Fresh Tomato Pasta for the Height of Tomato Season

Every time I come upon a tomato grown in our garden, I exclaim, “hello, gorgeous!”Fresh Tomato Pasta on

My garden and the farmer’s market are booming juicy ripe tomatoes.  We have been enjoying tomatoes with reckless abandon with simple preparation: in BLT’s, in a caprese salad or sliced on their own.  Another delicious and simple preparation that honors a juicy tomato is this uncooked tomato pasta sauce that I tossed with hot whole grain spaghetti.  It contained sliced and chopped tomatoes, two chopped sweet Italian peppers, a clove of garlic- minced, chopped flat leaf parsley, basil, and a few dashes of red wine vinegar and the tiniest drizzle of olive oil.  I mixed up the sauce and left it raw, then tossed it with the pasta, cooked al dente.  I topped it with fresh cracked pepper, a little salt and a ball of Buratta: fresh mozzarella with a creamy center, opened for scooping a spoonful on to each plate. The Burrata is a nice texture compromise between ricotta and regular fresh mozzarella and really made this lush.  This was a fabulous summer pasta and an easy way to focus entire meal on tomatoes, raw and in their finest form: juicy and warm from the vine.  Summer’s lease hath too short a date!  Dig in!  My recipe is a mash-up of recipes from Martha Stewart (here and here) and from a recipe from Bon Appetit, with the addition of Burrata from my own imagination.

After a break from blogging over the summer, I’ve decided to make shorter posts more the norm.  I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

Mandilli de Saea al Pesto with Peas

I started out my last post saying that summertime “is a season to avoid being booked and busy as much as possible, to allow time to be free to savor summer’s simple pleasures.”  A few nights ago, I came home intent on making Mandilli de Saea al Pesto with Fresh Garden Peas –this supper is one of the reasons I avoid being booked and busy.  I have been waiting since January to roll out Silk Handkerchiefs or Mandilli de Saea and, cook them gently, and  coat them with a stunning, bright green, fragrant pesto made with basil from our garden.

I began by shelling a pound of farmer’s market peas.  Just-cooked, freshly-shelled peas rounded out our simple supper perfectly. 

I have rolled out fresh pasta in various formats, and made pesto a time or two, but I don’t claim to be an expert on either, though my technique has certainly gotten better over time.  I first learned to make fresh pasta at a cooking class I took at the Chopping Block Cooking School located in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago that my sweetheart gave me as a Christmas present a few years ago.  I will shamelessly admit that everything I have learned since I can attribute to watching cooking shows on T.V.  I usually follow Lidia Bastianich’s recipe for fresh pasta which is simple, using a food processor, readily available all-purpose flour and a little olive oil which makes a silky dough.  I came home from work and immediately got to work using our handy-dandy food processor to mix up a half-recipe of pasta dough—two people don’t need 1½ pounds of pasta sitting around.  Thank you Lidia for making your dough in the food processor.

Lidia’s  Pasta Dough – Yield 1½ pounds of dough

3 cups all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
7 tablespoons very cold water, plus more as needed


Measure the flour into the food processor, and give it a quick buzz to distribute air throughout.  Crack eggs and measure liquid into a separate bowl.  Start the processor on high, and stream the liquid ingredients into the processor.  Once combined, the dough should form a ball at the end of the processor’s blade.  If it is crumbly, add cold water one tablespoon at a time until a ball forms.  If the dough is sticky, knead in a small amount of flour until the pasta is smooth.  Form the dough into a disk, wrap in saran wrap or a clean towel and let rest for 30 minutes.  After resting the dough, cut the disk into 8 equal pieces (or 4 if you are making a ½ recipe).  Begin by rolling the dough through the largest setting of a pasta machine, fold it once, and then roll through the largest setting again.  Roll the dough through each successively smaller setting once, until the noodles reach the desired thickness, which for Mandilli de Saea, should be thin enough to be semi-transparent.  I rolled my pasta through settings 1-6 using the flat pasta rolling attachment on my Kitchenaid Mixer, then used a rotary pasta cutter to slice the long sheets of pasta into squares of roughly the same size.  Perfection isn’t necessary.  One of the beauties of homemade pasta is its humble nature.  Italian Grandmas aren’t measuring each square with a ruler.

I placed a clean, lightly floured dish towel on top of a rimmed baking sheet, and laid the handkerchiefs on it, side by side.  Once one towel was filled, I gently layered another on top of it, filled it with squares of pasta, and continued to layer pasta between towels, one on top of the next until all of the pasta was rolled.  I covered the top layer with an additional towel to keep the pasta from drying out too fast.

Paolo Laboa’s Genovese Pesto

15-20 Leaves of Genovese Basil, Soaked in cold water to reduce Chlorophyll
2 Cloves of Garlic, peeled
A small handful of Pine Nuts
Approximately ½ Cup of Grated Parmesan Cheese
Ligurian Olive Oil, or Light Olive Oil
Pinch of Sea Salt

I follow Chef Paolo Laboa’s Chow Network tutorial on creating the perfect pesto as closely as possible.  In the past this has involved attempting to grind and mash the ingredients together by hand into a creamy, perfectly-emulsified green paste using my mortar and pestle.  This week, there was an unfortunate freak accident in our kitchen, which involved an old kitchen drawer that was mounted to the wall and used for years as a shelf falling (or leaping?) to the floor.  Apparently, one of the screw-in hangers was stripped.  When the shelf came down it took with it its contents, about half of which were smashed to smithereens.  My precious Mortar and Pestle, Butter Bell butter crock, the stopper to my vintage vinegar bottle and a tiny lidded pot de creme vessel all met their demise along with a full bottle of balsamic glaze.  The incident left kitchen cupboards and floor and the inside of an open drawer splattered with sticky, syrupy balsamic glaze which affixed the jagged remnants of the broken crockery firmly to the tile floor.  It will take several more rounds with a bucket and sponge to get every glued-down shard out of the grout between the floor tiles.  Sadly, everything but the balsamic glaze was a Christmas or anniversary gift.  Though I am a little heavy-hearted having several gifts broken to bits, these things can be replaced.  In the meantime, it gives me a good excuse to use the food processor to make pesto which isn’t Paolo Laboa’s way, but it is much easier.  

Grate approximately ½ cup of Parmesan Cheese into the bowl of the food processor.

Add a handful of pine nuts, a sprinkle of sea salt, and two peeled cloves of garlic and pulse ingredients together to form a paste.

Add 15-20 leaves of Genovese Basil which have been soaked in cold water to reduce the chlorophyl.  Chlorophyl gives plants their verdant hue, and it improves the basil flavor to have it taste a little less “green.”  Add a small amount of olive oil, and pulse, stopping to scrape down the sides of the food processor.  When the ingredients have become a thick paste, stream in additional oil while running the processor until the pesto has a smooth texture.

Cook the pasta handkerchiefs in a large pot of boiling, lightly-salted water for 1½- 3 minutes, until al dente.  I cooked the peas in a separate saucepan of boiling water and drained them after 1½ minutes.  In a large bowl, mix the pesto with a small ladle-full of hot pasta-cooking water to melt the parmesan cheese, then added the pasta and peas to the bowl.  Gently stir the hot sheets of pasta and peas through the pesto to coat each surface with warmed, melting sauce.

We sat down immediately to eat at the table on our patio that faces the garden.  All of the senses are engaged in the preparation and enjoyment of this meal.  The process is completely justified by the result.  There is no way to duplicate the fragrance, colour, texture or flavor on this plate using frozen peas, jarred pesto, or pasta from a box.  We enjoyed the meal the only way it should be made– totally from scratch, in season and eaten al fresco.  A fresh plate of Mandilli de Saea al Pesto, piled high with sweet, fresh peas is a wonderful summer-only dish.

Stir-Fried Vegetables with Tofu and Udon Noodles in a Spicy Peanut Sauce

I have been eating and making stir fries all of my life.  Stir-frying vegetables and a protein of choice served with rice or noodles is a weeknight staple in so many homes.  It is easy and flexible in that you can use whatever vegetables you have.  It is also satisfying and can be quite healthy if you aren’t heavy-handed with oil in the preparation.  I consider myself to be fairly adept at stir-frying vegetables to tender-crisp, but my challenge has been developing a tasty and full flavored sauce.  I don’t buy stir-fry sauces, and in experimenting with the ingredients and seasonings used to develop flavor, I have served some meals in which the flavor was weak.  After many trials and much error I took some guidance from others [here and here].   Now, I am finally cracking the code of making tasty stir-fry sauces from scratch that are simple and flavorful.  Tonight’s Stir-fried Vegetables and Tofu with Udon Noodles in a Spicy Peanut sauce was declared a winner.

Stir Fried Vegetables with Tofu –Yields about 4 Hearty Servings

  • 1 block of Extra Firm Tofu, with excess water removed then cut into cubes.  Meat eaters might enjoy chicken, beef or pork instead of tofu, either pre-cooked, or sautéed with onions and other seasonings before vegetables are stir-fried. 
  • 1/3 of a Package of Udon Noodles – cooked according to package directions
  • Olive Oil or Peanut Oil, for cooking
  • Approximately 4 Cups of Vegetables, I used: 
    • ½ of a medium red onion, diced
    • 1 broccoli crown, cut into florets
    • 1 cup of fresh spinach
    • ¾ cup of frozen soy beans (Edamame)
    • ¾ cup of sliced button mushrooms,
    • ¼ of a Red Bell Pepper, sliced into strips
    • ¼ of an Orange Bell Pepper, sliced into strips

There are no limits on the vegetables that would be great in this Stir Fry.  Other vegetables that come to mind include cauliflower, shitake or cremini mushrooms, green peas, green onions, water chestnuts, baby corn, bamboo shoots, carrots, celery, bok choy, cabbage, asparagus, snow peas, broccolini and green beans…  It will be great with just about any vegetable you like.  You simply assemble an assortment of vegetables, wash them, and then chop them into nice, bite-size pieces.

This is a meal that comes together quickly once you start cooking it, so I like to get all of the vegetables ready and make the sauce before I even start stir-frying the vegetables.  I whisked together the following ingredients into a spicy-peanutty sauce.  You can adjust the heat up or down according to your preference by adding additional Red Chili Flakes or Garlic-Chili paste.  My sauce was fairly spicy to begin with, so I decided simply to stick to my original recipe.  I placed a bottle of Rooster Sauce on the table in case either of us found the spice level to be lacking.

Spicy Peanut Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons natural chunky peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup veggie broth or water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red chile flakes
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon ginger, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons Braggs Liquid Aminos or soy sauce
  • A squeeze of lime juice

Once the Spicy Peanut Sauce was ready and all of the veggies were chopped, I selected Japanese udon noodles from the pantry to serve with the stir-fried vegetables.  I like udon noodles quite a bit.  Even though udon have a light colour, they are a whole wheat noodle.  They have a smooth texture and a similar size to linguine.  Instead of udon noodles we often have nutty buckwheat soba noodles, rice noodles, regular whole grain spaghetti or occasionally rice.  I have noticed that udon noodles are salty enough without additional salt added to the water as you would add to most pastas.

I like the way udon noodles come wrapped in individual portions.  I typically make way too much pasta, and we have leftovers for days.  The guidance helps.

Let me let you in on a nifty trick for preparing tofu to be cooked.  When you purchase tofu packaged in water, you need to squeeze out some of the liquid so that the tofu can absorb the sauce and flavor of the vegetables.  Rather than pressing tofu between plates and setting it precariously under a heavy object, which always wants to tip off and fall on my foot, someone once told me to wrap the tofu in a paper towel or a clean kitchen towel and microwave it for 2 minutes.*  This process works wonderfully to remove the excess liquid from the tofu and makes it ready to absorb a flavorful sauce after being nuked on high for two minutes for 2 or three rounds.  This is far easier and less dangerous for my feet.  After microwaving the tofu and slicing it into bite sized cubes I started my veggies.

Other than a great sauce, the key to a good stir-fry is not to overcook the vegetables.  I always start with onion, giving it a 2-3 minute head start in the pan with a small glug of oil before adding anything else.  I use a large, deep nonstick pan, because I don’t have a wok.  A wok or a well-seasoned cast-iron pan are very helpful to making a healthy stir-fry because the vegetables don’t stick, even if you only use a little oil.  Next, I add the remaining vegetables in the order that allows everything to finish cooking at the same time without overcooking any single ingredient. If I was using carrots and celery, for example, I’d add them first, and cauliflower soon after, followed by frozen vegetables, and finishing with mushrooms, bell peppers and anything that takes only a few minutes to cook.  You can probably look up estimated cooking times for vegetables in a cookbook or on the internet.  I have learned through trial and error.  Tonight, I was able to add most of the vegetables at the same time, reserving the broccoli, tofu and spinach to add later, since they need a shorter cooking time.

When the veggies had cooked about 2 minutes and were looking bright and well on their way to tender-crisp, I added the peanut sauce, turned the heat to low and let the whole thing cook for 4 minutes.  A few minutes with heat allows the salty-spicy-sweet-citrusy-nutty elements of the sauce to meld.  When I figured the vegetables and sauce needed another 4 minutes more to cook, I added the broccoli and tofu.  Even though broccoli is a dense, cruciferous vegetable, it cooks quickly, and after no more than about 4 minutes, it is done.  When the vegetables are done they are bright and softened, and still retain a firm bite.  Tofu is great sautéed or broiled, but tonight  I wanted to eat it fresh, so I cooked it just enough time to absorb the sauce and to be heated through.

When the noodles were cooked, I drained them and served them on a small platter with a few sprigs of curly parsley.  Cilantro would be a suitable garnish for the pasta, if you like cilantro, but we aren’t big fans.  Before serving the stir-fry, I scattered the fresh spinach leaves in a pile on the platter.  I could have stirred the spinach into the veggies and sauce and allowed it to wilt, but I find that spinach is great, even if it only half-wilts under a mound of steamy vegetables.

We both enjoyed this stir-fry.  It was full of spicy, peanutty flavor and a bright variety of vegetables that retained their bite.  The tofu also soaked up plenty of flavor and was as easy as could be to prepare.  And the pasta?  Everything tastes good on a serving of steamy, al dente pasta.  When you are in the mood for an easy and delicious vegetable stir-fry, consider trying this tasty recipe.  The sauce and veggies are full of texture and flavor.  This dish is flexible, quick and easy enough to make any night of the week.

*Thank you to the person who told me the tofu-nuking tip, whoever you are.  I am so pleased that I don’t have to press tofu ever again.

Whole Wheat Pasta with Mushrooms, Broccoli, Spinach and Peas

A bunch of veggies roasted, steamed or sautéed and served with some type of pasta is a meal we eat every week.  Sometimes we eat it on multiple days.  It is easy, and it can be absolutely yummy and healthy, if its made it right.  There are infinite variations, and every time we make this we both think it is pretty great.

We keep vegetables on hand, both fresh and frozen.  We almost universally have mushrooms of some type, fresh spinach and broccoli in the fridge.  We keep them on hand because they are wholesome and extremely versatile, but even more importantly, because I really love these veggies.  I can’t imagine what I’d eat during a week that I do not eat mushrooms and broccoli.  Frozen peas make a frequent appearance on our plates too.  There are a few short months in the year where we might have fresh, home grown and farmer’s market peas, but the rest of the year, frozen peas are quick to make and taste great.  I am partial to fresh spinach.  A huge bag of washed spinach is cheaper than lettuce.  You can add a few handfuls to soup, pasta, quinoa, or even a packaged frozen entrée, if you eat them.  Spinach adds calcium, antioxidants, flavor and if the food is warm, it cooks in a few minutes after you add it.  I am not a big fan of frozen bricks of pre-cooked spinach.  I think they might be the reason spinach got such a bad rap.  It works fine for spinach dip, but it is otherwise, too dark and mushy for me.

The first key to a pasta meal being a healthy, lovely meal is veggies.  Veggies!  Vegetables are the absolute most powerful tool to healthful eating.  They fill you up and they are full of good things like calcium, potassium, antioxidants and fiber with a very low-calorie count.  The key is to try every veggie you can, get them fresh from a good source, or preserved in a wholesome manner, make sure they are prepared in a way that doesn’t ruin them and pile them on 3/4 of your plate.  I love vegetables, which makes this easy.  If you don’t, just try them, one at a time.  Make a lot of the ones you like, and give the rest a chance.  They are an acquired taste, but they are satisfying when they are the center of your meal.  Tonight I sautéed garlic and a diced shallot in a little olive oil, then added mushrooms.  When the mushrooms began to brown, I added a splash of pasta water, and then covered to pan to allow the broccoli and peas to steam.  I didn’t cook the spinach at all.  I placed two large handfuls into the bottom of the bowl I used to serve the veggies.  When I added the veggies, the spinach wilted, but didn’t totally lose its shape or get soggy.  I frequently roast veggies, and recently, I’ve also been steaming them in my Mom’s Bamboo steamer that she has had since the 1970’s.  The entire key to veggies is not to overcook them to use a light touch with oil, salt or other seasonings.  They don’t need it.

The next step to making this meal, of course, is the pasta.  I make homemade pasta, and I have yet to post about it.  It is delicious, but I’ll admit, I like to eat pasta a little more often than I have time to mix it and roll it out.  I consider it to be a process to go through for a special occasion.  Tonight, we had organic, whole grain angel hair pasta, cooked al dente, according to package directions.  If you ate whole wheat pastas a few years ago and found it dry, grainy and generally too serious, you should try them again.  There are whole grain pastas that have a delicious nutty texture, there are even some whole grain pastas that have no noticeable difference from traditional “white” pasta.  Using whole grain adds a little stomach-filling fiber, lowers the glycemic index of your meal and helps nudge a week-night pasta meal in the direction of health.  Also worth noting are fresh herbs.  In the middle of winter, a big bunch of flat leaf parsley costs less than $2 at our grocery store.  In the summer, we grow herbs, and buy them at the Farmer’s Market for pocket change.  The addition of chopped herbs to pasta is unbelievable.  Your eyes will thank you.  Your tastebuds will thank you.  Fresh herbs elevate a dish and only add good.

One out of two of us eats meat.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  it is a good thing for Bjorn that he is a flexible meat eater.  It makes it easier for me that he doesn’t expect meat to be a central part of every meal.  I enjoy preparing meat for a special occasion and Bjorn makes it whenever he wants it, and he swears he gets enough.  There are many meat eaters who don’t feel like they’ve had a meal if meat isn’t center stage.  I think we’ve all gotten the memo advising us that people aren’t supposed to eat as much meat as we did before we knew where our next meal was coming from, or we needed to fuel ourselves through 12 hours of hard physical labor.  Reframing meat as a dish that you have for a special occasion opens up a world of opportunity for meat to be a meaningful garnish.  Here enters Soppressata.  It is a flavorful hard salami.  Just a few slices, casing removed, cut into little chunks and heated briefly puts a tasty bit of meat on the omnivore’s plate and rounds out their meal.

Finally, there is sauce.  We don’t always have sauce with our pasta and veggies.  I like to use spaghetti sauce, or a can of San Marzano tomatoes, torn into chunks when we feel like tomatoes.  If we aren’t feeling tomato-y, I would use a touch of olive oil or butter and a sprinkling of grated cheese or nothing.  Tonight I made a simple creamy sauce.  This isn’t an “every night” sort of thing though.  We had a little heavy cream left over from the Soufflés Bjorn made for Valentine’s day and I couldn’t let it go to waste.  I melted the tiniest bit of butter and added a sprinkling of flour.  Once it cooked a bit, I added the cream and let it thicken before adding a bit of pepper and grated Asiago.  Just like the meat, if you are going to use butter, oil or creamy sauce, if you use a light touch, you can enjoy the richness without consuming excessive calories.

I want to live in a world where I can have my pasta and eat it too.  I am finding that if I keep an eye on portions and make thoughtful choices about ingredients and preparation, I can enjoy my plate of pasta without feeling gluttonous or guilty.

Cooking for the Kids

At some point this year, we turned a corner.  Without any warning or fanfare, we found ourselves rested enough, organized enough, with enough time, and with our home and our finances in enough order to allow us to commit more than the most minimal effort to trying to do something good.  It comes naturally to some at a younger age, and I truly admire those people.  I have found that I am a one-thing-at a-time type who needs to have their own ducks in a row before signing on for an ongoing commitment.  Better late than never, I hope.   We found the first volunteer experience that suited our combined abilities in an email circulated around Bjorn’s office.  The option that jumped out at us was the opportunity to prepare a dinner for 8 in our own kitchen at home and deliver it to an emergency safe house for homeless youth, ages 16-21 in our neighbourhood operated by Lutheran Social Services.  The guidelines are minimal.  Arrive at 7.  Bring a main dish (no pork) and a few sides; no mysterious looking casseroles, please.  Including a gallon of 2% milk and a bottle of juice is suggested.  Dessert is appreciated but not required.  We signed up for a few dates to give it a try.  I had to ask right away about accommodating special diets:  vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, etc.  We were told they didn’t currently have anyone with those needs.  We still tried to come up with enough variety and flexibility in the menu so that a person who doesn’t eat meat, or a person who doesn’t tolerate gluten could still eat a decent plate of food.

1.  This is the array of groceries and supplies we used for the first meal we prepared.  We spent about $40 on groceries at Target.  At my request, Lunds Grocery Store donated 3 disposable aluminum containers with lids for delivering the food.  We didn’t shop for this meal at Lunds, but we do almost all of our grocery shopping there.

2.  We packed a salad of iceberg and romaine lettuce with sliced cucumbers and julienned carrots.  We bought a package of parmesan croutons and a bottle of Ranch Dressing for the salad.

3.  This fall, Bjorn’s parents stocked our freezer with a generous supply of ground beef, steaks and a few roasts from cows raised on the family farm by Bjorn’s Uncle Stan.  I cannot begin to emphasize how wonderful it is to have a supply of beef raised by a farmer we know and trust.  We absolutely love to cook with this beef.

4.  I taped the typed-out dinner menu on paper grocery bags we used to deliver the food.  Our first meal consisted of Beef Meatballs in Spaghetti Sauce to be served on Hoagie Buns with Provolone Cheese, Roasted Potatoes seasoned with Hidden Valley Ranch Southwest Seasoning and ketchup, A Salad of Iceberg and Romaine Lettuce, Carrots and Cukes, Juice, Milk and Chocolate Chip Cookies.

5.  I tried to think like a caterer when I packed up the meal.  Disposable containers aren’t ideal for food presentation visually, but I think when food is packed neatly, containers are spatter-free and the contents and serving suggestions thoughtfully labeled, it helps a lot.  If this is the best meal or the only meal some of these kids are eating today, I want it to be a great meal.

6.  Bjorn’s meatballs, ready to bake.

7.  Bjorn’s meatballs out of the oven.  They smelled good.

We prepared and delivered our second meal on November 29.  This time when we arrived, we were offered a tour of the house.  It was fun and rewarding to see the safe house and some of the people who will eat our meal.  The house is large and very clean.  We enter through the backyard and after being cleared as “friendly visitors” on the security camera, we enter into the kitchen.  After setting up the meal on the large counter, we were led through the dining room which has a large dining table and shelves stacked with board games.  The next room is a is a livingroom with a huge, flat screen TV.  Upstairs was warm.  There were brightly lit bedrooms  that were already full of people having a boisterous conversation. The safe house has the atmosphere you would hope:  positive, clean, safe and welcoming.  We were told that the house is filled to capacity every night.  The staff also told us that they appreciate having a meal delivered because they don’t have to cook or go out and buy anything.  It saves the program money too, obviously.  Judging by our ease in finding workable dates, they are not at capacity for volunteers.  They report having a meal provided 4-5 nights a week.  They expressed relief that we did not prepare a Thanksgiving meal.  Apparently, they had quite a few of those in the past month and were getting a little tired of Turkey and Stuffing.

We hope our second meal was tasty and satisfying.  Here goes nothing:

1.  We shopped for most of the ingredients for meal number 2 at Trader Joe’s.  Again, we spent around $40.  This wasn’t planned, apparently, it is the price-point of the hearty meals we conceive of for 8.  The cost would be higher if we had to purchase meat.

2.  These are the ingredients to prepare tonight’s meal of Baked Potatoes, Sour Cream, Chili, Mac & Cheese, Roasted Broccoli, Baguette and Butter.

3.  I thought the well-labeled meal looked good the first time we delivered it, so I printed a menu and labels with serving suggestions for the second meal as well.  This time when we walked in the door with our labeled bags and containers we got a “wow!” from one of the staff.  I’m taking that as feedback to indicate that we’re doing okay.

4.  We thought Baked Potatoes would be a hearty side, so we scrubbed some russets to bake in the oven.  I love russets for baking because their peels gets meaty,chewy and crunchy, and their interior stays fluffy and light.   I like to oil the peels and salt them lightly with Kosher salt.

5.  When we have Macaroni and Cheese ourselves, which we do often, it is usually Kraft Dinner.  We decided to bump the Mac & Cheese up a few notches and followed Martha Stewart’s recipe for Perfect Macaroni and Cheese.  Here, Bjorn is stirring a roux that will become the cheese sauce.

6.  We baked the potatoes wrapped in foil which worked well for keeping them warm for delivery in a small paper bag.

7.  We stirred the cheese sauce into Al Dente pasta, it looked like it was creamy and delicious.

9.  Disposable food containers were easy to come by for this meal on the cheap at Walgreens because it was just after Thanksgiving.  We had to fashion a make-shift divider out of aluminum foil to separate the Macaroni and Cheese from the Roasted Broccoli.

10.  My parents gave us a container of frozen Oatmeal Raisin cookie dough, so we made cookies again this week.  My parents also purchase the milk and juice that we bring for each meal.

11.  Tonight’s meal is packed, labeled and ready to go.

12.  This week, we had the sense to save ourselves a serving a macaroni and cheese.  We had it with a salad topped with hard-boiled eggs.  Home made macaroni & cheese is so yummy.  We have set “we’d prepare it for guests in our home” as the standard for the meals we prepare for the safe house, and so far, I think we’ve been consistently able to pull it off.

Meal Number 3, December 21, 2011.

1.  For our third meal we had most of the ingredients and supplies on hand.  What we didn’t have, we bought at Target.

2.  Bjorn made beef meatballs again.  It helps make a substantial meal and keep our costs at a reasonable level when we use our beef.  Bjorn has perfected his meatball recipe.  He seasons the meat with Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salut and mixes in Egg, Breadcrumbs and grated parmesan, and as I said, they smell great when he bakes them.

3.  Meatballs are also convenient because  they can be baked a day ahead.  After baking the meatballs, Bjorn put them into the crock pot with spaghetti sauce.  I take the crock of meatballs out of the fridge and turn it on when I got home from work the night that we deliver the food.

4.  We cut up and steamed carrots, broccoli and cauliflower and made a creamy-cheesy sauce with grated cheese, sour cream and mushroom soup, a little pepper and a crunchy panko bread crumb topping.  It is creamy and delicious, but really, quite light.  After my Mom made the same dish at Christmas with frozen vegetables, I think I would go that route in the future.  It was just as tasty, it was probably cheaper and was definitely less work.

5.  For dessert I made chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and Christmas M&M’s.  They were yummy.

6.  Again, we made a make-shift divider in the aluminum container between the cheesy vegetables and slices of ciabatta bread.

7.  We boiled farfalle pasta to go along with the meatballs this week.  I made a last-minute call to Kowalski’s on Grand Avenue in Saint Paul to see if they would be willing to donate some disposable containers for us to deliver the meal in this week.  I barely had to finish my sentence explaining what we were doing and what we needed before the manager agreed to set out several nice, durable aluminum containers for me to pick up.  Those really aren’t cheap, so it helps us a lot.  It has been amazing to discover how generous store managers in our neighbourhood are when we just ask.

Not pictured with this meal are the Christmas cards that we brought along with our meal this week for the kids and the staff, each containing a $5 Subway gift card that we bought and a free 6 inch sub donated by the owners of Subway on Grand and Fairview Avenues and Selby Avenue and Victoria Street in Saint Paul.  This was another example of how people are ready to help and be generous when all we do is ask.  We thought our first 3 meals were a success, so we signed up to prepare and deliver 2 more in January.  We are enjoying the new experience of giving a little time, and at the same time getting to be creative and engaged in a favorite hobby:  cooking!

Sort of Stroganoff

One of the downfalls of loving to cook and eat is getting into bad habits of having too much of our favorite foods, too often.  Like many concerned eaters, we’ve recently watched the documentary, Forks Over Knives, and what we took away was a desire to go “Plant Strong” in our diet.  To us, going Plant Strong means that meat (for Bjorn), complex carbohydrates and processed foods (for both of us) are playing a smaller role in our meals.  We’re also aiming for scaled back portions when we do use these ingredients.  We want to do this for our health, to shake off some bad habits we’ve acquired and to shed what we carry that comes along with those bad habits.  We’re trying to put whole fruits and vegetables the center of more of our meals.  We’re gardeners, veggie lovers and avid Farmer’s Market shoppers, so this isn’t new.  We have just renewed our focus on putting the nutrient dense, delicious natural foods in the starring role they are meant to play in our diet.  I am also trying to take little shortcuts and make substitutions to reduce the fat and salt used in our cooking, without sparing flavour.  So far, we’re feeling good about the changes and I think we’re enjoying more variety and creativity in making a shift away from our pizza-pasta-burger routine we fell into over the summer.  I love pasta a lot so we will still eat it, but a smaller amount, and prepared in a more thoughtful way.  Tonight, our supper took the form of a lightened up, veggied-up, cobbled-together concoction with some characteristics that harken back to a traditional tangy and rich Russian-style Mushroom Stroganoff.

The recipe was simple, and came together quickly.  I started by sautéing two small yellow onions with non-fat cooking spray, and just a little bit of olive oil.  Then, I added chopped button and cremini mushrooms.  I love mushrooms and can hardly resist adding them to every pasta meal I make, along with peas and spinach.  They go with practically every sauce, and taste great together!  Bjorn, being pleasantly open-minded as an omnivore has no problem foregoing the traditional beef in the stroganoff on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night.  To make the sauce, I loosely followed a Beef Stroganoff recipe, minus the beef from on of favorite my blog-haunts,  Skinnytaste, using a can of tomato soup.  We didn’t have Worcestershire Sauce in the cupboard, but after a quick Google search, Bjorn informed me that soy sauce with a shot of hot sauce would do the trick as a stand-in for Worcestershire Sauce.  I used Braggs Liquid Aminos and Sriracha, aka, Rooster Sauce.  We like deeply flavored sauce, so I added a healthy shake of paprika and some crushed garlic and let the sauce cook a bit.  After cooking the onions and mushrooms and adding tomato soup the sauce was pretty thick, so I used some low sodium vegetable broth to thin it out a little.  I cooked egg noodles separately in lightly salted water and when they were well on their way to al dente, I added peas to the sauce pan.  When the noodles were nearly cooked, I stirred in some low-fat Buttermilk and a few generous handfuls of fresh spinach leaves into the sauce.  Buttermilk gives the creaminess and tang of sour cream you want with a Stroganoff, but is low in fat.  I had it on hand because I am planning to make another recipe that subbed buttermilk for a higher fat dairy product, so that is what I used, but low-fat sour cream would have been fine as well.  The spinach and peas don’t belong in a traditional stroganoff, but they sure taste good!  We enjoyed this cozy, richly flavored, savory dish with a little shaved parmesan and we both found the supper to be tasty and satisfying.  With a few little tweaks to our cooking and eating habits, in time, we will see a positive result, I think.  I also think we’ll enjoy some delicious suppers in the meantime.

Sauced – Gates Bar-B-Q Shish Kebabs

We’ve heard from a few friends who may know that Gates Bar-B-Q Sauce from Kansas City is The Best Barbecue Sauce.

Bjorn’s co-worker Jason was kind enough to bring us a bottle of Gates Bar-B-Q Sauce back from a recent trip home to Kansas City.  What better way to welcome the arrival of grilling season than slather some Extra Hot Gates Bar-B-Q sauce all over vegetarian and meat Shish Kebabs on their way to the grill?

Veggies on hand included bright yellow bell peppers, zucchini, green onions, button mushrooms and heirloom cherry tomatoes.  In a matter of minutes, those can be washed and chopped into large chunks of similar size and threaded on to bamboo skewers, pre-soaked in water.  It was late and we were tired so this meal needed to be fixed quickly.  The protein selected for the vegetarian version was pre-made vegetarian “meatballs” and for the omnivore iteration, real beef meatballs from the freezer, defrosted quickly in the microwave.

After grilling, as usual, the difference between the vegetarian and the real beef version is difficult to distinguish visually.   I made a simplified parsley pesto of fresh Italian Parsley, fresh garlic and olive oil, zipped in the food processor which pulled together green peas, chickpeas and Basmati rice into a cohesive side.

The finished plate:  this happens to be the veggie version. Notice the delicious char on the heirloom yellow cherry tomato toward the top of the left skewer.  That Gates Bar-B-Q Sauce has kick!   The meal prep was quick and left flavorful leftovers that re-heated well for a tasty and easy lunch at work the next day.