Stuffed Green Peppers

Funny story. I’m not allowed to make stuffed green peppers in my house.

And it’s not because of anything I did (for a change). It’s because when my wife, Sandi, was growing up her mother would serve stuffed green peppers at least once per week.

Stuffed Green PeppersThat’s because Sandi’s mom was, let’s just say, not terrifically skilled in the kitchen and stuffed green peppers was one of the few things she could make.

According to Sandi, her mom would make enormous batches of stuffed green peppers every few weeks then wrap them individually in recycled Wonder Bread bags and throw them in the freezer.

Whenever she was too busy to make dinner or didn’t feel like cooking — which apparently was quite often — out would come the Wonder Bread bags and Sandi and her sister would be served stuffed green peppers.

It was pretty much an unstated condition of our marriage that I would never make stuffed green peppers for Sandi ever, ever again.

And yet here we are.

Although I empathize with Sandi for her mother’s limited kitchen skills, I can also sympathize with her mom because stuffed green peppers are one of the simplest, most versatile and affordable dishes you can make. Especially when you have a couple of green bell pepper plants in your garden — like we did this summer — which produced more than a bushel of peppers each.

Plus, green peppers can be stuffed with almost anything. I usually use a rice and meat stuffing, and the meat could be ground beef, ground turkey or even leftover pork or chicken. But you could just as easily make a vegetarian version by using mushrooms or additional vegetables.

For this recipe I used a couple of hot Italian sausages I had in my freezer leftover from some pasta we had some time ago. Stuffed green peppers are fast, simple and delicious.

Sadly, it’s not something I can make anymore. At least not without invoking the wrath of Sandi.

Stuffed Green Peppers

4 Green Bell Peppers

3 cups Cooked Rice

1 TBS  Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 White Onion, medium dice

1 or 2 Jalapenos, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1 Garlic Clove, crushed

1 lb Ground Beef, Turkey, Italian Sausage or almost any other protein (optional)

2-6 oz cans Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup Grated Parmesan, plus additional for garnish

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

0631. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, cut off tops of peppers, remove ribs, seeds and stems. Dice up the pepper tops and set aside. Drop peppers into boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Use a tongs to remove to a plate, pour out water, return peppers to pot and cover with cold water to stop cooking process.

2. Preheat oven to 350F. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, diced green pepper and jalapeno. Saute until onions are translucent, about 2 minutes, tossing frequently. Cut sausage from casings and add to pan, using a wooden spoon to break up into small peices and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until aromatic, about a minute. Remove from heat.

0623. In a mixing bowl, combine rice, sausage mixture, tomato sauce — reserving about half of one can for garnish — and parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use a teaspoon to stuff each pepper with the mixture generously.

4. Spray a round or square 8″ casserole dish with pan spray. Place any leftover rice and meat mixture on the bottom of the casserole dish, then place the stuffed green peppers top side up in the dish. Garnish the tops with remaining tomato sauce and a little parmesan. Cover with foil and cook for 30. Remove foil and cook for another 10 minutes to crisp up the tops a little.

Stuffed green peppers are delicious, economical and easy to make. Just not in my house.

Seafood Fridays – Tilapia

Is tilapia the new turkey?

It may not be featured on many tables this Thanksgiving, but Tilapia has become the go-to fish of the 21st Century. That’s because it can be farm-raised quickly and cheaply.

While the price of many other types of fish — especially fresh tuna, salmon and even halibut — are sky high, tilapia remains a true bargain, usually available for less than $2/lb.

Farm-raised tilapia is good for you, although perhaps not as good as other fish. In the US, most tilapia farms use corn as their primary fish food. This causes the tilapia to have lower amounts of Omega-3 fats, which are the healthy oils that prompt dieticians to recommend eating more fish in the first place.

On the bright side, farm-raised tilapia contain almost no mercury, which is not the case with wild caught fish.

Tilapia is a neutral flavored fish, which allows it to be paired with all kinds of other ingredients and it can prepared in a wide variety of ways. This, combined with its astonishing low price, is probably why it has become so popular in recent years. Since 2005, the US production of tilapia has almost doubled, from 1.5 million tons to 2.5 million tons.

Like turkey, tilapia is extremely low in fat and amazingly versatile, making it a good substitute for more fat-rich proteins such as beef, pork or even chicken.

In this recipe, which I adapted from this one on the wonderful How Sweet It Is blog, I used tilapia in exactly they same way I would ground turkey. Although the flavor was not completely neutral — you definitely could tell you were eating fish — it was not overpowering and served as a great conduit to highlight the other flavors in the mixture.

The texture was identical to ground turkey, however, and the cost was even lower. Once I got used to the idea of putting fish filets in the food processor, I found this to be an excellent light, summertime dinner that tastes terrific and offers a healthier alternative to burgers and dogs at your next cookout.

Tilapia Burgers with Watermelon and Avocado Salsa

1-1/2 lb Tilapia (fresh or frozen and thawed)

2/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs

1 egg + 1 egg white, lightly beaten

2 TBS Dijon Mustard

2 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1 tsp Sea Salt

1/2 tsp Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/2 tsp Dried Basil

1 tsp Paprika

1 tsp Onion Powder

1 TBS Sunflower Oil

1 Avocado, peeled, pit removed, diced

1 cup Watermelon, seedless or seeds removed, diced

1/4 Red Onion, small dice

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1/2 cup Cilantro, choppped

Juice of 1 lime

6 Whole Wheat Burger Buns

1. Add tilapia to food processor and pulse until chopped. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add egg, breadcrumbs, garlic, mustard, salt, pepper, parika, onion powder and basil. Mix with a spatula until combined, then form into 6 patties. Place on a plate covered with wax paper and cover with a second sheet of wax paper. Place plate in refrigerator or freezer so that patties can adhere together better.

2.  Preheat oven to 375F. Place a cast iron skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add patties and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3-4 minutes per side, then put entire skillet in the oven to finish, about 10 minutes.

3. While burgers are finishing, make the salsa  by combining watermelon, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and avocado in a mixing bowl. Season with a pinch of coarse salt (for crunch) and more fresh cracked black pepper.

4. To serve burgers, toast bun then top with tiliapia patty. Use a tablespoon to add the salsa so that it is tumbling down from the top of the patty.

Panko is a type of Japanese breadcrumbs that are larger than ordinary breadcrumbs and are used to add additional texture. There really is no flavor difference, so feel free to substitute regular breadcrumbs if you prefer.

I’ve been reluctant to use Extra Virgin Olive Oil as a cooking oil ever since I read this blog by the fabulous Christina, from Whatever the Route, who says one of her professors told her EVOO transforms from a non-saturated fat to a saturated fat when it gets above a certain temperature. Not sure about the science on that, but until I can research it, I’ve been substituting sunflower oil.

Lasagne Quattro Formaggi

This recipe started out as a good idea, but it didn’t work in practice.

See, I had this idea for a dish called lasagna roll-ups, which was pretty much just like it sounds. But when it came time to assemble it, it just didn’t work.

So this dish was Plan B.

Like Garfield, lasagna is one of my favorite foods. I tend to make lasagna a lot, but I try to keep it fresh by putting different ingredients in it each time. “Quattro formaggi” is simply Italian for four cheeses. In this case, cottage cheese, cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan.

I wouldn’t say lasagna is a quick meal to make because there are a lot of different components. But it is quick to assemble because you can make everything ahead of time at your leisure and just throw it together at the last minute. It’s also convenient because once you assemble it, it can sit in your refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to eat.

It is quite inexpensive as well. Most pasta dishes usually are. The only ingredient that is not completely rock-bottom cheap would be the fat free cottage cheese, and even that was only about $3 for the 1 lb container.

Lasagne Quattro Formaggi

1/2 box dried lasagna noodles

2 TBS extra virgin olive oil, separated

1 lb ground turkey

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

8 oz can tomato sauce

2 TBS Italian seasoning

2 tsp sugar

8 oz fat free cottage cheese (or ricotta)

1 egg

1 pkg frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1. Boil noodles according to package instructions, usually about 10 minutes. Strain and cool under cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

2. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot add EVOO. When the pan is smoking, add the turkey and cook until browned. Remove from heat and set aside

3. Put sauce pan on fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking add onion and green pepper. Cook until onion translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute, then add tomato sauce, browned ground turkey, Italian seasoning and sugar. Stir together, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook about five minutes.

4. Combine fat free cottage cheese and egg in mixing bowl. Squeeze excess liquid from spinach then add to bowl, season with salt and pepper and mix well.

5. To assemble, spoon a little tomato sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish, then lay strips of lasagna noodles until the entire bottom is covered. Add a layer of the cottage cheese/spinach mixture, then another layer of the sauce. Repeat: lasagna noodles-cottage cheese/spinach-sauce. Repeat again. Top with another layer of noodles, a little more sauce than sprinkle the top with the shredded cheddar and mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle the parmesan over the top and cover with foil. The lasagna can be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to eat or cooked right away.

6. Preheat oven to 375F. Cook lasagna for 35 minutes covered, then remove cover and cook another 10 minutes so the top gets browned up. Remove from oven and let stand a few minutes before cutting into it.

Have you ever had a great idea for a dish that just didn’t work out? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Here’s something you may not know: Chicago has an enormous Polish population.

There are more Poles living in Chicago than in Warsaw. The influence of this population is evident everywhere, especially where I live. Many store signs are in both English and Polish, and there are certain markets where no English is posted or spoken. When you walk in, it’s like being teleported to a store in Poland.

One of my fondest memories growing up was in 1979 when Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope, visited Chicago and climbed onto the roof of a high school only a few blocks from my house to greet a massive crowd of mostly Polish followers.

Poland has one of the richest cultures and proudest histories in the world. And Polish cuisine is among my favorites, even though my ethnic background is Irish.

Full disclosure: My first wife’s family was Polish and my daughter is half Polish. Back in those days, I used to look forward to family parties because it meant lots of delicious Polish food — kielbasa, pierogis, kolatchkies and today’s recipe, gołąbki (ga-WOOM-key) or stuffed cabbage rolls.

These are delicious and so easy to make. They bear a strong similarity to stuffed green peppers, but the tanginess of the cabbage adds a whole other level of flavor.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

6-7 whole cabbage leaves

3 cups cooked whole grain rice

1 lb ground beef or turkey


1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

1 cup shredded cabbage

1 clove garic, crushed

4 oz can tomato sauce

2 TBS Italian seasoning, separated

1 tsp sugar

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1 TBS hot sauce

1. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add cabbage leaves and boil until softened, about 4 minutes. Drain in colander then return to pot and cover with cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. Place cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, green peppers and shredded cabbage and cook until onions just start to brown, about 3 minutes. Add ground beef or turkey and cook until meat is browned, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. In the last minute of cooking, stir in the crushed garlic and Italian seasoning.

3. To make the sauce, combine the tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and sugar in a small pot and cook together for about five minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Preheat oven to 350F. In mixing bowl, stir together the meat mixture, rice and about half the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Lay a cabbage leaf on a cutting board and spoon about 2 TBS of the mixture into the center. Roll up into a log shape and fold the flaps underneat to seal. Place in a baking dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage leaves.

5. Cover cabbage rolls with the remaining sauce, then cover with foil and bake 35 minutes. Let cool for a couple of minutes before serving.

These are a great meal all by themselves because the protein, starch and vegetable are all contained in the individual cabbage roll. But they also go great with some seared kielbasa sausage and a couple of pierogi.

What ethnic cuisines are popular where you live? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Did you mother ever tell you not to play with your food? Well, when you are a chef you are allowed, even required, to play with your food everyday.

People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths, goes the mantra at culinary schools everywhere. Creative plating is as essential as choosing the freshest ingredients and balancing flavors, colors and textures in a recipe.

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Stuffed Acorn Squash

It’s the chef’s role to make the food “pop” for their guests. How can I make this dish memorable, I always ask myself.

Garnish is one solution. A little peice of green onion, a sprig of parsley or a few stategically placed red pepper strips can add color to the plate. Think about an strawberry fanned over an orange slice on the side of a breakfast plate, and you’ll see what I’m driving at.

Another way is to give the plate “height.” In one restaurant, we used to make a lamb shank we (privately) called “Poke-you-in-the-eye lamb shank” for the way the bone protruded up out of the plate. Alternating vegetables into tall stacks bound together with a little onion confit or a tab of mashed potato is another example of adding height to a dish.

But I like to use squash as a vehicle, especially this time of year.

Squash is inexpensive, nutritious, flavorful and, most important, looks amazing on a plate. Butternut, pumpkin, acorn, spaghetti, carnival, calabasa. The list of squashes available right now is a long one. Each has its distinct color and shape.

When I saw a couple of beautiful acorn squash at the Farmers Market last week, my mind gears immediately started to turn, thinking about how to stuff them like a cornaecopia.

Cooked acorn squash stand up on the plate really well. You can cut the tops off them like a jack-o-lantern, fill them with your filling and bake them. Or you can cut them in half and plate them like one of those decorative overturned wheelbarrows with wildflowers sprouting out of them.

Either way, your guests will be impressed by your creativity, as well as your cooking skills.

So, go ahead. Play with your food. Your mother will be so proud!

Stuffed Acorn Squash

1 acorn squash

1 TBS butter, divided into 2 tabs


1 lb ground turkey (or beef or lamb)

2 cups brown rice, cooked

10 oz package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained

1/2 medium onion, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 celery stalk, diced

2 serrano peppers, ribs and seeds removed, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 oz crumbed Feta cheese

2 TBS dried thyme (or 1 TBS fresh)

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 cup beef stock

1/4 cup grated parmesan

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

2 sprigs fresh rosemary or other herb for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cut acorn squash in half and use ice cream scoop to remove seeds and strings. Spray sheet pan and both sides of the squash with pan spray, then lay orange side up on sheet pan. Put the butter tabs inside each half, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 45 minutes.

2. Place cast iron skillet on heat. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add turkey and brown until done, about five minutes. Drain fat if necessary and remove to side plate. In same skillet, add the other TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots, celery, and serrano peppers and cook until onions translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and cayenne and cook another minute.

3. Return turkey to pan, along with rice, spinach, Feta cheese and beef stock. Stir until heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Season to taste w/ salt and pepper.

4. To plate, place acorn squash at top of plate and push down so the “bucket” is at an angle. Use a serving spoon to fill each squash with filling to make it look like it is pouring out of the squash. Sprinkle with parmesan and garnish with rosemary sprig.

What fun plating concepts are among your favorites? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Mini Turkey Meatloaf

When I found these miniature aluminum loaf pans at the dollar store, they were so cute I just had to buy them. I knew I would figure out a way to use them later.

Well, it turns out they were just perfect for mini turkey meatloafs. I simply made a batch of my turkey meatloaf recipe, then instead of using a regular sized bread pan, I stuffed it into six of these tiny disposable loaf pans.

The batch made enough for six mini meatloafs. I cooked off three and froze the other three for another time. Perfect!

I threw the pans away when I was finished with them, but you could clean them and re-use them if you wanted. They were six for $1.50, so I didn’t feel too bad about tossing them, though.

The individual meatloafs were both delightful and delicious. And they are perfect for when you have guests with diet preferences — no onions, for example — because you can make their meatloaf mix separate from the rest. Everybody’s happy!

We almost always have turkey meatloaf rather than the normal kind made with a mixture of ground beef and pork because it’s lower in fat and, in my opinion, there’s almost no difference in flavor once you add the seasonings and smother it in tomato glaze.

I served these mini meatloafs with Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes, and steamed broccoli crowns.

Mini Turkey Meatloaf

2 lb ground turkey

1 yellow or white onion, diced

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 TBS sea salt

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper

For the Glaze

1/2 cup ketchup

1 TBS mustard powder

1 TBS brown sugar

1/2 tsp Worchestershire Sauce

1/4 tsp Tabasco or hot sauce

Preheat oven to 375F. Combine meatloaf ingredients in mixing bowl using your hands. Spray mini aluminum bread pans with pan spray, then stuff them with the meatloaf mix until filling is even with the top of the pan. Cook for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together glaze ingredients in small bowl and set aside. Remove meatloafs from oven and pour and scrape off the separated fat and gloop on top. Carefully remove them from the pans by inverting them onto a baking sheet, then thoroughly brush each mini meatloaf with glaze. Return to oven and cook until glaze starts to get tacky, about 10 minutes.

Added bonus: Turkey meatloaf is excellent the next day on a sandwich. It can be served cold or heat it up for a minute in the microwave before putting it between two slices of bread.

Programming Note: It’s the start of a new year, so here at Budget Cooking Blog we are launching a new feature. “Wines on Wednesday” will be spotlight inexpensive yet extraordinary wines for under $10/bottle to complement some of the dishes we’ve been cooking. “Wines on Wednesday” also will give tips on how to select the best wines, and how to successful pair wines with food to enhance your dining experience. Look for “Wines on Wednesday” starting this Wednesday on Budget Cooking Blog!


Comfort Casseroles

In my neighborhood growing up, there were certain Corningware casserole dishes that would be passed from one house to the next, following the trail of layoffs, illnesses, deaths and other domestic hardships. To me, these casseroles represented the love and support of
a community of people making their way through difficult times together.

The homemade casseroles that filled these chipped and well-used dishes tasted like comfort and belonging, and they always made me feel like no matter how hard times got, there would always be somebody to help you up, brush you off, and give you a delicious
casserole until times got better.

And when it was another family’s turn, we would whip up a casserole and pay it forward.

In a challenging economy like ours, casseroles can fill the gap between costlier meals. They are inexpensive, fast and easy because they include the protein, starch and vegetable all in one baked dish.

There’s no reason why they can’t also be delicious. Your family may groan when you tell them you are making a casserole for dinner, but they will change their tune once they taste one of these tasty, delicious and easy all-in-one meals.

I have found that including a handful of casseroles in my menu rotation is a cost-saving way to fill midweek dinner menus. I actually look forward to not only making these favorites, but eating them as well. Casseroles may not be the highlight of your culinary
repertoire, but they can be one of the most comforting.

This super easy standard can be made days ahead of time. Sometimes I will even freeze this so I have a backup dish in case I need one.

Tuna Noodle Bake

For the Bread Crumb Topping

1-1/2 TBS Whole Butter

2/3 cup bread crumbs

For the Casserole Filling

8 oz dried egg noodles

12 can white chunk tuna in water, drained and de-chunked with fork

10.5 oz can of cream of mushroom soup

15 oz can of sweet peas, drained

3 or 4 fresh mushrooms, or 8 oz can of sliced mushrooms, drained

1 TBS mayonnaise

½ cup sour cream

Dash Tabasco

Dash Worchestershire

Salt and pepper to taste

For the bread crumbs: Combine the butter and bread crumbs in a bowl. Rub the mix between your thumbs and forefingers until it forms an even meal. Set aside.

Boil noodles according to package instructions, usually 7-9 minutes. Drain and rinse in cool water to stop carry-over cooking. Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and fold together. Pour into casserole dish, cover with bread topping and cook at 375F until bubbly, about 30 minutes.

I sometimes make a low-fat version by cutting out the butter in the bread crumbs and using fat-free soup and sour cream. My mom used to top it with fried shoestring potatoes. I’ve also seen crushed potato chips used, both of which are sooooo ‘70s.

My wife likes to douse hers in ketchup, which never fails to disgust me. I, however, prefer squeezing a little spicy Thai sriracha sauce over the top of my tuna casserole, especially the
second day reheat.

Tuna Noodle Bake

Tuna Noodle Bake

Here’s another golden oldie. Traditionally, Shepherd’s Pie is made with lamb. But
because my wife, Sandi, won’t eat lamb, I’ve substituted low-fat ground turkey.
You can use whatever protein you prefer.

Shepherd’s Pie

For the Potato Topping

1 cup instant mashed potatoes

1-3/4 cup water

2 TBS butter or margarine

½ tsp salt

1/3 cup milk

For the Casserole Filling

1 lb ground turkey (or lamb, beef, veal, pork, chicken or whatever you prefer)

½ onion, diced

½ green pepper diced

1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced


10.5 oz can of cream of tomato soup

8 oz can of tomato sauce

15 oz can of green beans, drained

Sprinkle of granulated garlic

Dash Tabasco

Dash Worchestershire

Salt and Pepper to taste

Bring milk, water, butter and salt to boil. Turn off heat and stir in instant mashed potatoes. Cover and let sit until all liquid is asorbed.

Meanwhile, put skillet on burner. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, green pepper and jalapeno. Saute until onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add turkey and cook until browned, about 10 minutes. (If you are using ground beef or something besides turkey, you probably will want to drain the fat after browning the meat to prevent a greasy mouthfeel in the finished casserole. Since turkey is so lean, there’s no need to drain it).

In a mixing bowl, combine the turkey mixture, soup, tomato sauce, green beans, granulated garlic, Tabasco and Worchestershire. Mix together and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into casserole dish and spread potato mixture over top, being careful not to mix the potatoes with the casserole. Cook covered at 375F until done, about 30 minutes, then uncovered for another 5 minutes to crisp up the potatoes a little.

If you want, you can sprinkle ¼ cup of parmesan cheese at the end and either cook an additional 10 minutes uncovered, or brown under the broiler for a minute or two. I usually cook this casserole on a sheet pan in case it boils over a little. This helps keep the
oven clean.

Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's Pie