Spicy Cajun Pasta Bake

Wow! Time has been flying. I can’t believe summer is right around the corner. I mean, it is kind of hard to tell in California sometimes, since it’s pretty much always 70 and sunny where I am. (Not complaining!)

While my husband was on deployment, I dropped twenty-something pounds. I did it by exercising consistently and eating small, healthy meals during the week. But this isn’t a fitness blog, I still hate working out with a passion and I’m not going to start polluting your newsfeed with inspirational quotes over sunsets and pictures of salads.

You came here for the weekend food. The cheat day food. Because, come on, you can’t expect me to count calories on Saturday and Sundays! I need cheese, people.

If you have followed me for a while, you know I also love spicy food. If it’s something I share on the blog, I always make sure to have a toned down version for those who aren’t fans. Well, this time, there’s no mild option. There’s no healthy option.

This is my spicy cajun pasta bake.


“I’m not sorry.” -Beyonce

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 2 bell peppers, diced
  •  oz box of penne pasta
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup hot sauce
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp basil
  • 8 oz shredded colby jack cheese
  • 2-4 oz blue cheese crumbles
  • green onion, cilantro or parsley to garnish (optional)
  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic, red pepper and onion and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring often. Add the bell pepper, and cook an additional 2-3 minutes while stirring, until veggies are slightly tender. Strain out excess liquid and set aside.
  2. Cook pasta to package directions, until al dente. Strain out the water and return pasta to the the pot. While warm, add the cream cheese (preferably room temperature) and cover.
  3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Once the cream cheese has melted enough to be easily stirred, mix in the partially cooked onions and peppers, hot sauce, cayenne, paprika, oregano, basil and 6 oz of the shredded colby jack cheese.
  4. Transfer to a greased 13×9 pan and top with the remaining colby jack and blue cheese, to your liking. Bake for 20 minutes. Serve garnished with chopped green onion, cilantro or parsley if you choose.

I mean, it DOES have vegetables. And green stuff.


So healthy, until smothered in cheese.

This recipe started out going down the road of a buffalo chicken mac and cheese, but then I passed by the produce section and that idea was out. I did keep a nod to the original plan by keeping the blue cheese crumbles in the mix.

Alright, I may have gotten away from myself that there’s no way to tone this down. Cut out the cayenne and pepper flakes if you want, maybe add a little extra garlic instead. You are an adult (I assume), so cook what you like!

This is a great meal to make at the beginning of the week if you want leftovers for a few days or to feed a crowd. There is nothing light about this pasta, so pace yourself!

What are your biggest cheat day cravings? Let me know, or send me a pic if you make this or any of my recipes! I’ll be back in a couple weeks with something new to kick off summer!

Everything Bagel Breakfast Bake

I don’t post many breakfast recipes. Probably because I’m not much of a morning person, and the idea of cooking the second I get up doesn’t usually strike my fancy. A typical morning meal for me is a smoothie bowl or something quick out of the toaster.

Weekend mornings are actually when my husband gets to take over the kitchen. He loves making breakfast, especially banana pancakes. But, as you know by now, he is currently deployed, so I’m on my own if I want to treat myself.

The other night I was thinking about how every Christmas morning, my mom makes a french toast casserole. It’s insanely delicious and easy, because you make it the night before, and then just pop it in the oven when you wake up. I love a meal that you can prep ahead of time, so I wanted to come up with something similar.

Sweet or savory is always the first choice you make when deciding what to eat for breakfast. I actually spent the last two days in Denver for a wedding and encountered spectacular examples of both options.


Delicious fried chicken & biscuit sandwich with honey & stone-ground mustard from the Denver Biscuit Company (left), french toast & pancake sampler from Snooze in Union Station (right)

I usually lean towards sweet when I cook breakfast but I want to change it up, so that’s where I started. A savory dish that I could make the night before.

I opened my pantry and right in front of my face was a bag of everything bagels, one of my go-to quickie breakfasts. After a little more rummaging, I realized I had all the things I needed to create an everything bagel breakfast bake. Check this out:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 diced white onion
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 10 cups cubed everything bagels (4-6 bagels depending on size)
  • 1/2 cup sliced green onion (white & light green parts, set the rest aside)
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 2 cups half & half
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • additional eggs for frying, to be used as garnish (optional)
  1. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and minced garlic and stir for a couple minutes, until onions become translucent. Remove from heat and let cool.
  2. Place the everything bagel cubes in a large bowl and mix in the cooked onions & garlic, sliced green onions and shredded mozzarella. Spread out the bagel mixture out evenly in a greased 9×13 baking pan.
  3. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and stir in salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme and crushed red pepper. Whisk in the half & half until well-incorporated. Pour the egg mixture over the bagels in the pan. Gently stir to get it all the way to the bottom, then lightly pack it all down with a spatula so the surface is even. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle the shredded cheddar over the top and bake for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with the leftover sliced green onion tops. Optional: While it cooks, you can also fry some more eggs to use as a garnish, sprinkled with salt & pepper.


Fresh out of the oven

First things first. This sounds heavy, but it came out so light and fluffy. It’s somewhere in between a stuffing and a bread pudding. I like using mozzarella to hold the casserole together, because it’s a great melting cheese, and then using cheddar on top for a little more flavor. You can always switch it up if you have preference.

I highly recommend putting an egg on top, because became like sauce. It’s kind of like how we drizzle maple syrup over my mom’s french toast casserole; it doesn’t really need it, but it’s so darn good it’s hard to pass.


Cracking the yolk is the most satisfying part

This breakfast bake can stand up as a meal all on it’s own, or in a smaller portion, it would be a great side. It’s a great option for any weekend, whether you are hosting a brunch party or having a cozy morning with family. It also holds up really well as leftovers. I was picking at this thing for a couple days, even after I gave some away to friends.


I got fancy with my leftovers & drizzled on some sriracha for an extra spicy kick

Operation savory, make-ahead breakfast was a success. It was easy and yummy, my two favorite things. I hope you try it out! See you again in two weeks with a new post.

Spinach & Ricotta Stuffed Chicken

I don’t eat red meat. I haven’t since I was probably about 4 or 5 years old. So needless to say, I eat a lot of chicken. The struggle with chicken (especially your standard boneless, skinless breast) is that you don’t want to undercook it, but in a matter of a minute or two, they overcook and dry out.

Also, my social media feed is always showing me click bait articles and food website features on how to be creative with “boring” chicken breast. I personally think chicken is extremely versatile, but maybe that’s just the mindset you develop when you don’t eat mammals.

Side note: I am not someone who judges or hates on red meat eaters. I’m not going to tell you not to. To each their own! Just don’t try and force me to eat a hamburger. Many have tried. All have failed.

This recipe came about when I was attempting to make homemade ravioli. I had the filling ready to go, and I screwed up the pasta. Well, crap. Now I have a bowl of stuffing and no vessel. So I grabbed something I always have on hand: my trusty boneless, skinless chicken breasts.


The before pic (at the head of the post) is much neater than the after pic

Yields 4 servings

For the ricotta filling:

  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/8 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 Tbsp garlic salt
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 cup fresh spinach
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  1. Combine ricotta, egg, minced garlic, chopped basil, oregano and Parmesan in a bowl and set aside. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Carefully slice into the side of each chicken breast horizontally, leaving 3 edges intact. It’s better to slowly make many shallow cuts until you have a good sized pocket so you don’t slice right through the breast.
  3. Drizzle 1 Tbsp olive oil onto a lined baking sheet. Combine garlic salt, dried basil and pepper and sprinkle half of the seasoning over all the chicken, on one side only.
  4. Stuff 3 or 4 spinach leaves into each breast, followed by as much of the ricotta mixture as you can, without it overflowing. Use 3 or 4 more spinach leaves to push the stuffing in and create a barrier. Secure the opening with 2 toothpicks.
  5. Place the seasoned side of the chicken face down on the oiled baking sheet. Drizzle the chicken with the remaining Tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining seasoning. Bake for 20 minutes and let rest for 2-5 minutes. Remove toothpicks and serve.

This is a recipe that’s fairly simple since it doesn’t have a lot of ingredients, but it will require you to get your hands dirty. Make sure you have paper towels and hand sanitizer near by, because you are going to really have to get all up in that raw chicken. Also, if you are using wooden toothpicks, soak them in water for at least 10 minutes so they don’t burn up in the oven.

When I tested this recipe, I served it with asparagus that I sautéed with olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes and the zest and juice of a lemon. Today I went make it again, so I could actually take notes and write the recipe, and I realized the rest of my asparagus had started to go bad. So today, it was mashed potatoes on the side! You could really pair this with whatever you like or have on hand.


My first attempt, with asparagus

I love this recipe because the chicken actually cooks faster and more evenly since its been sliced almost all the way through. The ricotta filling keeps the inside moist and tender through the baking process as well. Trust me, it’s going to look a hot mess when it comes out, because the filling is going to seep out a little. It’s not the prettiest dish, but it’s delicious, and that’s all that counts sometimes.

Most likely, you will have leftover ricotta filling. Keep it for a couple days. You can do what I did and make the chicken a couple times with different sides, or use it in stuffed pasta or a lasagna dish. Just stir it into some more ricotta to stretch it. Whatever you use it for, remember there’s egg in it, so you need to cook it.

Don’t write off chicken as a boring dinner. It’s blank canvas for thousands of meals if you get creative. Sometimes you just need to think outside the box… Or in this case, inside.

Muffin Pan Party Hacks

Hellooooo summer! I hope everyone had a lovely Memorial Day weekend. Mine was great: mini golfing, happy hour, quality time with my guy and a big surprise birthday party/cook out for a friend. Most people I know kicked off the weekend of summer with a party and there will be plenty more between now and Labor Day.

It got me thinking about easy ways to feed a crowd, besides a package of hot dogs and a bag of chips. The best kind of food for a party is something people can just grab and go. Individual portions, cute presentation, easy transportation… It all brought me to my muffin pan. Here’s three ideas I have, and trust me, they aren’t muffins.

Baked Mac & Cheese

If you are headed to a cook out, you can pretty much expect a big bowl of slimy pasta salad, sitting out in the sun all day. But if you were going to an authentic barbecue spot, you’d be served warm, gooey mac & cheese.

I started by making a big batch of macaroni and a sauce of cheddar cheese, milk & butter. Use whatever recipe you like or you can make the kind out of the box if you want to keep it even simpler. I lined the muffin pan with cupcake liners and sprayed them all with a little cooking spray. Fill the cups with the pasta, making sure you don’t go over the rim. Then I mixed equal parts Italian bread crumbs & Parmesan cheese, with a dash of Cajun seasoning, and sprinkled it over the top of each cup.

At this point, you could cover with foil if you are traveling somewhere. All it takes to finish these up is to bake them for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I’d love to see how they turn out by putting the pan on the grill. The pasta is cooked, so it’s really just about getting that bread crumb topping crunchy & golden.

What you get is an adorable side dish that’s so easy to serve. It stays contained and doesn’t spread all over the plate. It’s so easy, but guests will be so impressed. They are great for dinner at home too, because they help with portion control and kids will love them.

Mini Calzones

These probably aren’t the first thing I would think of for a cook out, but a rainy summer day? A game night with friends? A casual pot luck dinner? These will blow everyone’s minds.

I used store bought pizza dough, the kind that comes in a 13 oz tube. I needed two of them. I divided it equally into a dozen parts and flattened them into circles. At this point, you can stuff these however you’d like. I made three kinds.

  • Mozzarella, fresh basil & pesto
  • Cheddar, bacon & pickled jalapeño
  • Mozzarella, spinach, carmelized onion & blue cheese crumbles

Put the ingredients in the center of a dough circle, then carefully stretch the edges over the stuffings and pinch together. Place seam side down in a greased muffin pan. Brush the top of each calzone with olive oil and sprinkle with Parmesan (or garlic powder, or Italian seasoning, or all three!). Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes until golden brown.

I served mine with some marinara (great for the pesto) and ranch dressing (great for the bacon/jalapeño) to dip. The spinach/onion ones were so creamy from the two cheeses inside, I didn’t bother to dip those in anything at all!

These were so delicious and a huge hit all around. I still recommend a fork and knife, but my husband dove right in and ate it by hand. Just beware of molten hot cheese! These also keep in the fridge really well for a couple days, so you could totally make these ahead of time and reheat them.

French Toast Cups

This is kind of a French toast/bread pudding mash up. Everyone loves French toast, everyone can make it, but this is a fun, new way to present a classic.

I used cinnamon raisin bread and cut it into small, uniform cubes. Then I whisked together a tradional French toast batter of milk, eggs, sugar & vanilla in a large bowl and added the bread cubes. Let them soak for about 5-10 minutes, stirring a couple times to make sure they all get saturated. Place the mixture into a greased muffin pan and bake for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees. I serve mine with maple syrup and a little powdered sugar.

This is awesome for a breakfast or brunch with friends and family. French toast can be messy and tedious, because you can only cook a couple pieces of bread at a time on the stove top. This way everyone has a perfectly sized, perfectly warm helping of French toast at the same time. You could even plastic wrap the pan and travel with it before baking it off. I had leftovers, and reheated them later at night, topped with some cinnamon ice cream. Yum! Double duty, breakfast & dessert!

I hope you try some of these tricks out. They are three well-loved and familiar recipes, simply scaled down to, well, muffin size. I promise these will be the star of your summer gatherings. Do you have any ideas for a creative muffin pan hack? Let me know.

Party on!

Crispy Chicken with Piccata Sauce

I completed my road trip and arrived in Massachusetts last night. Tonight I got some alone time, so I’m spending it blogging. (Also watching the American Idol finale, I still don’t know who won!) I’m not writing about the road trip yet, I need a little more time for that. Instead here’s a recipe I made a couple weeks before traveling.

Piccata refers to how a dish is cooked. Whether it’s chicken or veal or whatever, it means to be pounded or sliced thin and sautéed in a lemon and butter sauce. My version is prepared differently, which is why I called this chicken with piccata sauce instead of just chicken piccata.

  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 cup flour (optional extra Tbsp)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • 3-4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 lemon, juiced & zested
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 Tbsp capers
  • salt & pepper to season
  1. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Set out flour, beaten egg and bread crumbs in three bowls. Lightly coat chicken breast with flour, dredge in egg wash and coat with bread crumbs. Repeat for all pieces.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Pan fry the chicken for 2 minutes on each side then place in a baking pan. Cook for 15 minutes in the oven.
  3. While chicken is cooking, melt butter over medium low heat in the skillet with the oil. Add chicken stock, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, capers and a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring  occasionally. For a thicker sauce, stir in a Tbsp of flour (optional).
  4. Serve chicken immediately drizzled with the lemon sauce.

I came up with this when one night I had my heart set on chicken piccata but my husband wanted something crispy. I went with my tried and true breading technique on the chicken and made the sauce separately, using the leftover pan with the oil. It was a hit.

The chicken after pan frying, before going into the oven. Panko bread crumbs add so much more texture and crunch then regular ones.

Since I added the breading, I opted for a side salad instead of the usual starch like pasta or rice. I made a simple romaine and cucumber salad with a quick vinigarette of olive oil, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice & Parmesan. It was a great pair with the piccata style sauce, so it didn’t matter if they ran together on the plate. It all complimented each other.

Not quite traditional, but still a great dinner for any night of the week. After all the fast food this past week on the road, I am so ready to cook again and make myself some healthier, delicious meals.

Also, wow to the American Idol finale. Didn’t think who won was going to get it, but happy about it! Now that this post and the show is over it’s time for bed. Catch you later!

 

Apple Pie Cupcakes with Cinnamon Cream Cheese Frosting

I’ve said it once, I will say it again. I am not an expert baker. Baking requires such exact measurements and methods that its basically a science. Cooking is more of an art to me, where you have more freedom to experiment and try new things, and still end up with a great dish. When I experiment with baking, I usually end up with a result that’s less than ideal. Or less than edible, on occasion.

But you guys, I did it! I came up with a cupcake and it doesn’t suck! I based it off my favorite vanilla cake recipe, kept adding things here and there, and it worked! I mean, it didn’t work right off the bat. This is probably my 3rd or 4th try at some variation of this cupcake. Finally, I’ve perfected it.

This is a mash up of two of my favorite desserts. It’s the apple pie cupcake! It’s topped with a cinnamon cream cheese frosting that will leave you licking the bowl. Let’s get to it!

Yields 12 cupcakes

  • 1 2/3 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 tsp cinnamon, divided
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup vanilla yogurt (can be Greek yogurt)
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbsp light brown sugar
  • 1 can apple pie filling
  1. Place liners in a cupcake/muffin pan (for a dozen large cupcakes). Lightly spritz the bottom of the liners with cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and 1 tsp cinnamon in a bowl and set aside. In the mixer bowl, whisk 1 cup of sugar into the melted butter until smooth. Add egg, yogurt, milk, vanilla and brown sugar and stir on the lowest setting until well combined. Slowly add dry ingredients while the mixer is running, until batter is thick and smooth.
  3. In a small bowl, mix remaining 1/4 cup of sugar with remaining 2 tsp of cinnamon. Distribute the cinnamon sugar into the cupcake liners, creating an even layer in the bottom of each. Fill each liner with batter until they are 3/4’s of the way full. (It should be about 3 Tbsps each)
  4. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cupcakes to cool completely.
  5. Using a small knife, carefully cut a hole in the top of a cupcake, about an inch in diameter. Remove the top, about 1/8 of an inch thick, and set aside. Using a small spoon, hollow out a hole in the center of the cupcake. Make sure you don’t scoop out so much that you break through the bottom.
  6. On a cutting board, spoon out some apple pie filling and chop the apple pieces into tiny chunks. Fill the cupcake with the apple and replace the top of the cupcake to seal it. Repeat for each cupcake.

Here’s a visual of filling the cupcakes.

The top two have been hollowed out. The top left has the apple filling inside, the top right is empty. The bottom two cupcakes have been filled and covered, ready to be frosted.

Speaking of which, here’s the frosting recipe.

  • 6 Tbsp softened butter
  • 4 oz softened cream cheese
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  1. Beat butter and cream cheese in the mixer on a low setting, until light and fluffy. Slowly add sugar while the mixer is running. Add vanilla and cinnamon, and continue mixing until well combined and smooth. (You may need to stop and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula a couple times.

My husband used to make fun of my frosting skills in the beginning. I bought some bags and the fancy tips to try and make them look pretty, and always ended up just taking a butter knife and smoothing them over. Not this time! I think I’m actually getting the hang of it.

Granted, these are three of the best. There were a couple unfortunate looking ones, but those were eaten before photo time. You obviously don’t have to spend time getting fancy with the frosting, it’s fine to just use a knife and spread it on. I am just trying to teach myself, and practice makes perfect.

What I like about this cupcake is the cinnamon sugar crust on the bottom. Spraying the liner before filling helps it to crisp up without crumbling or sticking. It’s just this added little crunch element that you don’t always get in a cupcake. I like having that play of textures.

And speaking of textures, I love giving these to friends and seeing the apple filling surprise them when they bite into it. If you pack it in well, it’s not going to spill out or anything. I just love that at first glance, it’s simple looking. Then you unwrap it and take a taste, and you get these fun elements like the crust and the filling.

If you love cinnamon as much as I do, this is your dream frosting. It’s not too sweet, but it compliments the apple so well. There’s cinnamon and brown sugar in the actual cupcake, but not enough to to really make the entire thing taste the same. It just helps bring all the elements together.

This is a pretty easy cupcake to make, but the result is so much more interesting than just a plain vanilla or chocolate cupcake. Kids will like it, adults will like it, and hey, with all that apple and cinnamon, you might as well have one for breakfast the next day. Almost the same as coffee cake, right? (Not really, but I won’t judge. They are really great with a cup of coffee though.)

Well I can’t promise a ton of baking recipes in the near future, this was pretty much a fluke. I’ll also be hitting the road on Monday to drive from California to Massachusetts for my wedding with my friends. I have a couple posts ready to go for while I’m traveling, so I won’t be disappearing for very long!

Make sure to follow my Instagram, I’m sure I’ll have some updates from the road. Happy cooking, and baking!

 

Ravioli Zucchini Casserole

I really had a hard time naming this one. I toyed with calling it shortcut lasagna, or baked ravioli, but I settled on dubbing it a casserole. Whatever it is, it’s a fun and easy dinner great for a weeknight or to feed a family, that sneaks in some veggies amongst all that delicious sauce and cheese.

This recipe is also versatile. If you have read my other posts, I love giving people options and shortcuts, because everyone is different. Different schedules, different pantries, different tastes. Since I used to be an unbelievably picky eater, I think it’s important to let people have some room to play around.

Yields 6-8 servings

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil (+extra, optional*)
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 white onion, finely chopped
  • 24 oz marinara sauce
  • approx 20 oz package ravioli
  • 2 large zucchini, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan
  • 8 oz shredded mozzarella
  • fresh basil
  1. Boil water in a medium to large pot.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook about 1 minute until fragrant. Add chopped onion and cook 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until translucent.
  3. Pour marinara sauce over the onions, reduce heat to low and stir until combined. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover and remove from heat to cool.
  4. When the water is boiling, add the ravioli and cook about 1-2 minutes less than package directions for an al dente texture. In the last 3 minutes of the pasta cooking, add the sliced zucchini. Drain and let cool. (*After draining, tossing with a little olive oil can help prevent sticking)
  5. While the sauce and pasta cool, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 9×13 pan with cooking spray
  6. Spread 1 cup of the sauce evenly over the bottom of the pan and sprinkle on half of the Parmesan cheese. Arrange half the ravioli evenly in one layer over the sauce and sprinkle on half the mozzarella cheese. Arrange all the zucchini slices, evenly in one layer. Take some basil leaves and spread them out on top of the zucchini, as much or as little as you like.
  7. Use the rest of the ravioli to create a layer over the zucchini. Pour the remaining sauce over the whole dish and sprinkle with the rest of the mozzarella and Parmesan.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes, until cheese is melted and let rest for at least 2 minutes prior to serving. Garnish with fresh basil.

Here’s a visual on how to arrange the layers

Ravioli bakes are not a new thing, a lot of people have done it before with just sauce, pasta, cheese, sauce, pasta, cheese. It’s a quick meal that pleases most. You can use cheese or meat ravioli, whatever your preference.

By adding a whole chopped onion to my sauce, it gives it more of a thick texture and a noticeable crunch. You could alway substitute with finely chopped bell peppers or mushrooms to get that extra vegetable element. If you don’t have time for prep, cheat and get a super chunky jarred pasta sauce.

I love zucchini and think it’s really what makes this dish special, but it would completely work without it. To slice it you either need a mandolin or a really sharp knife and patience. I don’t have a mandolin, so start by cutting the two ends off, cutting the zucchini in half, and then very carefully slicing it into thin strips. By halving the zucchini it makes it easier to slice by hand and also easier to get through when you are scooping out portions of the finished dish. Worst case, you could slice it into coins like you would a cucumber, it will just take longer to layer and you won’t get total coverage like you would with retangular pieces.

This is not what I would call a totally healthy dish, but if you have kids, it’s an easy way to sneak in some fresh vegetables. You can also easily feed 6 to 8 people with this dish by serving it up with a simple salad and maybe some garlic bread. Since its just my husband and I, we portion it out and save what we don’t eat for leftovers. It holds up very well in the fridge.

Overall this requires a little more time and a little more mess than the standard ravioli bake, but it’s those extra elements that really make this more than just a big block of sauce and cheese. Adding in just a couple vegetables and fresh basil takes it to the next level of texture and taste. It’s also fun to dig in and see that bright green layer of zucchini right in the middle. Try it out! I promise it’s easy and everyone will end up with a clean plate.

 

 

 

My Favorite Kitchen Toys, Part 1

I’m going to start off with my most prized kitchen possession, my Kitchenaid mixer. Every homecook and baker I talk to has this or wants this. My family gave me one for Christmas this year and I honestly don’t think a gift has been more exciting since my mom got me a Furby and a Tamagotchi in the late nineties. There’s something magical about them.

Just like my approach to cars, color is most important. I went with aqua sky (yes that’s the real color name). I wanted something that was classic, but not the obvious red, white or black. I try and hide most of my toys away when I am not using them, but my mixer is always displayed where everyone can see it. It’s the kitchen equivalent to an Andy Warhol screen print. Bold, modern but classicly designed and a piece of pop culture.

Beyond the beauty, it’s changed my baking life. I’ve made bread, bagels, pizza dough, cupcakes, cinnamon rolls, all these things that were so scary to me, all from scratch. I need to start investing in some fun attachments. Or if anyone from Kitchenaid happens to see this, send some my way, I’d love to review them! (Wink wink)

They can be pricey, but they are worth every penny. I have the 5 quart artisan mixer and it generally retails for around $279. The accessories aren’t cheap either, hence me not having any yet. There’s meat grinders, an ice cream maker, a spiralizer and more. I have my eye on one of the pasta attachments. I would love to make all my own pasta from scratch some day.

My mixer is my current favorite, but a close second is the first big kitchen toy I ever got: my slow cooker. I got my first one five or six years ago, but now I have two. Such a lifesaver at thanksgiving to have mashed potatoes in one and mulled cider in the other. I actually might do a whole post in the future on slow cooker cocktails, they are so great for parties, particularly at the holidays.

When I was living in Massachusetts, it was my tradition every year on the first really chilly weekend of the fall to get my slow cooker out and make chicken cacciatore. From that day until spring I would use it pretty much bi-weekly. I would love getting snowed in during the winter so I could watch movies and use my slow cooker.

A few recipes I’ve shared so far on my blog have utilized it. I make pulled buffalo chicken for a number of different dishes often and my very first post, coconut curry chicken, is also done in the slow cooker. I love making big batches of pasta sauce that I can jar, soups and stews, mashed potatoes, chili, you can do so much. Of course the red meat eaters out there use it for pot roasts and beef stews. Honestly the possibilities are endless.

I moved to California last Septemeber and have had to adjust to autumn and winter tempatures being in the 70s. Not complaining, but it was weird to not see leaves changing and walking past houses with Christmas lights when I was wearing shorts. But I still got my slow cooker out and made my chicken cacciatore to force the feeling of the seasons into my home.

I like to slow cook on lazy weekends, but it can also be a real time saver for a busy family. Throw everything in, set it on low and forget about for a few hours. The only hard part is resisting the urge to open the lid to smell and taste along the way. There’s also one for every budget. They can range from $20 to hundreds of dollars. I think I remember my first one being around $100, for a large 6.5 quart Cuisinart, which has held up beautifully over a number of years and a lot use. I lucked out and inherited my second, smaller cooker for free from my sister when she was cleaning out her kitchen. Score!

Of course fancy gadgets aren’t going to make you a good cook, it’s about what you do with them. But it certainly helps out the execution of meals when you have quality equipment. It’s fun too. I get so pumped whenever I get a new kitchen toy to play with. Unfortunately (but fortunately for my wallet) I only have so much space left in my kitchen, but look out for a couple more posts featuring my other cooking essentials in the future!

My First Try At Homemade Bagels

Bagels were actually included in the handful of foods I would willingly consume as a small child. Back then, they had to be Lender’s cinnamon raisin, frozen then lightly toasted, with just a tiny bit of unsalted butter. I don’t know how that became my thing, but all my fellow picky eaters out there know how important brands and food rituals can be. You find something you like and you don’t change it. EVER.

I was probably in middle school the first time I ordered a bagel from Dunkin Donuts. (GASP!) It was still cinnamon raisin, and I refused the cream cheese, but inside I was thoroughly impressed by my new found “adventurous” streak. In high school, a couple of my friends worked at a smaller bagel shop. I tried a cinnamon sugar bagel, and eventually a plain bagel with cream cheese. I know, I know, I was getting out of control!

Eventually I came to realize bagels are a magical vehicle for all kinds of flavors. (I also realized I was crazy for not embracing cream cheese earlier than I did.) It probably helped that my sister and a few friends went to school at NYU and on my visits to see them, my eyes were opened to the wonderful world of New York bagels.

In the past year, I’ve been dabbling in baking. Mostly simple cupcakes and pizza dough, and most recently I’ve experimented with bread. It’s not my strongest suit, but it’s a lot of fun and I hope eventually I can get more comfortable. The other day I was in the store and saw malt syrup, and I remembered hearing on many a cooking show that it was the secret to bagel making. Other than the water in Brooklyn, of course. So I decided to give it a go.

Unlike my cooking, I can not bake things off the top of my head yet. Especially not something I’ve never made before. So I followed this recipe.

Follow this word for word. My bagels came out AMAZING. I have never had a more successful first try at baking anything. I made eight bagels. They were medium sized, like what you would find in the grocery store. If you wanted a big bakery sized bagel, I would make six. Based on what I had in my pantry I made two plain, two sesame, two onion and garlic, and two apple cinnamon.

Apple cinnamon was my nod to my younger days. I didn’t have raisins, so I improvised by making apple chips the day I made the bagel dough, which has to rest overnight. I coated apple slices in cinnamon and sugar, and baked them for 45 minutes in a 250 degree oven until they became mostly dehydrated. I didn’t want them completely crispy and dry so I let them cool slightly, put them in a plastic bag and they went into the fridge with the dough.

The day of baking, I finely diced the apples and applied them as a topping the same way the recipe explains using the sesame seeds or onion and garlic. When the bagels were done baking, I sprinkled on some cinnamon sugar and let those two bake for a couple minutes more. Avoid getting the sugar on the bottom though, or the bagels will stick to the pan. My husband I didn’t even slice these guys, we ate them like cinnamon buns the moment they were cool enough to shove in our mouths.

Bonus tip! Today I decided to have some fun with a plain bagel and try a couple different toppings. I toasted it and spread cream cheese on both halves. For my savory side, I sprinkled on some garlic flakes, chopped green onion and fresh chives. For my sweet side, it was cinnamon and a drizzle of organic honey. Best. Breakfast. Ever.

Nine year old me would only eat frozen bagels from the grocery store. Twenty nine year old me can’t imagine buying a bagel from the grocery store ever again. It’s homemade, or at least from a bakery, from now on.

And always with cream cheese.

{follow me on twitter & instagram: @thepickygourmet}

Easy Pizza Sauce

I hope everyone has recovered from Super Bowl Sunday! Along with the snacks, I made two simple pizzas yesterday that were deeeeelish. Luckily there was so much food, I have a couple slices leftover for my lunch today. Score!

Today I’m going to share my recipe for pizza sauce. I made a fairly traditional margherita and a spicy arugula pie, so it’s actually two sauce recipes in one post. You can decide which to try… or, c’mon, make both. Two pizzas are always better than one.

Yields sauce for two 12″ pizzas

  • 6oz can tomato paste
  • 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano
  • 1/2 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp Italian seasoning

To make it a spicy sauce you will need:

  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  1. Combine tomato paste, diced tomatoes, oregano, garlic, paprika and Italian seasoning in a bowl and stir until all ingredients are well mixed.
  2. Optional: if you prefer a smoother sauce rather than a rustic, chunky sauce, put the mixture into a blender or food processor and pulse until it’s the desired consistency.

That’s it! No need to heat this at all, it does all the cooking in the oven. At this point, I divided the sauce and spread half of it on my first dough. I topped it with fresh mozzarella slices and torn basil leaves. Next up, spicy arugula.

  1. Stir black pepper, cayenne and red pepper flakes into remaining sauce.

It couldn’t be easier. If you want the whole batch of sauce to be spicy, just add a little extra to the peppery ingredient amounts, mix it all in at the start and taste as you go.

My second pizza had the spicy sauce and I simply sprinkled on some grated Parmesan cheese. Both pies baked for about 10 minutes at 450 degrees, but make sure you follow instructions for whatever kind of dough you are using. I usually make my own from scratch, but I cheated and used the store bought kind this time. It was a busy day! Don’t judge me!

When they were done cooking, I put a little more fresh basil onto the margherita. This is perfect for fans of a plain pizza, but so much better than using shredded processed cheese. The spicy pizza was finished off with two handfuls of fresh baby arugula. At first, the tough guys thought this looked like a salad more than a pizza, but the heat from the sauce and the peppery greens take this a long way from boring. It’s a flavor bomb!

I asked my guests and my social media followers which team they were on, and I was actually shocked that the spicy arugula was the clear winner here! So try these two, or your own, pizza creations at home and have a vote. It’s a fun and easy for a party or even a weeknight family dinner that everyone will love.

{follow me on twitter & instagram: @thepickygourmet}