Quinoa “Mac” & Cheese

I know. It’s January, which means all of us are still trying to eat healthier for the new year. Am I right? We are supposed to be eating yummy salads all the time and feeling super fantastic about it. BUT let’s be realistic. I’m not eating salads left & right and baby girl sure would be mad if I just tried to feed her nothing but salad all day long.  Yes, we all love some good salads and veggies. But we all need a little indulgence!  So, instead, I’ve been trying to lighten up some comfort food and classics.  That’s where this Quinoa “Mac” & Cheese comes in.  Super indulgent with that yummy, creamy cheese sauce. But just a little less guilt-inducing using quinoa and throwing in some chopped veggies. I know, you’re saying to yourself “There’s cheese in that recipe!”  “There’s butter!” You’re right. There’s all of that. But everything in moderation, right?  It really is a win-win!

Sure – maybe it doesn’t taste exactly like macaroni & cheese. But I can guarantee you this. It’s still yummy, the whole family will still love it, it’s filling, and it won’t make you feel like you’ve broken those New Year’s resolutions just yet!

Ready to get started? Let’s do it.

What You’ll Need:

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cup Whole milk

A large pinch or two of nutmeg

A large pinch of salt

8 ounces of shredded sharp cheddar cheese

3 cups cooked quinoa (1 cup uncooked quinoa – we cooked our quinoa in chicken broth for a little extra flavor)

1 cup of shredded & diced up carrots **

1 – 1 1/2 cups of diced broccoli **

FOR THE TOPPING:

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

4 Tablespoons of butter, melted

3/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs

What You’ll Do:

Preheat oven to 350 F.  In a saucepan add 3 tablespoons of butter and melt it down over medium heat.  Add the flour.  Whisk continuously until a paste forms.

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Whisk in milk. Increase heat to medium/high and bring to a boil whisking the whole time. Stir in the nutmeg, salt and cheddar cheese. When sauce is smooth remove from heat.  Throw in your veggies and quinoa into the cheese sauce.

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Transfer the mixture to a baking dish.  We used an 8×8 baking dish.  If you have a smaller cast iron skillet, I’d throw it in there.  Since we have a larger cast iron, we didn’t want the mixture to turn out too thin in the skillet, so I would only throw in our Quinoa mac & cheese into our cast iron skillet if I 1.5x or 2x this recipe.  In a small bowl, mix together the melted butter, Panko breadcrumbs, and Parmesan.  Sprinkle over the casserole and pop in the oven for about 20-25 minutes (until it’s bubbly).

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** ALTERNATIVES **

You could easily substitute in your favorite veggie in this dish – a few bunches of spinach? Kale? Mushrooms? Go veggie crazy! Add in those nutrients you crazy animal!

No matter what veggies you use, no matter if you use a cast iron skillet or casserole dish, no matter if you use the more common white quinoa or less common black quinoa – I assure you this is a comfort dish you can feel less guilty about.  Healthy comfort food that Tastes Oh-So-Good.

~ M ~

New Toys: Vitamix Tomato Soup

My mom is a funny woman. She is a very frugal woman – saves money like crazy, rarely ever shops for new clothes for herself, refuses to spend money on cable and other luxuries.  But the woman also knows how to splurge on fun items – things she deems ‘worthy’.  She rarely spends money on clothes, but a luxury watch? Check. She won’t spend money on cable, but loves to travel the world.  Saves every container that food comes in so she doesn’t have to buy new Tupperware, but likes to buy the newest camera out there.  You see, while she is frugal on items that she sees as fleeting (clothes – fashion goes in and out of style so quickly), she thinks everyone should have a good quality watch.  She loves to travel and see the world because, let’s face it, the TV ain’t got nothing on the beauty of the world.  A recent addition to this splurge list is the Vitamix.   My mom kept trying to tell us that she would get us a Vitamix and insisted we needed one.  We weren’t so convinced.  While we had heard wondrous things about it, we weren’t sure we needed such a luxury.  My mom kept insisting and then, during a sale at Costco, she bought us one.  Boy, are we happy & grateful she did.

What’s that? You don’t know what a Vitamix is? Simply put, it’s a blender.  But saying that a Vitamix is a blender is like saying Superman is just a man.  The Vitamix is a crazy, high performance blender that can blend, puree, grind, chop, cream, purée, and so much more.  From smoothies to juicing, from soups to frozen desserts.

Tonight, we planned on having dinner with our friends (our friends who just had the baby less than 2 weeks ago).  We wanted to bring over or make some sort of comfort food.  For me, one of the quintessential comfort food combos is tomato soup + grilled cheese.  And while I can make a grilled cheese, as I’m sure most of you can, TJ makes an amazing grilled cheese.  So, while TJ got the grilled cheeses going on the stove-top griddle, I got to work on the tomato soup.  This recipe is super easy and with the help of a blender, you’ll have a great rustic tomato soup in no time. If you’re lucky enough to have a Vitamix (or similar awesomeness brand blender), then you’ll have a velvetty smooth tomato soup in no time!  Ready?  Let’s go.

What You’ll Need:

6-8 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 large sweet onion, chopped

1-2 tablespoons of olive oil

1-2 tablespoons of butter

1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes, in their juices, preferably San Marzano

1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water

2 bay leaves

1/3 cup heavy cream

What You’ll Do:

Heat the oil and butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.  Once the butter starts to foam up, throw in your onions and a large pinch of salt and saute for about 5 minutes.  Throw in your garlic and stir occasionally.

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Cook until the onions are translucent and just beginning to brown.  Add the tomatoes (everything, tomatoes + juice) and stir to crush up the tomatoes (though if you have a Vitamix, this isn’t too necessary).

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Add the broth or water (but come on…I really mean broth) and the two bay leaves.  Bring to a simmer and leave to simmer until the tomatoes start breaking apart (around 10 minutes).  Discard the bay leaves and let cool for about 10 minutes.  If you have a blender, your run-of-the-mill blender, you’ll want to puree up your soup carefully and after the soup has cooled down quite a bit.  If your blender is too small, you may have to do it in batches.  Then, just transfer it back to the saucepan and warm it up to your desired heat level.  Now, if you have a Vitamix type blender (and yes! I’m one of you now!), you don’t have to let it cool too much and you won’t have to warm it back up in your saucepan.  In fact, with a Vitamix, you can even cook up the soup in your blender! Yes, that’s right! It is so fast and powerful, it creates so much power and heat that it cooks up the soup while you blend!  I let our tomato soup cool a bit and then transferred it to our Vitamix.  Our model (Vitamix 6300) has a “Hot Soup” program.

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We hit start and it started blending – maybe 10 minutes or so?  When the Vitamix was done, I was so incredibly impressed at how incredibly smooth, light, and velvetty this soup was.

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I was never able to get our soups this smooth in the past with just a regular blender or our immersion blender.  Amazing.  The soup came out piping hot, too!  Once the Vitamix was done, we stirred in 1/3 cup of heavy cream. And there you have it.  Creamy Tomato Soup!  This recipe is perfect for a dinner party of 4.

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**VARIATIONS**

You can imagine you could add quite a bit to this soup, depending on what you like.  No garlic (well, that’s just silly, now isn’t it?!), add in oregano & thyme, parsley, red chili flakes, a touch of ground cloves.  You get the picture!

With TJ’s perfect grilled cheese sandwiches and these amazingly smooth tomato soups, our very ordinary comfort food turned into something a bit more elevated. And as always, it Tasted Oh-So-Good!

~ M ~

Autumn Comfort Food: Pumpkin Lasagna, New Baby Edition

My heart is soaring.  Last night, on October 4, 2013, one of the most important people in my life did an amazing thing.  She gave birth to one of the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen.  My friend gave birth to little Sofia last night and Sofia is beyond exceptionally amazing.  I can’t lie…I sobbed uncontrollably at the sight of her.  Bringing my own Olivia into this world was, as cliché as this is, truly the most amazing experience of my life.  No, I’m not saying there was no pain and that labor was a breeze.  I’m not saying that those first few weeks were all bliss.  There were many tears, some Olivia’s, mostly mine. There were struggles. There were frustrations beyond belief.  There was also an immense love I couldn’t comprehend.  I literally looked at her one day and started sobbing (ok, maybe, just maybe, I had tons of hormones going crazy, too), looked at TJ and couldn’t stop professing my love for her.  To see such a dear friend of mine about to embark on that same journey – it was just so overwhelming.

I also remember being overwhelmed by the immense amount of help and support we received from family and friends.  We had meals for days, clean laundry, little catnaps while Olivia was being rocked to sleep by someone we knew and loved.  We were so lucky.  I couldn’t wait to return that favor and be that support system for someone who has always been there for me.  (And if you’re wondering, this is the same friend who had the wonderful baby shower last month!)  One way TJ & I thought we should try and be of some help is to prepare a meal for them.  I like to prepare lasagnas for occasions like these because it is a wonderful comfort food, can be assembled ahead of time, or just made ahead of time and refrigerated.  Because my friend is a pumpkin fan, and because little Sofia has come right in time for our favorite season, Autumn, what better way to celebrate her arrival than with a Pumpkin Lasagna!  What I love about this lasagna, too, is that it has a little twist.  Instead of using traditional lasagna noodles, I use cheese ravioli as the ‘noodles’.  Delicious, right?  Let’s get started.

What You’ll Need:

3 Tbsp unsalted butter, plus a bit more for the top

1 finely chopped large yellow onion

1 finely chopped clove of garlic (if you’ve been reading my other posts, you know darn well by now that I almost always double or triple the amount of garlic called for in a recipe, so I put in about 3 cloves)

1 large bunch of Spinach, roughly chopped (Optional) **

1 1/2 tsp Kosher salt

1 teaspoon of freshly grated black pepper

2 Tbsp freshly chopped sage

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 15-oz cans of pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling, but pure pumpkin)

1 pint of heavy cream

1 1/2 cups of grated Parmesan Cheese

1 1/2 packages of 18-24 oz of refrigerated cheese ravioli (upon our arrival to Trader Joe’s, we couldn’t find a plain cheese ravioli and opted for the Spinach and Ricotta ravioli. Yum!)

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What You’ll Do:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a skillet, melt two tablespoons of butter and add the onion to it.  Cook the onions for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic and spinach (if using) and cook for about another 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.  Add in the sage and nutmeg.  In a large bowl, mix together the pumpkin, heavy cream, 1 cup of Parmesan, and the remaining salt and pepper.

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Place a layer of ravioli in a buttered 9×13 baking dish.

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Top with half of the onion mixture and then almost half of the pumpkin mixture and spread evenly.

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Top this with another layer of ravioli.  Again, continue with the rest of the onion mixture and almost all of the pumpkin mixture (leave about 1 cup of the mixture).  Place one more layer of ravioli on the top and spread the remaining one cup of pumpkin mixture on the top.  Spread the Parmesan on top.  Sprinkle the top with the remaining butter, cut up into small pieces.

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Cover and bake for 20 minutes.  Uncover and continue baking for another 15 minutes.

** VARIATIONS **

Instead of spinach, which is optional anyways, you can always do 2 large bunches of Swiss Chard, roughly chopped with the stems removed.  Lovely!

I decided that I would assemble this ahead of time and just leave this in their refrigerator, left with some instructions taped to the top, so, unfortunately, I don’t have a finished product picture this go around.  I do hope, though, that when they get home with their new beautiful daughter, they can pop this in the oven, have something warm and comforting to eat that Tastes Oh-So-Good.

~ M ~

La Stracciatella

Ok. Deep breath. I have a confession to make and it’s not a pretty one.  I, a foodie, have been on a juice cleanse for the past 6 days. Yes, SIX days.  I did not chew a single bite of food.  Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t actually hungry on my juice cleanse.  But I miss food.  Yesterday was my last day. Hallllelujah! Do you know how difficult it is cooking meals for the family when all you have to look forward to is drinking a bottle of juice that tastes like grass?

Coming off the cleanse, I need to give my tummy a little bit of a rest. Unfortunately, no steaks or fried foods for me.  What can I eat that the family will enjoy, as well?  I figured soup was a safe route to go.  Luckily, TJ enjoys stracciatella soup, or Roman style egg-drop soup, so there were no objections.  Also, it works out perfectly because we made those meatballs this past weekend so we can serve some up if TJ needs a bit more protein with his soup.  

You may be wondering – “Stracciatella, isn’t that an ice cream?”  Why, yes. Yes, it is.  Stracciatella just means “torn apart” in Italian.  The term can refer to ice cream (stracciatella ice cream usually just refers to vanilla ice cream with chocolate shavings – chocolate ‘torn apart’), soup, and cheese.  The “stracciatella” in this case refers to the “shreds” of egg mixture in the soup.

Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Sure it does! Go ahead and impress your friends by making them some stracciatella soup.  You don’t have to tell them how easy it actually was!

The soup itself is super easy to make.  Now, if you have the time to make a homemade chicken stock, by all means, go for it! Yes, the stock takes a bit of time and a bit more effort, but your efforts will pay off.  I have included a recipe for a homemade chicken stock below.  Tonight, however, I will be using an Organic Free-Range Chicken Broth (low sodium) from Trader Joe’s. Go Trader Joe’s!  Here we go (and apologies for the photos – it was already nighttime when I made this tonight – so the lighting just sucked).

What You’ll Need:

6 cups chicken stock
3 eggs
3 tablespoons semolina
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely chopped
A generous pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

What You’ll Do:

Ready for this easy recipe?  Measure out 1 of the 6 cups of chicken stock and refrigerate so that it is chilled. Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring the remaining 5 cups of chicken stock to a boil.

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In a large bowl, combine the cold broth, eggs, semolina, cheese, parsley and nutmeg. DSC_0004

Whisk the mixture until it is well blended.

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Once the stock is boiling, drizzle the egg mixture into the broth, whisking the mixture/broth. Reduce the heat to low while continuing to whisk for a few minutes.  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your taste. Serve immediately, topped with more grated cheese if desired. That’s it! A fancy soup with little effort!

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To our soup, I added our meatballs at the bottom of the bowl and ladled some soup on top.  I also added some spinach right before the soup was done for some extra oomph. Too bad you can’t see all the good lil’ egg “drops” in this picture…but it sure was delicious!

**VARIATIONS**

We like our stracciatella soup with spinach. About a minute before your soup is done, just drop in 1 cup of spinach (cut into thin strips).  Yum!  You can also serve this soup with some pastina (“little pasta”) pasta.  Pastina almost looks like rice.  Cook up like you would pasta and then scoop some into your soup bowl. Then, simply pour a serving of soup right on top of the pasta!  We are serving ours tonight, as I mentioned earlier, over the meatballs we made this past weekend.   Though this is traditionally made with a chicken stock, you can always sub out the stock for a vegetarian broth if you’re vegetarian.

Homemade Chicken Stock

What You’ll Need:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 1/2 pounds chicken wings, backs, and bones
3 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 bunch parsley stems

What You’ll Do:

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over high heat until smoking. Add the chicken and brown all over, stirring so the chicken doesn’t burn. Remove the chicken and set aside. Add the carrots, onions, and celery to the pot and cook until soft and browned. Return the chicken to the pot and add 3 quarts of water, tomato paste, peppercorns, and parsley. Stir with a wooden spoon to dislodge the yummy chicken and veggie bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook at a low simmer until it is reduced by about half (about 2 hours), occasionally skimming excess fat off the top. Remove from the heat, strain, and then press on the solids with the back/bottom of a ladle to get out all the juicy goodness. Stir the stock and set aside. Refrigerate the stock in small containers for up to a week or freeze for up to a month. This yields about 1.5 quarts.

Told you this was an easy soup to make and, more importantly, it Tastes Oh-So-Good!

~ M ~