011

We’re all just lookin’ for a tasty weeknight dinner…

Amid the chaos, the schedules, the double-booked soccer games, juggled work schedules… You name it, and it can seriously hamper any kind of desire to cook on a weeknight.

Unless the recipe is quick and easy…

I loved the tastefulness of this recipe, and felt it was easy to put together.  In a pinch, you could prep the veggies the night before to make it a lot easier on yourself the day you make the lo mein.  Feel free to add thinly-sliced flank steak into the mix if you’re looking for a little protein.  Chicken would work great too.

Recipe adapted from “The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook,” Third Edition, pg 246.

Serves 4.

Make sure to use fresh Chinese egg noodles (usually found in the produce section of your local grocer).

* Salt

* 12 oz fresh Chinese egg noodles

* 1 Tbsp Asian sesame oil

* 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

* 3 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce

* 3 Tbsp oyster sauce (often found in the Asian food section of your local grocer)

* 2 Tbsp veggie oil

* 10 oz shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick

* 1 small head Napa cabbage, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick

* 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced thin

* 6 scallions, sliced thin

* 1 Tbsp freshly-grated ginger

* 3 garlic cloves, minced

* 2 Tbsp minced fresh cilantro

In a large pot, bring 4 quarts water to a boil.  Add 1 Tbsp salt and noodles.  Cook, stirring often, until the noodles are slightly underdone, about 2 minutes.  Drain the noodles, rinse under cold running water and drain again.

Transfer the noodles to a large bowl.  Toss with sesame oil.  In a separate small bowl, whisk together the broth, soy sauce, and oyster sauce.  Set aside.

Heat veggie oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.  Add the mushrooms and cook until browned, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the cabbage and bell pepper.  Cook until the cabbage is just wilted, about 2 minutes.  Add the scallions, ginger and garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the noodles, soy sauce mixture, and cilantro to the pan.  Stir to combine and cook until the noodles are heated through, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Serve immediately with a side of egg rolls.

Eggplant Parmesan

13 05 2011

…Is, quite potentially, the only recipe that could “fake out” non-veggie lovers…

I mean, who wakes up and says, “I’d like eggplant tonight, please.”?


Ummm, yeah.  That just doesn’t come up in conversation at our house.

However, if you add some cheese, a bit of fry-doodle (technical term, here), homemade tomato sauce with fresh basil and a bit more cheese, you just might have something…

I used to gobble Olive Garden’s Eggplant Parmesan.  Absolutely loved it.  Still do.  But, I gotta tell ya, this eggplant I made last night blew it out of the water.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a bit time-intensive, so there’s definitely still love for Olive Garden’s made-to-order version, but wow, the homemade stuff is just… Well, homemade.  Simple as that, I suppose.

And, this ain’t my first rodeo with Eggplant Parm.  I made a version last year (a very different version) that turned out absolutely terrible.  I mean, epic fail.  The eggplant was mooshy, the sauce was watery…  Ugh.  So, I admit, I had some trepidation in embarking on this recipe.

But, gee.  I’m soooo glad I did.

I adopted this recipe from FoodNetwork’s Tyler Florence.  I made a few minor changes (I’ll note them), mostly due to my previous Eggplant Parmesan experience and partially due to my taste buds… Gotta rely on the taste buds…

Check out Tyler’s original recipe here.  When you do check it out, you’ll notice that the “prep” time is denoted as 20 minutes, and the “baking” time is 60 minutes.  Baking time – correct.  Prep time – completely unrealistic unless you have elves or clones or dexterous unicorns running around your kitchen.  Not even kidding.  Prepare for a solid hour of prep – and perhaps a bit more – before baking.

A big but…  Remember to enjoy the prep and cooking part.  That’s integral to this whole cooking business – nourish the body, nourish the soul.

Bottomline… It may be a crunch to get this done for a weeknight meal.  You decide.  I did it on a weeknight, but I also had a bit of extra time.  The meal itself is fantastic for a party or gathering of friends, and honestly, I think you could pawn this dish off on some of your pickiest eaters.

Oh, and one more thing – do not, don’t even think about, using store-bought sauce as an alternative to the homemade sauce.  Store-bought sauce is prepared and composed differently, and it will change the entire aura of your dish.  Don’t do it, even if it’s real tempting.

Serves 8.

Spicy tomato sauce

* 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

* 5 garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press

* 1 cup pitted whole black olives, roughly chopped

* 1 tsp hot red pepper flakes (or a tad more for additional spice, or a tad less if your family is less-pepper-inclined); I thought it really added depth to the sauce

* 3 Tbsp capers, drained

* 2 (28-oz) cans whole tomatoes, crushed/smooshed by hand (do not wear white while crushing/smooshing)

* 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, hand-torn

* Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

For the eggplant prep

* 4 cups Italian-seasoned dried bread crumbs

* 1 Tbsp garlic powder

* 1 Tbsp dried oregano

* 5 eggs, divided into 3 and 2

* 1 cup all-purpose flour

* Extra-virgin olive oil

* 2 to 3 lbs eggplants – usually 2 medium-sized eggplants

* 2 lbs part-skim ricotta cheese (original recipe calls for whole milk, but I felt the part-skim did a great job in the dish)

* 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

* 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan-Romano (I used a 3-cheese blend – Parm, Asiago and one other fancy name)

* 2 lbs shredded mozzarella cheese

For the sauce

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the olive oil and heat until shimmery.  Reduce heat to low.  Wait about 1 minute, then add the garlic.  Cook on low, stirring occasionally for 5 to 10 minutes (you’re infusing the olive oil with the garlic.  Using a fine mesh strainer, remove (or strain) the garlic from the olive oil, putting the olive oil itself back into the pan.  Hand-crush/smoosh the tomatoes (remember – do not wear white), and add them, along with their juices, to the pan.  Bring to a low simmer.  Stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper (your seasoning with s & p will vary, depending on your taste buds, so taste the sauce to make sure the counts are right).  Cover and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat, keep covered and set aside.

Eggplant prep

Sweat the eggplants:

Cut off the ends of the eggplants and, using a sharp knife, slice away the skin.  Cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices.  Place the slices from the first eggplant in a collander set inside a large bowl.  Sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt.  Add the second eggplant, repeat the salting.  Allow the eggplants to sit for at least 15 to 20 minutes.  You’re “sweating” the eggplants, encouraging them to release any excess juices that could change the makeup of the final dish.

Combine the bread crumbs, garlic powder, and oregano in a medium bowl.  Season generously with salt and pepper and mix well.  Crack 3 of the eggs into another medium bowl, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and beat with a fork to mix.  Put the flour in a shallow baking dish (pie plate works great) and season with (you guessed it) salt and pepper.  Arrange your workstation by the stove:  place the flour, beaten eggs, and bread crumbs on a flat surface near the stove.

Rinse the salt off the eggplant slices.  Pat dry with paper towels.

Heat 1/4-inch (or so) olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, dredge the eggplant slices first in the flower (you may need to “pat” it to adhere), then dip them in the egg (thoroughly coat), then coat them in the breadcrumb mixture, pressing to adhere the breadcrumb mixture.  Add as many eggplant slices to the skillet as will fit comfortable in a single layer, cooking until tender and browned on both sides (they will cook pretty fast – about 2 minutes or less on each side if your oil is nice and hot).  Drain on paper towels.  Repeat with the remaining eggplant slices.  Add more olive oil to the pan, as needed.

Prep the cheese

Stir together the ricotta and 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano cheese.  Stir in the basil and remaining 2 eggs, and season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Assemble the dish

You’re going to need a large (think larger than 9X13), deep baking dish (an aluminum store-bought one-use works great).  Spoon some of the tomato sauce (think about 3/4 cup or so) over the bottom of the baking dish.  Add a layer of eggplant slices.  Spread with half of the ricotta mixture.  Spoon another layer of tomato sauce over and sprinkle with about one-third of the mozzarella.  Repeat with a layer of eggplant slices, the rest of the ricotta, tomato sauce, and another third of the mozzarella.  Sprinkle with the 3/4 cup Parmigiano.

Put the dish in the oven and bake for about 1 hour, until golden and bubbling.  Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

I served it over whole wheat angel hair pasta, cooked al dente.

Enjoy, Friends!  Even somewhat-obscure veggies are awesome!

Cheesy Stromboli, with a Pepperoni or Vegetarian Option

14 03 2011


Cheesy goodness!


Somewhat similar to its counterpart, the calzone, stromboli isn’t quite as well-known or appreciated…

If I remember correctly, I had my first stromboli in downtown St. Louis.  It was love at first bite.  :)

So, when I came across a vegetarian stromboli recipe, I thought is sounded absolutely phenomenal.

But, ya’all know me.  I like meat too, so I threw in a bit of pepperoni (you could also use salami, sausage, andouille); well, you get the idea.  The veggies in the recipe play nicely with each other, and the flavor is truly incredible.

[Yes, I just chowed down on a huge stromboli slice.  YUM.]

The best part?  This recipe is easy, and it’s quick enough for a weeknight dinner.  It’s also great for football season, or for large parties.

Printer-Friendly Version

I adapted the original recipe from Pip & Ebby, adopted from Parenting magazine.

* 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata or black olives

* 8-10 sun dried tomato halves, packed in oil

* 1 Tbsp oil from the sun dried tomato jar

* Bit of flour

* 1 lb pizza dough (either homemade or store bought); I used about 1  1/2 lbs of pizza dough because I like dough-ey-ness.  I rolled the pizza dough together (because they came in 2 different cannisters) during the rolling/flouring step.

* 12 to 15 slices Provolone cheese

* 24-30 slices pepperoni (optional, skip if making the vegetarian version)

* 1 (10 oz) box frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed to drain excess water

* 1 (12 oz) jar roasted red peppers, drained, patted dry and cut into strips

* 1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Coat a baking sheet with non-stick spray, and set aside.

Pulse the olives, sun dried tomato halves and oil in a food processor until it forms a paste.

Lightly flour a work surface and rolling pin.  Roll pizza dough into a 14×10-inch rectangle.  Spread the olive/tomato mixture onto the dough, leaving a 1-inch border around the edges.

Top with Provolone cheese slices.

Lay the pepperoni on top of the cheese.

Spread the spinach and roasted red peppers on top.

Fold 1 inch of dough over the filling on the short sides of the rectangle.  Then, fold the long sides over, pinching the dough together at the corners.

Starting at one of the long ends, roll the dough as tightly as possible.

Brush the seam line with a bit of egg, and pinch the seam to seal it shut.

Transfer the roll (carefully) to the baking sheet, seam side down.  Brush the entire surface with the remaining egg.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the bread is golden and sounds hollow when tapped.


Don't worry if your stromboli bursts with flavor!



Allow the stromboli to cool and cut into 1-inch strips crosswise.


Cheesy goodness!





Enjoy!  :)


Buttermilk Fried Okra

30 12 2010

If you’re from the South, you know okra.

Okra is definitely a dish from my childhood.

Granny loved to fry fresh okra.

Fresh.  Crunchy.  Side of ketchup.


But, being that we live on the West Coast, it can be a little tricky to find fresh okra.

And, sorry [no offense], but I refuse to use frozen okra.  Ick.

Whenever our local grocery store has fresh okra… Yup.  You guessed it.  I buy it.

So when I ran across this recipe for “Buttermilk Fried Okra” in Southern Livings “Best Recipes of 2010” magazine, I just knew I needed to share it with ya’all.

Makes 8 cups.

* 1 lb fresh okra, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

* 1/4 cup buttermilk

* 1  1/2 cups self-rising white cornmeal mix

* 1 tsp salt

* 1 tsp sugar

* 1/4 tsp ground red pepper

* Vegetable oil, for frying

Stir together okra and buttermilk in a large bowl.  Stir together cornmeal mix and next 3 ingredients in a separate large bowl.  Remove okra from buttermilk, in batches, using a slotted spoon.  Dredge in cornmeal mixture, and place in a wire mesh strainer.  Shake off excess.

Pour oil to a depth of 1 inch into a large, deep cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven.  Heat oil to 375 degrees (using a candy or frying thermometer).  Fry okra, in batches, 4 minutes, or until golden, turning once.  Transfer okra to a paper towel-lined plate and drain any excess oil.

Serve hot!

Recipe variation idea – sprinkle fried okra onto a warm tortilla filled with diced tomatoes, avocado, and bell pepper; shredded lettuce and sliced olives.  I love to top it off with a quick squeeze of Thousand Island dressing.

Cherry Tomatoes Stuffed with Fresh Mozzarella and Basil

29 12 2010

***Chef’s tip:  Make sure to buy the best quality mozzarella (fresh is best – in your grocer’s deli area, typically), since good cheese makes this appetizer great.

* ½ lb fresh mozzarella, cut into tiny dice (to yield about 1 ¼ cups)

* 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

* 1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves

* ½ tsp freshly grated lemon zest (from about ¼ lemon)

* Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper

* 1 pint (about 18) cherry tomatoes, rinsed and stems removed

In a medium bowl, stir the cheese, oil, basil, zest, ½ tsp salt, and ¼ tsp pepper.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 4 hours before assembling.

When ready to assemble, slice each tomato in half (either direction is just fine) and scoop out the insides with the small end of a melon baller or a teaspoon.  Sprinkle lightly with salt.  Invert onto a paper towel and let the tomatoes drain for 15 minutes.

Fill each tomato half with a scant teaspoon of the cheese mixture and arrange on a serving tray.  Serve immediately as an hors d’oeuvre, or wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.

Classic bruschetta makes a great complimentary hors d’oeuvre pairing with this dish.  J

Recipe from The Best of Fine Cooking’s 2011 “Party Food” magazine.

Classic and Crispy Greek Salad

5 12 2010

I think a classic Greek salad has gotta be one of my absolute faves.

Lots of different flavors married together… A sea of lettuce, cucumber, red onion, feta chunks, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, Kalamata olives, oregano, mint…  All surprisingly so delicious when paired.

Greek salad is versatile too…  Make it for an appetizer, side or main course.

You’ve got a winner!

A trick to this salad?  Marinate the onion and cucumber in the dressing before tossing them with the rest of the salad – this infuses the cucumber with a delightful amount of flavor while toning down the onion’s raw bite.

Pregnant or nursing?  Simply substitute the feta cheese for tofu cubes.

Serves 6-8.


* 6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

* 3 Tbsp red wine vinegar

* 2 tsp minced fresh oregano (or 3/4 tsp dried)

* 1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice

* 1 garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press

* 1/2 tsp salt

* 1/8 tsp pepper


* 1/2 red onion, sliced thin

* 1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced 1/8-inch thick.  To seed the cucumber – run a small spoon inside each cucumber half to scoop out the seed and surrounding liquid.

* 2 romaine lettuce hearts, torn into bite-sized pieces (do not cut romaine lettuce with a knife, as it will wilt the areas of contact almost immediately after being cut)

* 1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

* 1 (8 oz) jar roasted red peppers, rinsed and cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips

* 1/4 cup minced fresh mint

* 3/4 cup Kalamata olives, pitted

* 5 oz feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 1/4 cups)

Whisk all of the dressing ingredients together in a bowl large enough to hold the salad.  Add the onion and cucumber and allow them to marinate for at least 20 minutes.  Add the romaine, tomatoes, peppers, and mint to the bowl and toss.  Arrange the salad on a platter and sprinkle with the olives and feta.

Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, third edition.


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