Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons


The end of lemon week is here. I am on such a lemon kick – I think I have a few more recipes in me, but they will have to wait for another time. I’m sure I have enough to have another lemon week, but two in a row would be a bit much.

I have been making a variation of this pasta for several years now. It was originally inspired by a cooking show, though I have long forgotten which one. I used to make it by juicing a lemon into a serving bowl and adding chopped garlic and olive oil. Hot pasta on top, a quick toss and it was ready to serve, with lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Of course it has evolved over the years.

Now I prefer cooked garlic to raw, so I sauté the garlic while the pasta is cooking. I also started adding the zest from the lemon, because it adds such a punch of lemon flavor that highlights the garlic and olive oil somehow.


The last time we had it I tried adding zucchini, cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. We had some leftover cooked chicken in the fridge, so I tossed that in too, though Rich and Calvin preferred theirs without. The zucchini added color and texture and the cherry tomatoes were nice pops of color and sweetness. The fresh mozzarella added its milky creaminess that contrasted nicely with the nuttiness of the Parmesan. Note: I added a ton more Parmesan on top after I took the pictures. White drifts of Parmesan aren’t great when you want to show off the pasta, but they are essential at the table.


I cooked a whole pound of pasta when I made it this last time, as we were fighting each other for the leftovers the time before that. This time we must not have been as hungry – we had a lot left over, which made for nice lunches. It all depends how many veggies you add and how many other dishes you have along with it. You could also leave out the chicken and serve this as a side dish with fish or roast chicken. We like it best hot, but room temperature isn’t bad either, if you want to go the pasta salad route.

I used to have a beautiful cobalt blue glass bowl that I liked to serve this in. Well, to be honest, I liked to serve everything in it. But the lemon pasta, with its flecks of yellow zest was pretty against the blue. I miss that bowl – it didn’t survive me dropping a plate on it while I was emptying the dishwasher a few years ago. Maybe someone will get me another one for my birthday or Christmas (hint, hint to Calvin and Rich).

Blue bowl or not, the pasta is just the thing to use up the zucchini and tomatoes that are going to start ripening soon. Or for the middle of winter when we are stuck with grocery store zucchini and tomatoes. Or in the fall when we are tired of the same old tomato sauces and zucchini bread. Or…well, you get the picture.

Download or print the recipe here.

Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6, with leftovers

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium zucchini, sliced into long thin slices
2 tablespoons white wine or water
1 pound medium pasta shells, or any shape you prefer
1 lemon
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup cooked, diced chicken, optional
1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, diced
Grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil to cook the pasta. While the water comes to a boil, heat the oil over medium low heat in a skillet and add the garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant. Add zucchini and spread it out in the pan in a mostly even layer, trying to keep most of the zucchini slices intact. Add wine or water, salt and pepper and cover the pan.

When the water boils, cook the pasta according to package directions. While pasta and zucchini cook, zest and juice the lemon into a large serving bowl. Add the cherry tomatoes and chicken, if using.

Check the zucchini and remove the lid if there is too much liquid in the pan. Continue cooking until zucchini is tender.

Drain the cooked pasta and add to the serving bowl, along with the zucchini mixture. Add the mozzarella. Toss gently. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Leftovers reheat well.

Spaghetti and Meatballs


I had never made spaghetti and meatballs before this past Saturday. I had made fettuccini Alfredo and spaghetti with meat sauce. I had made up my own pasta dishes. I had made eggplant and chicken Parmesan. I had even made my own ravioli, but I had never made spaghetti and meatballs. They just never occur to me when I am planning a pasta meal.

My mom usually made meat sauce to go with spaghetti when I was growing up, which we all liked just fine. I’m not sure why she didn’t make meatballs when we had spaghetti. She made Swedish meatballs sometimes, and she had another meatball dish she made in the pressure cooker, but she never made spaghetti and meatballs.

Calvin is on a beef kick lately, after twelve years of declining to try it. I’m not sure what prompted him to try meatloaf a few weeks ago, but now he would have meatloaf or hamburgers every day if we would let him. He suggested beef for Saturday’s dinner, but we had just had meatloaf and it was too rainy and cold that day to make grilling hamburgers any fun. I suggested meatballs, thinking he would balk at a new dish, but he embraced the idea with enthusiasm. Spaghetti and meatballs it would be.


I figured I would make my basic meatloaf mixture, but replace the ketchup with tomato paste and add Parmesan cheese (from the green can this time, we were low on the good stuff) and a tablespoon of garden pesto I unearthed from the freezer. I used white wine as some of the moisture in the meat mixture. Red wine would have been more traditional, and given the mix a deeper flavor, but it is a migraine trigger for Rich, so white it had to be. Use red wine if you prefer, though the white wine gave the meatballs a fresh brightness that I liked. I baked the meatballs to brown them all at once, and then finished them in tomato sauce on top of the stove while the pasta boiled.


The oven browning was effortless, though I decided mine needed a minute more and got the bottoms a little too brown. They were just shy of burnt, though – I saved them just in time, thanks to the smoke alarm. Not that I like to regularly use the smoke alarm as a cooking timer, but hey, whatever works. Since the meat is so lean, be careful not to bake them too long or they will dry out.

Next time I will double the amount of pesto, which I wrote into the recipe. I liked the basil flavor it gave them and I was wishing for more of it. I also had a stash of roasted garlic, so I used that in both the meatballs and the sauce. You can use raw, minced garlic if you don’t have any roasted garlic on hand.

A further note – if you use a different sauce than the one in the recipe you will have part of a can of tomato paste left over. You can freeze it in one-tablespoon dollops on a plastic wrap lined plate. Once it is frozen, you can peel off the dollops and stash them in the freezer for when you need just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. It’s much better than finding the paste in the fridge later and wondering how long it has been in there before you pitch it.

The meatballs were a resounding success. Calvin declared that he liked them as much as meatloaf, which is high praise from him. They were rich and meaty, fragrant with pesto and bathed in thick tomato sauce – the perfect meal for a rainy, chilly weekend.

Download or print the recipe here.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

1 pound ground sirloin
2 tablespoons pesto
1 garlic clove, minced, or roasted and mashed
salt (go easy on this, the cheese is salty)
black pepper
¼ cup dry breadcrumbs
½ cup Parmesan cheese (the stuff in the green can is fine)
¼ cup dry white or red wine, approximately
1 tablespoon olive oil, approximately
2 tablespoons tomato paste (from a 6-oz. can – you will use the rest in the sauce)
1 egg

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking sheet and set aside.

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until combined. If mixture seems dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil or wine. Form mixture into 1½-inch balls and place on baking sheet. I got about 30 meatballs out of the mix.

Bake meatballs for 10-15 minutes, or until browned. Watch that the bottoms don’t burn. Let meatballs cool on the baking sheet while you make the sauce.

1 tablespoon olive oil, if you are using raw, unroasted garlic
1 clove garlic, minced, or roasted and mashed
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, no salt added if you can find them
Tomato paste (the remainder of the can you opened for the meatballs)
salt, a few dashes
black pepper, a few grinds
paprika, a few dashes
ground cayenne, a dash or two
2-3 teaspoons packed brown sugar, optional
3-4 teaspoons dried basil
2-3 cups of your favorite pasta sauce

For serving:
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

If you are using raw garlic, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and spices to taste. If you are using roasted garlic, just mix all sauce ingredients, except water, together in the skillet. Bring sauce to a simmer over medium heat.

When sauce is simmering, add meatballs and reduce heat to medium low. Gently simmer meatballs in sauce until cooked through – 10-15 minutes. If sauce gets too thick, add a few tablespoons of water until it is the consistency you prefer. Cook spaghetti while meatballs are simmering.

Serve meatballs and sauce hot with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave. You can also freeze leftovers for longer storage – thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

Cheese Stuffed Shells


Stuffed shells are another regular on our weekly dinner menu. Everyone likes them, they are easy to make and they can be made ahead. This is another childhood favorite of Rich’s. His mom almost always makes a double batch and freezes half for another meal. She likes to freeze the whole casserole, complete with sauce. I prefer to freeze just the shells in a zip-lock bag to save freezer space. When I want to bake them, I just put the frozen shells in a sauce-filled casserole dish and add about 15 minutes to the baking time.

Making the recipe as written will leave you with half a container of ricotta cheese. I can only get it in one-pound containers (well, 15 ounces, with shrinking packages these days). It keeps in the fridge for a long time, or you can use it in bacon and date calzones, on white pizza or do like the container I have suggests and mix it with vanilla and honey for a fruit dip. I like to use whole milk ricotta, it has only two more grams of fat per serving than the light and it tastes so much better. Don’t use fat-free. Trust me.

These are strictly vegetarian. You can always serve them with meat sauce or meatballs if you like. You can add spinach or garlic to the filling for another variation. For my sauce, I usually buy unseasoned crushed tomatoes and add my own garlic, basil and spices. I like the control. Use whatever sauce you prefer.

Speaking of sauce, I bake the shells on a bed of sauce, with none on top. My sauce-phobic family prefers them that way, though I top my serving at the table with the extra sauce from the bottom of the casserole dish. If you like sauce, you can put some on top before you bake them, or have extra on hand to serve at the table.

Download or print the recipe here.

Cheese Stuffed Shells
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

This is easy to double to serve a crowd or to freeze half for later meals. If freezing, you can either make two complete casseroles and freeze one, or just double the shell portion and freeze them in a zip-lock bag without the sauce. Add frozen shells to sauce and add about 15 minutes to the baking time. If freezing entire casserole, thaw in fridge overnight before baking.

½ pound large pasta shells
½ pound grated mozzarella cheese
½ pound ricotta cheese
1 egg

2 cups crushed tomatoes, low-sodium or no salt added, if possible
1-4 cloves garlic, diced
1-2 teaspoons brown sugar
1-2 teaspoons dried basil
paprika, few dashes
cayenne, few dashes
2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce

For Serving:
Parmesan cheese
Tomato sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook pasta according to package directions, subtracting a few minutes from the cooking time so pasta is very al dente. It will cook more later in the oven. Drain pasta and set aside to cool while you make the filling.

Combine mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese and egg. Mix well. Set aside.

Mix sauce ingredients together and spread in the bottom of a medium-sized shallow casserole dish.

Fill each pasta shell with about two tablespoons of cheese filling. Arrange filled shells in a single layer on top of tomato sauce.

Cover shells with foil and poke a few holes in the top to let steam out. Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and cheese is melted and hot. Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese and extra sauce, if desired.

Homemade Cheese Ravioli

I usually try to post recipes that aren’t too complicated or too much of a project. However, that doesn’t always give you a realistic view of the way we approach cooking and food around here. Take Saturday for example. Rich is on the Sur la Table email list and they sent him notices about cooking classes available at some stores. The St. Louis store doesn’t do classes, but I guess Sur la Table only maintains one email list. We saw a class on homemade ravioli and were intrigued. Later in the day we were planning dinner and we remembered the ravioli. Dinner (and the afternoon’s entertainment) solved.

We have made pasta before over the years. We bought a hand-cranked pasta machine about 15 years ago and we have used it a handful of times. Every time we do, we wonder why we don’t make pasta more often. I actually know why – it is so easy to pull out the box of dried pasta and dump it in the pot.

You don’t absolutely have to have a pasta machine to make ravioli or any homemade pasta, but it does help to get the dough rolled out thin enough. You could certainly do it with a rolling pin, though I have not tried it. If you live in the St. Louis area and want to borrow my pasta machine, let me know…

We made three cheese ravioli and cheese and pesto ravioli. They were pretty good, though some of them weren’t very pretty. We were impressed with ourselves, and though we might not make these very often, now we can say we have made homemade ravioli. They were better than any ravioli I have had in a restaurant, if I do say so myself.

The pictures make this look complicated, but it isn’t. There is a bit of rest time for the dough, and the actual pasta rolling and filling is fun, especially with many hands and plenty of time. Try doing this on the weekend and see how much fun it can be to create in the kitchen. Or, if you have absolutely no interest in making your own ravioli, sit back and read the recipe and look at the pretty pictures, which I can take no credit for. Thanks, Rich, for playing photographer (and dishwasher, and the third set of hands) to our ravioli making!

Three Cheese Ravioli
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 30 medium ravioli
About 6 servings

¾ cup semolina flour (Bob’s Red Mill makes a good one)
¾ cup white whole wheat flour (or another ¾ cup semolina flour)
¼ teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons water

Pasta machine

¼ to ½ pound shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
¼ pound ricotta cheese
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
Pesto, optional

Your choice for serving:
Tomato sauce
Cream sauce
Parmesan cheese

Mix the flour(s) and salt together. Add the eggs and water and mix well. You will have a stiff, shaggy dough.

Knead by hand, or under the dough hook of a heavy-duty mixer for 10 minutes.

The dough will stick to your hands and bowl or kneading surface at first. Keep your hands lightly dusted with flour to help with the sticking.

As you knead, the dough will gradually become smooth and satiny.

Place dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at room temperature for 60 minutes, to let the gluten relax and make it easier to roll out.

During the rest time, prepare the filling – mix the mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese and Parmesan cheese with the egg until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate until ready to assemble ravioli.

Clear a large workspace and set up a pasta machine. Flour the counter and a large tray or platter.

Divide the dough in quarters. Work with one quarter at a time, keeping the remaining dough tightly covered to keep it from drying out.

It is easier to put the pasta dough through the machine if you a helper – one person to crank and one to feed the dough through and catch it as it comes out.

Flatten one quarter of the dough enough to run it through the pasta roller on the widest setting.



Keep running the dough through the machine, changing the setting after each pass, until it is very thin, but not tearing. Setting #5 worked best on mine. Lay the long piece of dough on the floured counter. Do not forget to flour the counter, or you will be scraping filled ravioli off the counter – trust me on this.

Dot filling along the dough, leaving about an inch between the mounds of filling. If using the pesto, put ¼ to ½ teaspoon on top of each mound of cheese filling.


Put the second quarter of dough through the pasta machine until as thin as the first. Cover the filling with the second piece of dough, using your fingers (or someone else’s help) to press the top dough down between the mounds of filling as you lay it down. Try not to trap air in the pockets as you seal them.

Press the dough together firmly all around each mound of filling. Our dough stuck together just fine. If yours doesn’t, wet the edges of the dough before pressing them together.

Cut the ravioli apart between each filling mound. Remove the ravioli to the floured tray or platter. Reseal any edges that come apart.

Repeat steps with third and fourth quarters of the dough, and the remaining filling. The second batch will probably go together faster and look even better than the first.

Bring a pot of water to a full rolling boil. Boil the ravioli for 9-10 minutes, or until they are done to your liking. Taste the edge of one, where there are two thicknesses of dough, to make sure they are done. Drain the ravioli well before serving.

Serve hot, with your choice of sauces. Take a minute to admire your handiwork and marvel at your very own homemade ravioli.

Download the recipe without pictures here.

Pasta with Olive Oil Marinated Tomatoes



Summer is drawing to a close here in St. Louis. Yesterday and last night we were downright chilly, which means garden tomato season is coming to an end. I welcome the cooler weather, but I will miss garden tomatoes. We still have a few weeks until our first frost date, and our tomato plants are going strong, so we don’t have to give them up yet.

Pasta with Olive Oil Marinated Tomatoes highlights the sweetness of the summer tomatoes, contrasting them with slightly bitter olive oil and the nuttiness of Parmesan cheese. We make it year-round, using hothouse cherry tomatoes in the winter, but summer tomatoes make it the dish it was meant to be.

Despite the name, this dish is just about as easy as it gets. It is our emergency dinner dish when we forgot to plan anything, or we really don’t feel like cooking and don’t have the energy or the inclination to go out. We eat it as a main dish, but it would also be a great side dish to go with fish or chicken. You can add dollops of pesto, small cubes of mozzarella cheese or even diced, cooked chicken or shrimp to make it your own.

One word of advice – since the ingredient list is so short and each component really stands out, this is the place to use the best Parmesan cheese you can. We buy big wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano at Sam’s, but you can also get tubs of shredded Parmesan or small wedges at the grocery store. Use what you can find, but at least skip the powder in the green can.

Pasta with Olive Oil Marinated Tomatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

Use any pasta shape you like, from bowties to rotini to spaghetti. We like the nuttiness of whole wheat pasta, but regular pasta is good too.

2 medium tomatoes or two handfuls of cherry or grape tomatoes (½ pound approximately)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Black pepper
¾ pound dry pasta
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Start the water heating for the pasta. While the water comes to a boil, chop the tomatoes, or cut the cherry tomatoes in halves or quarters, depending on size. Place the tomatoes in a serving bowl and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Serve hot pasta, topped with the tomato mixture. Add Parmesan cheese at the table. This reheats well, though it will be a slightly different dish, since the tomatoes will cook slightly when you heat it.

Download the recipe here.

And a New Recipe is Born – Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Last Saturday we wanted an easy dinner that we all would like. Calvin is willing to try more foods every day and we are trying to foster his adventurous side. We planned to make pesto pasta with the leftover pesto from making Pesto Three Cheese Pizza. We had several zucchini in the fridge, so I decided a side of Parmesan Crusted Zucchini Chips would be good too. All three of us were in the kitchen, which sometimes makes for interesting dishes.

Calvin and I were slicing the zucchini in the food processor and we ended up with almost a whole sliced zucchini that wouldn’t fit on our baking sheets. I didn’t want to waste it, but we certainly had enough zucchini chips without it. I suggested we sauté it in some olive oil and add it to our pasta, but Calvin wanted to make pesto out of it. We compromised, mincing the zucchini in the food processor and then sautéing it with some garlic.

When the zucchini “pesto” was softened and starting to brown on the bottom, we added it to the hot pasta, along with a spoonful of pesto and a splash of olive oil. A quick toss and we were ready to customize our individual servings. Our pesto pasta is usually hot pasta stirred together with fresh pesto, diced mozzarella, tomatoes (sun-dried or fresh, depending on the season), cooked chicken and Parmesan cheese.

This time Rich and I had found fresh mozzarella pearls at the store. I wondered if Calvin would eat them, since he has only eaten regular, part-skim mozzarella. He surprised us by eating the pearls with no hesitation, popping them into his mouth like popcorn. Calvin had his zucchini pesto pasta with mozzarella pearls and Parmesan cheese. Rich and I added chopped garden tomatoes and cooked chicken.

Calvin couldn’t stop talking about our new dish, and how he had the idea for the zucchini pesto. He ate two big helpings and finished off the leftovers the next day. Not bad for a picky eater who looks at most vegetables with suspicion. New recipes and kitchen innovations don’t have to be totally groundbreaking to be keepers. Let loose in the kitchen and see what you come up with.

Zucchini Pesto Pasta
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

This is the perfect weeknight dinner – you can prepare your ingredients in the time it takes to cook the pasta. It is also a great way to use leftover chicken from another meal. Or you can leave the chicken out to make it a vegetarian dish. Mix the pasta with the toppings right in the serving bowl to save on dishes.

¾ pound dried pasta (choose a short, stubby shape that will hold the sauce, like bowties, elbows, rotini or a similar shape)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (you may not need all of the olive oil)
1-3 cloves garlic, minced (we used three)
1 small zucchini, minced finely by hand or in a food processor
2 tablespoons basil pesto, homemade or commercial
1-2 cups chopped, cooked chicken
1 cup fresh mozzarella pearls, or diced mozzarella cheese
1-2 medium tomatoes, diced
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add pasta when it comes to a full rolling boil and cook according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, reduce the heat to low and add the minced garlic. Cook garlic, stirring often, until it is soft, but not browned. Add a bit more olive oil (up to a tablespoon) if the garlic starts sticking to the pan or looking dry. Once the garlic is soft, add the zucchini to the garlic mixture. Increase the heat to medium and cook the zucchini, stirring frequently, until soft and just starting to brown. It should start to resemble light green pesto as the zucchini softens.

The basil pesto is on the left and the zucchini pesto is on the right.

While the pasta and zucchini cook, assemble the rest of the ingredients. When pasta is cooked, drain and pour into a large serving bowl. Use a larger bowl than you think you need so you have room to toss the pasta. Add the cooked zucchini mixture and the pesto and toss pasta gently to distribute. If pasta looks dry, add up to a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. Add chicken, mozzarella and tomatoes and toss gently. Serve immediately, with Parmesan cheese for topping. This reheats well in the microwave if you have leftovers.

Download the recipe here.

Four Cheese Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni and cheese – known to many as the stuff in the blue box with the packet of yellow powder, an easy dish that the whole family likes or a tried-and-true part of holiday or party buffets. It is all of the above in our house. When he wants a treat, Calvin asks for Kraft Mac and Cheese. Much as I dislike processed food, I think it can have a place as an occasional indulgence. I include homemade mac and cheese in the menu rotation often since we all eat it and like it, which is rare in a house of picky eaters. And I don’t think Easter dinner would be the same if I didn’t make macaroni and cheese to go with the ham.

You might balk at making a cheese sauce, but it takes about as much time as bringing the water to a boil and cooking the pasta. I prefer to bake the pasta and sauce so the top and the edges get nice and crunchy, and I can use the baking time to finish the rest of dinner. If you think you will be crunched for time, you can grate the cheese ahead of time and keep it in a covered container in the fridge until you are ready to use it. Then dinner really is a matter of about ten minutes actual cooking and half an hour of baking. You can even make the whole casserole, up to the baking, and store it in the fridge, covered, until you are ready to slip it in the oven half an hour before you want to serve it.

We serve this as a main dish often, which not everyone is comfortable with. I once took a huge casserole dish of macaroni and cheese to a friend after she had a baby. I thought they would be able to heat it up for dinner and only have to do veggies. She was thrilled and then started talking about making chicken breasts to go with it. I was mortified that it looked like I had only brought her a partial dinner. Lesson learned – dinner isn’t dinner to some people without meat.

I sometimes make this with whole wheat pasta, or half whole wheat and half regular. I sometimes add the butter to the crumbs, and sometimes just sprinkle the crumbs on top, without using the butter. Mix up the cheeses to use what you have, if you like. Sharper flavored cheeses are better than mild ones. The cream cheese replaces the Velveeta called for in the original recipe. It adds a little creaminess and helps avoid the stringiness you can get with a lot of regular cheese and no added fat in the sauce. You can leave it out or substitute more cheddar and Fontina or Swiss for the same amount. I have even used Brie in place of the cream cheese, which was wonderful, but I don’t always have that on hand.

Whether you serve this as a main dish or a side dish, it is a crowd pleaser. Whenever I take it to a family or church dinner I am lucky if I come home with more than a crust around the edges. Post in the comments if you come up with other cheese combinations or other versions of mac and cheese that your family likes.

Four Cheese Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from Cooking Light
By The Cook’s Life
6-8 main dish servings

If you want to make this ahead of time, prepare through combining the pasta and cheese sauce. Cover and store in the fridge until you are ready to bake it. You can do this up to 24 hours before serving. Top with breadcrumbs right before baking.

3-4 cups dry pasta (elbows, corkscrews or other short pasta)
1/3 cup flour
2 2/3 cups milk, any kind (I usually use skim)
1 cup (4 ounces) Swiss or Fontina cheese, grated
3/4 cup (3 ounces) sharp cheddar, grated
½ cup (2 ounces) Parmesan cheese, grated*
2 ounces cream cheese (light or regular), cut into small pieces, room temperature
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon butter, melted (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 2-quart casserole dish.

Cook pasta just until still very al dente. The pasta will cook more in the oven, so leave it very underdone. Drain pasta and set aside.

Make cheese sauce while pasta is boiling. In a medium saucepan or skillet, mix flour with 1/3 cup milk until smooth. Gradually add remaining milk and stir until combined. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick enough to coat the spoon, about 8 minutes. Add cheeses and stir until melted. Remove from heat.

Add cooked pasta to cheese sauce and stir gently. Pour into greased casserole. Combine breadcrumbs and butter. Sprinkle on top of pasta and bake for 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbly.

Store any leftovers in the fridge. Reheats well.

*Don’t use Kraft or other powdered Parmesan cheese for this. Buy a block and shred your own or buy a tub of shredded Parmesan cheese.

Download recipe here.

Dinner Inspired by Bok Choy

My dad has a big garden and loves to share his produce. We were at my parents’ house on Saturday to celebrate Mother’s Day and were taking the mandatory tour of the garden. I shouldn’t say “mandatory” since that makes it seem like we don’t enjoy these walks through the garden. They are always impressive and make me envy his space, though you would have to be retired or a teacher with summers off (which he used to be) to have the time to take care of such a big garden.

The garden tours almost always end with Dad giving us some vegetable or other to take home. This week Dad cut off a beautiful bunch of bok choy for us. Immediately Rich and I looked at each other and said, “Asian noodles for dinner this week!”

The original recipe, Baked Sesame Chicken Noodles was from a Cooking Light issue from 2004 and is a favorite, when we can get good bok choy. As written, the recipe calls for red bell peppers and shiitake mushrooms, neither of which are favorites of ours. I usually replace them with snow peas and extra bok choy. Feel free to reduce the bok choy to 2 cups and use 1 cup red bell pepper strips and 8 ounces shiitake mushroom caps, sliced. Or use vegetables that you like, to equal 4 cups. As with any casserole or noodle dish, the vegetables are easy to substitute for ones you like. Just be sure they are mostly cooked before the casserole goes in the oven, since it bakes for only 20 minutes.

The original recipe also called for cream sherry (2 tablespoons) and rice vinegar (1 tablespoon). The first time I made it I didn’t have either, so I used dry white wine. Again, if you want to go with the original recipe, feel free. I am including the recipe as I make it, because that is how I have made it for years and that is how it works for us.

If you aren’t familiar with bok choy, it is a vegetable related to cabbage that is often used in Asian dishes. It looks like white celery that has been blown up at the bottom and leafed out in dark green leaves at the top. Not the best description, but the picture should help you find it. You use both the white stalk and the green leafy parts. It tastes a lot sweeter and milder than cabbage, without the hot bite cabbage can have. I have never eaten it raw, but cooked it has a nice sweetness, if it is fresh. The older it is, and the stuff in the grocery store can be older than we would like to know, the stronger it tastes. Not that the strong taste is bad, but we prefer it sweeter. Thanks for the garden-fresh bok choy, Dad!

Be sure and post in the comments how you make the recipe yours. And post what vegetable finds have inspired your dinner plans.

Baked Sesame Chicken Noodles
adapted from Cooking Light
by The Cook’s Life
4 large main dish servings

 8 ounces uncooked spaghetti or angel hair pasta
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil or olive oil
2 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut in ½-inch pieces*
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger (about a 2-inch piece)
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons dry white wine or dry vermouth
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
4 cups thinly sliced bok choy**
1 cup snow peas, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup green onions, sliced
2 teaspoons sesame seeds

2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 3-quart casserole dish with cooking spray and set aside. Combine chicken broth and cornstarch and set aside. Cook pasta according to package directions, leaving al dente. Drain and set aside. While pasta is cooking, heat sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chicken, ginger and garlic and cook for 3 minutes, stirring once. Stir in soy sauce and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir broth mixture and add to skillet. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly, or until mixture boils and sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat and add wine and crushed red pepper. Add bok choy, snow peas, green onions, 2 teaspoons sesame seeds and cooked pasta. Mix gently with large spoon or tongs until well combined.

Pour mixture into greased baking dish. Gently spread into an even layer. Mix butter, 2 teaspoons sesame seeds and panko in a small bowl. Top noodle mixture with bread crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, or until topping begins to brown and sauce is bubbly. Serve immediately. Leftovers reheat well.

*Can use about 2 cups leftover, cooked chicken.
**After washing the bok choy, cut each stalk in half lengthwise and then cut into thin strips horizontally. Use both the white stalk and the dark green leafy parts.

Download the recipe here.

Roasted veggies galore

After yesterday’s chocolate cake, I figured I should do a healthy post. Last night’s dinner was roasted vegetables and pasta. We had it last week, and I liked it so much I put it on this week’s menu too. I also needed to fine-tune the directions, since I neglected to write anything down when I made it the first time. This is a totally vegetarian meal, which we eat several nights a week. If you just can’t face a meal without meat, you could add cooked chicken, but it really doesn’t need it.

I used carrots, zucchini, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, shallots and garlic. Feel free to add or subtract veggies, or change the proportions,  to suit you and your family. I started the carrots first, because I really dislike crunchy veggies. The garlic and shallots went in with them, then the zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes went in the oven 15 minutes later. When they were caramelized, soft and sweet, I put them on top of whole wheat fettuccini and added some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and dinner was served.

Be sure and post back with what veggies you like and what variations worked for you.

Roasted Vegetables
from The Cook’s Life
serves 4, or 2 with leftovers

Use the ingredients as a guideline and change the vegetables to suit your tastes. This recipe is easy to double if you have the oven space.

4 large carrots
1 head of garlic
2 shallots or 2 small onions
2 medium zucchini
1 eggplant
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, approximately
Olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease two large baking sheets. Peel carrots and cut into sticks, like you are making carrot sticks. They will shrink quite a bit with cooking. Remove most of the papery skins from the garlic, without separating the cloves, and cut off the tips of the cloves. Peel the shallots or onions and cut in half. Place carrots, garlic head and shallots or onions on one baking sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil. You don’t need a lot of oil, about a tablespoon for all three. Place in oven and let roast for 15 minutes while you prepare the rest of the veggies.

Slice the zucchini into thin slices and place them in a single layer on the other baking sheet. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil and set aside. Cut tomatoes in half and toss with a little olive oil in a bowl. Dice eggplant into about 1-inch cubes and set aside.

After 15 minutes, remove carrots from the oven and push them to the side of their baking sheet. They should have reduced in volume a bit. Add eggplant and tomatoes to the baking sheet. Drizzle eggplant with a little olive oil and return sheet to oven, along with the baking sheet of zucchini. Roast for 30 minutes, or until all vegetables are soft and caramelized. They will greatly reduce in volume. Check them after 15 minutes and stir them if parts are starting to get too brown.

Before serving, remove garlic cloves from the head and mash or chop. Let each diner add desired amount of garlic to his or her plate. There will be garlic left over, most likely. Save it in a covered container in the fridge for another use – serve with chicken, fish or use on pizza or to make garlic bread.

Serve vegetables over pasta, or as a side dish.

Download recipe here.

Last Minute Dinner

As some of my friends and family members will tell you, I can be overly meticulous about some things. For instance, I like to plan the meals for a week, make my store list in the order of the layout of the store and do one grocery shopping a week. At least that is my goal for most weeks. Last week I could only come up with four good ideas for dinners, so I went with it and figured I would come up with something by Friday.

Is it any surprise that I was totally without any creative dinner ideas by Friday? And to top it off, it was freezing rain by late afternoon and I really didn’t want to go out to the store or to a restaurant.

After complaining to myself and to Calvin, and brainstorming with him to figure out what we would eat, I started sifting through recipes. I came up with a lighter recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo that I have made a few times. Not the healthiest of dinners, but better than restaurant Fettuccine Alfredo and we had all the ingredients in the house.

Rich was glad to be able to come home and stay home after a stressful drive home on icy roads. And we had time to make some homemade crackers after dinner. But that is another post.

I found the recipe on myrecipes.com. And of course I changed it a bit. First I used whole wheat pasta to up the fiber and protein. But you can certainly use regular pasta. The original texture seemed a little off, so I doubled the butter and added a splash of cream. You could use 2% milk instead of skim to get a little more creaminess. I reduced the salt from ½ teaspoon to 1/4 teaspoon. I left it out the first time I made it, but it is better with just a touch, at least to us. You can certainly salt it to your tastes. You can add diced, cooked chicken at the last minute, if you like. Here’s a use for that bit of chicken that is left over, but not enough for another meal. Throw it in the freezer and save it for adding to this, or any other pasta dish.

Lighter Fettuccine Alfredo
Adapted from Cooking Light
Serves 4

8 ounces (1/2 pound) fettuccine or linguini, whole wheat or regular
2 tablespoons butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups skim milk*
2 tablespoons cream (or 2 tablespoons milk)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons 1/3 less fat cream cheese, room temperature
¼ teaspoon salt
1-2 cups cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
Parsley, dried or fresh
Black pepper

Put a large pot of water on the heat on a back burner and bring it to a boil. When the water boils, cook the pasta according to the package directions. You can cook the pasta at the same time that you are making the sauce. If the pasta finishes first, drain it and let it rest in the colander until you need it. If the sauce is done before the pasta, turn the heat off and leave the pan on the burner. If it cools off too much, turn the burner on low for a minute of two, stirring to warm the sauce, before you add the pasta.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan or skillet over medium heat. The sauce will cook faster in a skillet, if you are in a hurry, but don’t be tempted to turn up the heat. You don’t want to bring this to a boil, or even a simmer, once you add the milk and cream. Add the garlic, and cook for one minute, stirring. Stir flour into butter and mix thoroughly. Add milk gradually, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Stir in cream. Cook 6-8 minutes, or until mixture thickens, stirring constantly. Add 1 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano, cream cheese and salt, stirring until cheeses melt. If your cream cheese isn’t warm enough, it might make lumps, but they will melt and smooth out.

Add the pasta to the pan with the sauce and toss with tongs to combine. Add the chicken now, if you are using it. The sauce will thicken just a bit as some of it soaks into the pasta. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately, with extra Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper.

*We drink skim milk, so that is what I have on hand. Feel free to use 1% or 2%.

Download recipe here.