kid-friendly · Recipes

Classic Baked Ziti

I dread the onset of winter with its cold, dark, depressing ways, and anyone with little kids can tell you the havoc daylight saving time wreaks on family sleep schedules. We had an oddly warm fall here in New England; it was 70 degrees out Monday, when I started writing this, and as nice as that felt, I’m ready for the casseroles to start showing up again — even if Mother Nature isn’t. I’ve also been ready to dig into hibernation food for months now!

In that spirit, I’ve made this wonderfully simple Baked Ziti a lot this fall, including for potlucks, Sunday dinner, and for friends with new babies.

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This makes the perfect dish for visiting a newborn: it is comforting, filling, and reheats very easily, and can be eaten with one hand while holding a baby. It can also be frozen if your friends don’t have room to eat it right away. As a bonus, little kids like it, too, which is always an implicit goal of any recipe I post! Georgia simply gobbles this up, and it’s one of Mark’s, favorites, too. Win-win.

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This recipe was inspired by Smitten Kitchen with a few adaptations to make it my own.

Cook time: 30 minutes    Serves: 4-6

Classic Baked Ziti

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound ziti, cooked al dente
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp dried oregano or Italian seasoning (I like Wildtree)
  • 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • a few handfuls of baby spinach
  • 1 cup mozzarella, grated
  • 2/3 cup finely grated pecorino (or parmesan) cheese
  • fresh basil slivers
  • optional: red pepper flakes

DIRECTIONS

To start, preheat your oven to 400 F.

Heat a pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta very al dente, or at least 2 minutes less than the normal cooking time stated on the box. Drain the pasta, reserving half a cup of the cooking water.

Heat a large skillet over  medium and add a swirl of olive oil until warm, then add the meat alongside the onion, garlic, seasonings and a healthy dose of salt and pepper over medium-hihg for up to 8 minutes, or until the beef is browned, stirring often.

Add the crushed tomatoes and stir to combine, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for five minutes. Add in the reserved pasta water and then the spinach, cooking until milted (maybe another minute or two). Here, I like to add in some fresh basil, slivered, and maybe a couple fresh tomatoes from my garden if I need to use them up.

Stir in the drained pasta and mix together. Pour half into a 9×13 glass baking dish or lasagna pan, and sprinkle with half the two cheeses; repeat with another half of the pasta then top with the remaining cheese.

Bake in the heated oven for 30 minutes or until nice and crispy and browned on the edges. You can even run the dish under the broiler for a minute if you’d like it extra crispy! Enjoy warm.

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NOTES:

  • You can also use Italian sausage, casings removed, if you prefer the taste.
  • To cook al dente, shave 2 minutes off the cook time stated on the package of pasta. Taking care not to overcook is essential for this not turning mushy!
  • Seasoning the ground beef well with salt and pepper is essential; it’s less important if you opt for Italian sausage.
  • I like to serve this with more slivers of fresh basil and, if you have it, fresh ricotta. But that’s totally optional!
  • I have never tried this week meat substitutes, but it’s certainly possible. Other good substitutions to make it vegetarian would be mushrooms, beans, or lentils.

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Stay tuned for my first holiday shopping guides soon, and some inspiration for Thanksgiving dinner! I’m so excited Christmas is right around the corner. I basically live for the holidays once Halloween is over every year 🙂 Have a lovely, cozy weekend.

Grow Your Own Way · kid-friendly · Recipes

Tomato Tortellini Soup

New weeknight staple alert! This is a 20-minute meal that tastes like scratch (and mostly is), and provides delicious, warm little lunches. That is, assuming you even have leftovers. It really is that scrumptious.

We had parents night at Georgia’s school recently, and we got home that day with less than an hour to spare before we had to turn around and head back out the door. Patting myself on the back for buying fresh tortellini a few days earlier, I quickly realized I had the makings of a fast, filling dinner that would also serve the dual purpose of helping us move through our tomato stash. Which, if you’ve been following my Instagram since late August, is significant.

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Even with the cooler temperatures slowing down the ripening in our garden, I’ve put up 68 ounces (!!!) of tomato sauce, and made countless batches of creamy tomato soup for freezing and eating since September. I probably gave out 100 tomatoes to co-workers, too, and am now moving on to bringing in the green ones for folks who have good recipes for things like relish, fritters and stew. And all that came from just two plants!

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I did tons of caprese salad and homemade pizza during the weeks of late summer and early Autumn, but eventually that gets repetitive, and in the fall soup just starts to feel right. Georgia has never been a big fan of the texture of soup or stews, but I figured if anything could change her mind, it would be something chunky, creamy, and filled with cheesy pasta. And I was right.

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Inspiration for this recipe came from The Kitchn, but I made my own modifications and tweaks because I like more tomato chunks and a little less heft than heavy cream.

Tomato Tortellini Soup

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 TBSP butter + a swirl of olive oil for the pot
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed or minced
  • salt and pepper to taste (don’t be shy)
  • 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 or 3 plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 cans (4 cups/32 ounces) chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup light cream
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 package (about 14 ounces) cheese tortellini
  • 1/2 cup basil leaves, torn
  • grated parmesan cheese, to taste

DIRECTIONS

In a large stockpot or Dutch oven, heat the butter and olive oil together over medium until warm, then add the onion. Cook until soft, then add the garlic, making sure it doesn’t burn. Season with salt and pepper.

Stir in the vinegar, then add the crushed tomatoes (with the liquid in the can) and the broth, cream and bay leaves to the pot. Add in some chunks of fresh tomato. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the tortellini and cook for about 3 minutes (5 minutes if using frozen). Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaves, and stir in the basil. Serve topped with fresh grated Parmesan. Enjoy warm!

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Notes

You can use either fresh or frozen tortellini; just adjust the cooking time up a bit for frozen to give them time to thaw by cooking in the sauce.

Subbing vegetable stock is fine; I like the taste of chicken stock better. You can also use another type of shredded cheese on top, such as pecorino.

Feel free to put that heavy cream back in there if you want it extra rich!

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For me, this kept in the fridge just fine for 5 days. I also froze two small containers of it for later. To reheat, either warm over low/medium on the stovetop or microwave for about one minute, covered.

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I hope you are having a wonderful fall getting ready for Halloween, Thanksgiving and (gulp) Christmas. I am actually already starting to shop for the holidays! Starting early is the only way I can stay on budget. We just took our annual family photos with our favorite photographer — here’s a sneak peek of one image so far 🙂 I can’t wait to get the full package so I can start designing my photo album gifts and Christmas cards.

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kid-friendly · Recipes · Slow Cooker

Slow Cooker Honey Garlic Chicken

Inspired by a popular post on Damn Delicious (one of my favorite cooking blogs), this recipe for Slow Cooker Honey Garlic Chicken is beyond foolproof, with no braising, marinating or prep work required — just toss it in the slow cooker, come home after work and eat. You can use any cut of chicken and it still turns out moist and delicious. The original recipe called for chicken thighs, but boneless breasts were on sale and are something Georgia prefers, so we decided to try the recipe with those instead. And it worked perfectly. Life = easier, just like that!

Honey Garlic Slow Cooker Chicken

INGREDIENTS

  • 8 Chicken thighs (or two packages of boneless breasts, which I used here)
  • 16 oz. red potatoes (half a 2.5 pound bag)
  • 16 oz.baby carrots (one bag)
  • 16 oz. green beans, trimmed (one bag)

FOR THE SAUCE

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce (preferably reduced sodium)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Dried oregano, basil, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste (about a tablespoon total)

DIRECTIONS

  • Mix the sauce together and set aside.
  • In your slow cooker, nestle the potatoes and carrots into the bottom of the pot, then layer the chicken on top. Pour the sauce over and set to cook on low for 7-8 hours or on high for 3-4 hours.
  • The original recipe calls for basting every half hour, which is fine if you are home but not fine if you’re working. It turns out well either way.
  • In the last 30 minutes of cooking, add in the green beans.
  • Serve warm on a cold day!

OK, so this doesn’t photograph very well as a finished product. Trust me when I tell you it’s even BETTER as leftovers! 

This is a great recipe to pair with the Maple Dijon Pork Chops I posted about a couple of weeks ago when you’re meal planning for the week, because you can buy one bag of potatoes and use half in this meal and half with the chops; the same goes for the green beans.

Are you all set for Halloween?? We are in full Spooky Swing. Last weekend was the “Boo at the Zoo” event at the same place where we hosted Georgia’s birthday party this year, and we had a blast with friends riding the kiddie rides, seeing the animals in their exhibits, dancing to some monster tunes and of course picking up some toys and (healthy) treats along the walking paths. Monday we had a trick-or-treat in my office, which was another hit, and tomorrow G has her preschool Halloween party. It’s an exhausting life when you’re three — and the actual holiday hasn’t even hit yet! I’m not sure Rapunzel’s wig will make it to Monday intact… 🙂

Have a great rest of the week everyone. 

Baby & Toddler · DIY · Grow Your Own Way

My baby isn’t a baby anymore…

…She’s a gardener!! And a pretty tall one at that. Daddy and G spent their day off together yesterday planting “Georgia’s patch,” the raised-bed garden Mark has been cultivating along the sunny side of our house for the past five years. This year, for the first time, Georgia picked out all the plants, including strawberries, hula berries, tomatoes, basil, peppers, lettuce and zucchini, and helped daddy replace the soil, dig holes, label the chalkboard stakes and mulch it all over. I can’t wait to taste everything they grow together!!

One thing we don’t usually grow but which I love to buy and bake with this time of year is Rhubarb. It should be hitting the farmer’s markets soon!! Every year, I make a tangy/sweet Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble, and this year I am dying to try Smitten Kitchen’s Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Breakfast Bars, which sound delectable.

And speaking of breakfast and yummy baked goods: there’s a new bakery at the Boston Public Market that I can’t wait to check out. Started by a 22-year-old (!) entrepreneur whose commercial kitchen is based in my ‘hood, Malden, Jennifer Lee’s Gourmet Bakery started as a short-term pop-up vendor whose bites were so popular she became the first vendor to convert to a permanent, full-time stall. She sells gluten-free, nut-free, egg-free and dairy-free breads, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, and donuts, and locally sources ingredients such as jam, maple syrup, apple cider syrup, fruit, and veggies from farms like Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley, Silverbrook Farm in Dartmouth, Brooksby Farm in Peabody, and Russell’s Orchards in Ipswich. Check her out!

photo credit: courtesy // #BostonPublicMarket

 Have a great week everyone 🙂

Blue Apron · kid-friendly · Recipes

Tomato, Sweet Pepper & Goat Cheese Pie

You might call this too summery, but I say we are in the midst of a warm spell and we might as well eat like it. Soon enough, we’ll be back to chili, soups, stews and risotto, so for now: bite into a tangy tomato, and a seasoned bell pepper, and enjoy the creamy goat cheese floating under this tender crust! Before you know it, the winter foods will be back in rotation, and wouldn’t you like to have this recent memory to sustain you through those days of early nightfall and windy, icy commutes? I thought so.

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This is very easy, but the most critical tip I can share is to assemble the pie right before you put it in the oven. If you put the tomatoes in and let them sit while you prepare the rest of the filling, it will make the crust too soggy to hold together while baking, so it’s critical to prep your ingredients and then put it all together at once before placing into a pre-heated oven. As with most recipes I share involving pie, I use a pre-made, store-bought crust. If you’re looking for a great homemade pie crust recipe, I like this one.

This recipe originally came from my Blue Apron delivery and I’ve recreated it using my own seasonings and garden tomatoes with excellent results. It really is easy and crowd-pleasing, and vegetarian to boot.

Tomato, Sweet Pepper & Goat Cheese Pie

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Pie Crust, homemade or store bought pre-made
  • 2 Tomatoes (large beefsteak/heirloom variety)
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • Sweet Peppers (3-4 small ones or one large)
  • 1 Red Onion
  • 1 Bunch Basil
  • ½ Cup Crumbled Goat Cheese (or more if you really love it!)
  • 1 Tablespoon Sherry Vinegar (or sub another kind you prefer)
  • ½ Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • ¼ Cup Panko Breadcrumbs
  • 1½ TBSP Spice Blend: equal parts Flour, Mustard Powder & Dried Thyme

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 425F.

Peel and mince the garlic (I used a garlic press). Cut out and discard the stem, ribs and seeds of the sweet pepper and thinly slice them into rings. Chop the onion. Cut the tomatoes into ¼-inch-thick slices. Pick the basil leaves off the stems and discard the stems.

In a medium pan, heat some olive oil on medium-high until hot. Add the garlic, onion and sweet pepper; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, 2 to 4 minutes, or until softened and fragrant. Stir in the vinegar; cook, stirring frequently, about a minute or until well combined. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Next, make the breadcrumb topping: while the onion and pepper cook, combine the Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs in a small bowl, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in enough olive oil to moisten the mixture slightly.

Layer half the tomatoes onto the bottom of the pie crust in an overlapping pattern; season with salt and pepper. Top with the cooked onion and sweet pepper, half the spice blend, half the goat cheese and the basil; drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Repeat with the remaining tomatoes, spice blend and goat cheese.

Evenly top the assembled pie with the breadcrumb topping; season with salt and pepper.

Place the topped pie on a sheet pan. Bake, turning halfway through, 20 to 22 minutes, or until the topping and crust are golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Eat all in one sitting with a glass of white wine!

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Other things you can try if the crust comes out soggy: either pre-bake it for a couple minutes on low heat, then proceed with the recipe as usual; or, you can move it lower in your oven and thus closer to the heat source, which may solve the problem. Other solutions might include pricking the bottom of the pie with a tooth pick before baking, and/or lining the bottom of the crust with Parmesan before you add the tomatoes. If you pre-bake and are concerned about the top getting over browned, you can always cover that part with foil while it’s cooking, and it should prevent burning. But again, I didn’t have any issues with sogginess, I just noticed it was a common complaint about this recipe on the Blue Apron Facebook page.

The last piece of advice I would give is something that Blue Apron has taught me, which I must admit has improved all of my cooking: seasoning with salt and pepper throughout the preparation of any dish is essential to making sure it’s fully flavored at the end. You don’t have to be too heavy-handed with it, you just have to keep the seasonings coming at each step of the recipe. That’s definitely true of this pie as well!

Good luck, have fun cooking, and tell me how you’re getting ready for Thanksgiving! I’m cooking a turkey for the first time this year, for our community’s “Don’t Be Alone on Thanksgiving” event, which feeds over 900 people on Thanksgiving each year. Some come in person for the meal at our local high school, while families in shelters and elderly or disabled shut-ins have a meal delivered to their home. I’m using this helpful guide for first timers, although Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) also has an excellent one. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Something tells me cooking the bird will pale in complexity against actually delivering the darn thing to the proper location with a rambunctious two-year-old in tow! 🙂

Grow Your Own Way · Recipes

Garden-Fresh Tomato Sauce

Georgia’s party was this past weekend! The weather was gorgeous, the party was a success, and mama is tired. This is a recipe I made last week, while trying to use up even more of our garden tomatoes, which are ripening at the rate of dozens per day (!!) I like a chunky sauce but in this heat I don’t want to simmer it for hours, so I use a base to get me started, then just add tomatoes, fresh basil and seasonings. This time, I decided to see how shallots in butter would taste as a foundation for a quick summer tomato sauce, and I really liked the way it turned out. Here’s the recipe!

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I chose to make it with frozen turkey meatballs from Trader Joe’s mixed into the sauce, with a side salad featuring additional tomatoes from our garden. Greens were just one head of romaine that I picked up at a sidewalk stand on my way home. The pasta pictured is penne, but you can use anything.

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Garden-Fresh Tomato Sauce

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 12-oz. (1 lb) can of crushed tomatoes as a base
  • 1 package frozen meatballs (or fresh) if using, such as Trader Joe’s
  • Handful of fresh basil, quantity to your taste, torn into smaller pieces (with stems removed)
  • 1 shallot, peeled and diced, then soaked in water for at least 5 minutes
  • 1 TBSP butter
  • ~ half a dozen fresh tomatoes, sliced and seeds removed (scrape out with a spoon)
  • salt, pepper and any other seasonings to taste

DIRECTIONS

Place the frozen meatballs in a medium sauce pan if you are making this sauce with them included, then pour in the entire can of crushed tomatoes and heat over medium-low, covered, while you chop the tomatoes from your garden, farmer’s market or CSA. I used between 5 and 6 smaller tomatoes, but eyeball it. You always want to have more sauce than not enough.

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Roughly dice your shallot and let it rest in a cup of water that just covers it (yes, I used a baby food bowl!) which helps them to get a little less sharp. In a small skillet, heat a tablespoon (approximately) of butter (or your choice of a substitute spread, such as Smart Balance) over medium-low until melted. Add the shallot to the butter and cook for a few minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper, until translucent. Turn off the heat.

While the can of crushed tomatoes and meatballs simmer, add any seasonings to the  sauce pan and keep covered over low while you boil water to cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta and rinse under cold water so it stops cooking.

Add the shallots (including the butter) and freshly-torn basil to the sauce. Season with salt, pepper, and your choice of other spices such as garlic powder, oregano, sugar, etc. I used a hearty Italian-style blend. Cover again and let simmer a little while longer. If the sauce looks too thick, add a splash of water or olive oil; if it looks too watery/thin or there isn’t enough, you can do what I did — throw in some leftover pizza sauce, which I always keep on hand — or add more garden tomatoes to bulk it up. Really, this is a very flexible recipe and you can sort of play it by ear!

I like to add in some more freshly shredded basil right at the end, and then more on top of the plate when I serve it. But I REALLY like basil, and there is a LOT in Mark’s garden right now. Pretty much, once the meatballs are cooked through (aka fork tender), this is ready to eat! I don’t mix the pasta and sauce together in one pan, but rather plate the penne and pour some sauce and meatballs over it, and finish with my side of salad. As Georgia says, “deeee-licious!”

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Basil: It goes with everything.

You can serve this however you like, with or without a side, and I’d bet you could also add meat to the sauce as well if you wanted to brown some sausage or ground beef up with the shallot. I almost threw in some roasted eggplant, too, but it was so hot I didn’t really want to put on the oven to bake it. Penne was great but any pasta you prefer will do just fine! This came out tasting like I’d simmered it for hours, when in reality it is done as soon as the fresh tomatoes have broken down to your liking. The longer you cook it the more they will fall apart and liquify, but they taste good no matter how chunky you leave them. I myself prefer them to hold a little bit of form. I also added my favorite spaghetti sauce seasoning, the organic blend from Wildtree, which added so much flavor.

I hope you like this! Party photos and recap coming soon! 

I can’t believe we have a two year old…this feels like just yesterday (although this doesn’t). Here she is on her birthday, at two minutes, one year, and two:

 

Grow Your Own Way · Recipes

Ladies and gentlemen, we have tomatoes! (+ caprese salad)

After all that midnight watering, Mark’s garden is peaking right now, with basil, eggplant, and — most excitingly — tomatoes simply bursting all of a sudden!

and they are irresistible, just like someone else we know…

 

“mommy, a-mate-o’s!”Must be the new gardener we brought on board.

 Abundant tomatoes = caprese every night!

and, because I’m being so good by having salad, buttered bread alongside.

 

My mind was blown when I realized that supermarkets now sell pre-sliced fresh mozzarella balls (!!) which cuts the prep time for this salad down to almost nothing.

To assemble: layer sliced tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil (whole leafs or shredded; it’s just a matter of how you like it) in a plate and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then season lightly with pepper and salt. Want to get a tad fancier? Make a balsamic reduction by simmering the vinegar in a pan with some honey for about ten minutes until it turns syrupy. A good rule of thumb is 4:1 balsamic and honey to make a tasty reduction, so for example you could use 1 cup vinegar with 1/4 cup honey and have some left over. Or, you can just buy balsamic reduction 🙂 This salad is served as a main dish for lunch in Italy or as a starter at dinner, not as a side as we usually serve salads in America. Some recipes omit the balsamic altogether, keeping only the olive oil, and some add only pepper, not salt. Its colors are meant to evoke the Italian flag and you can find this on the menu almost everywhere in Italy, because it’s so filling and healthy. As with most fresh recipes, the better ingredients you can find (freshly cracked pepper, good olive oil, heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella), the tastier this will be.

Fantastico! Happy eating!