Mexican Stuffed Shells

A new restaurant opened up in town last year called MexItalian – serving Latin-Mediterranean fusion cuisine. One of my favorite entrées there is a Parmigiana Mexicana, breaded eggplant that’s lightly fried, and layered with Parmesan cheese and salsa picante and then roasted. As I was perusing the many enticing recipes on Jenna’s Cooking Journey, my blog assignment for this “Blogger’s Choice” recipe swap, I came across a recipe for Mexican Stuffed Shells, and immediately thought of that Mexican-style Eggplant Parmigiana. I love fusion recipes, but for some reason tend to gravitate more towards Asian fusion ones (no surprise, I guess, considering the name and story behind this food blog). Well, this recipe broadened my horizons a bit. And when rain graced the central coast’s presence last week,  I was looking for a nice comforting recipe that would require turning on the oven. This one fit the bill.

Jumbo pasta shells are stuffed with ground turkey (or you could use ground beef) that’s seasoned with taco seasoning and made creamy with a little cream cheese. Then you lay the stuffed shells in a baking dish on top of a layer of salsa and cover them liberally with taco sauce. After a good half hour in the oven, you cover them with grated jack cheese and return them to the oven until golden and bubbly. A scattering of green onions and a couple dollops of sour cream finish off this Mexican-Italian fusion dish.

This is one of those recipes that we’d love to try again with some different ingredients just to change it up a bit. While we liked the combination of fresh salsa (we used a locally-made one that we love) and taco sauce from a bottle, I think it would be even more delicious with a home-made enchilada sauce, something with a nice smoky/spicy depth of flavor – one that can only come from your own kitchen, opposed to something from a bottle.

But overall, this is a crowd-pleasing dish, a great twist on your usual stuffed shells, and makes excellent leftovers.Thanks, Jenna!

Click on the icon at the bottom of this post to view all of the blogs that participated in this recipe swap! It’s sure to be a great round-up of recipes.

Mexican Stuffed Shells

(Slightly adapted from Jenna’s Cooking Journey, as seen on The Way to His Heart, from which I then traced back through 5 more blogs until I got to This recipe has sure gotten around the food blog world, which is a good sign!)

1 lb. ground turkey
1 package low-sodium taco seasoning (or use your own, which I should have done, but was feeling lazy :))
4 oz. cream cheese (I used more like 2-3 oz.)
1/2 a box of jumbo pasta shells (recipe specified 14-16 but I didn’t count – was probably over 20 shells)
1 1/2 to 2 cups salsa (I used a fresh salsa that’s made locally – Roberto’s)
1 cup taco sauce (such as La Victoria brand – I didn’t measure, but used almost an entire 8 oz. bottle)
2 cups grated Monterey jack cheese
3 green onions, sliced
Sour cream

  • Preheat oven to 350°.
  • In a frying pan, brown the turkey, using a wooden spoon to break up the pieces as it cooks. Drain, if needed (our turkey was pretty lean). Add taco seasoning and prepare according to the package directions. In our case, add the seasoning packet, 2/3 cup water, bring to a boil, then turn heat down to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add cream cheese, cover and simmer until cheese is melted. Blend well. Turn off heat, set aside, and allow to cool.
  • Meanwhile, cook the pasta shells according to directions, 8-9 minutes in our case; drain. Set shells out individually on cutting board/baking sheet so that they don’t stick together. Allow to cool before handling.
  • Pour salsa into the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish.  Using a spoon, gently fill each shell with the meat mixture and place it in the dish on top of the salsa, open-side up. Cover shells with taco sauce (we drizzled a little over each one – we also spooned a little more salsa on top of each shell). Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, add grated cheese and bake for 10-15 minutes more, uncovered.  Top with green onions and serve with sour cream on the side.

Spiced Roast Chicken Thighs & Browned Onion Kugel

I feel like I’ve been exposed to a variety of cuisines, from Ethiopian stew in Berkeley, California, to Sri Lankan fare in downtown Osaka, and a fiery Korean chicken dish straight from the source in Seoul. But it wasn’t until I was given browned onion Kugel as my side dish for the Recipe Swap this week that I realized I’d been missing out on the wide range of Jewish dishes out there! As I was researching Kugel (which seemed like a good place to start, since I didn’t even know how to pronounce it, let alone what was in it), I learned that there are both sweet and savory versions of this noodle pudding, and they involve egg noodles (or potatoes or Matzah), sour cream, cottage cheese, and eggs.  Even Smitten Kitchen has a Kugel recipe on her blog. Clearly, I’ve been out of the loop (or just not Jewish)! Once I did my research, I couldn’t stop thinking about my side dish. It sounded so comforting to me and I couldn’t wait to try it.

But what do you serve with Kugel? I had no idea (Jewish friends, please weigh in here!), although I was smart enough to know that pork was not the right answer, nor was something involving bacon. We decided on a simple roasted chicken dish (that I found it on Elly Says Opa, adapted from Gourmet), and some roasted broccoli. Not exactly kosher, so I hope it doesn’t offend someone’s Jewish Grandmother. Actually, what I really want now is for someone’s Jewish Grandmother to cook me a traditional Jewish meal. My first taste of Kugel was so good, I would love to experience more (including the sweet variety) and expand my cuisine repertoire to include that of the Jewish tradition.

This recipe, coincidentally, came from the same blog as my last Recipe Swap recipe, Happy Insides. The Kugel is baked in muffin tins, rather than the traditional casserole dish, and includes caramelized onions and poppy seeds. We’ll definitely be making this recipe again. The only changes we made were halving it (the recipe below makes 12 side-dish servings) and using ricotta cheese in place of cottage cheese. Thanks again, Cassie & Jason, for introducing us to something new!

Browned Onion Kugel

(From Happy Insides, originally from Epicurious)

6 oz. egg noodles
1 stick unsalted butter
3 cups chopped onions (2 large)
1 1/4 cups sour cream
1 1/4 cups cottage cheese (or ricotta cheese)
1 TBS. poppy seeds
4 large eggs
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  • Cook egg noodles in boiling, salted water until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain in colander, rinse with cool water, and drain well.
  • Melt the butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat.  Brush the muffin cups with some of the butter.  Add the onions to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned, about 20 minutes.
  • Transfer onions to a large bowl, and stir in noodles, sour cream, cottage cheese (or ricotta), and poppy seeds. Lightly beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add the eggs to the noodle mixture as well. Stir to combine.
  • Divide mixture among muffin cups. Bake until puffed and golden, about 20-25 minutes. Cool in pan for 5 minutes before serving. Makes 12 side-dish servings, or 6-8 main course servings.

Spiced Roast Chicken Thighs

(Adapted from the April 2000 issue of Gourmet)

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 TBS. canola oil, divided*
3 TBS. red wine (or broth)

  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Pat the chicken dry. Mix together the spices and 1/2 TBS. of canola oil.  Rub all over the chicken.
  • Heat the remaining oil in a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over moderate heat until hot but not smoking.  Brown chicken on both sides, about 5 minutes.
  • Transfer skillet to oven and continue to cook, skin-side up, until done, about 12-18 minutes.
  • Remove chicken and place skillet on stove-top over high heat.  Deglaze pan with wine or broth, scraping up browned bits, and pour juices over chicken. Serves 2.

* So what made this chicken extra-delectable was that we browned the chicken thighs in duck fat. Yes, you read that right. Last weekend we made some amazing tea-smoked duck (to-be-blogged-about soon!) and the next day we fried some of the leftover skin to make duck cracklings. That rendered fat was was used in this chicken. Oh my gosh. So good.

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Kalamata Olives & Capers

After a long day of chasing Levi around the house as he’s opening drawers, trying to unroll the toilet paper rolls, and pulling the cats’ hair, not only do I appreciate my own Mom and what she did – twice – I’m also tired and dinner is the last thing on my mind. That’s one of the reasons that I decided to participate in my first Recipe Swap on the online cooking forum that I frequent. We were asked to submit an easy weeknight meal, and then everyone was randomly assigned one in return. It was great not having to meal-plan for a night because it was decided for me! Just what a mom needs.

This dish came from a blog called Happy Insides. How fortuitous that it’s written by another couple that cooks together!  Dustin and I enjoyed this meal because it’s similar to our standard weeknight pasta sauce that we came up with together in Japan — we would get home from teaching our English classes and one of us would just begin sautéing garlic and chili flakes in olive oil, as if on autopilot, producing an aroma that would soon make us forget about the worries of the day.

This sauce has the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity (and is nice and garlicky; just how we like it!), and the kalamata olives, capers, and feta add just the right amount of saltiness. We added some sweet Italian sausage from El Salchichero, our new handcrafted charcuterie shop in town that opened up on the west side of Santa Cruz. They only sell meat from local and sustainably raised animals that have been treated with respect, so every purchase is good for our community and our conscience!

The recipe below is said to make four servings, but we divided all of the sauce between our two bowls of pasta. I’d probably use two cans of tomatoes next time, if I was making this for more people.

Look for more of these Recipe Swap posts in the future. I love having my dinner assigned to me, and it’s a fun way to interact with other food bloggers out there! Thanks, Cassie & Jason!

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Kalamata Olives & Capers

(From Happy Insides – a few small changes marked below)

8 oz. whole wheat spaghetti
1 TBS. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 tsp. oregano (we used fresh from our garden)
1 tsp. basil
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper*
1/2 tsp. agave nectar**
salt and pepper to taste
1 sweet Italian sausage, sliced into coins
1/4 cup pitted kalamata, halved
2 TBS. capers
feta cheese
Parmesan Cheese
*Although Dustin and I love spice, we had to omit the cayenne this time so that Levi would enjoy this meal with us! We did, however, leave the red pepper flakes in because I do not want my kid to be a heat wimp 🙂
**We used brown sugar instead. Our agave nectar is raw, and like honey, is not recommended for babies to eat under the age of 1.
  • Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium heat.  Add the garlic and the red pepper flakes and sauté for about a minute.  Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, basil, cayenne pepper, agave nectar, salt and pepper.  Stir well, cover, and let simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in boiling, salted water until al dente, according to package instructions.
  • In another pan, fry the sliced sausage in a little olive oil until cooked through and nice and golden on both sides.  Add to the sauce along with the kalamata olives and the capers.  Let simmer for another 10 minutes.
  • Drain the spaghetti and divide between two bowls. Spoon the sauce on top of the spaghetti and crumble some feta on top, as well as some freshly grated Parmesan.

Baked Fusilli with Marinara, Three Cheeses & Spinach

While making this baked fusilli, my mind wandered to Japan and its cheese situation. We used to travel 15-30 minutes on the train to various import food stores, where we’d pay an exorbitant amount for “exotic” cheeses like cheddar, parmesan, and mozzarella. At regular Japanese supermarkets, some of the few cheeses available were “pizza cheese” (shredded, mild white cheese), and cottage cheese, which for some reason was more like ricotta cheese in texture and taste. One of our fellow English teachers found that Japanese cottage cheese was a good substitute for ricotta in her baked ziti recipe. Sure enough, we tried it and it was true! We were reminded of that baked ziti when we tasted this pasta dish, but for this recipe we were able to purchase the ricotta we needed, and at a reasonable price! It’s sort of a cheater dish, because we used our favorite jarred marinara (Newman’s Own Organic), but we don’t mind cutting corners when we have an almost-crawling 8 month old!

As a side-note, over dinner we were reminiscing about our English classes and remembered that one of our students said that her favorite lasagna recipe (given to her by an American English teacher) included cream of mushroom soup. We had never heard of this before! Has anyone actually put cream of mushroom soup in lasagna!?  The idea sort of offends me, but maybe it’s a regional thing (?)

Baked Fusilli with Marinara, 3 Cheeses & Spinach

3/4 lb. Fusilli
2 TBS. extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 bunches of spinach, trimmed and washed
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 24-oz. jar of your favorite Marinara (you’ll use about 3/4 of it; save the rest for another use)
1 tub of Ricotta
4 oz. fresh Mozzerella, grated
grated Parmesan

  • Cook the fusilli in boiling water for a little less time than indicated on the package so that it’s pretty al dente.  Drain and set aside.
  • In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté garlic in olive oil until fragrant and beginning to turn golden, about 1 minute. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. If skillet becomes dry, add a tiny bit of water. Season with a little kosher salt & freshly ground pepper.
  • Add 3/4 of the jar of Marinara to the wilted spinach, a couple dollops of ricotta cheese, and a small handful of Parmesan. Stir to combine.
  • Pour the cooked pasta into the skillet with the sauce and gently toss to combine. Pour half the pasta/sauce mixture into a greased baking dish. Scatter several more dollops of ricotta over the pasta. Pour the remaining pasta/sauce mixture over the ricotta. Top with a liberal amount of shredded Mozzerella cheese, and another small handful of Parmesan.
  • Bake at 375 until the cheese is melted and the whole thing is starting to bubble, about 15-20 min. Place under the broiler for the last minute so the cheese can brown nicely. Let rest a few minutes before serving. Serves 3-4 (or 2 hungry people with leftovers).

Orecchiette with Roasted Root Veggies, Pine Nuts & Goat Cheese

It’s that awkward time in between winter and spring where in an attempt to somehow magically control the weather, I wear dresses and flip flops, but end up freezing. Really, the reason I want it to get warmer is so I can wear dresses instead of maternity pants. But I can be patient. In the meantime, plum trees are blooming all over town and they’re beautiful and remind us of Japan. We can also take advantage of the last of the winter produce, like all those root vegetables that are crying out to be roasted until they’re sweet, nutty, and caramelized.

In this pasta, we simply toss orecchiette (I know it means “little ears”, but I like to call them “little hats”) with cubed roasted root vegetables (we used sweet potato, parsnips, carrots and beets but use whatever combination you like), pine nuts, and goat cheese, resulting in a hearty pasta with a touch of creaminess. Soon we’ll have fresh peas, asparagus, rhubarb, and fava beans galore, but until then, enjoy the flavorful vegetables in this dish!

Orecchiette with Roasted Root Veggies, Pine Nuts & Goat Cheese

a couple small golden beets with greens – beets peeled and cubed, and greens washed and roughly chopped
1 small sweet potato, cubed
a couple parsnips, cubed
1 carrot, cubed
a few cloves of garlic, unpeeled
extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper to taste
a handful of pine nuts
juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 lb. orecchiette pasta
1/2 cup chicken stock, warmed
soft goat cheese, crumbled to taste (we used a log of Cypress Grove goat cheese)

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Give your beets about a 10 min. head start in the roasting process (they take a bit longer than the other vegetables): Place on a baking sheet and toss with a little olive oil. Season with some salt & pepper and throw in the oven (not literally).
  • While beets start roasting, toast the pine nuts in a large skillet, stirring frequently until fragrant and golden. Set aside. Place the other cubed root vegetables and the garlic cloves on another baking sheet and toss with olive oil. Season with a little salt & pepper. Place in the oven to join the beets. Roast until all veggies are tender and caramelized, 20-30 min (depending on how small they are cut), stirring once or twice during that time.
  • In the same skillet that you used for the pine nuts, sauté the beet greens in some olive oil until wilted. Season with a little salt & pepper, and squeeze half a lemon over them.
  • Get some water boiling for the orecchiette. Cook until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and add to the skillet with the beet greens.
  • When the veggies are ready, remove from oven. Pick out the garlic cloves, and peel and chop (when cool enough to handle). Transfer the roasted veggies to the skillet with the pasta and beet greens. Add the chopped roasted garlic. Gently toss everything together, adding a little chicken stock at a time to keep the pasta moist. Add the pine nuts and goat cheese (to taste) and gently mix in (it’s ok if the goat cheese melts. It makes the pasta nice and creamy). Divide among bowls with some Parmesan cheese on top, if desired. Serves 2-3.

Chorizo Mac & Cheese with Crispy Panko Topping

Who’s your favorite Food Network personality? For me, Alton Brown is up there on the list (next to Tyler Florence, but mostly because he’s cute). Alton’s show is entertaining, informative, and his food isn’t pretentious. I got his newest cookbook from my father-in-law for my birthday, Good Eats: The Early Years, and it’s packed with tons of recipes, as well as all that scientific explanation that goes along with them.

Last night we thought a baked mac & cheese would pair well with the 35 degree temperature outside, and I was anxious to use my new cookbook. We decided to add chorizo and a little cayenne pepper to Alton’s recipe (hopefully that wouldn’t offend him), and the result was a spicy mac & cheese with a little Mexican flare. The panko breadcrumbs on top added the perfect crunch. This recipe makes 6-8 servings, so you may want to halve it as we did unless you’re feeding a crowd. We ate our chorizo mac & cheese with some baked kale chips and a salad.

Alton Brown’s Mac & Cheese (+ Chorizo)

(From Good Eats: The Early Years)

1/3 lb. chorizo (bulk; no casings)
8 ounces (1/2 lb) elbow macaroni
(we used small shells, even though Alton says elbow is the best!)
3 TBS. butter
3 TBS. all-purpose flour
1 TBS. ground (powdered) mustard
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup onion, diced
3 cups milk
1 large egg
9 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

For the crispy topping:

3 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
3 TBS. butter, melted
1 cup panko
(Japanese breadcrumbs – you know, the kind we use in everything)

  • Cook the chorizo in a pan over medium high heat, using a wooden spoon to break apart as its cooking. When done, set aside.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until firm al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
  • Meanwhile, melt the butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until mixture is pale blond, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the mustard, paprika, cayenne, and onion. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking constantly, for 7 to 8 minutes, until slightly thickened. Remove from heat.
  • Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl. Add a few ounces of the milk mixture and whisk to combine (this tempers the egg so it doesn’t curdle). Whisk the egg mixture back into the milk mixture. Stir in the cheese, 1 tsp. salt, and the pepper.
  • Fold in the macaroni, and then the cooked chorizo. Pour into a 4-quart casserole dish.
  • Top the casserole: sprinkle with remaining 3 ounces of cheese, then toss the breadcrumbs with the melted butter and sprinkle them over the cheese.
  • Bake for 30 minutes (broil for the last minute if the top isn’t as golden as you want it), cool for 5, and serve.

Sausage & Mushroom Penne Gratin

Last Monday was a drizzly day. The overcast sky and the crisp air meant a dinner that was warm, comforting, and (given my current cravings) cheesy. I had just gotten home from lunch with Nikita when we decided to flip through old Gourmet magazines for dinner inspiration (oh Gourmet, how we will miss you when you are gone!!! :() Nikita came across this recipe. It fit my criteria so off to the store I went to grab Italian sausage, mushrooms, cream, and fresh mozzarella. Dustin liked it and said it reminded him of stroganoff, one of his favorite meals. I loved how it tastes like it’s been baking for an hour, when really most of it is done on the stove top and it’s finished off under the broiler – all under 30 minutes. We ate our penne gratin with a salad of baby spinach, apples, and hazelnuts (a lovely fall combo I first had at my parents’ house the night before, but I loved it so much I recreated it). The recipe below serves 4-6. We halved it and still had enough leftovers for Dustin to take it for lunch two days in a row (lucky him). Try this recipe sometime this fall when you’re in need of something comforting and cheesy. And enjoy it with a glass of red wine for me, will you? 🙂

Sausage & Mushroom Penne Gratin

(From the November 2008 issue of Gourmet)

1 pound dried penne
1 pound bulk sweet Italian sausage
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound sliced mushrooms
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
8 ounces shredded whole-milk mozzarella, divided

  • Cook penne in boiling salted water until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta-cooking water, then drain pasta and transfer to a flameproof 3-quart baking dish.
  • Preheat broiler.
  • Meanwhile, cook sausage in 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up any large pieces, until no longer pink. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl, leaving fat in skillet.
  • Add remaining tablespoon oil to skillet along with mushrooms and garlic, then cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are golden, about 3 minutes.
  • Return sausage to skillet along with cream, reserved 1/2 cup cooking water, a rounded 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and boil over high heat, stirring once or twice, until thickened, about 4 minutes.
  • Pour over pasta, then stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 cup mozzarella, and salt to taste. Spread evenly in baking dish and top with remaining mozzarella.
  • Broil 3 to 4 inches from heat until golden brown in spots, about 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it so you don’t burn your cheese!
  • Serve with my new favorite salad: combine baby spinach leaves (or mixed greens) with a sliced apple, and a couple handfuls of roasted hazelnuts. Toss with a dressing of red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt & pepper. I also added a little agave syrup for sweetness.