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.

Strawberry Banana Bread

The bounty of berries and stone fruits available right now makes this household very happy, especially the two-year-old fruit fiend. As much as I love apples and pears in the fall, there’s something very gratifying about filling up our shopping cart in the summertime with 6-8 different varieties of fruit. This week we went home with plums, apriums (which look like apricots, but are sweeter and juicer thanks to the plum in them!), white peaches, nectarines, blueberries, and strawberries.

We’re definitely embracing the strawberries these days, as their window for consumption is shorter than that of other summer fruits. The strawberries that we buy from our grocery store come from just up the coast at Swanton Berry Farm and are so sweet and irresistible.

Hey! Who stole my garnish? 🙂

It’s time for another “Blogger’s Choice” recipe swap, hosted by A Taste of Home Cooking. I was assigned Carrie’s Sweet Life, from which to choose a recipe to make and then share with you. Carrie is the mom of two adorable little girls, and I love reading about all of the delicious things that come out of her kitchen. When I saw her recent post about Strawberry Banana Bread, I knew that it would be the perfect use for some of our strawberries.

I made a few changes, but nothing major. I used butter in place of the olive oil (best choice health-wise? No, but my favorite banana bread recipe calls for butter and I’m addicted to the flavor that it produces). Instead of mashing the strawberries, I chopped them up so that you get more intense bursts of strawberry flavor in every bite. I also swapped out 1/2 a cup of the all purpose flour for whole wheat flour, added a bit more salt, and reduced the amount of orange zest by 1 tsp. to really highlight the strawberry/banana flavors. Oh, and I mixed everything by hand instead of using a mixer. My changes are reflected below. Thanks, Carrie, for a fun, seasonal twist on banana bread. Hooray for strawberry season!

Strawberry Banana Bread

(Slightly adapted from Carrie’s Sweet Life; originally from Cook with Sara)

1/2 cup butter (8 TBS.), softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup fresh strawberries, chopped
3/4 cup mashed banana (I used 2 bananas)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. orange zest
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg

  • Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the strawberries, banana, vanilla, and orange zest and stir until well-combined. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Gradually add the flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture, mixing just until flour disappears.
  • Pour batter into prepared loaf pan and bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean (mine took about 1 hour and 10 minutes). Cool on a wire rack, then remove from pan, slice, and enjoy. I especially enjoyed it the next morning, toasted up in the toaster oven with a little butter on top.

Baked Eggs in Puff Pastry with Goat Cheese & Bacon

I love brunch, but since going out to eat involves taking turns chasing an active toddler around the restaurant, we prefer to make it at home, or better yet, make our favorite brunch dishes for dinner. For this Blogger’s Choice recipe swap (hosted by A Taste of Home Cooking), I was really excited to be assigned the blog The Jey of Cooking. I used the same decision-making tactic that I did for the previous blogger’s choice recipe swap and went straight to Jey’s Eleven Favorite Recipes for 2011, because I really wanted to make a recipe that was a top favorite in her home.

Second on that list, these baked eggs in puff pastry stood out to me. I was craving some sort of breakfast/brunch-for-dinner and this sounded perfect. The versatility of the dish also appealed to me. Jey used cheddar cheese and bacon in her baked eggs; the original recipe called for feta and prosciutto. We decided to use goat cheese (because we had some in the fridge to use up) and made half with prosciutto and half with El Salchichero‘s chorizo bacon (one of our favorites – I raved about it in this salad). When you cut into these flaky, buttery puff pastry “plates,” you find the cheese and the meat under the egg; bacon hidden in anything is a delightful surprise. I served our baked eggs in puff pastry with some roasted asparagus and a mixed greens salad, and Dustin picked out a bottle of this Saison that paired wonderfully with the whole meal.

I need to digress on baking eggs. I’m still waiting to get them right. My first attempt was for this Shakshuka recipe, and while it was delicious, the eggs were definitely overcooked. This time, guess what, I undercooked them, so I had to throw them back in the oven for a few minutes and they were still not as crispy and done as I had desired. I swear one of these days I’ll get it! Or perhaps I’ll just cheat and lay a fried egg on top of whatever called for a baked one. When I make these again, I’ll increase the initial baking of the puff pastry with the cheese and bacon, and also after cracking the eggs into them. I think this will result in a more golden puff pastry crust and a more perfectly cooked egg. The cooking times below reflect the original recipe, and I’m just going to blame my oven in the meantime 🙂

Happy brunch-ing or brinner-ing – whether you make it for breakfast for dinner, you’ll love this dish. Try it with a glass of Saison!

Please note – these pictures were taken before I realized that the whites were still slightly undercooked and that the puff pastry could use a bit more browning. Back into the oven they went, but by the time they were done, I was too hungry for another round of pictures 🙂

Baked Eggs in Puff Pastry with Goat Cheese & Bacon

(Slightly adapted from The Jey of Cooking; Originally from I Will Not Eat Oysters)

2 sheets puff pastry, defrosted*
goat cheese
2 slices prosciutto + 2 slices chorizo bacon (or regular bacon)
4 large eggs
2 TBS. Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper
fresh parsley, chopped for garnish

*We were able to get four circles out of one puff pastry sheet

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Heat a large pan on med-high heat and drizzle a little olive oil into the pan. Cook the prosciutto (followed by the bacon) on both sides until crisp. Place on a paper towel to drain off any excess fat. Cool, then crumble and set aside.
  • Using a a bowl about 5″ in diameter, cut out 4 circles from the puff pastry. Transfer to the baking sheet. Score a border about 1/2″ in around each circle. Be sure to not cut all the way through! Prick the inside, not the border, with a fork. Place in the fridge for 15 minutes.

  • Fill each puff pastry center with dollops of goat cheese and top with crumbled prosciutto and/or bacon, making sure there is none on the border.

Bake for 8 minutes or until the border has puffed up. Press the center down gently with the back of a spoon. Break an egg into a small bowl then pour it into the center of the “plate”. Repeat for each egg. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Place them back into the oven for another 6-7 minutes until the whites of the eggs are set and the puff pastry is golden. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Soft Garlic Knots

During our college days in Santa Barbara, there was an Italian restaurant called Palazzio that was a popular place for freshman to go out to eat with their parents when they were in town. Parents must have liked it because of the self-serve wine casks on the restaurant walls (regulated by the honor system). I know the students liked the complimentary soft, buttery, garlicky rolls that appeared at your table soon after ordering. I loved those rolls. It was a challenge to not fill up on them before your pasta arrived. I always wondered if Palazzio was scheming to make sure we all gained the “freshman-15.”

I ate at Palazzio with Dustin and his mom when we were newly dating freshman year. It was the “meet my mom” dinner. He was nervous and dropped one of those buttery, garlicky rolls on my red suede pants (yes, I wrote red suede pants; and I rocked them). I’m not sure that stain ever came out (not that they fit me anymore so it’s a moot point), but I eventually married Dustin, so I obviously put the roll incident behind me.

I made these Soft Garlic Knots for another recipe swap. The theme this time was “Secret Recipe Club” – a popular food blogging event where you are randomly assigned someone’s blog, and you can choose which recipe you want to make and blog about. The flexibility appealed to me, so I decided to join in. I was assigned Simple Gourmet Cooking. I spent a good day or so looking through all of Dawn’s recipes. Choosing was overwhelming at first! I wanted to choose something that was a favorite in Dawn’s household so decided to narrow my search down to her “favorite posts of 2011.” When I saw the Soft Garlic Knots on this list, they immediately reminded me of my college days, Palazzio, and the first time I met my future mother-in-law. I knew this was the recipe I was going to make. I also wanted to expand my yeast-bread horizons. It’s always good to challenge yourself in the kitchen!

I’m so glad I did. These garlic knots were easy to make and shape (even with kneading the dough by hand since I don’t have a stand-mixer). And the garlicky-buttery glaze that you brush over the tops is just what they need to go from ordinary dinner roll to over-the-top dinner roll. I took Dawn’s advice and brushed the knots with even more glaze before serving. It’s hard to go wrong with more butter. Dustin, Levi, and I devoured them with our bowls of soup, and you’ll be happy to know that no one dropped a garlic knot on anyone’s lap.

Soft Garlic Knots

(Just slightly adapted from Simple Gourmet Cooking, as seen on Annie’s Eats and Amber’s Delectable Delights, originally from King Arthur Flour)

For the Dough:

3 cups bread flour
1 TBS. sugar
2 tsp. instant yeast*
1 1/4 tsp. salt
2 TBS. olive oil
1/4 cup milk
1 cup plus 2 TBS. lukewarm water

*I used active dry yeast and proofed it in the 2 TBS. lukewarm water before adding it to the dry ingredients.

For the Glaze:

2 cloves garlic
3 TBS. melted butter
1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning*

* I used a combination of things I had on hand – some dried oregano, chopped fresh rosemary, and crushed red pepper flakes. Not quite Italian seasoning, but it didn’t seem to matter much in the end.

Combine the dry ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Add the olive oil, milk and water.  Mix until ingredients have formed a dough (alternatively you can use a hand-mixer as I did).   Switch to the dough hook and knead on low speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes (I used my hands to achieve this). Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, turn once to coat, and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.

Divide the dough into 10 equal pieces.

Roll each piece into a 10-inch long rope.

Tie the rope into a knot.

Take the end lying underneath the knot and bring it over the top, tucking it into the center.

Take the end lying over the knot and tuck it underneath and into the center.

Transfer shaped rolls to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for 45 minutes, until puffy.

To make the garlic butter, finely mince the garlic and mix with the melted butter and Italian seasoning.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Brush the glaze onto the shaped rolls, reserving a little to brush on after baking, if desired.  Bake until set and lightly browned, about 15-18 minutes.  Let cool slightly before serving. Brush with more glaze.

If you want to freeze the garlic knots, slightly under-bake them (about 12-15 minutes), allow to cool completely, and store in a freezer bag.  Bake frozen garlic knots as listed in the instructions above, approximately 15 minutes, until heated through.  Brush with glaze.

Green Bean Casserole, Revamped

Green bean casserole never made an appearance on our Thanksgiving table when I was growing up. It was as foreign to me as cranberry sauce out of a can. One night when I was in college (because I was curious what the fuss was all about), my roommate and I made green bean casserole, following the recipe on the french fried onions can. It tasted pretty good – but what doesn’t taste good when you’re a college student, you’re hungry, it’s late at night, and you need an excuse to take a break from studying macro-economics (which I never passed, sadly, but that’s a whole different story). Anyway, we thought that the best part of the casserole was the french fried onions on top, but other than that, it was nothing to write home about …

… until today, when I find myself writing about green bean casserole because it’s recipe swap time again.  The theme was Thanksgiving side dishes, and I just so happened to get a variation of green bean casserole from Nichole of The Cookaholic Wife! I did something a little different this time with the swap. Instead of following the recipe to a T, I was inspired by the recipe I was given, particularly the introduction where Nichole shared that she isn’t a huge fan of cream of mushroom soup in a green bean casserole, but might consider adding fresh mushrooms instead. What a great idea! Especially since we’re at the peak of wild mushroom season. I love the orange-y hue of chanterelles, as well as their earthy, umami flavor, and knew they would be the perfect thing to add to this casserole.

Instead of using regular green beans, we had these beautiful romano beans from a local farm that inspired me to take the casserole in a slightly different direction. These beans, a far cry from the canned or frozen beans that often end up in a casserole, didn’t want to compete with a {albeit delicious} mass of cheese. So, instead of using the cheddar & provolone in the original recipe, I decided that a sprinkling of grated Pecorino Romano cheese was a nice modest addition to the casserole, adding a little cheesy taste without making the dish too heavy, and allowing the green beans to really shine through in all their local, organic glory. And the french fried onions? Well, of course we had to keep those. How often do you have a good excuse to buy a can of french fried onions (unless you’re in college)? The crunchy, golden brown topping is a nod to the traditional casserole, while what’s underneath celebrates the bounty of the season.

I didn’t really measure anything while making this casserole, but wrote the recipe in such a way that you can easily adapt it, depending on how many green beans and chanterelles you have.

Green Bean Casserole, Revamped

(Adapted and inspired by The Cookaholic Wife)

Romano Beans (or regular green beans), washed, trimmed, and cut into bite-sized pieces
Chanterelle Mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
minced garlic
dry white wine or sherry
heavy cream
fresh rosemary, chopped
fresh sage, chopped
salt & pepper to taste
Pecorino Romao cheese, grated
French fried onions

  • Blanch the cut green beans in boiling water for several minutes (romano beans are longer and wider than regular green beans so will take longer), until almost tender. Drain and set aside.
  • Add some butter and a drizzle of olive oil to a pan over medium-high heat. When the butter foams, add the sliced chanterelle mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to turn golden-brown and the mushroom liquid (if any) has evaporated, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add a couple splashes of white wine (or sherry) and cook, stirring, until it evaporates. Add a good amount of cream to the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until it has reduced slightly and has nicely coated the mushrooms. Stir in fresh sage and rosemary. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  • Add the blanched beans to the pan with the mushrooms and stir so that the beans are evenly coated with the cream sauce. Pour everything into a baking pan. Top with a thin layer of grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and then a nice generous layer of french fried onions. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until heated through and top is golden brown. Cover with foil for the last 10 minutes of baking if the top is browning too quickly.

Buffalo Chicken Rolls

I love the foods that are associated with football, but I’m not a huge football watcher. I do, however, remember hanging out in the living room with my uncle and grandpa the weekend before Thanksgiving, while they watched “the big game” – Cal versus Standford. I learned how to shout “Go Bears!” with much enthusiasm. I probably learned how to shout some other phrases too that weren’t quite as wholesome. Since those days, I find the background noise of a football game on TV oddly comforting, even though I don’t really have a desire to sit down and watch a game from start to finish.

When I found out that the theme of this Recipe Swap was Tailgating/Appetizers, I still wanted to participate, despite my lack of tailgating experience. I happen to know that delicious foods are present while watching football, things involving melted cheese, fried goodies, and perhaps buffalo sauce. Yes, please. Not every day, but it’s fun to indulge once in a while, whether or not you’re watching football. Grilled Sriracha “Poppers” were our contribution to the swap; Buffalo Chicken Rolls were assigned to me.

These rolls are everything you love about buffalo wings, wrapped up neatly in an egg roll wrapper and baked until crispy and golden. When you bite into them, you get a combination of spicy buffalo chicken and cooling blue cheese crumbles. We agreed that the shredded cabbage and carrots were overpowered by the strong flavors of the buffalo chicken and blue cheese and didn’t add much, but I definitely understand wanting to add something fresh to the rolls. If we made these again, we’d probably just serve the traditional celery and carrots and blue cheese dip next to the buffalo chicken rolls, or maybe a slaw.

Also, while we appreciated the ease (and possible health benefits) of baking instead of frying, we think these would have been even better if they had been pan-fried in oil or deep-fried so that all surfaces of the egg roll wrappers could have gotten crispy; We found some of the edges to be a little undercooked when they came out of the oven. But putting these minor things aside, this is a fun appetizer with bold flavors that are sure to please the crowds, whether you’re tailgating, entertaining your friends, or just looking for something fun for dinner.

Buffalo Chicken Rolls

(Slightly adapted from Taste and See; originally from Can you Stay for Dinner?)

5 TBS. butter
3/4 cup Crystal Hot Sauce (or your preferred hot sauce)
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups chicken, shredded (we bought a rotisserie chicken and shredded it ourselves)
1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled blue cheese
1/2 a head of Napa cabbage, shredded, tossed with 1/2 of a medium carrot, grated*
12-15 egg roll wrappers
Small bowl of water
Vegetable or Canola oil
Blue cheese dressing or Ranch dressing for dipping

*The original recipe calls for a bag of cole slaw mix, something we’ve never bought (and come to think of it, have never noticed at our natural foods store), so we decided to buy fresh cabbage and shred it ourselves instead. I added some grated carrot too.

  • Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan over low heat, stirring until completely melted. Add the hot sauce and the garlic powder. Stir to incorporate. Add the sauce to the shredded chicken. If you want less heat, use less sauce, but we pretty much used it all! Mix until the chicken is moistened with the sauce.
  • Preheat oven to 400-degrees F. Lay egg roll wrappers on a clean work surface. Begin by placing one tablespoon of the shredded cabbage/carrot mixture on the diagonal of the bottom right corner of one of the wrappers. Next, place 2 tablespoons of shredded buffalo chicken evenly on top of the slaw. Sprinkle some blue cheese crumbles over the chicken. Do not overfill.
  • To fold: Fold the bottom right corner over the stuffing mixture so that it covers it completely, with the tip of the corner now pointing to the center of the egg roll wrapper. Fold in the bottom left corner, followed by the right, so that you now have formed an envelope. Roll the wrap upward one time, leaving the top left corner open. Wet your index finger in the small bowl of water and press to moisten the top left corner. Now fold that down on top of the filled roll, sealing it like you would an envelope.

(Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of the assembly process – if you’re a visual person like me and need some great photos to see how to do this, check out the original recipe here).

  • Repeat with remaining rolls.
  • Place the rolls on a greased wire rack set on top of a cookie sheet. Brush the rolls lightly with oil or spritz with cooking spray. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until rolls are golden brown, flipping the rolls halfway through. Allow to cool for several minutes before serving with blue cheese or ranch for dipping.

Thin-Crust Pizza

There is a picture hanging up in my parents’ dining room that depicts a quaint Italian scene. In the foreground is a little table with two chairs. An antipasti plate with a variety of cured meats and a bowl of olives sits in the middle of the table, with two mugs of dark hot chocolate on either side. In the distance is a large town clock in the center of the town square, a flock of pigeons, a little vegetable market, and a harbor with rows of colorful boats. The artist sure packed a lot into one scene. That was me! I painted it when I was 12 years old after we returned home from a family vacation in Northern Italy. Even as a young girl, the food made an impression. How could it not? Obviously, the antipasti and the hot chocolate were at the forefront of my mind when I was painting  (what an interesting pairing – what was I thinking?) but I have plenty of other food memories from that trip, like tripe, thin-crust pizza, rich, creamy gelato, and the special feeling of eating dinner way past my bedtime.

You’re probably wondering about the tripe. One of our hotel restaurants featured a set menu. For one of the courses, I immediately dug into what I thought was a pile of wide noodles in a cream sauce. It took me a while to look up and notice that no one else in my family was touching the “noodles.” Turns out it was a pile of tripe! My family still jokes about it to this day. Of course I remember the thin-crust pizza a lot more fondly than my creamy “noodles” – the perfectly crispy crust, the simple tomato sauce that tasted like ripe summer tomatoes, the creamy Mozzarella cheese, and the aromatic fresh basil. I remember eating an entire pizza by myself because the crust was so thin, and washing it down with a glass of coke with no ice (the European way, which I prefer!)

I was really excited when I got this recipe for this month’s Italian recipe swap, because it came from someone who has also experienced real Italian pizza. Krystal of Mrs. Regueiro’s Plate recently returned from a vacation in Italy. She couldn’t choose just one Italian recipe to share, so gave the recipient a choice – this thin-crust pizza or a creamy lemon gelato. The latter looked so amazing, but since we don’t own an ice cream maker, I chose the pizza.  She says this recipe gives you a taste of Italy at home, and I would have to agree. Cook’s Illustrated  really got it right, as eating it conjured up the Italian pizza I ate over 15 years ago. The only difference is that instead of ice-less coke or rich hot chocolate, I got to enjoy it with some red wine!

This recipe makes two 12-inch pizzas. We topped one with grated Mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced, locally grown tomatoes, and fresh basil. The other one was our version of a Quattro Formaggi (four cheeses): Mozzarella, Italian Fontina, Parmesan, and Ricotta (I wanted blue or Gorgonzola, but Levi and Dustin won this time). The recipe makes a ton of delicious sauce, so keep that in mind and halve the sauce recipe if you only want to use it for your pizzas. We are looking forward to using the leftover sauce in a pasta dish soon.

Thin-Crust Pizza

(From Mrs. Regueiro’s Plate, originally from Cooks Illustrated)

For the Dough:

1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 TBS. olive oil, plus extra
1 1/3 cups  ice water
1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
2 tsp. sugar
3 cups bread flour, plus extra
Cornmeal (optional)

For the Sauce:

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 medium garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper


Quattro Formaggi – Grated Mozzarella cheese; grated Italian fontina; grated Parmesan; dollops of fresh Ricotta (or blue cheese/Gorgonzola)

Margherita – The best tomatoes you can find, thinly sliced; Mozzarella cheese; fresh basil

  • At least 24 Hours before prepare the dough. In a food processor, process the flour, sugar, and yeast until combined. With the machine running, slowly add ice water through the feed tube and process until a dough forms and no dry flour remains. Let dough stand for 10 minutes.
  • Add oil and salt and process until dough forms satiny, sticky ball – about 30 to 60 seconds. Remove dough from bowl, knead briefly on lightly oiled work area until smooth, about 1 minute. Transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours and up to 3 days.
  • To make the sauce, combine all ingredients in a food processor. Blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use.
  • One hour before baking the pizza, adjust the oven rack to the second highest position and place a baking stone on the rack to preheat. Preheat the oven to 500˚ degrees.
  • Remove the pizza dough from the refrigerator and divide in half. Form each half into a ball and place on a lightly oiled baking sheet, with at least 3 to 5 inches apart. Cover loosely with plastic wrap coated with cooking spray and let sit at room temperature for 1 hour.
  • Coat 1 ball of dough generously with flour, and place on a well-floured counter top. Using fingertips, gently flatten into 8-inch disk. Leave 1 inch of the outer edge a little thicker, while gently stretching the middle until you have a 12-inch round. Lay out a sheet of parchment paper and spread a handful of cornmeal on the paper (if using). Place the dough on the paper.
  • Spread 1/2 cup tomato sauce over pizza (we didn’t really measure – just spooned some on until it looked right to us), add a couple handfuls of cheese and whatever other toppings you are using. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of the pizza and lightly sprinkle with Kosher salt. Carefully lift the parchment paper with pizza on-top and place onto the pizza stone. Bake until the crust is golden and the cheese is bubbling, about 10-12 minutes. Remove pizza and place on wire rack for 5 minutes before slicing and serving.
  • Repeat steps above to make and bake second pizza. Enjoy with your favorite bottle of red wine.

Grilled Shrimp Tacos with Jalapeño-Ranch Sauce

It’s recipe swap time again! This week’s theme was Mexican. Both of us have been fortunate enough to grow up in California where we have eaten some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, something we missed greatly while we were in Japan, where there wasn’t an enchilada or a torta in sight (nor was there knowledge of either of those things). This recipe was a little different, so I can’t compare it to the tacos I ate at a little stand down in San Diego or Ensenada, but if you put it in a different category, perhaps Tex-Mex or American-Mexican, it’s a meal that definitely delivers on flavor, from the charcoal flavor of the grilled shrimp to the kick of Jalapeño in the zesty ranch sauce.

Ranch isn’t usually a staple in our house, so I was actually excited to have an excuse to buy the seasoning mix from the store and mix it into sour cream. When I added the grilled jalapeño and whirled everything up in a food processor, I decided this would be the perfect dip for potato chips (I may or may not have tried this while Dustin was grilling the shrimp). Next time, I would up the seasoning in the shrimp marinade – definitely more salt and more chili powder/cayenne, and maybe even add something sweet like honey or agave nectar to balance the flavors, but over all, this is a great meal to enjoy in your backyard on a warm evening with a glass of dry white wine. And I’m telling you, that Jalapeño-Ranch sauce just calls out for potato chips!

Grilled Shrimp Tacos with Jalapeño-Ranch Sauce

(From Sarah of A Taste of Home Cooking)

1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined (we used small prawns)
Olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
Chopped garlic
Chili powder or cayenne pepper (or both! We also recommend adding salt & pepper to the marinade)
1 jalapeno
1 packet ranch dressing mix (we used what was labeled “ranch dip seasoning”)
1 cup sour cream
Flour tortillas
Shredded lettuce
Diced tomatoes
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese 
Your favorite hot sauce (we used Cholula)

  • Prepare a charcoal grill.
  • Combine shrimp, olive oil, lime juice, garlic and chili/cayenne in a bowl. Marinate shrimp for up to 30 minutes. Lightly oil the jalapeno and grill until nice and charred on the outside, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then discard the stem and cut in half lengthwise. Discard the seeds.
  • Meanwhile, combine the seeded jalapeno with the ranch mix and the sour cream in a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer sauce to a small bowl and refrigerate until use. Cook the shrimp on the grill until they are done, and have nice grill marks. Warm up the tortillas on the grill.
  • To assemble the tacos: spoon some Jalapeño-Ranch sauce on a tortilla, then top with shrimp (after removing the tails!), shredded lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. Drizzle with extra sauce and a few drops of hot sauce.

Currant Scones

When we vacationed in Sweden with my family two summers ago, we embraced our Swedish roots and enjoyed taking part in fika – the afternoon coffee break – when Swedes meet their friends, coworkers, or family at a cafe to indulge in a beverage and a baked good like a cookie or cinnamon roll before heading back to normal life. That’s a custom I could get used to!

I made these scones on a Saturday afternoon because I was craving a sweet baked good and was in need of a little fika myself. I also wanted to make something ahead of time that I could enjoy the following morning for breakfast when I knew I’d be too busy to bake. What a treat it was to bite into a warm, flaky scone and take that first sip of strong coffee on a Sunday morning when Levi had woken up at 5 am. It’s the little things in life!

I had never made scones before, but was pleased with the ease in which these came together! This is the recipe I was given for this week’s breakfast-themed recipe swap (to see more delicious recipes from previous recipe swaps, go here!). The original recipe called for raisins, but I decided to use the currants that I had on hand from making fruit & nut granola. Although the scones were a tad bit sweet for my taste (next time I might use 1/2 the sugar so that the tang from the sour cream can come through more), the texture was perfect, with little bursts of currant in every bite. When I was cutting the dough into wedges, I ended up with 8 larger scones, rather than the 12 the recipe called for, so they baked for about 10 minutes longer than indicated. But that’s okay. It was worth the wait to bite into a big scone – a delicious and much-needed indulgence!

This is a great basic recipe that I look forward to trying again with different fruits. I hope you enjoy them too, in the morning or in the afternoon. Go ahead. Take a break like the Swedes. You deserve it.

Currant Scones

(From Lisa, recipe swap participant)

1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. baking soda
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, beaten
1 cup currants (or raisins)

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking sheet (or line with parchment paper).
  • In a small bowl, blend the sour cream and baking soda. Set aside.
  • In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar, and salt. Cut in the butter. Add the sour cream mixture and the egg and mix just until moistened. Gently mix in the currants.
  • Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. Roll or pat dough into a 3/4 inch round. Cut into 12 wedges and place them 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet.
  • Bake 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

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.