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.

Vegetable Lo Mein with Salmon

Our bowls and chopsticks often inspire me to make dinner. Each one tells a different story and conjures up a different time and place. These bowls were hand-crafted at a local artisan shop downtown and were given to us as a wedding gift 3 1/2 years ago. I love that they have little indentations on the edge for resting your chopsticks. The chopsticks came from a student of ours in Japan as a goodbye present. My decision to make something Asian-inspired for dinner came from looking at these bowls and wanting to eat something out of them! Stir fried noodles seemed appropriate because it was one of our weeknight standby meals in Japan. I don’t know how it never made it on the blog, but finally it’s making an appearance. We enjoyed a nice Junmai-style sake (best when served at room temp) with this meal and it transported me back to our tiny apartment in Osaka.

Vegetable Lo Mein with Salmon:

1 package Chinese Style Noodles (such as Nasoya brand)
3 to 4 TBS. canola oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 white onion, diced
1 cup snowpeas, ends trimmed and cut in half
1 cup sliced shitake mushroom, stems removed
a small head of broccoli, florets removed, and stems cut into equal-sized pieces
3 to 4 TBS. soy sauce
1 TBS. hot chili sauce (such as Sriracha)
2 TBS. rice wine vinegar
2 tsp. mirin
2 tsp. brown sugar
salt & pepper to taste
3/4 lb salmon, cooked and flaked*

*This recipe is ideal for using up leftover salmon (or other meat), but this time we cooked ours on the same night: We preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, Dustin mixed up our usual Honey-Soy Glaze that we often put on tuna in Japan. We poured some of the glaze mixture over the salmon in a baking dish before putting it in the oven, then based it every 10 minutes until the salmon was done (about 20 minutes) and we could easily flake it with a fork.

  • Cook the noodles according to package directions (we boiled them for 3 minutes), drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Set aside.
  • Heat the oil in a wok until very hot. Add the onion and garlic and stir fry for 1 minute. Add the broccoli and put a lid down over the veggies for about 3 minutes to speed up the cooking. Remove the lid and add the shitake mushrooms and snowpeas. Stir fry for about 2 minutes. Add soy sauce, vinegar, chili sauce to taste (we add a lot), mirin, brown sugar, and salt & pepper to taste. Stir together with the veggies. Tilt the wok so the sauce runs to one side. Cook sauce over the heat for a minute until it begins to thicken a little, then combine with the veggies again.
  • Add the noodles to the wok, and drizzle a little oil over them (about 1 tsp). Stir fry for a few minutes, combining them with the veggies and sauce. We found using tongs worked best for this!
  • Add the flaked salmon and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve in your most beautiful bowls 🙂

Asparagus Pesto Pasta

My cousin Nikita emailed me this recipe a few weeks ago and said that we had to make it together. Embedded in the email was a mouth-watering picture that drew me in: two asparagus tips neatly garnished a tangle of green pasta, dotted with pine nuts and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. How could I say no? For the entire week I looked forward to this meal. I love that our family is so food oriented. We can plan an entire evening around the food, whether it’s a holiday, or a weeknight meal like this one. And while we’re eating one meal we’re already talking about the next one! Anyway, asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable. I thought I’d had it prepared every way until I saw this recipe. What a great idea – blanching asparagus and turning it into a pesto with baby spinach, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil! It tastes so fresh and surprisingly the asparagus flavor was not as strong as we thought it would be. But it’s just subtle enough to remind you of its presence. Leaving some whole pine nuts to toss in at the end adds the perfect crunch to this beautifully verdant pasta dish.

Asparagus Pesto Pasta
(From Simply Recipes)

1 bunch asparagus spears (about 1 lb), trimmed of tough ends and halved crosswise
3 handfuls baby spinach leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping
1 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping
Juice of 1/2 a lemon*
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
8 ounces of dried pasta or 12 ounces fresh -linguini, fettuccini, or spaghetti**

*we used a lime from our tree instead

**the original recipe suggests mixing regular pasta with spinach pasta for a medley of colors

  • Bring two pots of water to a bowl – one large one for the pasta and one medium sized one for the asparagus.
  • While the water is heating, put the pine nuts in a single layer in a large skillet. Heat on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned. Remove pine nuts from pan and set aside. (You will use 3/4 cup of the pine nuts for the pesto and 1/4 cup to mix in whole).
  • Salt the asparagus water and drop the spears into the pan. Cook for only 2 or 3 minutes, until the spears are bright green and barely tender. Drain under cool water to stop the cooking. Cut the tips off, and set aside, several of the asparagus (diagonal cut about an inch from the end) to use for garnish.
  • Add the asparagus, spinach, garlic, Parmesan, and 3/4 cup of the pine nuts to a food processor. Process until smooth. With the motor running, drizzle in the 1/4 cup of olive oil until a paste forms. If too thick, thin it with a bit of the pasta water. Add the lemon juice and salt, taste and adjust seasoning.
  • Salt the pasta water well and cook the pasta until just tender. Drain and toss immediately with 1 cup of the asparagus pesto.
  • Serve sprinkled with the remaining 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, a dusting of Parmesan, and a light drizzle of olive oil. Serves 4 to 6.

Egg-Noodles with Green Garlic, Chiles, Cilantro & Steak

Dustin thought up this comforting dish using my leftover steak from dinner the night before at Cafe Cruz, where I conquered the delicious (and unwieldy) open-faced “Bistro Steak Sandwich” – a piece of garlic bread, topped with a perfectly medium rare steak, and finished off with a handful of thin, crispy onion rings. Well, I should say I conquered the garlic bread and the onion rings, because there was a lot of steak left over! Lucky for us, leftover steak is great for throwing into recipes! We also had some lovely green garlic to use from my family’s Two Small Farms CSA box. Green garlic looks like green onions, and you can chop it up as such and use in any recipe where you’d use regular garlic. It has a more subtle garlic flavor, which worked really well in this simple, olive oil-based pasta dish!

Egg-Noodles with Green Garlic, Chiles, Cilantro & Steak :

2 “nests” of egg noodles (about 1/2 lb. total)
3 TBS. extra virgin olive oil
1 TBS. butter
1 stock of green garlic, white and green parts chopped (remove the outer layer of the stock if it seems too tough)
2 canned or fresh mild green chiles, chopped
a handful of cilantro, chopped
salt & pepper
leftover steak, cut into bite-sized pieces

  • Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet until butter melts.
  • Add the green garlic and saute for a few minutes until tender, about 3 minutes.
  • Add the green chiles and cilantro and saute for a few more minutes.
  • Meanwhile, in boiling salted water, cook the egg noodles according to package directions and drain.
  • Add the steak to the skillet and stir until heated through. Season with salt & pepper.
  • Pour the drained noodles into the skillet and stir to coat with oil and combine with the other ingredients. Divide between two bowls and enjoy!

Spicy Peanut Noodles with Fresh Vegetables

Yesterday it was 75 degrees. My cousin Nikita, Dustin, and I were in the backyard wearing short sleeves, enjoying pints of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing Company beer, BBQ-ing Cornish game hens to accompany spicy peanut noodles, and listening to the screams of delight that waft up the hill from people riding the Giant Dipper at the Boardwalk. Ok, hold that picture in your mind because today it’s cool and rainy and it feels sort of funny to write about such a summery dish. Now pair that first scene I described with cool noodles tossed with crunchy peanut butter, tangy rice vinegar and lime, sweet & spicy Sriracha chili sauce, and fresh, crunchy veggies. Do you feel like it’s summer? We sure did! As we were chopping the vegetables for the noodles, Nikita and I were laughing because we didn’t have the patience to cut everything into matchsticks. Instead we ended up with small, misshapen vegetable pieces that amused Dustin. Consider it the “rustic” look. We hope you’ll keep this recipe in mind for your next BBQ or outdoor party. We really enjoyed it with a Dry Riesling.

Spicy Peanut Noodles with Fresh Vegetables
(Slightly adapted from Rachael Ray)

3/4 pound spaghetti
3/4 cup crunchy peanut butter
Juice of 2 limes
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
a few squeezes of Sriracha Chili Sauce
4 carrots—peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 cucumber—peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced crosswise
1 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
6 scallions, thinly sliced

  • In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain, rise with cold water, and return to pot. Set aside.
    • In a medium bowl, whisk together the peanut butter, lime juice, vinegar, red pepper flakes, Sriracha, and a 1/4 cup water. Taste and season with salt.
    • Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss to coat. Add the carrots, cucumber, bell pepper, and scallions, and toss. Serve immediately, or cool completely in refrigerator before eating with your favorite grilled meat. Serves 4 hungry people.

    Farfalle with Golden Beets, Beet Greens, and Pine Nuts

    Reasons to love this dish: 1) It’s Green! Using both the beets and their greens means less waste (and less money at the store). 2) If you used red beets in this recipe, you would have pink pasta! Valentine’s Day idea, anyone? Ok, that’s a silly reason to love this dish. 3) The earthiness of the beets goes so well with the slightly bitter greens, the sweet onions, and the toasty pine nuts. Really, it’s a brilliant combination. We halved the recipe below because it serves 4-6. It paired beautifully with this 2007 Roussanne from Lavender Ridge Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills.

    Farfalle with Golden Beets, Beet Greens, and Pine Nuts
    (From the Feb. 2009 issue of Bon Appetit)

    cup pine nuts

    4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
    2 large onions, quartered lengthwise through root end, sliced crosswise (about 4 cups)
    3 garlic cloves, minced
    2 bunches 2-inch-diameter golden beets with fresh healthy greens; beets peeled and cut into wedges; greens coarsely chopped
    12 oz farfalle (bow-tie pasta)
    1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese plus additional for serving

    • Toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.
    • Add 2 TBS. of olive oil and the sliced onions to the same skillet. Sauté until beginning to soften and turn golden, about 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to sauté until onions are browned and caramelized, about 30 minutes longer.
    • Add the garlic and stir for 2 minutes. Scatter the beet greens on top of the onions. Drizzle with remaining 2 TBS. olive oil, cover, and cook until greens are tender, about 5 minutes.
    • Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the beet wedges until tender, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer beets to a medium bowl.
    • Bring the water back up to a boil and add the pasta to the beet cooking liquid. Cook until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot.
    • Stir onion-greens mixture and beets into pasta. Add pasta cooking liquid by 1/4 cupfuls to moisten. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Divide pasta among shallow bowls. Sprinkle with pine nuts. Serve, passing additional cheese at the table.

    Four-Cheese Mini Macs

    Mmm, look at that cheese bubbling up around the edges … I can’t take the credit for this recipe, other than buttering the muffin tins and later eating the finished product, but I CAN rave about it so that’s what I’ll do! While I was working on my minted pea dip, my Mom was busy making these cute mini mac and cheeses, as another Oscar Night appetizer. In place of half of the American cheese, she decided to use a nice chunk of blue cheese, which promoted them from three-cheese mini macs to four-cheese mini macs. Even better. Who doesn’t love mac and cheese? If you want a crowd pleaser, you will need to try these! The recipe below reflects the changes made to the original recipe in Food & Wine Magazine. The recipe was doubled and it was perfect for 7 people as an appetizer. We also had lamb-meatballs that were to die for, but unfortunately they didn’t get photographed.

    Four-Cheese Mini Macs
    (From the December 2007 issue of Food & Wine)

    1 pound elbow macaroni (or small shells)
    3 TBS. butter, plus more for greasing pans
    1/2 cup cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
    4 TBS. all-purpose flour
    1 1/2 cups milk
    8 ounces white cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups)
    4 ounces deli-sliced American cheese
    4 ounces blue cheese
    2 large egg yolks
    1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika

    • Preheat oven to 425°. In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook the macaroni until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain, shaking off the excess water.
    • Grease 4 mini-muffin pans (we had only one mini-muffin pan so we used one mini one and one regular sized one). Sprinkle with a 1/4 cup of the Parmigiano; tap out the excess.
    • In a large saucepan, melt the 3 TBS. of butter. Whisk in the flour over moderate heat for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking, until boiling, about 5 minutes. Add the cheddar, American, and blue cheeses and whisk until melted. Off the heat, whisk in the egg yolk and paprika. Fold in the macaroni.
    • Spoon slightly rounded tablespoons of the macaroni into the prepared muffin cups, packing them gently. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of Parmigiano on top.

    • Bake the mini macs in the upper and middle thirds of the oven for about 10 minutes, until golden and sizzling. Let cool for 5 min­utes. Using a small spoon, carefully loosen the mini macs, transfer to a platter and serve, or simply put the muffin tins on the table and allow people to help themselves.

      (This recipe can be prepared through Step 4 and refrigerated overnight. How about that!?)

      Cold Somen Noodles with Dipping Sauce

      My first encounter with somen noodles was at an elementary school summer festival in Yamaguchi Prefecture 4 years ago. I watched as thin, white noddles were sent sliding down halved bamboo shoots, and children and parents gathered around trying to grab them with their chopsticks on their way down. The noodles that made it down to the bottom of the shoot without being caught were collected in a large bowl, then brought back up to the top to continue their journey again. I thought it was a very intriguing game, and apparently a summer custom.

      We decided to try somen noodles, but we didn’t have to catch ours. Traditionally the cooked noodles are kept in a bowl of ice water in the center of the table. People help themselves and dip each bite into a bowl of special dipping sauce – made from a combination of soysauce, mirin, and dashi stock. My wonderful student Rei gave us 6 bundles of dried noodles, a bottle of dipping sauce, and some illustrated directions, so we decided to embrace this Japanese summer meal. Her pictures speak better than my words:

      1 bundle of somen noodles per person
      1 bottle of somen sauce – combine 1 part sauce with 3 parts water
      fresh grated ginger
      2 shiso leaves, thinly sliced

      Boil the noodles for 2 minutes only. Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of ice water. Drain the noodles and rise in cold water until they are cool. Transfer to the ice water.

      In a small dish (1 for each person), combine the sauce and water. Add the ginger, wasabi, and shiso.

      Take the noodles out of the ice water with chopsticks, dip in your sauce bowl and enjoy!

      Penne with Spinach, Feta, & Toasty Pine Nuts

      In American supermarkets, it’s the packaging that persuades us to buy things; catchy slogans, bright colors, and promises of nutritional value catch our eye and convince us to make (sometimes) unnecessary purchases. In Japan they set up little stereos around the store that blast catchy tunes about vegetables, fish, fried foods, or the monotone voice of a woman talking about the 3 varieties of pork chops that are on sale. We always leave the store still humming one of the songs and it usually continues for the next hour or so. It’s slightly annoying, but apparently a good marketing tool. Today we bypassed all the noise and went to a quiet aisle that contains a meager amount of import food items. There we discovered pine nuts packaged in clear little bags in between the coconut milk and the sweet chili sauce. There were only two left. Delighted, we added them to our basket and allowed them to guide the direction of our meal. Spinach (oh no, back to the vegetable song!) and feta immediately came to mind, so this was the result (inspired by a recipe on Recipezaar).

      1/2 lb. penne pasta
      2 TBS. olive oil
      1 clove garlic, minced
      4 oz. (or more to taste) crumbled feta cheese
      1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
      A few large handfuls of baby spinach
      1/4 cup pine nuts

      • Cook the penne according to package directions. Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium-low heat, until fragrant and golden, stirring frequently. Set aside.
      • Drain the penne. Heat the olive oil in the skillet. Sauté the garlic for about 30 seconds. Then stir in cooked penne.
      • Add the crumbled feta and Parmesan and stir until it just begins to melt. Turn off the heat.
      • Add the baby spinach and stir until barely wilted. Stir in the toasted pine nuts and serve!

      Penne with Veggies & Bacon

      This is a penne to boast about – boast, of course, meaning Bacon, Onion, Asparagus, Spinach and Tomato. This pasta dish is more than just a hodgepodge of ingredients. It’s a great way to eat your veggies, and the bacon gives it the perfect salty kick.

      1/2 a pound of penne pasta
      4 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled
      1/2 a white onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
      1 clove garlic, minced
      1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
      1 bag of baby leaf spinach (a few good handfuls)
      1 large fresh tomato, diced
      1/3 cup (or more if you like) grated Parmesan cheese
      salt & pepper to taste

      • In a large frying pan, cook the bacon, and set aside to crumble when it cools. Then get your water going for the penne.
      • While the penne is boiling away, sauté the asparagus in the bacon grease, for about 3 minutes over medium high heat.
      • Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 3 minutes more or until just starting to brown.
      • Next add the spinach and stir until it wilts.
      • Lastly, add the crumbled bacon and fresh tomato and combine. Season with salt & pepper.
      • When the pasta is a nice al dente, drain, then pour immediately into the frying pan with all the veggies.
      • Add the Parmesan and stir everything together. Serve right away with some garlic bread and your favorite dry white wine.

      Cultural Tidbit:
      Today we went to Bampaku Park, which was built to commemorate the 1970 World Expo in Japan. We rode the world’s largest monorail to get there and see the ume (plum) blossoms, which are in season right now. I wish I could capture the smell of walking through the plum orchard in these pictures!

      Happy Leap Day, by the way!

      Fusilli with Sweet Tomatoes, Eggplant and Mozzarella

      Lately I’ve noticed several Jamie recipes floating around the food blog world. Most notably, Wendy of A Wee Bit of Cooking made a delicious-looking Chorizo Roast Chicken that inspired me to include one of my favorite Jamie-recipes too — a really simple pasta dish that uses ingredients that are all very accessible to us! (Always a plus). We used Japanese nasu (eggplant), which are longer, narrower and have a more delicate skin than their fat American counterparts. About 3 Japanese eggplants equal 1 American one. This recipe serves 4.

      3 Japanese eggplants
      olive oil
      2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
      1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
      2 cans good quality tomatoes
      1 TBS. balsamic vinegar
      salt & pepper
      1 fresh or dried chili, chopped
      a bunch of fresh basil
      4 TBS. heavy cream
      1 lb. pasta
      fresh mozzarella
      Parmesan cheese for grating

      • Slice the eggplant and cut into 1/2 inch cubes. Heat about 4 TBS. olive oil in a pan. When it’s hot, add the eggplant, stirring to coat with oil, and cook for 7-8 minutes on medium heat.
      • Add garlic and onion. When they have a little color, add the tomatoes and vinegar. Stir and season with salt and pepper and chilies to taste. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the cream.
      • While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta and drain. Add the pasta to the sauce pan and combine. Tear up the mozzarella and fresh basil and fold into the pasta. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

      Pasta with a Melange of Japanese Autumn Mushrooms with Butter, Herbs & Cream

      A tribute to the fall fungi at our grocery store that sparked our curiosity. Shitake (“tree” mushrooms), had a slippery texture and a woody flavor when cooked. Shimeji (the Medusa-esque ones above) had a more firm, meaty texture and tasted like button mushrooms. And the third variety Eringi (or King Oyster mushroom), had a really thick stem (more like a “trunk”) that resulted in a chewy texture, and a very mild “nutty” flavor.



      A variety of mushrooms, cleaned with a damp towel, tough stems cut off, and cut into thick slices.
      1 leak, chopped
      2 TBS. (30g) butter
      a generous splash of dry white wine
      a drizzle of cream about the pan
      salt & pepper
      chopped fresh herbs (we used parsley and a little sage)
      your favorite pasta, cooked until al dente

      • Heat the butter over medium heat until it foams.
      • Add the leak and cook until it softens.
      • Add the mushrooms and cook for about five minutes or until they start to “wilt” slightly.
      • Add the wine and let it reduce for 2-3 minutes.
      • Drizzle the cream and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of pasta with some fresh herbs.

      “Angry” Gnocchi, Fried Mozzerella Salad & Zucchini Sticks

      Arrabbiata is one of our favorite sauces for pasta — it’s a garlicky, spicy tomato sauce and its name means “angry”. But garlic and spice make us happy! That’s why this is our weeknight standby pasta sauce.

      Dustin’s Arrabbiata

      2 1/2 TBS olive oil
      2 cloves of garlic, minced
      1 can of crushed tomatoes
      1 TBS sugar
      2 dried red chilies, chopped
      a few leaves of fresh basil, torn
      salt & pepper

      • Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and chilies and sauté until garlic is golden. Turn the heat off and let cool one minute (to reduce the tomatoes splattering). Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, basil, and sugar. Simmer for at least 10 minutes.
      • Cook the gnocchi according to the package directions (until they float to the top), and drain. Spoon on the arrabbiata sauce and finish with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

      To accompany the gnocchi, we tried this recipe for Arugula & Fried Mozzarella Salad with Tomato-Basil Vinaigrette from The Nest and it turned out great! There’s something so satisfying about fried cheese. I just love it. And the spicy arugula was delicious with the sweet vinaigrette.

      And the frying continues! We’re not condoning this as a healthy meal, but when you have flour, egg and breadcrumbs already out (from making the fried mozzarella for the salad), and a wonderfully spicy tomato sauce for dipping, it just cries out for fried zucchini! We cut zucchini into strips, coated them in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, and fried them until just tender inside and golden outside. Mmmm…