Meat Free Mondays – Butternut Squash Parmesan

Okay, okay, I know. Butternut squash isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think “parmesan”

But I wanted to do a meat-free parmesan dish and my wife, Sandi, just won’t eat eggplant.

Plus I wanted to prove a theory: You can bread just about anything, pan fry it, top it with mozzarella and parmesan and serve it over pasta with a tomato sauce and it’s going to be delicious.

I’m reasonably sure you could make “Paper Napkins Parmesan” and it would taste pretty great.

This is not to take away from the flavor of the butternut squash. It’s mild, slightly nutty and sweet flavor worked very well with the parmesan and the texture was just perfect for breading and frying, at least after I helped it along by softening it in a 375F oven for about 10 minutes first.

The result was a delicious substitute for eggplant parmesan. The crunch of the breading was the perfect complement to the pasta and the combination of the nutty flavor of the squash and the sweet parmesan/gooey mozzarella mix was utterly fantastic.

I’m considering expanding this experiment with some other non-eggplant vegetables, such as sweet potato, acorn squash and even zucchini and yellow squash. Look for them in the coming weeks.

One final note: For this dish, I used the classic three-stage breading method. This is when you first coat whatever you are frying in seasoned flour, then submerge it in an egg wash, and finally dredge it in a bread crumb mixture, in this case Panko bread crumbs and grated parmesan.

The three stage breading method can be used to make just about anything taste great. The flour gives the egg something to hold onto, and the egg absorbs the bread crumbs so the result is a crunchy coating.

Panko bread crumbs are a Japanese-style bread crumb that are larger than regular bread crumbs. They just give you a little bit crunchier texture.

Butternut Squash Parmesan

1 Butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed and cut into cross sections

1 cup All-purpose flour

3 Eggs, whisked together

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup Grated parmesan

Pan spray

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

2 to 3 cups Cooking oil

1 box Pasta, any kind, cooked according to package instructions

1 jar Tomato sauce

1/2 lb Mozzarella ovalini, sliced into discs

1/3 cup Grated parmesan

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Spray sheet pan with pan spray, then lay out butternut squash discs. Spray with pan spray, season with salt and pepper and bake about 10 minutes, just to soften. Allow to cool.

2. Set up three stage breading station. Bread butternut squash and lay out on sheet pan.

3.  Cook pasta according to package instructions, drain in colander then return to pot. Add about 2 TBS EVOO, season with salt and pepper and stir. Cover and set aside. Meanwhile, heat up pasta sauce in a separate saucepan, cover and set aside.

4. Heat cooking oil in cast iron skillet. When hot (but not too hot), carefully place breaded butternut squash into pan, a couple at a time, and fry until golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side. Remove to sheet pan and arrange in a shingle pattern.

5. Turn on broiler. Arrange mozzarella slices on top of breaded butternut squash slices, then sprinkle generously with parmesan. Place under broiler until mozzarella melted and parmesan starts to brown, about four minutes. Watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn.

6. To plate, use a tongs to pile pasta in center of pasta bowl, nap with pasta sauce, garnish with additional parmesan, then use a long fish spatula to transfer butternut squash rings on top. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley if you wish.

What sort of things do you like to make “parmesan”? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!


Meat Free Mondays – Garlic Bread Vegetarian Calzones

I’ve been working to perfect my calzones recipe lately and after a few calzone disasters, I finally found one that I’m happy with.

First of all, for those unfamiliar with calzones, they are simply pizza that is folded up into itself, sealed and baked. The result is a mouth-watering pocket of gooey mozzarella, tasty tomato sauce and whatever toppings you prefer.

You can make calzones with any pizza dough recipe you would like, but I’ve been making this garlic bread pizza crust recipe that I found on the wonderful blog “Mom Makes” because it is really flavorful and especially delicious.

For the filliing, I wanted to use all vegetables, but I was concerned that they wouldn’t cook soft enough sealed inside the calzone, so I gave them a quick saute ahead of time. The pizza sauce was my super easy and dependable pizza sauce I always make, but since I’m avoiding white sugar, I replaced it with the same amount of honey.

Finally, I used cute little mozzarella ovalini, which are balls of fresh mozzarella that are about the size of a golf ball. I just cut them in half and put a few in each calzone.

But what really makes this recipe something special is making a garlic butter sauce then brushing the calzones with it just prior to baking. It really brought the flavor to an entirely new level and is something I probably will be doing all the time from now on.

Garlic Bread Vegetarian Calzones

For the crust

1 cup lukewarm water (baby bath temperature)

1 TBS active dry yeast (or one envelope)

1-1/2 TBS honey

1-1/2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp sea salt

1 tsp granulated garlic

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried oregano

2 TBS unsalted butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

For the pizza sauce

8 oz can of tomato sauce

1 TBS Italian seasoning

1 tsp honey

For the pizza

8 oz Mozzarella ovalini, cut in half

1/2 yellow pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

1/2 red onion, julienned

4 oz can of sliced mushrooms, drained

4 oz can of sliced black olives, drained

1. For the sauce, combine tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and honey in a small pot and heat until bubbly. Turn off and set aside. Meanwhile, saute the peppers and onions, add the mushrooms and olives for the final minute to heat through and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan, add garlic and cook until the garlic just starts to brown. Turn off and set aside.

2. In Kitchen Aid bowl, combine water, yeast, 1-1/2 TBS of honey and EVOO. Let sit for about 10 minutes until it starts to foam, indicating the yeast has activated. Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, combine flours, salt, garlic powder, basil and oregano and mix together with your hands.

3. Add nearly all of the flour mixture into the yeast liquid — reserving about 1/2 cup for kneading — and blend on medium using the dough hook attachment until a dough ball forms, about three minutes. Sprinkle some of the reserved flour mix onto a work surface then transfer the dough ball and knead adding additional flour mix as necessary until dough is springy and no longer sticky.

4. Grease a clean mixing bowl with about 1 tsp of EVOO and place dough ball into bowl, turning so that all sides are oiled. This prevents a crust from forming as the dough rises. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft free place until dough has doubled in size, about an hour. Punch down and let it rise again if you want, but it’s not essential.

5. Preheat oven to 500F. Knead dough for a few minutes and let rest for a few more. Then cut dough into four peices. Using your hands and a rolling pin, form each peice into a thin circle, about 8 inches in diameter. When all four circles are complete, add a small amount of tomato sauce into the center of each, then a small amount of the sauteed vegetables, then about 3 or 4 ovalini halves.

6. Fold each circle over so that it forms a half moon, then roll the edges in toward the center about 1/2 inch. Use your fingers to pinch closed all the way around. Transfer calzones to greased baking sheets and brush generously with garlic butter.

7. Bake for about 15 minutes or until brown and crusty.

What sort of pizza variations do you like to make? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!



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!

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.


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!

Budget Cooking — Oh, Pizza!

To me, pizza is the world’s most perfect food. All the essential food groups are combined into one delicious package — the crust is your starch, the cheese is your protein, and the toppings are your vitamin-rich veggies. You can eat it with your hands, so there’s little cleanup, and at least in my house there’s hardly ever any leftovers. What could be more

My family is fortunate enough to live in a city where there is an abundance of amazing pizza places nearby. Dial a number and some of the best pizza in the world can be at our door within the hour. But ordering a pizza can be a luxury if you are on a budget, unless you order from an inexpensive chain pizza store, where quality is often sacrificed at the expense of cost-savings and speed.

The good news is you can serve your family steaming, delicious pizza anytime you want for just a couple of bucks if you make it yourself. I’ve been making pizzas professionally and for my family for more than 20 years and it’s still one of my favorite dishes to make. It’s easy, fun, and can even provide priceless family time if you get the kids involved
kneading the dough or placing the toppings. The variations are endless and it’s also a great way to use up leftovers. Plus, pizza!

Today, I’m going to share with you my recipe for a mouth-watering cracker-crust whole wheat pizza. Although it takes a little time because I proof my own dough, it’s not complicated and all the ingredients are probably already in your cabinets.

This simple recipe makes enough dough for two 16” pizzas, or four mini (8”) pizzas. You can freeze whatever you don’t use. Pizza dough freezes great, and can last for months. When you’re ready to use it, just pull it out to defrost for a few hours, then roll it out. Nothing could be easier. Plus the cost is roughly $.50 per 16″ pizza crust.

The Dough

2 cups lukewarm water (105-115 degrees F)

1 teaspoon honey

1 envelope active dry yeast

4 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

1 TBS salt

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour

1.   Measure the lukewarm water into a large bowl. Don’t worry about using a thermometer to temp it, just make it the same temperature as baby bath water. Sprinkle the yeast into water then stir in the honey until dissolved. Wait about 10 minutes for the yeast to start eating the sugars in the honey, causing tiny bubbles to form. Meanwhile, combine the flours and salt in a mixing bowl.

2.   Once the yeast starts to bubble, stir in 3 TBS of EVOO. Save the remaining EVOO for later. Add about ¾ of the flour mixture into the liquid one cup at a time until it starts to form a loose dough. You can use a Kitchen Aid mixer on low with a dough hook if you have one, or just stir it with a wooden spoon.

3.   Transfer the dough to a lightly floured counter, then use your hands to knead it for about 8 to 10 minutes, slowly adding the rest of the flour mixture. When the dough is smooth and no longer sticky, form it into a ball. You can tell it’s ready when the dough springs back when you press your thumb into it. Spread the remaining EVOO around all sides of a mixing bowl using a paper towel or napkin, then roll the dough around in the bowl so that its covered with the oil. This prevents a skin from forming while it rises. Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for at least an hour. This is called “proofing” the dough.

4.   Once the dough has roughly doubled in size, punch it down to its original size, knead it for about 30 seconds more, then let it rest for a couple of minutes. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into at least two pieces. I usually put one half in a plastic zip-lock freezer bag and freeze it for another day.

5.   Use a rolling pin to shape the dough into a circle or rectangle, depending on your cooking sheet. The dough should be slightly larger than whatever pan you’re using. Transfer the dough to the cooking sheet, then use your thumbs to crimp the sides to make a nice crust. Spray or brush the crust with a little EVOO to make it crispy. Use a fork to poke holes throughout the dough. This is called “docking the dough” and it keeps air bubbles from forming in the dough while it cooks.

Pizza Dough Crimped and Docked

Pizza Dough Crimped and Docked

6.   Cook in a 400F oven for about 20 minutes or until dough just starts to brown, turning once or twice.

The Sauce

There is nothing complicated about my pizza sauce, but it is delicious and very inexpensive – depending on the tomato sauce you buy, it can cost anywhere from $.11 to $.34/pizza. It’s easy to make it while your crust is cooking, plus the hearthy smells of the cooking crust and the tangy tomato smell of the simmering sauce are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

8 oz can tomato sauce (any kind)

1 TBS Italian Seasoning (or dried oregano)

1 tsp granulated sugar

Combine ingredients in a small sauce pan. Heat until just bubbly, stirring once or twice, then simmer for a minute or two to get the tin can taste out. Turn it off and set it aside until the crust is ready.

There's nothing complicated about my pizza sauce

There's nothing complicated about my pizza sauce


Once the crust is ready, spread the sauce on the pizza using a spatula, then add whatever toppings you want.  I often use fresh sliced red onions and green pepper, canned or fresh sliced mushrooms, canned sliced black olives, partially cooked Italian sausage, or whatever I have at hand. Whatever you choose, it’s going to be delicious.

On this one, I put red pepper, red onions, black olives, sliced mushrooms and pulled smoked chicken

On this one, I put red pepper, red onions, black olives, sliced mushrooms and pulled smoked chicken

Cover your toppings with about 8 oz of low-moisture, part skim mozzarella, a package of which will cost anywhere from $1.49 to $3.00, depending on where you go and if it’s on sale. Or you can use fresh mozzarella if you want, but it’s going to be a little more expensive, usually about $2.98-$3.98 for a half pound. Before it goes in the oven, I usually sprinkle the pizza it with a little grated parm and Italian seasoning, some red pepper flake, and a little granulated garlic for some additional flavor oomph. Cook at 400F for about
20 more minutes, or until the cheese starts to just slightly brown.

Slice and serve with additional grated parmesan or Romano and crushed red pepper flake on the side. This recipe feeds about three hungry adults or a family of four. You’re a hero for under $4.00!

Oh, Pizza!

Oh, Pizza!