Easy Tuna Tetrazzini with Spinach

The weeks between the end of the holidays and the beginning of Spring always seem like the busiest time of the whole year.

It’s as if life says, “Okay, now it’s really time to get down to business.” Somehow workdays get busier and evenings begin to fill up with events and responsibilities that weren’t there only a few weeks ago.

From a cooking perspective, this gets complicated. That’s why in winter I always simplify matters with casseroles and crock pots.

Casseroles and crock pots allow you to prepare ahead of time for times you know you’re going to be stressful. Two or three meals can be prepared at once, then stored in the refrigerator or even the freezer until they are needed.

My crock pot has certainly gotten a workout in the past couple of weeks, so it was time to focus on hearty and filling casseroles. But casseroles don’t have to be the same old familiar standards time and time again.

This recipe is a twist on the tuna casserole recipe we’ve all had thousands of times before. It takes familiar ingredients and mixes them up in a way that’s fresh, delicious and unexpected. The tuna could easily be replaced with leftover chicken, ground turkey or beef, or even pork.

Easy Tuna Tetrazzini with Spinach

8 oz dry whole wheat linguine, broken into thirds (half box)

1 10-1/2 oz can cream of celery soup

1 10-oz box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

1/2 cup milk

2 6-oz cans white chunk tuna in water, drained

1/4 cup oven roasted tomatoes (or jarred roasted red peppers), rough chop

1/2 tsp granulated garlic

1/2 tsp onion powder

1 tsp Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp hot sauce

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs

2 TBS grated parmesan

1 TBS unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Spray 9-inch square casserole dish with pan spray. Cook linguine according to package instructions, drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine pasta, soup, tuna, milk and tomatoes. Season with granulated garlic, onion powder, hot sauce and Italian seasoning and mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to baking dish.

3. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, parmesan and butter. Use your fingers to mix the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter chunks are the size of small pebbles. Sprinkle evenly over casserole and bake in oven uncovered for 45 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

What kind of dishes do you like to cook to make busy days more manageable? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Jumbo Shells Stuffed with Chicken and Spinach

If you haven’t guessed by now, we are on a winter diet, trying to drop the weight caused by holiday excess.

In past years, we’ve tried all kinds of different diets: the South Beach Diet, the Sonoma Diet, Atkins, the American Heart Association Diet. This year, we’re just taking the best elements of each and trying to eat clean, without a lot of fats and sugars and cutting calories as much as possible.

That’s why this recipe was so appealing to me. Not only was it delicious, but it uses boneless, skinless chicken breasts — in other words, all protein, no fat — and fat free cottage cheese. Plus the spinach has tons of iron in it. Sadly, I wasn’t able to find whole wheat jumbo pasta shells, but there were enough nutritional positives in this recipe so that I didn’t feel too bad.

This was very economical, one of the least costly dishes we’ve made this year. This dish also would be a great way to use up leftover chicken or pork, or you could easily make it with ground turkey.

The flavor was superb — each shell tasted like a miniature lasagna — plus there was plenty leftover for lunches later in the week. What’s not to love about this recipe?

Jumbo Shells Stuffed with Chicken and Spinach

1/2 box uncooked jumbo pasta shells (about 18 peices)

1 package frozen cut spinach, defrosted and drained

1 egg, slightly beaten

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and diced small

1 15-oz container fat free cottage cheese (or ricotta)

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 TBS hot sauce

1 26-oz jar red pasta sauce

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

1 TBS grated parmesan (separate)

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Cook pasta shells according to package directions, drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine the spinach, egg, chicken, cottage cheese, parmesan and hot sauce and mix well.

3. Pour 1/2 jar of pasta sauce in bottom of a 13″x9″ casserole dish and spread it around evenly. Stuff each shell with about 2 TBS of the filling (Using your hands works best, but use a spoon if this is too weird for you). Arrange the shells, filled side up, on the sauce in the baking dish. Spoon about a TBS of the sauce over each shell. I had plenty of sauce leftover, so I saved it for another time.

4. Cover with foil and bake for 30 miutes. Remove from oven, remove foil and sprinkle with mozzarella and remaining parmesan. Return to oven for 10 minutes or until cheese is brown and bubbly.

Are you one of the millions of people like us who diet during the winter months? What sort of diet are you on? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Crock Pot Italian Meatballs

One of the few things I actually look forward to during Chicago winters is using my crock pot more frequently.

I’ve written before about how the crock pot is a central element of winter cooking in my house, but usually by this point in the winter I’ve already cycled through most of my slow cooking repertoire: chili, pulled pork, red beans and rice, chicken stew, etc.

So I’m always excited when I find a new recipe to try in my crock pot. In this case, it’s a very old recipe cooked in a new way: Italian meatballs cooked all day in the crock pot!

I was pleasantly surprised with how flavorful they turned out. Not only did they not fall apart — something I was worried about given the seven hours they cooked — but the flavors of the meatballs leached into the sauce, giving it a complexity and depth of flavor it ordinarily wouldn’t have.

Plus the sauce naturally reduced over time, concentrating the tomato flavor in a very interesting and delicious way. It started to have that intensity that tomato paste has, without the over the top acidity.

I served it over whole wheat spaghetti, but you could use any pasta you like. A quick note: A few years ago when whole wheat pasta first started to appear on the shelves, a lot of it tasted like wet cardboard when it was cooked. Recently, however, the manufacturers must have figured out how to make it more appealing because it now tastes every bit as good as pasta made with white flour, but with much more nutritional value.

Crock Pot Italian Meatballs

3/4 lb ground beef

3/4 lb ground pork

1 small white onion, diced small

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp Italian seasoning

1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 28-oz jar marinara sauce

1 box whole wheat spaghetti

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Line sheet pan with foil and spray foil with pan spray. In large mixing bowl, combine the beef, pork, onion, garlic, Italian seasoning, bread crumbs and egg and mix well with your hands. Shape into 24 1-1/2 inch balls. Place on sheet pan and bake 35 minutes.

2. Place meatballs in crock pot. Cover with marinara sauce and cook on low for 6 to 7 hours, stirring occasionally.

3. Cook pasta according to package instructions, drain and return to pot with a little EVOO. To plate, place a heaping pile of pasta in the center of a pasta bowl, then use a kitchen spoon to arrange meatballs and sauce on top. Garnish with parmesan cheese.

Do you make any unusual recipes in your crock pot? Why not share your ideas in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!

Homemade Paninis

I love paninis, but I don’t have a panini maker and, unless I get one for Christmas, I can’t afford to buy one right now. But I am able to enjoy my favorite Italian sandwich at home by going all McGyver on you and creating homemade paninis out of a couple of everyday kitchen items.

The concept behind a panini is that it is a flavorful meat and cheese sandwich that is pressed in a machine that has two hot pieces of iron attached by a hinge. Heat from both the top and bottom causes the cheese to melt and the outside of the sandwich to have a pleasant crunchy texture. Usually the iron plates have ridges in them or some other decorative pattern.

For my homemade panini, I simply used my cast iron pans. I heated two of the pans up on separate burners, then sprayed pan spray into the bottom of the larger one. I placed my sandwich — roast beef, fat-free American and red onion, in this case — into the pan, then sprayed the top of the sandwich with pan spray and placed the other cast iron pan on top of that.

I cooked it for just a few minutes, flipped it over to cook it evenly, and finished it for a few more minutes. Although it lacked the ridges, it was every bit as crunchy and tasty as a panini I would have paid a lot of money for at a restaurant.

To make my panini, I used an Italian paisan bread I had made from a very simple recipe a few days before. It’s soft texture was perfect for my homemade panini because the inside remained soft and doughy while the outside was crunchy and flavorful.

Paisan is an Italian word for “peasant”. In this context, it means an unpretentious and simple bread.

Italian Paisan Bread

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

2 tsp honey

1/4 tsp salt

1 TBS dry yeast (or one envelope)

1/4 cup EVOO

1 cup lukewarm water (baby bath temperature)

1 TBS EVOO

1 TBS corn meal

1 egg, beaten

2 TBS grated parmesan cheese

1 TBS fennel seed

1 tsp coarse sea salt

1. Put yeast in bottom of Kitchen Aid bowl or mixing bowl. Whisk in warm water, honey and 1/4 cup EVOO. Place in Kitchen Aid stand and let sit until bubbles start to form, about five minutes.

2. Combine flours and salt in mixing bowl. Put dough hook attachment on Kitchen Aid and slowly add dry ingredients to wet ingredients on medium speed until dough ball is formed, about 3 minutes. Remove from bowl and knead on floured work surface for a minute or two until dough is soft and not sticky, adding more flour a little at a time if necessary.

3. Place 1 TBS EVOO in bottom of large bowl and use napking to cover all sides of bowl with oil. Place dough ball in bowl and turn so that all sides are oiled. Cover with clean dish towel and let rest in a warm, draft-free space until doubled, about one hour.

4. Punch down dough, knead for another minute and let rest under dishtowel for a few minutes. Use a knife to cut dough into two equal peices. Using your hands only, poke holes into the dough with your fingers and work the sides outward until you get a crude flatbread shape about 12″ in diameter. Repeat with remaining dough peice. Cover with dishtowel and let rise until doubled in size, about 35 minutes.

5. Preheat oven to 400F. Spray two sheet pans with pan spray. Sprinkle corn meal on bottom of sheet pans, then transfer flatbreads to sheet pans. Brush both loaves with egg wash then sprinkle evenly with fennel seed and sea salt. Bake 35 minutes, remove from oven, sprinkle evenly with parmesan and return to oven for 10 minutes to toast the parmesan. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks.

This recipe makes two smaller flatbread loaves, perfect accompaniment for pastas, salads, or soups or for making paninis.

Have you ever rigged your kitchen equipment to get the recipe you desired? We would love to hear your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

One Pot Rigatoni with Broccoli and Italian Sausage

There are an infinite number of ways to make pasta, but sometimes simplicity is the best option.

I’ve been making this simple recipe regularly since a roomate first showed it to me more than 23 years ago. Until then, pastas for me were always prepared with a dense red ragu sauce, a creamy al fredo sauce, or perhaps a sweet clam sauce.

The secret to this pasta is that there is no sauce. Just extra virgin olive oil.

Olive oil is one of the most flavorful of cooking oils. It has an excellent flavor that ranges from subtle to overpowering, depending on the grade of oil and where it came from. The best olive oils are called “extra virgin”, which means the oil was made by the first pressing of the olives, it has less than 0.8 percent free fatty acids, and its flavor was declared superior by a blind taste test panel.

I use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) almost exclusively in my home kitchen — for both dressings and for cooking. It has a lower smoke point, due to its lower free fatty acid content, but I think the flavor it adds is worth the sacrifice. If I really need to sear something super hot, I will use a canola oil. In commercial applications, I use all kinds of oils that are not relevant to the home cook.

The subtle tang of EVOO pairs naturally with the nutty sweetness of parmesan cheese, and that pairing is the basis for this pasta recipe. Until recently, I would use four separate pots and pans to make this recipe, but I learned that with a little planning, everything can be made in one pot. Much less cleanup afterwards!

Usually, I make this recipe with rigatoni because its shape is closest in size to the broccoli florets and sausage peices, so it works better aesthetically. But in the past I’ve also made it with penne and even spaghetti. Use whatever you prefer or happen to have on hand.

If you want to use only one pot for this recipe, it’s important to have everything prepped ahead of time because given the sequence of cooking, it’s hard to stop and start. The traditional term for this is “mise en place” (MEES en plahs), which is French for “Everthing in it’s place”.

Mise en place

Mise en place

One Pot Rigatoni with Broccoli and Italian Sausage

3/4 lb spicy Italian sausage, skin removed and cut into 1″ chunks

1 lb box dry rigatoni

2 TBS EVOO

1/2 lb broccoli

1/2 medium white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

4-5 white mushrooms, sliced

3-4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup water or chicken stock

1/4 cup EVOO

1/2 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tsp red pepper flake

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add rigatoni and cook according to package directions, about 7-9 minutes. Strain in a colander, but don’t rinse with water. Occasionally give it a shake to keep the pasta from sticking together.

2. Return pot to fire. When hot, add 2 TBS of EVOO. When smoking, add onions and peppers and cook until onion just start to be translucent, about three minutes, stirring frequently. Add sausage and cook until meat begins to brown, about another three minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms start to brown, about another two minutes, then add garlic and cook another minute. Then add broccoli, stir so that everything is covered in oil, then add water or stock, cover and cook until broccoli is soft, about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. During the last minute, return the pasta to the pot and toss, then cook the final minute to reheat the pasta.

3. Remove from heat and stir in EVOO, parmesan and chili flakes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. To plate, mound in center of pasta bowls and top with additional parmesan for garnish.

If you happen to have sliced black olives lying around, they also fit in nicely with this dish.

What tried and true recipes have you been making for decades? Share you wealth in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Meat Free Mondays – Winter Squash and Spinach Lasagana

In a previous life, I was a saucier in a fancy French restaurant.

Every day, I made a variety of sauces. Basically, every dish on the menu had its own sauce.

This was not as hard as it sounds because almost every sauce is a variation of one of six mother sauces:

1. Espagnole – Veal or beef stock with tomato thickened with a dark roux.

2. Demi Glace – Veal stock reduced to a gelatinous thickness.

3. Tomato Sauce – Standard pasta sauce.

4. Bechamel Sauce – Milk with seasonings thickened with blonde roux.

5. Hollandaise Sauce – Egg yolks and seasonings thickened with clarified butter.

6. Veloute – White stock, usually chicken, thickened with blonde roux.

These sauces, all of which are on the culinary school final by the way, can then be used to make almost every other sauce in classical cuisine. For example:

Espagnole + Mushrooms = Chasseur Sauce

Veloute + Heavy Cream = Surpeme Sauce

Hollandaise + Tarragon, Shallots and Red Wine Vinegar = Bearnaise Sauce

Back in the '90s, when I was a saucier

Back in the '90s, when I was a saucier

I mention all this because a basic understanding of sauces is very helpful in everyday cooking. Today’s lasagna recipe, for example, uses a Bechamel sauce, whereas a traditional lasagna recipe would use a tomato sauce. But because we are using winter squash instead of meat protein, Bechamel is more appropriate. Tomato wouldn’t work.

For this low-fat recipe, I used acorn squash, but you could easily use butternut, carnivale or even pumpkin. This lasagna makes an excellent winter vegetarian entree.

Winter Squash and Spinach Lasagna

For the Bechamel Sauce

3 cups skim milk

1/2 cup fat free half and half

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1 tsp dried sage

For the Acorn Squash Filling

2 acorn squash

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped fine

1 TBS EVOO

Salt and pepper

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

For the Spinach Filling

1 lb package frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper

16 oz tub fat free cottage cheese

1 egg, beaten

For the Lasagna

9 whole wheat lasagna noodles

8 oz shredded fresh mozzarella (about 1-1/2 cups)

1/2 cup grated parmesan

1. Cut acorn squash in half, scoop out seeds and strings, spray both sides with pan spray and place face down on baking sheet. Roast at 375F until soft, about 40 minutes. Cool, remove skin, then roughly mash. This can be done a day or two ahead of time.

2. Boil large pot of water. Add lasagna noodles and cook to al dente stage, which is slightly undercooked. The pasta will absorb the sauce as it cooks, so don’t overboil or it will be mushy at the end.

3. Put a large saute pan on the fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add garlic and rosemary and cook a moment, then add squash, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook about five minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

4. Return saute pan to fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onion and cook until translucent, about three minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add spinach and cook about five minutes. Remove from pan and cool a few minutes. Then combine with cottage cheese and egg and season to taste with salt and pepper.

5.For the Bechamel, melt butter in sauce pan, then whisk in flour and continue whisking until roux is formed, about the consistency of oatmeal. Cook for about a minute or two, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and set aside. Meanwhile, bring milk, half and half and sage to a boil in a sauce pan. Whisk in roux until thickened to the consistency of cream of mushroom soup.

6. To assemble lasagna, spray the bottom of a 9″x13″x2″ baking pan with pan spray, then line with three lasagna noodles. Spoon some sauce over the noodles, then add  a layer of half the squash. Then add a layer of half the spinach. Then half the mozzrella and half the parmesan. Then more noodles and more sauce. Then the remaining squash, the remaining spinach, any remaining sauce, and the final three lasgana noodles. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella over the top, then the remaining parmesan. This can be assembled the night before.

7. Cover with foil and cook in at 375F until brown and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Remove foil and cook another 10 minutes to crisp the cheese. Let sit about 15 minutes before cutting, otherwise it can get goopy.

Thanks for looking at my blog!

Baked Mostiaccioli with Italian Sausage

Did you ever become completely obsessed with having a certain food? This happens to me all the time.

Last weekend, my wife and I were on our way to a crafts show — good husband that I am, I went voluntarily — when we drove past an Italian grocery called Rosario’s. It’s kind of famous here on the South Side of Chicago, primarily because its sign features pigs jumping into a meat grinder to be turned into sausages, which spell out the name of the store. Here’s a photo:

The pigs used to light up sequentially so the sign kind of animated the slaughter of the hogs, but the lights broke years ago. Good times!

Anyway, Rosario’s had a big sign advertising a sale on mostiaccioli. Immediately, it became embedded in my brain and I had to make mostiaccioli.

Penne pasta and mostiaccioli are the same thing. Penne, which is the plural of the Italian word “penna” which means “feather” or “quill”, comes in two versions: penne rigate, which has little grooves along its sides to help the sauce stick to it better, and penne lisce, which has no grooves. Penne lisce is also known as mostiaccioli, which is Italian for “little mustache”.

Oh, those Italians and their pasta names!

Mostiaccioli also can be served the same way you would serve penne rigate, which is boiled, then poured into a pasta bowl and covered with red sauce and parmesan. But growing up we always had it baked in a casserole with tomato sauce and grated parmesan, then smothered with mozzarella cheese. It’s almost like a pizza casserole, except replacing the pizza dough with pasta. Everything else is essentially the same.

I like my mostiaccioli to have a crispy top, so I let it go longer than it probably should. Other people prefer it stringy, like a pizza. You can decide which way you prefer.

Baked Mostiaccioli with Italian Sausage

1 TBS sea salt

1 lb box dry mostiaccioli noodles (or penne or ziti)

14 oz can diced tomatoes

4 oz can tomato sauce

1 TBS tomato paste

2 TBS EVOO, separate

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice (optional)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 oz can mushroom slices

4 oz can sliced black olives

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp granulated sugar

1/2 cup grated parmesan

1/2 lb spicy/hot Italian sausage

8 oz grated fresh mozzarella (about 1-1/2 cups)

1. Fill large pot with hot water, add salt, cover and bring to boil. Add pasta and cook to package instructions for al dente, which is slightly undercooked. The pasta will continue to absorb the sauce while it bakes, so you don’t want to boil it too soft or the end product will be mushy. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, put sauce pan on fire. When hot, add half the EVOO. When smoking add onions and peppers and cook until translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add tomato paste and stir aound until mixed in, then add diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and sugar and stir together. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the tin can taste is cooked out and the flavors meld together, about 10 minutes.

3. Put your cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add remaining EVOO. When smoking, carefully place the sausage in the pan and brown, turning to brown evenly. Cook until cooked almost all the way through, about 5 minutes.

4. In mixing bowl, combine pasta, sauce, sausage and parmesan and mix well with a spatula. Then pour into a casserole dish and top with the mozzarella. Bake at 375F covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered another 10 minutes to crisp up the cheese. Serve in pasta bowls, garnish with parsley sprigs.

This recipe is also easy to cook in bulk and baked mostiaccioli is a standard at South Side block parties, first Communion parties, church picnics and the like.

What are some of your food obsessions? Please share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

The Mystery of Foccacia Bread

One of the things that inspired me most to become a chef was bread.

Bread is alive. It eats, it breathes, it grows, it changes shapes. I was drawn to the mystery of how all those things happened.

Tomato and Mozzarella Foccacia

Tomato and Mozzarella Foccacia

Even after studying the scientific facts of bread, and memorizing lists of what each ingredient adds to the equation, and reporting on bread faults and what causes them, I’m still filled with a sense of wonder about the whole process.

I understand how it works. I just like to think about why it works because it’s beautiful and magical.

Baking bread is one of my favorite things to do. I’ve written before about how I wish more people would bake their own bread, and how easy and rewarding it is. The aroma of baking bread fills your house with goodness.

So when I came across a recipe for focaccia bread — an oil-rich Italian flatbread that is a relative to pizza — on the wonderful Hungry in Milwaukee blog, I knew I had to try it.

Foccacia dough is stickier than other bread doughs

Foccacia dough is stickier than other bread doughs

Focaccia dough is stickier than most bread doughs I usually work with. It reminded me of coffee cake dough with its tacky texture.

The inclusion of a sponge starter — a little bit of yeast, water and flour made the night before that helps foccacia to get a running start on fermentation — means it will have holes of various sizes, rather than than uniformity, when you cut it open. I like that.

But the real attraction for me is that you can pack foccacia with cheese, olives, onions, tomatoes, you name it, and it is strong enough to not only hold everything together, but stand up to the flavors and not let them overpower the bread.

A side note: Normally I can find sun dried tomatoes at one of the local grocery stores, but for whatever reason there weren’t any this week, so I made my own oven-dried tomatoes. Just cut some plum tomatoes in half, use your finger to pull out the seeds, salt them, let them drain face down for about an hour, then flip them over and roast them in a slow (200-225F) oven for several hours. The result is a tomato with a highly concentrated flavor, perfect for this recipe.

Sun Dried Tomato and Mozzarella Foccacia

Foccacia sponge

1/16 tsp active dry yeast

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup plus 3 TBS all-purpose flour

Combine yeast and water and let rest 5 minutes. Then add bread flour and stir. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature 12-24 hours. Sponge will become thick and bubbly.

Foccacia

1-1/4 cup plus 2 TBS water

1/2 cup EVOO

Focaccia sponge

1-3/4 tsp active dry yeast

2 TBS plus 3/4 tsp corn meal

3-1/3 cup all purpose flour, more if needed

1 TBS sea salt, plus more for sprinkling over loafs

4 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2″ cubes

4-5 sun dried or oven dried tomatoes, slightly rehydrated, rough chop

1 tsp dried thyme

1. Combine water, 1 TBS EVOO and sponge in bowl of Kitchen Aid mixer (or mix in bowl with wooden spoon if you don’t have one). Combine yeast, corn meal and flour in another bowl. Using dough hook, mix on low and slowly add the flour mixture to the wet mixture.

2. Add the salt and increase speed to medium. Mix until dough starts to pull away from the walls, about 6-8 minutes. Add additional flour if dough is too damp.

3. Pour TBS of EVOO into a clean mixing bowl, then use a napkin to spread the oil throughout the bowl. Turn the dough out into the bowl, then cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let it sit undisturbed in draft-free, warm place until doubled in size, about 90 minutes.

4. Gently dust a counter with flour, then turn dough out onto counter. Acting as if the round has four sides, fold the edges of the dough toward the center. Sprinkle a little more flour on top, flip the dough, then return it to another clean, greased mixing bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let double in size again, about an hour.

5. Measure out 1/4 cup EVOO, then pour evenly into two 9″ cake pans and swirl around so that the bottoms and walls are completely covered. Dust the counter again, turn out the dough again, then use a knife to cut into two equal halves. Place the halves in the cake pans then cover with a clean dishtowel and let rest about 5 minutes.

6. Use your fingers to poke holes in the dough and fill each hole with a cheese cube or sun dried tomato. Cover the pans with the dishtowel and let rest about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425F.

7. Just before putting the dough into the oven, brush with EVOO and sprinkle liberally with thyme and salt. Bake on center rack for 30 minutes, then move to lower rack for the final 5 minutes to form a crisp bottom crust. Remove from pans and cool on racks.

You can play around with different cheeses and herbs — cheddar and rosemary are a good combination — as well as vegetables, such as carmelized onions or olives. Foccacia is great on its own, or it goes well with pasta. I served mine with a gemelli in red sauce with grilled Italian sausage.

What bread recipes do you love to cook? Why not share them in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!

Meat Free Mondays – Vegetarian Lasagna

My dad’s best friend, my Uncle Tony, is Italian and as a boy I looked forward to family parties at his house because his mother was the greatest cook I have ever known.

Her specialty was the lasagna. Layer after layer of pasta, meat, tomato sauce and gooey cheese, its flavor was indescribable. I still tear up a little thinking about it.

Long before it was Garfield’s favorite food, Uncle Tony’s mother’s lasagna was — and remains — the single greatest dish I have ever tasted. The woman was a genius.

Whole Wheat Vegetable Lasagna

Whole Wheat Vegetable Lasagna

Over the years, I have attempted to replicate this lasagna hundreds of times, both in commercial kitchens and at home, but I have never fully succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, my lasagna is super delicious. But it’s like comparing my line sketches to DaVinci’s.

I first made Vegetarian Lasagna back in 2003, when the South Beach Diet was popular. Remember that one? To this day, cauliflower is banned from our dinner table because of that diet’s use of it as a substitute for mashed potatoes.

But this Vegetarian Lasagna isn’t much different than regular lasagna, except you replace the meat with vegetables and you use whole wheat lasagna noodles.

Whole Wheat Lasagna Sheets

Whole Wheat Lasagna Sheets

Back then, I had to make a special trip to Whole Foods to buy the whole wheat lasagna noodles, which cost like $4.00/box, as I recall. Now, I can buy them at my local Jewel (on sale for $1, bonus!).

This lasagna has five elements — the pasta, the vegetables, the spinach, the sauce and the cheese.

For the pasta, there are two schools of thought: The first says the lasagna noodles are pre-cooked into soft noodles prior to lasagna assembly. The second says they are put in dry and soak up the sauce as it cooks. Having mass produced lasagnas in restaurants, I’m in the latter camp because it’s easier and tastes the same.

I replace the meat with zucchini and yellow squash. The South Beach version called for asparagus as I recall, but we found it made the lasagna taste bitter. I also added an eggplant because I had one left over from the Farmer’s Market.

The sauce is my standard super easy tomato sauce. In this dish, you don’t even need to cook it because it will cook inside the lasagna.

If ricotta is too expensive, you can subsitute cottage cheese. I was prepared to do this when I discovered that the generic ricotta was cheaper than cottage cheese. Winning!

This recipe, inspired by Uncle Tony’s mother, is adapted from the South Beach Diet Cookbook.

Whole Wheat Vegetable Lasagna

For the sauce

3-8 oz cans tomato sauce

2 TBS Italian Seasoning

2 tsp sugar

For the cheese filling

15 oz package reduced-fat ricotta cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1 egg

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp sea salt

1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper

For Assembly

TBS EVOO

1 zucchini, sliced into thin strips lengthwise

1 yellow squash, same

1 eggplant, cut into 1/2″ cross sections

9 sheets whole wheat lasagna noodles

10 oz package frozen spinach, defrosted and drained

1/4 cup fresh mozzarella cut into discs (or shredded)

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Spray a 9″x14″ baking dish with pan spray. In cast iron pan, sear off zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant in EVOO until brown and a little crispy, about 3 minutes per side. Set aside.

2. In mixing bowl, combine ricotta, parmesan, egg, Italian seasoning and S&P.

3. In another mixing bowl, combine tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and sugar.

4. Assemble lasagna by starting with a layer of 3 pasta sheets, topped with a layer of pasta sauce, topped with a layer of the cheese mixture, topped with a layer of the spinach, then a layer of zucchini and yellow squash. Repeat, using eggplant instead of zucchini. Top with a final layer of pasta sheets, tomato sauce and the mozzarella.

5. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and return to oven for another 20 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes after removing for oven so it holds its shape when it’s cut.

What is the best dish you have ever eaten? Share your thoughts in comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!