Capellini with Bacon, Rosemary, and Very Ripe Tomatoes

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I know, it doesn’t sound that exciting. And it’s an odd recipe for me to make as I don’t eat bacon (and I try not to eat pasta, albeit usually unsuccessfully). Also I typically prefer my rosemary in cocktails.  So in light of all that, believe me when I tell you that you should make this for dinner tonight, that’s how good it is. I did a quick inventory of the blog archives the other night as I was searching for dinner inspiration, and realized that although I’ve posted a lot of Cook This Now recipes, I had never posted anything from September (the recipes are categorized seasonally, by month). Moreover, I had never even made anything from the September chapter. This pasta jumped out at me as it looked quick and easy (I didn’t have a ton of time), it still felt (still feels!) way too much like summer to start making hearty fall dishes yet, and most importantly, my cherry tomatoes were (still are!) falling off the vine faster than I could pick them. Leave it to Melissa to anticipate my every late September need.

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This dish comes together so easily as written, and although I know I’ll make it again, what I really love about it is that it reminded me how easy it is to make your own tomato sauce. There’s no need to get any fancy ingredients or even roast the tomatoes beforehand, you can literally just sauté fresh tomatoes – cherry, heirloom, roma, what have you – in a little bit of olive oil (or bacon grease, if that’s your thing), add some herbs, and you have a delicious meal in ten minutes. I made this, start to finish, during halftime of the Monday Night Football game. I even made a vegetarian version for myself (I added fennel per Melissa’s suggestion, and it was delish!). And it’s a great way to use those tomatoes that are on their last legs – mine are so ripe that they literally burst as you pluck them from the vine. Added bonus: it will make your kitchen smell AH-mazing.

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This sauce gets a little kick from the garlic and red pepper, and the balsamic is a lovely addition (I think red wine vinegar would be good too). And of course I love basil and parmesan on all pasta dishes/all things. Melissa specifically calls for Pecorino Romano but for some reason I had Parmigiano-Reggiano in my head. So I splurged on the $20/pound stuff (it’s the king of cheese!) and would very much recommend it – the dish is so simple that you can really taste the difference. But I’m sure Pecorino Romano would be delicious as well, and probably a little cheaper. A bowl of forbidden carbs, a delicious jammy fresh tomato sauce, fancy cheese, and of course the requisite glass of wine that must go along with any pasta – it was the perfect consolation prize as my fantasy team under-performed it’s way to 0-3.

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One year ago: Corn Risotto-Stuffed Poblano Peppers
Pasta, Previously: Penne with Asparagus and Chèvre, Crunchy Baked Pasta with SausageCarrot Mac and Cheese, Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, World’s Best Mac and Cheese (yikes, that’s a lot of mac and cheese!)
Melissa Clark, Previously: Double Coconut Granola, Olive Oil Banana Bread, Split Pea Soup, Corned Beef and CabbageRoasted Halibut, Carrot Mac and Cheese, Kale SaladSesame Soba Salad, Brown Butter Nectarine Cobbler, Port-Braised Short Ribs

Pasta with Bacon, Rosemary, and Very Ripe Tomatoes, from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now

8 ounces pasta (any kind you like)
3 ounces bacon, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces (using thick-cut bacon, 3 ounces will be 3 slices)
1 large bushy rosemary sprig
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 very large (or 3 medium) tomatoes, a mix of red and yellow is nice (I used 2 large handfuls cherry tomatoes)
Balsamic vinegar, optional
Soft herbs, if you want this to look pretty (I used basil and Italian parsley)
Pecorino Romano, optional (or Parmigiano-Reggiano)

1. Cook pasta in a large pot of heavily salted water
2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer bacon to a paper-towel lined plate, leaving the grease in the pan (if it looks really greasy, spoon some out; you just need a thin layer, enough to sauté the garlic without burning).
3. Add the rosemary, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste to the skillet and cook until the garlic is lightly browned, 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and let the sauce simmer until the pasta is cooked.  Season aggressively with more salt and black pepper. If it tastes flat, add a few drops of vinegar.
4. Drain pasta and top with the sauce.  Sprinkle with bacon pieces, cheese, and fresh herbs, if using.

Note from Melissa: Onions or leeks are a nice addition if you have them on hand – sauté them in the bacon fat for a few minutes before adding the garlic and red pepper. You can also add chopped fennel, in which case save the fronds for garnish.

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Mac and Cheese, Part Two

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As discussed yesterday, I went on a bit of a mac and cheese bender a few months ago when I was preparing freezer meals for my sister (in preparation for the arrival of her first baby/my first nephew). Beecher’s is an artisan cheese shop that originated in Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, and I might have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with their cheeses.  They also happen to make a really amazing mac and cheese, which is called “Beecher’s ‘World’s Best’ Mac and Cheese.” A pretty bold assertion, but even if it’s not the best it’s definitely in the running.

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Beecher’s mac and cheese is traditionally made with their “flagship” cheese – clearly I’m not a connoisseur, but I would describe it as similar to a sharp white cheddar.  I was snacking on their peppery “marco polo” during a wine and cheese night this past summer when I had an epiphany – why not make Beecher’s mac and cheese with marco polo in place of the flagship? It’s basically just a creamy, mild white cheese with green and black peppercorns – I think of it mostly as black pepper cheese, but there’s green in there too. Beecher’s makes a couple other varieties aside from the flagship (smoked, mariachi, chicken, pork), but they have not come out with a marco polo version – no idea why not, but as soon as I thought of it I became convinced it would be the most delicious thing ever.  Contrary to what it probably looks like based upon this blog, I actually don’t make/eat mac and cheese all that often (unless you count the frozen “reduced guilt” Trader Joe’s frozen kind) – and neither does my sister. But I figured if there’s ever a time when you can eat “full guilt” mac and cheese with no guilt (or at least, less guilt), it’s after you’ve given birth.  Plus, what better way to celebrate the arrival of the world’s best baby than with the world’s best mac and cheese?!?

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So I set about to make two casseroles, a traditional (flagship) and a black pepper (marco polo). Again, the recipe is pretty simple. Cook some pasta, make a quick béchamel, grate a ton of cheese and melt it into the sauce, toss the sauce with the pasta, top with more cheese, and bake. The traditional recipe calls for chili powder in both the sauce and on top of the casserole; I wasn’t sure that the chili powder would go with the black pepper so I omitted it from the second casserole. Aside from that, my only recipe “tweak” was to use the marco polo in lieu of the flagship in both the sauce and in the topping. Flagship cheese is pretty easy to find these days – it’s sold at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (for a lot cheaper!) even outside of Seattle.  Marco Polo might be a little trickier – I’ve been able to find it at QFC and New Seasons in Portland, but I’m not sure if you would be able to find it anywhere else outside of Seattle or NYC (go here if you find yourself in the Flatiron district and in need of a good happy hour). Beecher’s will ship it to you – though for the shipping charges, I would just get the flagship at Trader Joe’s and call it good. The marco polo is good, but I have a hard time paying more for shipping than the cost of the actual item. If you can get your hands on it, though, please make this and let me know your thoughts – I really think I’m onto something.

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While I prefer to use pretty bakeware (and use this blog as an excuse to buy a lot of it), I think one of the nicest things you can do when bringing meals to new parents (or anyone in need of a meal) is to bring everything in disposable dishes so that they don’t have to worry about returning anything. So in that vein, please excuse these lovely tin foil casserole dishes. I might have considered using nicer dishes since these were for my sister (and therefore more likely that I could demand them back), but I didn’t want to be without two casserole dishes while they sat in the freezer for months.  Turns out they were eaten quickly enough that I wouldn’t have missed them.

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One year ago: Pumpkin Muffins 

Mac and Cheese, previously: Part One, Carrot

Beecher’s “World’s Best” Mac & Cheese 

Serves 4

Sauce

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 /2 cups whole milk
7 ounces Flagship cheese (about 1 3/4 cups), grated (for the black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship)
1 ounce Just Jack (about 1/4 cup), grated (if you can’t find Beecher’s, any Jack will do)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder* (for black pepper version, omit the chili powder)
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Pasta

6 ounces penne pasta (about 3 1/4 cups)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Flagship cheese, grated  (for the black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship)
1 ounce (1/4 cup) Just Jack cheese, grated
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder* (for black pepper version, omit the chili powder)

*I used the full 1/2 teaspoon in the sauce, and then less than even the 1/4 teaspoon on top of the pasta because I got scared it would be too spicy.  But it really is pretty mild (at least, the chipotle chili powder I used was), so as long as you’re not completely spice-adverse you can go ahead and use as much as you want.

Instructions

To prepare sauce, melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and whisk in the flour. Continue whisking and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly. Cook until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Add cheeses, salt, chili powder, and garlic powder. Stir until cheese is melted and all ingredients are incorporated, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or oil an 8-inch baking dish. Cook penne two minutes less than package directions. (It will finish cooking in the oven.) Rinse pasta in cold water and drain well.

Combine pasta and sauce in a medium bowl; mix carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle top with cheeses and then the chili powder.

For black pepper option, use Marco Polo in place of Flagship in both the sauce and the topping. Omit chili powder in both the sauce and the topping. 

Bake, uncovered, 20-25 minutes, or until top is golden brown and sauce is bubbling. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

If planning to use as a freezer meal, I still bake the casserole beforehand and then freeze it after it’s cooled, but I’m pretty sure you could freeze it uncooked as well.  Even if it’s fully cooked, it will take at least the full baking time to reheat.  I always tell people to take it out of the freezer as soon as possible and then bake at 350 for 30-60 minutes. If it’s close to fully defrosted it might take only 30 minutes to heat through; if it’s fully frozen it will take closer to an hour. These non-specific instructions really through my brother in law for a loop, but it’s the best way I can think of to explain it – if anyone has better tips I would love to hear them in the comments!

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Mac and Cheese, Part One

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This post was originally supposed to be called “Mac and Cheese, Three Ways” – but it was getting so long that I cut it in half (stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow).  My sister and her husband had their first baby a couple months ago, and while I tried really hard to come up with some creative ideas for freezer meals, I had a difficult time getting past everyone’s favorite comfort food. So I decided if I couldn’t be original, I would be excessive instead: I stocked their freezer with, among other things, three different macaroni and cheese casseroles for the first few post baby months (they may have only lasted a few weeks). Number three was the one I was most excited about (more on that tomorrow), but I decided to start with a Barefoot Contessa classic. (Coincidentally, Ina’s new cookbook comes out today – it’s called “Make It Ahead” – and while I’m pretty excited about it, I’m not sure that there’s a better make ahead recipe than this mac and cheese).

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Much like last week’s lasagna, I’m not sure that macaroni and cheese is fancy enough to warrant it’s own blog post. However, up until a couple years ago, my grandmother was the only person I knew of who made mac and cheese that wasn’t from a box (that list has now expanded to my grandmother, my friend Lindsay, and myself).  So I’m posting this relatively basic recipe in the hopes of inspiring those of you who haven’t yet realized how easy and delicious homemade mac and cheese can be.  Don’t be intimidated by the béchamel – it used to really scare me, but it’s so easy. SImply melt your butter, add some flour, pour in the milk, and whisk whisk whisk.  It will take a few minutes to thicken up, but once it does you’ll feel like Julia Child. Add salt and pepper, and nutmeg to taste – I usually add whatever the recipe calls for (because I’m a rule follower), but I know a lot of people don’t care for nutmeg in a dish like this so feel free to use less or none at all.

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Add the cheese to the béchamel while it’s still hot and let it melt.  (If I could only give you one tip for making this recipe, it would be to buy your gruyère at Trader Joe’s – it’s literally half the price of any other store. A second tip would be to use Tillamook extra sharp for your cheddar, yum.)  Combine pasta and sauce and scrape into your prepared baking dish. See, it’s really so simple. And so delicious – you’ll never make mac and cheese from a box again. Not that you ever did.

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Ina wants you to make homemade bread crumbs – which are super easy, but I often don’t have bread on hand so I like to use good store bought breadcrumbs or panko. I like to toast mine on the stovetop beforehand (with a little olive oil or butter), but it’s not a necessary step by any means.  If you want to make your breadcrumbs from scratch, cut the crusts off of five slices of bread (or a hunk of baguette) and process in the food processor until the pieces are the size of small crumbs (duh).  Mix the crumbs with melted butter and then sprinkle on top of the casserole before baking.  Casserole can be prepared ahead of time and then baked before serving, or baked and frozen for tired moms and dads to defrost and reheat as necessary.

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One year ago: Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

Mac and Cheese, previously: Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese

Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, from Barefoot Contessa Family Style

Ingredients:

Kosher salt
Olive oil
1 lb. elbow macaroni or cavatappi
1 quart milk (4 cups)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all purpose flour
12 ounces gruyère, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or less, to taste)
4 small tomatoes, sliced (optional – I skipped this step)
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs, fresh (5 slices bread, crusts removed) or store bought breadcrumbs or panko

To Make:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle olive oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add pasta and cook according to package directions (on the shorter side if they give you a range; you want the noodles al dente as they’ll continue to cook in the oven). Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan (don’t let it come to a boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. While whisking, add hot milk (slowly) and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the gruyère, cheddar, one tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of pasta (if using). Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, combine with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on top (I like to melt the butter in a frying pan, add panko breadcrumbs, and toast before topping the casserole with them). Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and casserole is browned on top.  

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore

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I’m not entirely sure if lasagna is a “sexy” enough topic for a blog post, but I’ve had enough people ask me for this recipe over the years that I thought I should share it with all of you. Plus, it seems appropriate to celebrate our first official week of rainy weather with a recipe from my “Celebrate the Rain” cookbook from the Junior League of Seattle. [Sidenote, my career in the Junior League was sadly short lived – but this cookbook was one of the best things I got out of it.]  I’m not ordinarily a huge lasagna fan – I don’t eat red meat, which means I often can’t eat it anyways, but even when there’s a veggie option I find it’s usually heavy and/or mushy and/or bland.  It’s hard for me not to like a dish made up of pasta plus cheese plus tomato sauce, but rarely have I experienced a truly stand out dish – this is one of the few lasagna recipes I’ve found that I can truly say I love. So much so that I made it for a dinner party last week, and have been pouting about lack of leftovers ever since.

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Chicken cacciatore is basically chicken braised in tomato sauce, usually with some combination of onions, garlic, mushrooms, bell peppers, and herbs. I made that definition up, but it’s a combination of the first five or so recipes I read after a quick google search. This recipe, as the name implies, is a combination of chicken cacciatore and lasagna. We make a “cacciatore sauce” of sorts using lots of fresh vegetables, shred the chicken into the sauce, and layer it with noodles (or pasta sheets!) like a lasagna, only using mozzarella and parm instead of your typical ricotta layer. While there is still plenty of cheese, it somehow seems so much lighter than traditional lasagna – and so full of veggies that you don’t even feel that bad about going back for seconds.

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This isn’t the quickest of recipes, but as lasagnas go it’s pretty simple to put together. The chopping takes some time, but it’s so worth it. I’m now really wishing I had doubled the recipe, as this will keep well in the freezer (baked or unbaked), and as long as you’re doing one, you might as well do two (or even three!) – the increase in time is marginal. Time saving tips include no-boil noodles or pasta sheets and rotisserie chicken. Boiling lasagna noodles is a total pain – no matter how much oil I add to my cooking water, they seem to always stick together and then break when I try to pull them apart. I’ve used no-boil noodles before and think they’re fine, but I know some people don’t like them – the pasta sheets really are the way to go if you can get them. They’re so easy and so fun, and it makes it a lot easier to serve your lasagna without having to worry about cutting in between the noodles (no pretty ruffles like regular lasagna noodles, though). Rotisserie chicken is a huge time saver, and I find the meat easier to shred. For once I can’t tell you to use the Trader Joe’s pre-chopped onions (my apologies to your eyeballs), but slicing doesn’t take too terribly long.  Pre-grated cheese seems so un-gourmet….but if that’s your thing, I won’t tell and it will still taste yummy.  Honestly though, if you can force yourself to be at least sort of efficient in the kitchen (slice onions while chicken cooks, slice mushrooms/mince garlic/dice pepper while onions cook, grate cheese while sauce simmers, etc.) it really doesn’t take that long to put together.

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Layer your lasagna: noodles, sauce, cheese; repeat; repeat again. Don’t the pasta sheets look so fun?!? Dump an extra can of tomatoes over everything (except the top layer of cheese) if you’re short on sauce (see my note at the bottom of the recipe). You can stop here and then bake later (if you’re making this ahead of time), or freeze now and bake later, or bake and then freeze – the possibilities are endless.  For my aforementioned dinner party, I put the lasagna together ahead of time, went about my day, and then popped it in the oven right before everyone arrived. The house smelled yummy, we had a lovely 30 minute cocktail hour, and then I took the lasagna out of the oven, popped dessert in, and we sat down to a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven dinner (and then an hour later, a bubbling-hot-out-of-the-oven apple crisp).  For someone who’s always scrambling around and doing everything last minute, I was pretty proud of myself!  Lasagna may not be the sexiest blog topic, but it gets major points for the make-ahead factor. Serve with a simple green salad and bread, and it’s a great meal to share with friends – you can sit and chat and enjoy yourself rather than frantically throwing everything together at the last minute. And with a fire in the fireplace and a couple bottles of wine, it’s the perfect meal with which to celebrate the rain.

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Chicken Lasagna Cacciatore, from Celebrate the Rain

Serves 8*

Ingredients:
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
3/4 lbs. boneless, chicken chicken breast**
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
10 ounces button mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2″ dice
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes***
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 lb. mozarella cheese, grated
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
12 cooked lasagna noodles OR 9 no-boil lasagna noodles OR 3 fresh pasta sheets

To make sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, add them to the pan, and cook until browned on the bottom, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken and cook until tender and cooked through, about 5 minutes longer.  Transfer the chicken to a plate and let cool; reserve the saucepan. When the chicken is cool, shred it and set aside. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the saucepan over medium heat.  Add the onions and sauté until tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the mushrooms and garlic and cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Add the bell pepper and sauté until nearly tender, about 2 minutes.  Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, black pepper, and dried red pepper flakes. Add the chicken, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

To prepare lasagna: 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce (avoiding large chunks of chicken or vegetables) on the bottom of the dish.*** Line the dish with 4 cooked lasagna noodles or 3 no-boil lasagna noodles or one pasta sheet. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the tomato sauce over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the mozzarella and 1/3 of the parmesan. Repeat the layering of noodles, sauce, and cheese two more times.  (The lasagna can be prepared a few days ahead, covered with plastic, and refrigerated, or covered securely with plastic and foil and frozen for a few weeks). Bake the lasagna until the cheese turns golden brown in spots and the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes (if after 30 minutes the sauce is bubbling but the cheese hasn’t started browning, turn the oven to broil and watch the lasagna carefully – it will brown quickly).  Transfer the dish to a wire rack and let the lasagna sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.

*The recipe says 8 servings, but I’ve found it usually yields closer to 10-12. You’ll want leftovers, though.
**You could use a store-bought rotisserie chicken here as a shortcut. I usually do, and wondered why I didn’t this time (not that it’s hard to cook the chicken, but I always manage to get oil splattered all over my stovetop). You’ll need about two cups cooked, shredded white meat, skin and bones discarded.  One chicken should yield this easily.
***Every time I make this recipe, I find that I’m way short on sauce (in part probably because my lasagna pan is bigger than 9×13, so this may not be as much of an issue for you). My new trick is to use an extra can of crushed tomatoes – you could use a jar of spaghetti sauce as well if you’re in a pinch.  I like to pour 1/2 cup – 1 cup crushed tomatoes into the bottom of the pan before I start building the lasagna (rather than using the sauce as instructed). Then I do the recommended 1 1/2 cups of sauce per layer (possibly a little more if it looks like that isn’t enough). Once I reach the third layer I’m a little short, so I use up the homemade sauce and then dump the rest of the can of crushed tomatoes over the casserole before I add the final layer of cheese.  You could use a 15.5-ounce can of tomatoes if your lasagna pan is closer to 9×13 size/if you find you aren’t that short on sauce, but I used an entire 28-ounce can this time and it turned out great.  You could also just add the second can of tomatoes to the sauce as you’re making it (along with the can called for), but my saucepan is usually close to overflowing so I’ve been doing it this way.  Making sure the top layer of pasta is fully covered with sauce is especially important if you’re using the no-boil noodles or the fresh pasta sheets as they’ll need the liquid to cook. photo 3

Sesame Soba Salad with Roasted Shiitakes and Tofu Croutons

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If you, like me, are a fan of cold, spicy noodle dishes, then this salad is for you.  It’s reminiscent of the Pasta and Co. Chinese Vermicelli salad I was obsessed with during college, only that salad has about three times the oil.  This version is lighter, but equally delicious.  I feel like soba noodles are healthy.  And if mushrooms or tofu are deal breakers for you, you can swap them for any other veggies and/or protein you like (although I hope that you won’t, as this is a Melissa Clark recipe and she really knows her stuff).

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If mushrooms aren’t your thing – and don’t get me wrong, they absolutely should be, but since I know that for a lot of people they are not – you could easily leave them out. The noodles are great on their own, and you could add in any crunchy vegetables that you like – I might add some julienned red bell peppers next time.  While I’m not usually a huge fan of tofu, it turns out it’s pretty good when deep fried with sesame oil and tamari.  But you could do this with grilled chicken (marinated in the aforementioned sesame oil and tamari, even), or sautéed shrimp or scallops (Melissa’s alternate suggestion).  Aside from the mushrooms and the tofu, the salad takes five minutes to throw together – you probably have most of the ingredients in your pantry already – and you can doctor it up any way you like. The soba noodles are delicious – and naturally gluten free (made from buckwheat), although you need to check the packaging to make sure.

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If you are a mushroom person, I will tell you that the extra step is worth it here – the roasted shiitakes are SO dang good. I made this the other day without them (only because I had everything but the mushrooms and was too lazy to go to the store) and I really missed the texture and meatiness they normally add.

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The vinaigrette is simply soy sauce, a little sesame oil, rice vinegar, orange juice, and freshly grated ginger – it’s so easy to put together, I wonder why I don’t do it for every meal. The cucumber is great for crunch, and I’m of the opinion that cilantro makes everything better.  Take an extra two minutes to toast your sesame seeds, and you have a gourmet, healthy, and delectable meal that’s almost too pretty to eat.

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The one thing I would note about frying the tofu is that it makes a huge mess – I’ve finally learned my lesson and taken everything else off the stove so that the splatters are limited to the stove top – and I think the cleanup is worth it. You could also add the tofu plain, however, and save yourself the calories and the mess.

One year ago: white bean and kale soup

Melissa Clark, previously: coconut granola, banana bread, split pea soup, corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread, pan roasted halibut, carrot mac’n’cheese, kale salad.

Sesame Soba Salad with Roasted Shiitakes and Tofu Croutons, from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now

Serves 4

For the Salad:
7-8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
2 tablespoons toasted (Asian) sesame oil, more to taste
3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, more to taste
Pinch kosher salt
1/2 (12.8 ounce) package soba noodles
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice (about half a small orange)
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon grated ginger root
1 medium cucumber, peeled
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon lightly toasted sesame seeds

For the Croutons (optional):
1/2 pound extra-firm tofu, drained and sliced into 3/4-inch slabs
1 tablespoon peanut or olive oil
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons toasted (Asian) sesame oil

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Slice the mushroom caps into 1/4 inch strips. Toss the mushrooms with 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mushrooms out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast, tossing occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender and slightly golden, 8-10 minutes.

2. Cook soba noodles according to package instructions. Drain and rinse quickly under cold running water; drain again completely.

3. In a bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 tablespoon sesame oil and 3 tablespoons soy sauce, the orange juice, vinegar, and ginger.

4. Cut the cucumber lengthwise into quarters and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut each quarter crosswise into thin slices.

5. To prepare the tofu croutons, pat the tofu slabs dry with a paper towel. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan. When it shimmers, add the tofu and let it cook undisturbed (stand away from the pan, as the oil will splatter) for 3 minutes. It should be golden brown on the bottom. Flip the tofu pieces and continue to cook for about 2 minutes longer, until the underside is golden. In a small bowl, whisk together the tamari or soy sauce and sesame oil. Pour it in the pan with the croutons and cook for 1 minute longer. Drain croutons on a paper towel-lined place.

6. In a large bowl, toss together the noodles, cucumber, mushrooms, scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds, and dressing. Serve topped with the tofu croutons, if desired. Drizzle the salad with more soy sauce and/or sesame oil just before serving if it needs perking up.

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Grandma’s Minestrone Soup

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My grandma is a pretty cool lady – she turned 94 this past October, and she’s still going strong. She’s been married for 68 years, raised seven children, and doted on 26 grandchildren and five great grandchildren (so far), with a few more on the way. She’s a three-time cancer survivor and has gone through three hip replacements, and even though she now uses a walker to get around and struggles with arthritis in her hands, she still loves spending time in the kitchen. Don’t get me wrong, she’d rather spend her morning shopping and then having lunch at the Nordstrom cafe (she and I have that in common), but even at 94 she still loves to cook for her family.

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Grandma is famous for her soups, though most of them don’t have recipes. Fortunately, she clipped this one out of The Oregonian (our local paper) many years ago, and we’ve all been gobbling it up ever since. It’s a pretty traditional minestrone soup, although you could definitely add/omit any vegetables and beans to your liking. It’s a great January soup because it’s so healthy  – especially if you didn’t add cheese and pesto at the end like my sister and I like to do. You could even omit the pasta if you wanted to, although it’s a pretty small amount so I usually leave it in.

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This soup comes together pretty quickly – you could even use the pre-chopped mirepoix that you can find at Trader Joe’s or high end grocery stores, although I kind of like the thick carrot coins that you can get by slicing them yourself. Of course I always use pre-chopped onions (Trader Joe’s was sold out when I went this time, so I used the onion-shallot-garlic mix, which worked just fine). If you don’t mind chopping onions, lucky you. If you do go with the pre-chopped option, however, all you have to do is slice the carrots, celery, parsley, and cabbage. Everything else just gets dumped right from the can into the soup pot.

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The recipe tells you to start with the broth and just dump all the veggies in. I like to start by sautéing the onions in a little olive oil, then adding the broth once the onions have softened up (5-10 minutes) and following the recipe from there.  I should probably note here that if you don’t have a really large soup pot or dutch oven, you might want to cut this recipe in half.  My dutch oven is a 5 1/2 quart (I think), and I could only add three of the four boxes of chicken stock before I started to worry that the pot would overflow once I added in everything else.  I have no idea what I used to make this soup in, but I’m now in the market for the 7 quart Le Cruset.

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Barely room for the beans and pasta, literally (add the pasta as close to the end as possible so the noodles don’t get too mushy). I ended up ladling about half of the soup into another soup pot and then adding my last box of chicken stock that way (2 cups in each pot). I’m now really thinking hard about what color 7 quart pot I want to get, though, because that just seems like an unnecessary step (read: any excuse to get a new Le Cruset!). This sounds like a shopping excursion for me and Grandma!

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Minestrone Soup, from The Oregonian, a really long time ago

4 quarts unsalted beef, chicken, or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons salt (less if you’re using store-bought broth – I used 2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
3 large carrots, sliced 1/4 inch thick
5 stalks celery, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 head cabbage, thinly sliced
2 cups chopped onions
1 10 ounce package frozen chopped spinach
1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes (you can use a 14 1/2 ounce can if you like a less tomato-y soup, but I love it with the bigger can)
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
1 15 1/2 ounce can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 15 1/2 ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup uncooked macaroni noodles
Parmesan cheese and/or pesto for garnish (optional)

Bring stock to a rolling boil in a large stockpot.  Add the salt (if using store-bought broth, reduce the amount of salt to 1-2 teaspoons to start with), pepper, oregano, parsley, carrots, celery, cabbage, onions, and spinach. [Variation: I sauté my onions in a small amount of olive oil to begin. Once the onions have softened, add stock, bring to a boil, and add veggies and seasonings as instructed above.] Return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until carrots are tender, about 30 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add the kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and pasta and  simmer until the macaroni is tender, about 10 minutes more. Turn off heat and let stand for one hour before serving. Garnish with parmesan and a dollop of pesto if desired.

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Carrot Mac and Cheese and Roasted Brussels Sprouts

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So this is a recipe for all of my mommy readers, as well as my mac and cheese loving readers, mommies (and daddies) or not. I posted a lot of Melissa Clark recipes last winter before I realized I needed to start expanding my cookbook horizons, but I think it’s been long enough that I can start (over) posting again. While this mac and cheese might not be anything that exciting, but for the carrots, it’s a good basic recipe – it’s not overly un-healthy (as macaroni and cheese recipes go), you can throw it together pretty quickly, and you likely have most or even all of the ingredients in your fridge/pantry already. And the carrots make it fun because you can trick your picky eaters (or at least attempt to trick your picky eaters) into thinking the orange shreds are cheese. I took care of my cousin’s kids for a couple days last month while she and her husband were out of town, and after an afternoon of school pickups and after school activities, we arrived home at five and I had this on the table – with roasted veggies on the side, no less – by six. Which apparently is still really late for dinner for children, but hey, isn’t that what goldfish crackers are for? The four year old gobbled it up, carrots and all; the eight year old was a little more discriminating, but although there was a pile of grated carrots on his plate once the mac and cheese was otherwise gone, he still asked to take the leftovers in his lunch the next day, so I consider it a success.

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Just grate your carrots and throw them into your pasta three minutes before it’s finished cooking. You can buy pre-grated carrots, but it takes two minutes to grate them yourself (food processor or even on a box grater) and I feel like it really makes a difference.

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Just whisk together the milk, eggs, sour cream, salt, pepper, and mustard powder, and toss it with the pasta, cheese, carrots, and butter. Top with cheddar and parmesan and stick it in the oven for half an hour. Dinner for two hungry kiddos in under an hour, auntie win!

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<<If carrots aren't your thing, I also really love this butternut squash mac and cheese (also pretty tricky), or this broccoli version.>>

Carrot Mac and Cheese, from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now

Serves 6

2 cups whole wheat macaroni
2 1/2 cups coarsely grated carrots (about 4 large or 8 small)
3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and grease an 8-inch-square baking pan. Arrange a rack in the top third of the oven.

2. Cook the macaroni according to the package instructions in a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the carrots three minutes before the pasta is finished cooking; drain well.

3. While the pasta is hot, stir in the butter and all but 1/2 cup of the cheddar. In a bowl, whisk together the sour cream, milk, eggs, salt, mustard powder, and pepper. Fold the mixture into the pasta.

4. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar and the parmesan over the top. Bake until the casserole is firm to the touch and golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Notes from Melissa:

1. Feed this dish to kids as is; grown-ups should indulge with a squirt of fiery Sriracha or other hot sauce all over the top.

2. You can vary the cheese to give this rather plain (if tasty) dish more personality. Gruyère, aged cheddar, pecorino, and aged Gouda will all add a sophisticated allure that will raise it above mere kids’ food.

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In an effort to make the meal a little more well-rounded, I made brussels sprouts for the kiddos too – and they ate them, that’s how good these are! Most of you don’t need me to tell you how to roast vegetables, but just in case you’re someone who likes instructions: I usually roast mine at 400 for 20-30 minutes, just tossed lightly with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Top with a little grated or shaved parmesan, optional.  I’ve been doing a lot of Brussels sprouts, broccoli/broccolini, and squash lately – if anyone has any other go-to fall veggies they love to roast, I would love to hear them in the comments!

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Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

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I made this recipe for the first time when I was staying with friends in Boston last month, and it was both simple and delicious. As such, I made it a second time last weekend, when my parents hosted 40 people at their home for my grandparents’ birthday party (yes, they were born a day apart and thus share their party every year). It’s the perfect meal for anything from an intimate dinner to a large group, as it you can do it ahead of time and its easy to serve, but it still seems a little fancier than a lasagna or boring casserole-type dish.

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I found broccoli rabe without incident the first time, but not the second – so when I quadrupled the recipe for the birthday party I used swiss chard instead. Both were great, but Smitten Kitchen suggests regular broccoli or brocolini if you can’t find rabe; I would think any hearty green would work as well (next time I might try kale). The only time consuming part of the dish is stemming and chopping the broccoli rabe/chard, everything else is pretty quick and easy.

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When I made it the first time, I followed the recipe exactly, except that I only added sausage to half (recipe makes one 9 x 13 casserole, but can easily be split into two 8 x 8s). SK lists proportions for a “light” amount of sauce, and recommends you multiply them by 1.5 for a “heavier” sauced dish. I did that, and did not find it overly saucy at all, so that’s what I list below as I really can’t imagine less sauce would be enough. But I suppose its all personal preference – you can check out her version in the link. I also found the original version to be pretty garlicky, although I don’t love garlic so it could be just me. Regardless, when I made it a second time I roasted the garlic (a whole head, drizzled in olive oil and wrapped in foil, at 400 degrees for about half an hour). I then used the same number of cloves called for (3 per batch), and found the garlic flavor to be much more subtle. Again, just personal preference. My friend Lindsay made this the other night and added minced garlic in with the sausage when she cooked it – same idea.

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Finally, when I made four batches for the party, I did four separate casseroles so that I could accommodate as many preferences as possible – three different types of sausage (sweet, spicy, and chicken) and then one vegetarian. When I had the vegetarian version in Boston I really thought it could use something, so this time I roasted a butternut squash. SK suggests mushrooms would be another good alternative – but the squash got rave reviews even from the meat eaters, and seems pretty perfect for this time of year.

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Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens, adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Pasta and Assembly
1 lb. campanelle, or any chunky pasta you like
1 bundle broccoli rabe, swiss chard, or green of your choice (the greens will cook down a lot, so what looks like a ton raw ends up being not that much)
1 lb. Italian sausage (sweet or spicy pork or chicken), casings removed (or one butternut squash)
1 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes

Béchamel Sauce
3 cups whole milk (I used half whole and half 2% the second time and found it to be a little less rich – in a good way)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/8 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (I used a lot)
3 cloves garlic, minced – if roasted, I just gave them a rough smash and chop
Small sprinkle of nutmeg

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions, add broccoli rabe five minutes before pasta is to be finished (if using chard, wait until two minutes before cooking time is up; if using another green, you’ll want it to cook for a lesser time the more delicate it is, or longer the heartier it is – i.e. broccoli would also be five minutes, spinach would be one minute). Drain pasta and greens and set aside in a large bowl.

Brown your sausage in a small amount of olive oil. If you’re making the vegetarian version, peel, seed, and dice a medium-sized butternut squash. You can buy it pre-chopped almost anywhere, but its kind of fun to do it yourself and it really doesn’t take much time. Toss it with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and roast on a well-greased (or parchment-lined) baking sheet at 400 degrees for about half an hour, turning once or twice. If it gets a little crispy, like mine did (as evidenced in the photo above), that’s ok. Either the sausage or the squash can be done ahead of time, and it will make putting the casserole together that much quicker.

To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and stir until smooth, then cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Add a small amount of the milk and whisk until combined. Continue to add milk in very small amounts, whisking the whole time – this is where a plastic, flat-bottomed whisk comes in really handy. Once about half of the milk is added and combined, you can add the other half more quickly. Once all the milk is added and the mixture is smooth, add salt, pepper, garlic, and nutmeg and let simmer for about ten minutes (I always worry that mine won’t thicken properly, and thus turn the burner up for about a minute before I turn it down to simmer – no idea if it helps or not but it makes me feel better – regardless, do that at your own risk). Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

Finally, add mozzarella, half the parmesan, sausage (or squash), and béchamel to the bowl with the pasta and greens; toss to coat everything with the sauce. Pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 or 3-quart casserole dish, sprinkle the remaining parmesan on top of the pasta, and bake at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Bon Appétit!