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Ah! It had been too long. Over a week since I’ve cooked? Terrible! So, I’m starting out simple. A little indulgent, but sooooo delicious. I love stuffed shells. Oh, the cheesy goodness. And this recipe is particularly lovely with the additional of lemon zest. It adds a brightness that really lightens the dish up. And since our chives had gone a little soft over the long weekend, I mixed it up with a bit of parsley and basil instead. Really, just about any fresh herbs would work well.

Stuffed Shells
via 101 cookbooks

zest of one lemon
25-30 jumbo dried pasta shells

Sauce:
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
4 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can crushed red tomatoes
1 14-ounce can crushed red tomatoes

Filling:
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 cup grated mozzarella
1 bunch of chives, minced (basil, parsley or a blend)

Oil a 13 x 9-inch / 33 x 23-cm baking pan, or equivalent, and sprinkle the zest of 1/2 the lemon across it. Set aside. Get a big pot of water boiling, and preheat your oven to 350F / 180C with a rack in the middle.
To make the sauce, combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, sea salt, and garlic in a cold saucepan. Stir while you heat the saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute just 45 seconds or so until everything is fragrant – you don’t want the garlic to brown. Now stir in the tomatoes and heat to a gentle simmer, just a minute or two. Remove from heat and carefully take a taste. If the sauce needs more salt add it now. Let cool.
To make the filling, combine the ricotta, egg, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix until combined, then stir in the mozzarella, remaining lemon zest, and 3/4 of the chives. Set aside.
Cook the shells according to package instructions in well-salted water – until al dente. If you overcook, the shells will tear as you attempt to fill them. Drain and let cool long enough to handle with your hands.
Spread 1/3 of sauce across the bottom of the prepared pan. Fill each shell with ricotta, and arrange in a single layer in the pan. Ladle the remaining sauce over the shells, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, uncover for the final 15 minutes or until the shells are cooked through. Sprinkle with the remaining chives and serve hot.

Years ago I took a cooking basics course (which I highly recommend!) and my favorite dish to whip up for special events became Chicken Cacciatore. Prior to this, I had only made food that came out of a can or box. The class changed my entire outlook on what food could be. Food that I made. And this was the one that first stole my heart. It’s a beautiful plate and has turned out nearly perfect every time.

Chicken Cacciatore
via saveur 

4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 3-lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 cup dry white wine
1 28-oz. can peeled whole san marzano tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. minced fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup strong chicken stock

Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook, continuing to stir, for about 2 minutes more. Push onions to sides of pan, then add chicken and fry, turning pieces several times to brown evenly, about 4 minutes per side.
Add wine and cook until it evaporates, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, with their juice, to chicken. Stir in bay leaf, rosemary, and parsley (reserving 1 tbsp. or so for garnish) and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low, partially cover, and simmer, adding chicken stock gradually as tomato juice evaporates, for 45 minutes. Garnish with reserved parsley. Serve with steamed potatoes or white rice.

So… we’ve had this mostly empty bottle of vodka in the freezer for months. Shocking? I know.
We’re generally wine and beer people – the liquor is usually just for friends or special occasions.
This past weekend I opened the freezer, hoping a carton of ice cream would materialize, and I spotted the vodka. We make pasta at least once a week and try to always keep a little on hand, when  suddenly it came to me. Vodka Sauce. I checked out a few different recipes and we had pretty much everything needed. Just picked up a can of crushed tomatoes and some fresh basil and we were good to go! Some of the recipes called for half a cup of vodka, and some for a whole cup. I figured I  would just wing it anyway. As I poured it into the measuring cup, voila! Exactly one cup. Perfect.


i
mage via maggie’s meals

Vodka Pasta
A mixture of a handful of recipes, serves at least 4
(you can exchange the chicken stock for a bit of pasta water to make it vegetarian) 

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 cup vodka
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
4 tablespoons shredded fresh basil, plus additional for serving
1 pound pasta
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for serving

Heat a large skillet over moderate heat, add olive oil and butter. Saute the onion about 5 to 6 minutes, until it begins to soften. Add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes more. Pour in the vodka and reduce by half, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and tomatoes. Simmer 15 minutes.
While the sauce simmer, cook the pasta to al dente.
Stir the cream and red pepper flakes into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Return the sauce to a bubble, then remove from heat. Stir in the Parmesan cheese. Drain the pasta and toss it with the sauce and basil leaves. Garnish with more cheese, as needed.

Spaghetti has been my go-to weeknight meal for as long as I can remember. And yes, often the canned sauce kind. But since we discovered this lovely, basic, incredibly fresh version; we hardly reach for those jars. So easy, so tasty. Even my dear husband makes it for me!

spaghetti redux

Spaghetti with Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted from Real Simple

12 oz spaghetti (3/4 box)
2 pounds grape or cherry tomatoes
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of Kosher salt, plus more to taste
A few grinds of black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (I usually use basil, parsley and oregano)
Freshly grated Parmesan, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400°F.
On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the tomatoes, onion, garlic, 3 tablespoons of the oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Roast the tomato mixture until they begin to burst and the onion starts to get soft, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and return it to the pot. Toss the pasta with the tomato mixture, chopped herbs, and remaining tablespoon oil.
Serve with the Parmesan and additional oil (if desired).