March 31, 2010

Dinner: Butternut Squash Lasagna

The first bite of this lasagna to meet my taste buds was a pleasant surprise; it was not super heavy (even though I love a good rich, meaty lasagna). The nutty sweetness of butternut squash, the recipe's namesake, is dominant in contrast to the aptly named "smoky" marinara. Sauteed spinach and onion add to the savory flavor of the Cooking Light recipe

Now, you might be thinking that this sounds like too much veggies, too much healthiness for a cheesy pasta dish. No worries; there are plenty of layers of cheese, marinara, and white pasta to give it the deliciousness of traditional lasagna. It just cuts it down to just enough sinful, heavy ingredients for just taste without being over-the-top.

I almost bought jarred lasagna to make prep easier but ultimately decided that the smoky recipe recipe was simple and that I had the time to make it in advance on this particular chill weekend. (I won't judge others for opting for the jar instead.) The layering instructions of the recipe got really confusing. We got a little off, but we managed to get some cheese on top, and it all worked out okay. 

We also halved the original recipe and only made one 8x8-inch pan instead of two-- this made for six hearty servings. The salad we served with the lasagna made the meal a little too veggiliciuos, especially because we helped ourselves to large servings of the star of the meal. We concluded that solely a crusty, warm baguette was the best accompaniment, not counting some red wine.

Butternut Squash Lasagna 
1 1/2  cups  chopped onion
5 cup  fresh spinach
1/2  cup  shredded sharp provolone cheese
1/4  cup  chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1  teaspoon  salt
1 large egg
1  (15-ounce) carton part-skim ricotta cheese
1 1/2  cups  diced peeled butternut squash
3 cups  Smoky Marinara (see below)
12  oven-ready lasagna noodles 
1/2  cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375°.
Heat a large Dutch oven coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté 4 minutes or until tender. Add spinach; sauté 1 1/2 minutes or until spinach wilts. Combine provolone, parsley, salt, pepper, eggs, and ricotta cheeses in a large bowl.
Place squash in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover and cook on high 5 minutes or until tender.
Coat the bottom and sides of an 8-inch-square baking dish with cooking spray. Spread 1/2 cup Smoky Marinara in the bottom of one prepared dish. Arrange 2 ½ noodles over sauce; spread 1 cup cheese mixture over noodles. Arrange 1 1/2 cups squash over cheese mixture; spread 3/4 cup sauce over squash.
Arrange 2 ½ noodles over sauce; spread 1 cup cheese mixture over the noodles. Arrange 1 1/2 cups onion mixture over cheese mixture; spread 3/4 cup sauce over spinach mixture.
Arrange 2 noodles over sauce; spread 1 cup Smoky Marinara evenly over noodles. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan. Repeat procedure with remaining ingredients in remaining pan. Cover each pan with foil.
Bake at 375° for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 30 minutes.
Smoky Marinara
1  tablespoon  olive oil
3  garlic cloves, minced
1/4  cup  chopped fresh basil
2  tablespoons  chopped fresh parsley
2  tablespoons  chopped fresh or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
2  teaspoons  balsamic vinegar
1/8  teaspoon  salt
1/8  teaspoon  pepper
1  (28-ounce) can crushed fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained
1  (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, undrained
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, basil, parsley, and oregano; sauté 1 minute, stirring frequently. Stir in vinegar and remaining ingredients. Reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes.

March 28, 2010

Recipe: Morning Glory Muffins

I like to describe these muffins as healthy carrot cake. It's a bit of  a pain to grate the carrots and apples, but it's worth it for fruit-veggie-and-nut-packed grains. This spice-intense muffin is perfect to pull out of the freezer for a snack or quick breakfast (I like to eat them with vanilla yogurt). 

My mom got the recipe years ago from a bed and breakfast, and I rediscovered their goodness when I started making them regularly.  Last summer I played mom and brought a batch for my hotel roommates and myself on a trip out of fear that there would be no quick breakfast with any nutritional value. I am a big stickler to having me some fiber (with sugar to wash it down) to start the day, and these guys fit the bill.
Morning Glory Muffins

2 cups all purpose flour

1 ¼ cups sugar 

2 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. salt

2 cups grated carrot

½ cups raisins (I don't put them in because I am not a big raisin fan.)

½ cups nuts (I use walnuts.)

½ cup shredded coconut

1 apple, peeled, cored, and grated

3 eggs

1 cup oil half oil (I use 1/2 cup oil and 1/2 cup applesauce.)

2 tsp. vanilla

Mix first 5 ingredients. Stir in next 5. In another bowl beat eggs with salad oil and vanilla. Stir into flour mixture until batter is just combined. Spoon into greased muffin tin, filling to the top. Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Makes 14 large muffins.

March 22, 2010

Why I Love: Homemade Spaghetti Sauce

There's something about the way that spaghetti sauce tastes when scratch ingredients all cook down together that makes it the perfect comfort homemade comfort food. There are certainly numerous varieties of bottled sauce that taste good alone, and I use them for a quick meal, particularly over prepared ravioli or on pizza. But in my book, if you're going to take the time to brown meat and/or add additional veggies and spices, you might as well just start with plain canned tomatoes and allow a little extra time for the flavors to meld for a fresh, superior taste.

We've always made this beefy recipe at winter family gatherings (or at least since I got over my tragic albeit temporary childhood dislike of red sauces). It delights my taste buds on a cold day along with the required accompaniment of buttery garlic bread. It makes enough for a crowd but also freezes well if you're not planning to have a spaghetti party. 

2 lbs. hamburger meat
1 onion
4 stalks celery
1 green pepper
3 cloves garlic
2 big cans tomatoes
1 little can tomato paste
2 bay leaves
Oregano, to taste
Salt, to taste
Brown hamburger meat. Chop onion, celery, green pepper and garlic; cook vegetable in skillet with olive oil or grease from meat until softened. Combine meat, cooked vegetables, canned tomatoes and spices in a large pot. Cook for 2 hours.

March 17, 2010

Recipe: Peanut Butter Brownies

These guys are Reeses in brownie form -- chewy chocolate-peanut butter brownies topped with peanut butter frosting. A few weeks ago a peanut butter-frosted chocolate cupcake inspired me to make something similar. But then I found and began to salivate over how Evil Shaningan's added peanut butter to her chocolate brownie recipe, only I wanted to take the blog's advice to add peanut butter frosting. And this buttercream+pb frosting recipe on looked just right.  

I went with a trustworthy box mix (whose batter just tastes so good) and took this brownie experiment to visit a friend for the weekend. We had no problem polishing them off and deciding that both of us would have to make them again (and probably again and again).

Peanut Butter Brownies
1 box brownie mix for 13x9 pan
1/3 cup peanut butter
Peanut Butter Frosting (recipe below)

Prepare brownies according to package instructions, adding peanut butter to the mixture. Bake as directed. When brownies cool, spread with frosting.

Peanut Butter Frosting

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter

1-2 tablespoons milk, or as needed

1 cups confectioners' sugar

Place the butter and peanut butter into a medium bowl, and beat with an electric mixer. Gradually mix in the sugar, and when it starts to get thick, incorporate milk one tablespoon at a time until all of the sugar is mixed in and the frosting is thick and spreadable. Beat for at least 3 minutes for it to get good and fluffy.

March 13, 2010

Dinner: Wild Rice Salad

Chicken and wild rice make a scrumptious main-dish salad. I prepped it on a Sunday night when I was already in a kitchen for insta-dinner the next [busy] night. This Southern Living version (which isn't online-- lame) was sweet with dried cranberries and diced Granny Smith apples in a simple balsamic dressing, but you could throw in any fruits, veggies, and nuts that sound good to make it your own. I served it with Berry-and-Spice Whole Wheat Muffins and roasted asparagus.
I cooked my chicken with Greek spices and olive oil in a skillet to make sure it had plenty of flavor; boiled chicken tastes so blah to me unless it is covered up really well, even if it is easy and healthy.

Wild Rice Salad
1 (6-oz.) package quick-cooking long grain and wild rice mix
2 cups chopped cooked chicken
½ cup dried cranberries
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
1 medium carrot, grated
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 green onions toasted
½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
Cook rice according to package instructions; cool. Stir together chicken, next 8 ingredients, and rice in a large bowl. Cover and chill 8 hours. Sprinkle with almonds just before serving.

March 6, 2010

Books & Bites: Paula Deen's Caramel Cake

This month, our book club paired the most delicious caramel cake I've ever tasted with The Help, a novel that middle-aged women's book clubs have brought way high on bestseller lists and for good reason. The gist: 1960s Jackson, Mississippi--a 24-year-old white girl (who, gasp, has no wedding ring and aspires to be a journalist)  works with black maids  she gets to know to write a book about their experience. Through its character development, the book explored in-depth both the Jim Crow-mentality of the South and just how wicked or how loving women's relationships can be. Being as one of the main characters makes prize caramel cakes in the book, we decided to make one ourselves and, keeping with the Deep South theme, selected a Paula Deen recipe.

And what an excellent recipe we chose! A caramel glaze-like filling tops each of three butterlicious cake layers that strike the perfect balance between dense and light, and a creamy caramel frosting covers the whole cake. Both the ingredients (butter, white sugar, butter, light brown sugar, butter, dark brown sugar, flour, powdered sugar) and the assembly were as simple as a homemade layer cake gets. Perhaps most exciting for impatient persons like myself, you spread the filling and icing on while the cake is still hot out of the oven. That's right, no waiting for the cakes to cool while you snack on the icing, anticipate what that first bite will taste like and if the layers will be lop-sided, take off nibbles off the cake that surely will get covered up, and generally waste in-between time steps. Paula claims it makes 8 servings, but people who can only tolerate normal cholesterol intake will get many more slices.

Paula Deen’s Caramel Cake


1 cup butter, room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

4 eggs

3 cups self-rising flour, sifted

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 3 (9-inch) cake pans.

Using an electric mixer cream butter until fluffy. Add granulated sugar and continue to cream well for 6 to 8 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour and milk alternately to creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Add vanilla and continue to beat until just mixed.

Divide batter equally among prepared pans. Level batter in each pan by holding pan 4 inches above counter dropping it flat onto counter. Do this several times to release air bubbles and assure you of a more level cake. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown.


1/2 cup butter

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

While cake is baking, in a saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, and milk. Cook and stir over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Remove cake layers from oven and allow cake to remain in pans as you prepare to stack and fill. Remove first layer and invert onto cake plate. Pierce cake layer with a toothpick over entire surface. Spread 1/3 of filling mixture on cake layer. Top with second layer, repeat process. Top with last layer and repeat process again.


1/2 cup butter

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/3 cup heavy cream, or more if needed

1 (16-ounce) box confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup chopped nuts, optional

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat and stir in brown sugar and cream. Bring to a boil, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add confectioners' sugar and vanilla. Beat with a handheld electric mixer until it reaches a spreading consistency. At this time it may be necessary to add a tablespoon of heavy cream, or more, if frosting gets too thick. Be sure to add cream in small amounts because you can always "add to", but you can't take away. Frost cake and sprinkle top with chopped nuts, if desired.

March 3, 2010

Recipe: Pasta Fagioli Soup

This soup is the super-fast cousin of Pasta Fagioli, a traditional Italian dish made with pasta and beans (fagioli means beans). A savory tomatoey broth seasoned with basil and oregano envelops its other contents: seashell pasta, zucchini, kidney beans, and sliced turkey sausage. 

I love how easy [precooked] turkey sausage is to prep: just slice and throw in. The sausage and beans made it hearty enough that a certain meat-loving diner at our table (who insists on supplementing veggilicious meals such minestrone soup with something from the freezer) considered it good enough to fill him up. We ate it with toasted bread and salad, just as the Cooking Light recipe suggested.

Pasta Fagioli Soup

12  ounces  turkey sausage, halved lengthwise and sliced
3  cups  fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
1/2  cup  uncooked small seashell pasta
2  cups  coarsely chopped zucchini (about 2 small zucchini)
1  (14.5-ounce) can stewed tomatoes, undrained
1  teaspoon  dried basil
1  teaspoon  dried oregano
1  (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/3  cup  (about 1 1/2 ounces) shredded Parmesean cheese
Heat a large saucepan over high heat. Add sausage; cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add broth and pasta; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 4 minutes. Add zucchini and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 2 minutes. Stir in    basil, oregano, and beans; cover and simmer for 3 minutes or until pasta and zucchini are tender. Sprinkle with cheese.