Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness

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31-recipe challenge Day 19: Oscars and short ribs

What better, swankier dish to serve on Oscars Sunday than red-wine braised short ribs? There isn’t one, really.

These braised short ribs, courtesy of Diane, A Broad (love the blog name!) might be hands-down one of the best things I have ever cooked, ever. After just three hours in the oven, these were the richest, most fall-apart ribs I’ve ever had. (Enough so that two days post-surgery I was even able to eat them!). They seem scary and complicated and oh-so-fancy, but really it’s just a lot of throwing stuff in a pot and letting it go.

short ribs 1

There are several steps, between searing, slow-roasting, separating and reducing, but no one step is particularly intimidating on its own. It’s the sum of its parts that’s so seemingly overwhelming, really, but once you break it down you realize it’s really not all that bad. It’s downright doable! And I would totally do this again.

Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever eat a cooked carrot that’s not braised in red wine again. Even the carrots were melt-in-your-mouth.

I served these over some instant polenta, much like Diane, though I pumped mine up with pecorino romano and little light cream. Add a ton of chives and more sauce and dig in and don’t look back. Thank me later.

Despite the fact that I’m going home to cook dinner tonight (duh), all I want to do right now is eat leftover short ribs straight out of the fridge. Short rib appetizer, anyone?

short ribs 2

Short ribs, Seth MacFarlane, Les Miserables…it’s like everything I love just came together to make me the happiest girl in the world. Add in Jennifer Lawrence being adorable as ever while winning Best Actress (and HOW sweet was it when both Hugh Jackman AND Bradley Cooper ran up to help her when she fell?? Such gentlemen!) and it was a pretty great Sunday. The only thing that would’ve made it better would have been a big glass of the malbec I used to braise the ribs. Curse you, amoxycillin! I thought we were over.

 

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31-recipe challenge Day 10: Chicken Rosemary Lasagna

Phew! We’re finally 10 days (and 13 recipes) in. We’re approaching the halfway point! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The current order of business: lasagna. But not just any ol’ lasagna (because traditional lasagna the day after eggplant parm would be a tad redundant.)

No, no, no. This is a whole new kind of lasagna–a white lasagna, if you will (as in, no tomato sauce), and it is the brainchild of Sylvia Fountaine from Feasting At Home.

Lasagna 1

I’ll admit it: I did something a little bad with this lasagna–I used no-boil packaged noodles. No, I didn’t use fresh pasta or even eggroll wrappers like she suggested. I went totally cheat-route and used the no-boil lasagna noodles. It resulted in a few crispy edges, but in the end it worked out.

I actually prepped this lasagna Sunday night and left it wrapped in the fridge, unbaked until Monday evening, when I pulled it out and baked it off. This was a great make-ahead recipe that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to pull off on a weeknight.

No news here–I halved this recipe (this is pretty much becoming the norm now.) I also added more chicken in place of the mushrooms, because the thought of handling and eating them still totally grosses me out. (I know I said I’d keep the substitutions to a minimum, but this one’s just too deep-seated.) Because the mushrooms release juice when they cook, which keeps the vegetables moist and helps wilt the spinach, I added a splash of white wine in their place to keep the necessary liquid.

I also used skim milk in place of whole milk in the béchamel sauce because I forgot to buy whole milk. Shhh…if I didn’t tell you, you’d probably never know!

Lasagna 2

At first, I was a little…confounded by this dish. Like I said, there were some crispy noodle edges, which freaked me out at first (I thought it was undercooked), then my initial bites told me it was bland, and I wanted to sprinkle salt over the whole thing, which I never do. But by my second helping, my taste buds changed their mind, and I added no salt. And by the next day, as I was eating leftover lasagna at my desk, I realized between the cheese sauce, the cooked noodles, and the crispy edges, this lasagna was totally reminiscent of a savory noodle kugel. Be still my Jewish heart. That solidified it for me–this was one good lasagna.

(Though, if you ask my mother, it’s not lasagna. “Does it have tomato sauce?” “No.” “Then it’s not lasagna!” I swear, you’d think she’s Italian or something!)

lasagna slice

This was another minor victory by way of Kevin: the actual Italian boy NEVER eats lasagna because he hates ricotta cheese. (Seriously, what kind of Italian is he??) But he ate this! A whole serving, and he even finished it! Granted, he opted to raid my fridge for the rest of his meal rather than have seconds, but I’ll take what I can get.

31-recipe challenge Day 9: Gluten-free Eggplant Parmesan

This one’s for my mama.

“Gluten-free” anything often seems daunting to me, but this recipe (from Gluten-Free Girl, natch ) just makes so much sense. Fry the eggplant without breading it first. Duh. (Also makes for a healthier fried eggplant.) This is also vegetarian, though definitely not vegan. So. Much. Cheese. YES!

Eggplant parm 1

*Side note: There are a lot of vegetarian dishes on this list. I don’t hate it. Kevin even got excited about making one tonight. More on that later.*

This was my first deep-frying endeavor, and I only walked away with minor burn marks. Victory! My yoga clothes may have taken a bit more of a beating, though…luckily I was wearing my black hoodie. (Yes, I know, I have an apron, but what good are exercise clothes if they’re not able to take a little oil splatter?)

There’s an irony here: Sunday marked my return to yoga, as I took my first class in ages, courtesy of Groupon. Then I went home and deep-fried a perfectly innocent vegetable. Life’s all about balance, my friends. (How very yogi of me.)

Anyway, this recipe’s pretty great on its own, I just halved it, as per usual. Mainly because I rarely have 4-8 people to feed. This recipe probably would have been even better if 1) my knife skills were better (i.e., actually cutting the eggplant into 1-inch slices, not some 1-inch slices, some 1/2-inch slices and some choppy pieces because the whole slicing thing wasn’t working out so well) and 2) I baked it in a shallower dish. Because I halved the quantity, a 9×13 baking dish seemed way too large for my meager eggplant, so I stacked in all in a small but deep casserole dish instead. It was a little…mushy. One of the two aforementioned things is likely to blame.

Eggplant parm 2

Nonetheless, it tasted good. Fried eggplant, even on its own, is pretty tasty. It made a good cooking snack. (Maybe eggplant chips will be the new “it” thing! Hey, a girl can dream.) My mom gave it a passing grade and especially like the less-common addition of the sautéed peppers and onions for a little flavor and bite. And the cheese. All the cheese. That alone makes up for any perceived imperfections.

Oh, and again my apartment smelled terrific. I really hope I’m making my neighbors jealous.

31-Recipe Challenge Day 7: Roasted Sweet Potato Risotto

I MADE RISOTTO! And it didn’t suck! Alas, risotto was a notorious downfall for the cheftestants on Top Chef, and I’m not sure this would save me from the wrath of Tom and Padma, but nonetheless, I made risotto on the first try and it wasn’t horrifically awful. As a matter of fact, it was downright edible! (Of course, I’m being modest…I’ve already tucked into the leftovers, so that’s always a good sign.) I also made brown butter for the first time, which also didn’t suck. As a matter of fact, I expected to need at least two tries to not burn it, but first time was a charm.  My apartment smelled delicious that night.

Sweet potato risotto 1

Cue happy dance number 3 of the month. (3? Or is it 4? I lost track…)

I didn’t just make any risotto, mind you. I made roasted sweet potato risotto from How Sweet It Is. This recipe basically combines all sorts of good things into one: risotto, which is obviously fabulous, sweet potatoes, bacon and cheese.

I was super-concerned during the cooking process that I was going to mess something up. If I didn’t feel like the stock and wine were absorbing at the right rate, I got worried. If I burned the garlic and over-toasted the rice, I freaked. (I mean, not that I did that…I totally did that. It still came out fine in the end.) Moral of the story? Don’t freak, you’re probably going to end up with a beautifully rich, creamy risotto at the end.

Cooking arborio rice

It made for a very good way to end the week and welcome in a snow storm–yup, we got hit by “Nemo,” though it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we’ve had in the past. And not having a driveway to shovel makes it even better. I also moved from a very quiet suburban street to a pretty busy local road, so we were plowed out before 9 am Saturday. That was nice.

So, the next time snow is coming your way (you can pretend if you live in a warm climate. Also, you can invite me over.), cook up a batch of creamy, wintery risotto, snuggle up with a glass of wine, and then head out and hit the bar before the snow really starts. Or you can just do the first part…(Yes, I did the latter, but granted, the bar’s only about eight blocks away and the snow didn’t even start til right before we left. Apparently Nemo’s a night owl.)

I feel like this night was the night I moved up a rank in the cooking world. Maybe I can call myself at least “intermediate” now. After all, I made brown butter AND risotto with it and both turned out on the first shot. Or maybe I’m just getting cocky. Either one.

Sweet potato risotto 2

 

31-recipe challenge Day 5: Butternut Panzanella Salad

Can you tell I had to use up my butternut squash? I got the last of the good pieces in just in time to make this yummy, filling salad from A Communal Table. It still wasn’t quite as good as the kale and butternut salad from Day 4, but it was a solid contender, and a good light meal to eat while catching up on two hours of Smash. Also quite a good lunch the next day (just make sure you don’t dress it ahead of time if you’re planning on leftovers.)

Butternut panzanella salad 1

I made only three adjustments/modifications to this recipe: 1) I halved it since I was the only one eating it. 2) I left out the mushrooms because I really can’t stand them. And 3) I chopped the shallots for the dressing instead of sliced them because my slices didn’t look good.

Aside from prepping the bread and roasting the squash, this is a pretty quick, simple salad to make. And those croutons are the bomb. Plus, they make your house smell like yummy, toasting bread and who doesn’t like that?

This salad automatically wins in my book if just for one simple thing: marcona almonds. What is a marcona almond, you ask? Well, it’s a Spanish almond that is skinless, smooth and buttery, almost like a cross between an almond and a macadamia nut and it. is. heavenly. Wegmans only had one marcona offering: a small(ish) can of salted almonds. It was pretty expensive for what I got, but it was so worth it–these bad boys are so good! If you ever get your hands on marcona almonds, try them! (Trader Joe’s carries rosemary marcona almonds, which are amazing! But I couldn’t get out there.)

Butternut panzanella salad 2

This salad ends the reign of the butternut squash recipes. I burned through them. Don’t think there isn’t a sweet potato or two waiting in the wings still, though.

 

31-Recipe Challenge: Day 4–Butternut Squash and Kale Salad

I kept it simple on Monday. Coming off my marathon-cooking weekend and a late night thanks to the Super Bowl, I hadn’t done any extra shopping and was feeling pretty low-key. Luckily, I had planned ahead on my last shopping trip and picked up extra kale, butternut squash and almonds for the week ahead. All I needed was some cheese and I had everything on hand to recreate Northern Spy’s Kale Salad (recipe courtesy of Food52).

Kale and squash salad 1

I sent my wonderful and adoring boyfriend out for some cheese to complete this meal, and although he could not find the Cabot Clothbound cheddar that Kristen of Food52 so vehemently praised, he did come back with some Kerry Gold two-year aged Irish “distinctively sharp” cheddar. And I wasn’t complaining. That’s some knock-your-socks-off good cheese. If it’s possible for a cheddar to taste like a Parmesan, this does. Kevin, you hit this one out of the park. Good work.

This recipe calls for oven-roasted butternut squash, and, unlike Sunday’s undercooked squash disaster, this time it roasted up nice and sweet and soft. Mix into chopped kale and almonds, add the cheddar and shaved pecorino, dress with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper and dig in. It’s crunchy-chewy, salty-sweet, oily-acidic. It’s perfect. This was one of the best kale salads I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some good kale salads. I get why Northern Spy keeps it on their menu. Serve with anything, or on its own. We ate it with leftovers from the weekend.

And although the squash takes about 30-40 minutes to roast, this is otherwise a super-speedy lunch or dinner, and simple. Chopping and roasting the squash is the brunt of the prep work.

This one’s a clear winner in my book, and a nice break after a day of heavy eats. Also goes to show sometimes simple is best. Thank goodness I needed to leave to walk the dog, or poor Kevin may not have gotten any of this salad. I couldn’t stop eating it. I wasn’t even hungry anymore and I still found myself digging in.

Seriously, I’m still thinking about this salad. And drooling. Over SALAD. Yeah, that happened.

Kale and squash salad 2

31-Recipe Challenge: Day 3–Super Bowl Sunday!

If you remember my Super Bowl post from last year, you know I like to throw a Super Bowl party. This year was no different, except Kevin hosted and I had even better recipes to work with.

The Super Bowl menu? Beer and bacon butter beans, four-cheese macaroni and cheese and pumpkin pie bread pudding. Plus, Kevin made chicken fajitas and pigs in blankets.

Yes, this was a far departure from Day 2’s vegetarian recipes.

On to the recipes! First let’s start with the one I know you’re all looking at–Beer and Bacon Butter Beans. Let me repeat that one. Beer. And Bacon. Can you think of a better football food? I used this recipe from Crepes of Wrath and pretty much didn’t change a damn thing.

Despite the beer and bacon (or should I say, THANKS TO the beer and bacon), this is actually a very complex and sophisticated side dish, especially thanks to the whole sprig of rosemary that goes in. But seriously, just in case you had any doubt that beans slow-cooked in beer and bacon fat would be delicious, these were drool-worthy. I’ve never appreciated a plate of beans so much. And puff-pastry wrapped pigs in a blanket were a much better franks-and-beans accompaniment than plain old hot dogs.

Beer and bacon butter beans

As much of a bacon lover as I am (and I’m a huge bacon lover), I rarely cook it. Sunday I cooked it. A lot of it. 8 thick-cut strips, to be exact. And I chopped it first. I never want to do that again. Trying to cut through thick, chewy, raw bacon fat can make you never want to eat bacon again. (OK, that’s not true. But it doesn’t make you want to prep it again.)

But once that starts cooking, it’s a whole different story. The salty, smoky, bacon-y smell fills the kitchen, and all is right with the world.

Then, you strain out the bacon and cook the beans IN THE BACON FAT. Add chicken stock, lemon juice, honey, a whole bottle of malty amber ale (I used Sam Adams Boston Ale), spices and a sprig of rosemary, and pop that bad boy in the oven for a solid two hours. Then top with crispy bacon. 1) your house will smell amazing and 2) what comes out at the end of those two hours is well worth the wait.

I can’t believe I’m waxing poetic about baked canellini beans, but these beans were off-the-wall good. Granted, cook anything in bacon fat and beer and it will probably be off-the-wall good.

I’ll put it to you another way: my friend J, who still doesn’t even consider beans a viable food group, said these were good. That’s, like, Kevin loving the sweet potato tacos huge! (This has been a pretty good weekend!) Heck, the fact that he even willingly ATE the beans was a good enough compliment for me.

UPDATE: In hindsight, I realize I skipped the very last step of the recipe, which is to stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter once the beans come out of the oven. Oh well, I didn’t miss it.

For dinner, I made Four-Cheese Baked Rigatoni from How Sweet It Is. I’ve made TONS of macaroni and cheese in my day–it’s almost become a staple for me–but this one was unique. In addition to cheddar, fontina and gruyere, this mac and cheese uses 1/3 cup of mascarpone, which is super luscious and creamy and smooth. And, as she warns, does give the mac and cheese extra oiliness, though not in a bad way. I’ve had mac and cheese like this before, and the extra oil actually lent itself well to reheating. It’s super gooey and cheesy. I used fat rigatoni noodles, like the recipe originally called for, which trapped lots of extra cheese sauce inside.

3-cheese mix

Come. To. Mama.

Although, I didn’t have any panko bread crumbs on hand, so I used regular whole wheat ones, which were fine. I also subbed a pinch of dried mustard seed for the nutmeg, since one of my friends in attendance has a nutmeg allergy. (The goal is to not kill people.)

One interesting thing about this day was that a sort of theme emerged: one pot wonders that I turned into two-pot wonders. You see, both the beans and the mac and cheese were supposed to go from stove to oven in the same cooking vessel: the beans in an oven-safe pot or deep pan, the macaroni in a cast iron skillet. I do not own either of those things (sadly), so for the beans, I cooked everything in a deep pan and transferred into a covered deep casserole dish to bake. I cooked the macaroni and cheese in the same deep pan and transferred to a traditional casserole dish to bake. I really need to get my hands on a cast iron skillet, because as ooey-gooey and lovely as that mac and cheese was, I bet it would be incredible in cast iron.

Mac and cheese

Then came dessert. Let’s just say I’m really glad someone brought cookies. I was probably the least impressed with this of everyone who ate it, but then again, I am always my own worst critic. I’m also picky about my bread pudding. I made this gorgeous-looking Pumpkin Pie Bread Pudding with Bourbon Icing from Eats Well With Others. (Well, hers was gorgeous-looking.)

It wasn’t a terrible recipe, I think I just executed it wrong. Though granted, three pounds of butternut squash to one pound of bread in a bread pudding does seem a tad imbalanced. I’d probably recommend trying something closer to a one-to-one ratio.

When the finished product came out of the oven (after it baked for way longer than called for yet barely felt done), there were more chunks of hard, raw squash than soft, melty baked ones. And the inside was decidedly, well, mushy. Too mushy for my taste. Not so bad for a bread pudding, but, like I said, I’m picky. I feel like if this was perhaps baked in individual-sized ramekins rather than one large springform, it would be more up my alley–lots of crispy outside and a semi-liquid center that’s still mostly baked.

There are a few things I think contributed to my underwhelming result: For one, I’m assuming I didn’t pre-cook the squash long enough on the stove, though I feel like I let it go even longer than the recipe called for. Also, while the recipe called for a 10-inch springform, I only had a 9 1/2-inch. So although I left some filling behind,  perhaps I still overstuffed the pan, leading to the longer-than-called for baking time.

I also made a couple of *slight* tweaks to the recipe, but I doubt they were disaster inducing: again, I cut the nutmeg so as not to send anyone to the hospital, and I subbed one cup of almond milk and two cups of regular milk (1%) for the three cups of almond milk because I didn’t have enough on hand.

Nonetheless, this is definitely one I won’t be making again, even though Kevin wants me to re-attempt it with apples in place of the squash. This one brought me back down to earth a little bit–I was getting pretty confident in my baking skills after the pizza dough victory on Day 1, but this proved I’m really still not a baker. I’m gonna stay on the stove top where I belong.

However, it wasn’t all a bust. There was that bourbon icing. Oh man, that icing. I don’t even like bourbon and I couldn’t stop stealing tastes of this stuff. Which was bad, because I’m on antibiotics and not allowed to have alcohol!

Pumpkin pie bread pudding w/ bourbon icing

But if you need a dessert topping for, well, pretty much anything, throw this together! A stick of butter, 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and 2 tablespoons bourbon. Whisk and imbibe. And to get it more glaze-y and less icing-y, just pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds or so.

Because, dude, you want this icing on EVERYTHING. It was pretty good on the cookies, I was told. (I had eaten enough off the spoon by that point, I figured it was better if I cut myself off.)

I’m exhausted just writing this, so it’s no surprise I nearly forgot to cook on Monday. (Don’t worry, I did!)

31-Recipe Challenge: Day 1 — Kicking it off!

Well, folks, the day has finally arrived–I have officially started  my one-month, 31-recipe challenge! Since I’ve been sick for the past week (battling an ear and throat infection punctuated with cold-like symptoms, yay winter), I started off slow, but delicious. My first recipe I tackled for this challenge–sausage and pepper pizza!

Sausage pizza 1

Now, I’m from New Jersey, where sausage and peppers can be found in every corner pizza joint (and you can bet they’ll be good, too!) They’re not usually my first choice, but let me tell you, this pizza rocks. I’m rethinking sausage and peppers now.

One great thing I learned from this recipe: making pizza dough from  scratch is super-easy. Like, crazy, crazy easy. Literally takes five, maybe 10 minutes, not counting the time for it to rise.  I don’t think I’ll be buying pre-made pizza dough anymore, it’s just not worth it.

Let’s take a minute here and let this sink in: I. made. homemade. dough. And it didn’t suck.  The non-baker inside me is freaking out and doing a happy dance! (And possibly a literal happy dance occurred at the time, as well. Not ashamed.)

The pizza got the stamp of approval from my toughest critic, the sausage pizza aficionado, if you will. (AKA…Kevin loved it!)

I *very, very* slightly modified this recipe from Joy the Baker for the pizza.  The main modification I made was using all-purpose flour in place of bread flour in the dough recipe, because, well, I’m not likely to use much bread flour again, so having five pounds of it seemed excessive. Frankly, though, the AP flour worked fine. I also used mild Italian sausage (patties, not links, since there was no casing) instead of spicy, because I have a low heat tolerance and actually wanted to be able to eat my pizza. As it was, I was reaching for the water anytime I took a bit with a little too much red pepper flake on it. (And there wasn’t much.)

Sausage pizza 2

I totally plan on making this one again, and keeping homemade pizza dough on hand in my freezer. It was so quick to make, even on a rushed post-work Friday evening, yet WAY beats any fast-food and even beats great pizza shop sausage pizza. Possibly because even the best Jersey pizza joints don’t usually put fresh bell peppers and arugula on their pizza.

Consensus: Day 1 a success.  The fun continues today with sweet potato tacos with avocado and apple, pomegranate and kale salad. And I’m getting really crazy tomorrow, combining the recipe challenge with a Super Bowl party! Yes, I may have the best-fed Super Bowl guests this side of Baltimore (see what I did there?).

See you soon for Day 2!

Learning from our mistakes: 5-Cheese White Bean Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes I try new things and they don’t always work.  Sometimes that means utter, throw it in the trash failure, and sometimes that means it came out okay, but not great. This is a story of the latter.

I had seen this recipe for white bean mac and cheese a while back and decided to tackle something similar. I was craving the ooey-gooeyness of mac and cheese but didn’t want to go completely off track, health-wise, so this seemed like the perfect compromise.

I didn’t have a whole lot of any one kind of cheese in my fridge, but I had a lot of different kinds of cheese, so I just ran with it. At the time, I though using about a tablespoon of cottage cheese would be a good idea to help get a creamy consistency.  Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that cottage cheese doesn’t really melt.  It stays kind of chunky and clumpy, which is sort of off-putting in a cheese sauce.  So, if I were to attempt this again (and I plan to!), I’d probably go with a tablespoon of cream cheese over the cottage cheese to ensure that creaminess is there.

Another mistake I learned from: garlic burns. Fast. And it makes your house smell. Brown garlic (as in burned) smells even stronger than just the regular cooked stuff. And it doesn’t make the other people in your house happy. Also, the flavor is INTENSE. Like, whoa baby, that’s garlic intense. (I contemplated throwing it out and starting over after burning the garlic, but since it was just brown and not completely charred, I decided to go with it. Next time, lightly cooked garlic or bust.)

So, yes, the final product was a bit too garlicky for my taste, and sort of a strange, overcooked garlic flavor. Also, I was probably a bit overzealous in my use of the white bean puree–I didn’t mind it, but the sauce was a bit grittier than a normal cheese sauce from the beans.  If you want to hide the white beans and get more of a traditionally smooth cheese sauce, go with less puree.  But, still, I could see the real potential in this dish, and so I still want to share it with you, with some adaptations to the recipe based on what I learned.

5-cheese white bean macaroni and cheese

Spiral pasta (or any shape you like)
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed
1/2 can white cannelini beans, rinsed
1 tbs butter
1 tbs all-purpose flour
1/2 cup to 1 cup skim milk (depends how thin/thick you want your sauce)
1 tbs cream cheese
2 deli slices or 1 handful shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 slices American cheese
1 handful shredded provolone cheese
1 handful grated parmesan cheese
Dried mustard seed
Paprika
Fresh ground black pepper

1. Boil the pasta in a large saucepan with a tablespoon of olive oil to prevent sticking.  When the pasta is cooked al dente, drain and set aside. While the pasta boils, puree the white beans with a little bit of water or oil, if necessary, to get a smooth consistency.
2. In the same saucepan, heat the other tablespoon of olive oil. Add the garlic and cook through (until still white, not dark brown!)
3. Add the butter, let it melt, and mix in the flour to create a roux.
4. Once incorporated, add the milk and let it simmer and heat through. Add the cream cheese and stir it into the milk sauce until it melts.
5. Add the white bean puree, 1 tablespoon at a time, and stir to incorporate into the sauce.
6. Add each cheese, one at a time, and stir until melted. (Eyeball this–if you need more or less, adjust to that. And taste along the way!)
7. Add a few sprinkles of mustard and paprika, to taste. Grind in the black pepper, to taste.
8. When the sauce is smooth and reaches the desired consistency, add the pasta back to the pot and stir well to coat.  Add more seasonings, if necessary.
9. Turn the oven on to Broil. Pour the macaroni and cheese into a baking dish or into individual ramekins and top with more grated Parmesan and paprika.
10. Broil macaroni and cheese for 3-8 minutes or until the Parmesan topping begins to bubble. Remove and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

This recipe is great to just lighten up and healthify regular mac and cheese, but it’s also great for kids! You can sneak this white bean puree into their favorite dish and they won’t even know it’s there! Instant fiber, protein and vitamins–and they’re not the wiser! Ha!

This is also a great no-bake cheat to still create that baked macaroni and cheese flavor.  The Parmesan topping gets nice and crispy while the pasta inside stays super creamy and cheesy. I’ve never made a baked-style mac and cheese before–I’ve always made it with a cheese sauce and let it be, like a homemade version of the boxed stuff. But this time around, I wanted to try that baked casserole-style without actually baking it. Broiling it for a few minutes was a quick way to achieve that without actually sitting around and waiting for it to bake. (Cause I’m hungry!) And you know what? Yes, the burned garlic was a bit overwhelming. But with the crispy cheese topping and the ooey-gooey inside, this was still pretty darn delicious! Nothing beats a good mac and cheese, and the addition of white beans and skim milk instead of whole milk or cream makes this (almost) guilt-free!

WIAW: Memorial Day Picnic!

I’ve neglected What I Ate Wednesdays for the past couple of weeks, but now I’m back–with a recipe! Once again, thanks to Jen from Peas & Crayons for hosting!

So, obviously Monday was Memorial Day. And originally, I was hoping to have a party or a small cookout or something. But my lack of planning coupled with my friends’ work schedules meant that wasn’t going to happen this year. But I still wanted to do something fun and summery to end the long weekend. Kevin got off work at six on Monday night, so I decided to throw together a fun, light, healthy Memorial Day picnic!

I know, I’m freaking adorable. This meal was a mix of home-cooked and store-bought, which is my kind of combo. We started with homemade bruschetta and crostinis (check out my recipe for that here). Still on my pesto kick from the day before, I also whipped up a big batch of pesto pasta salad! (Recipe to follow.) It’s a great way to use fresh pesto and it lightens up an otherwise mayo-laden picnic staple. Personally, I prefer the basil-y freshness to gloppy mayonnaise.

I bought some prepared chicken leg quarters from the supermarket for an entrée, though we barely even made a dent in the chicken after all the bruschetta and pasta salad! For dessert, I bought some fresh mangoes, apricots and blueberries–so glad summer fruit is finally in season! I chopped up the mango and apricot and mixed all the fruit together with some sweetened lime juice to make a citrusy-sweet fruit salad. (Oops, was that a recipe?)

I still wanted something really dessert-y, so I baked cookies. But I cheated. I’m not much of a baker, and I don’t have a working mixer, so I was taking the easy route out on this one–I wanted a cookie mix. Well, who knew that it is shockingly hard to find a cookie (or brownie) mix without trans fats? (Be careful–the package can say 0g trans fats as long as it’s less than 1g. Check the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oils, which equal trans fats.)

But lo and behold, in the refrigerated section, was my savior: Nestle Tollhouse Break and Bake cookies. Both the chocolate chip and the chocolate chunk are trans fat-free! Naturally, given those options, I went with the chocolate chunk. And so, we had a semi-homemade, chocolatey end to our meal.

And what’s a good picnic without some wine? So if you’re keeping track, yes, we drank wine out of sippy cups. Yes, I still own sippy cups. Note to self: buy disposable plastic cups.

A nice dry, Spanish rosé seemed like a good picnic wine. It was sufficient.

So, once everything was cooked and ready to go, we packed up our picnic and took it down to a park the next town over, overlooking the lake. Not gonna lie, it was pretty romantic. When I want to bring it, I can bring it.

But really, how can you beat a delicious (mostly) homemade dinner with views like this?

A lovely, relaxing conclusion to a lovely weekend. Then we went home and Kevin, my sister and I proceeded to finish off all two dozen cookies. Yeah, that happened.

Oh, and that recipe I promised:

As often happens with me, I didn’t measure, because I created a huge batch of this. It can obviously be adjusted to make a single portion or enough to serve a whole party. Use as much as you want to create as much as you want. Also, veggie-to-pasta ratios can be purely subjective. Do what you like.

Pesto Pasta Salad

Spiral, shell or other strong, sauce-holding pasta
Chopped red bell pepper
Chopped orange bell pepper
Chopped fresh green beans
Chopped celery
Diced tomato, seeded
1 chopped scallion, white and light green parts only
1 batch of homemade or store-bought pesto (see pesto recipe here)
Fresh mozzarella cheese
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

-Cook pasta according to package directions in lightly salted water.
-While the pasta cooks, chop and prep all veggies and make pesto sauce.
-Once cooked, drain pasta but do not rinse. Let cool in colander or large bowl until room temperature.
-When the pasta is cooled, mix all vegetables, including the scallion, into the pasta
-Dice or tear the mozzarella into the pasta salad.
-Add enough pesto to generously coat all ingredients and give a good basil flavor. Mix well and season with salt and pepper.

This healthy alternative to traditional pasta salad may just become my go-to party dish! The chopping takes some time, but the actual assembly takes no time at all–a great, quick crowd-pleaser. Even Kevin, who doesn’t like pasta salad, couldn’t stop eating this!

Well, there you have it. Happy Memorial Day and Happy What I Ate Wednesday!

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