“Since hunger is the most primitive and permanent of human wants, men always want to eat, but since their wish not to be a mere animal is also profound, they have always attended with special care to the manners which conceal the fact that at the table we are animals feeding.” - John Erskine

18 February 2012

the quest for the best baked penne

quest [kwest]: an adventurous expedition undertaken to secure or achieve something

Isn’t the idea of a quest romantic?  It inspires images of castles, swords, shining armor, Sir Galahad, the Holy Grail and la belle dame sans merci... Just to name a few.
What can I say?  For the sake of February and romance I have embarked on my own quest.  Yes, I am on a quest.  For what am I questing, you query.  For the best ever baked penne and/or ziti recipe.  Or if not the best ever, at least a great one.  (But you already knew that didn’t you, because you read the title of today’s blog.  You are really quite a smarty pants.  Thats one of the things I like about you.)  So how is my quest going?  So far, not so good.  I’ve had baked penne/ziti that I thought was great, but not recently, and I can’t remember who made it to ask for the recipe.  Last one I tried had ricotta cheese, which I am quickly deciding just doesn’t work on the palettes of my little animals.  They just won’t eat anything with the stuff in it and I’m tired of throwing food away.  So the next recipe in the search for pasta perfection is this one, from BarbaraBakes.com.

Baked Penne
16 ounces penne pasta
4 cups prepared spaghetti sauce (jarred or homemade)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion chopped
1 pound ground beef
15 ounces ricotta cheese
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
1 egg, slightly beaten
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350°.  Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain.

In a large frying pan, sauté onion in olive oil until transparent.  Add the ground beef and cook until no longer pink, drain.  Stir in the ricotta, parsley, egg, salt, pepper and 2 cups of the spaghetti sauce.  Add cooked pasta and toss to coat.

Put pasta mixture into a greased 13×9 baking pan and cover with the remaining spaghetti sauce.  Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.  Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese begins to brown.

Easy enough, right?  This recipe came with its own homemade version of sauce (check out the website if you’re interested) which I intended to use, but I was too grumpy.  I find myself very grumpy while cooking lately.  Too many hours in the Jeep ~ carpool, piano lessons, parent teacher conferences (which somehow NEVER seem to be convenient for the parents), scouts, the gym... you get the point.  I just haven’t wanted to be spending any time cooking.  Thus the lack of posts lately.  Me + cooking this month = lots of frozen stuff.  It has inspired me to try out more freezer meal recipes next month... but I digress.

I was about to tell you that I used this instead of the homemade stuff.  Maybe that would have made a difference...?  I also swapped out cottage cheese for the ricotta (see above) and used this instead of the parsley (I can’t help myself ~ Chef Tess’s spice blends are truly a wonder) and skipped the salt and pepper.  I mixed mozzarella into the noodle mixture, as well as sprinkling some on top.  Hey, the cheesier the better is one of our mottos around here.

It tasted... ok.  There seemed to be so little hamburger in it that I felt like I wasted a pound of ground beef.  The cheese was good, but there seemed to be little flavor otherwise.  I think I’m getting tired of the Classico, too.  Maybe I’ll buy some Prego just to mix things up.  (I have never found a homemade sauce recipe that I like as well as store-bought.  Maybe another reason I wanted to try the homemade but opted out.)  My husband and the boys liked it ~ even Littlest gave it a thumbs up.  So maybe this is a good baked penne recipe, and it’s just my taster (what my mom calls her flavor sense) that’s off.  But for now, the quest goes on...

11 February 2012

healthy baked chicken nuggets

I’m not quite sure what makes these chicken nuggets healthier than others.  They seem to have the same ingredients.  Maybe spraying the oil on top?  Whatever the reason, these are really quite yummy and I highly recommend trying this recipe.  I didnt actually do nuggets ~ I made mine from frozen chicken tenders, and they turned out moist and yummy.  I decided to make it into an easy chicken parmesan: I took the baked chicken out of the oven and turned it off, put a piece of parm on each piece of chicken and stuck it back in the cooling oven for about 5 minutes until the cheese melted.  Then you just add noodles and pour on some marinara and voilà.  The whole family really really liked it, and it didn’t take much time to make.  (Always a bonus for mom!)

Healthy Baked Chicken Nuggets 
serves 8
source: skinny taste 
32 ounces skinless boneless chicken breasts, cut into even bite sized pieces
salt and pepper to taste
4 teaspoons olive oil
12 tablespoons whole wheat Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons panko
4 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
olive oil spray

Preheat oven to 425°.  Spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray.

Put the olive oil in one bowl and the breadcrumbs, panko and parmesan cheese in another.

Season chicken with salt and pepper, then put in the bowl with the olive oil and mix well so the olive oil evenly coats all of the chicken.

Put a few chunks of chicken at a time into the breadcrumb mixture to coat, then on the baking sheet.  Lightly spray the top with olive oil spray then bake 8-10 minutes.  Turn over then cook another 4-5 minutes or until cooked though.

I didn’t have any Italian bread crumbs, so I crumbled some whole wheat Ritz crackers with my fingers into my mini food chopper until I had about ¾ of a cup (12 tablespoons).  I tossed in the parmesan and 1½ teaspoons of Chef Tess Romantic Italian Seasoning (or use ¾ teaspoon dried basil and ¾ teaspoon dried oregano) and “processed” everything until the spices and cheese were blended and the crackers were nice and crumbly.  Mmm, homemade Italian “bread” crumbs.  I didn’t have any Panko either, but I had some of this and it seemed to do the trick.  I actually saw some Panko in the Asian section at Wal-Mart later, and I think it would probably make the coating a little more crunchy, but no one seemed to mind the lack of crunch at my house.

06 February 2012

pasta e fagioli soup

I’ve mentioned this soup before as my husband’s favorite.  The only one he’ll eat happily and without complaint.  We have tried several recipes, but keep coming back to this one.  I’ve had some difficulty figuring out how to include the beans, however.  My sweetie doesn’t like beans.  He really doesn’t like beans.  I’ve halved the amount I put in ~ no dice.  Quartered the amount.  Still get requests for no beans baby.  So I thought I’d try powdered beans.  Yep, they make those.  Hard to find ~ I ended up buying some of these online to try.  They came in flakes, which I put in my food processor to break them up and then ran them through my wheat grinder.  Worked out quite well.  I ended up using way too much (in my opinion the soup tasted a little “mealy”) but my husband didn’t even notice.  He ate a huge bowl full and then went back for more.  So now I know how to add beans without complaints.  From him anyway.  As I said, it was a little mealy for me, although Oldest loved it.  Littlest and Middlest refused to even try the soup.  Little stinkers.  I’m going to have to stop cooking soup for a while.  Wish that groundhog (or in our area, Sunset Sam the guniea pig) hadn’t predicted 6 more weeks of winter...
Sunset Sam, our local weather predictor.
Pasta E Fagioli Soup
½ pound ground beef
½ pound mild Italian sausage
1 small onion, diced
2 large carrots grated or julienned
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic (minced or pressed)
2 (14.5 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 (15 oz.) can red kidney beans with liquid
1 (15 oz.) can great northern beans with liquid
1 (15 oz.) can tomato sauce
1 can V-8 juice
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon mediterranean oregano
1 teaspoon basil
½ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon thyme
1 cup ditali pasta (salad roni)

Brown beef and sausage in a large skillet or pot over medium heat.  Drain off most of the fat.  Add onion, carrot, celery, and garlic and sauté for 10 minutes.  Add remaining ingredients, except pasta and simmer for 1 hour.  About 50 minutes into simmer time, cook pasta in 1½ to 2 quarts boiling water on high.  Add pasta to soup.  Garnish with fresh grated parmesan cheese.  Serve.
You can probably tell, I used large shell pasta this time around.  I use whatever happens to be in the house at the time and it always tastes great.  I also used Chef Tess instead of the seasonings called for.  Mmm.
Note: Skinny Taste has a version of this soup in which she recommends blending the beans with water in the blender.  I considered trying this, but figured there would still be those little bean skins that my husband might take umbrage to, so I chose the powdered option.  Whatever you do with your beans (I like them strait from the can just the way the recipe suggests) you should really try this soup.  Yum.