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Hearty Sausage Baked Ziti

In high school, I was assigned a paper on William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I’ve never been much for poetry, but I loved those 18th century poems. There’s such a simple brilliance to the idea that the way we view the world changes with our experiences in life. And in his short, carefully crafted poems, Blake said so much about his perspective on life and the world he lived in. His message is timeless.

But it’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

My first baby

Before I had my children, I thought I loved my dogs as much as I could ever possibly love children. I made the mistake of once voicing this emotion and still get made fun of it to this day. But, at the time, I truly believed there could be no (parental sort of) love that was greater than what I felt for my pups. I loved them with every bit of love I thought I possessed. They were my babies.

And then I had my kids. And I quickly discovered an entire world of love I never could have imagined before. In retrospect, it sort of makes me feel a bit silly for believing that I loved my dogs as much as I would ever love my kids. But then, it’s all about perspective.

Furbaby meets human baby

For as long as I can remember, I dreamed about being a stay at home mom. I would gladly say goodbye to a successful career, years of time spent attaining advanced degrees and certifications, and a respectable paycheck, in order to care for my family. In my dreams, I was Suzy Homemaker. I baked pies every day and had adventures with my giggling children. My house was impeccably clean and my hair perfectly coifed. I’d enjoy quiet pastimes like crochet and tending to my garden. Perhaps I’d even start watching soap operas and collecting porcelain figurines. Who knows…

But then, that picture perfect image of 1950’s domestic bliss isn’t the reality, is it? In the real world, I can’t clean my house faster than the kids destroy it and for every giggle, there is a matching scream or whine. I certainly never considered I’d be scolding my child for pulling his pants down in the produce section of the grocery store. Oh, and there is definitely no time for tending to my non-existent garden or putting my imaginary crochet skills to use. And for every bit of joy and pride my children bring me, there are new fears and new challenges to contend with. And still, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

Looking back on my early days as a stay at home mom, I remember how frazzled I felt. It’s astounding how one tiny baby can turn your world so completely upside down. I struggled to figure out my new life as the stay at home mom I’d always wanted to be. It was hard, even with only one baby. I missed my job. My job was less tiring…and it came with a lunch break. Yet, now, as a mother of three kids, being alone with just the baby feels like a vacation. It’s funny how quickly perspective can change.

My almost-three-year-old, back in his baby days

And although my dream of being a stay at home mom is not at all what I’d pictured it would be, I’m still living my dream and am thankful for it every day. If I were William Blake writing a poem about parenthood, my song of experience may not be nearly as rose-colored as my song of innocence, but it would communicate something much deeper; a level of emotion only the experience of being a parent can awaken.

My almost-three-year-old now, ready for nursery school

My second little cutie is turning three in a few days. Where does the time go? We’re throwing him a birthday party next weekend. With cool weather quickly approaching, I’m making a comfort food menu, with an Italian twist. I’m making my pepperoni pizza salad, a big batch of meatballs in marinara sauce, toasty garlic bread, and this hearty baked ziti.

Enjoy! It’ll warm your soul.

Hearty Sausage Baked Ziti

Ingredients

  • 1 pound ziti or penne pasta
  • 3 cups tomato pasta sauce, homemade or store-bought
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 4 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded, divided
  • 1 pound spicy Italian pork sausage

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta al dente, according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent the pasta from over-cooking. Remove the sausage from the casings. Cook the sausage in a pan over medium heat for  7 to 8 minutes, until fully cooked. Use a fork or edge of a spoon to break it into small pieces as it cooks. Combine the cooked pasta with the pasta sauce, sausage, ricotta, parmesan cheese and about 2 1/2 cups of the mozzarella cheese. Pour the mixture into a large baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella cheese on top. Bake for about 25 minutes, until heated through and lightly browned on the top.

Polish Pie Pierogi Bake

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I considered opening this post with a Polish joke. You know, something along the lines of An Irishman, a German, and a Polish man walk into a bar… But, comedy is not my strong suit and I can never quite remember the punchline to jokes. Or, I remember only the punchline, but haven’t the foggiest idea of how to get there. Watching me try to tell a joke is often the funniest part of the joke I’m trying to tell. Either way, it’s probably better that I stick to the food and leaves the jokes to the jokers.

My Polish Pie is not really a pie at all, no more so than a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie qualifies as pie. But the name just seems to fit. The idea first struck me a few weekends ago, when we drove past a local Polish festival. As we waited at the stoplight, tapping our feet to the catchy tunes of a live polka band, the distinct aroma of kielbasa flooded our car. My husband made some quip about pierogies and kielbasa.

MmmmmmPierogies!!

And in that moment, an idea began to take shape. Why couldn’t I create a baked pierogi dish, starting with frozen pierogies, in the same way that people make baked ravioli casseroles? Seemed like it should work. And it seemed only logical that the dish should include slices of kielbasa. I decided on sweet, caramelized onions and a rich cheddar cheese sauce to complete the dish.

This is not a pretty dish. It’s got that sort of sloppy, mixed up appearance that most casseroles end up having. (I think I’m going to skip the photo I took of it spooned onto my dinner plate.) But, what it lacks in appearance, it more than makes up for with flavor. Best yet, you can use leftover kielbasa and caramelized onions to make the most fantastic frittata!

Polish Pie Pierogi Bake

Ingredients

  • 1 box frozen potato and cheddar pierogies
  • 1/2 Polish kielbasa, halved and sliced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 1/4 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4-1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray the inside of a baking dish (9×13 or smaller) with cooking spray. Line the bottom of the dish with the frozen pierogies.

To prepare the onions, heat one tablespoon of butter in pan over medium heat. Add the onions. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are tender, sweet, and golden brown. Scatter the onions over the frozen pierogies.

Scatter the kielbasa slices over the onions.

To prepare the sauce, melt the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in a pan over medium heat. Stir in the flour until well-blended. Cook for a minute or two. (This is your roux, which will help to thicken the sauce.) Gradually add the milk, whisking until smooth. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 2-3 minutes until it begins to thicken. Reduce the heat to low and add the cheddar cheese. Stir until melted. Season with a touch of salt and pepper. (Be careful not to over-salt the sauce, since the kielbasa will add a good amount of salty flavor to the finished dish.)

Pour the sauce over the mixture in the baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Bake for about 40 minutes.

Kielbasa and Caramelized Onion Frittata

Bonus recipe for leftover kielbasa and caramelized onions:

Kielbasa and Onion Frittata

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly beat 7-8 eggs in a bowl with about 1/4 cup milk. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a tablespoon of butter in an oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Swirl the pan so that the butter coats the bottom and sides. Add the eggs to the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes, until the bottom begins to set. The top should still be quite loose. Scatter leftover slices of kielbasa and caramelized onions into the egg mixture. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the eggs have completely set and the top is golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Salmon, Cucumber, and Orzo Salad in Lemon-Dijon Vinaigrette

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Well, hello again! It’s been almost three weeks now since the birth of our third son and we’ve all been enjoying our babymoon period with the new little guy. Though it’s only been a few short weeks, it feels as if he’s always been a part of our family. Life is good. And aside from the growing deficit of sleep, we’ve all adjusted nicely to our new routines as a family of five.
My meal plan for the first few weeks was simple. I had no intention of cooking anything. We’d keep things simple and easy while we focused on adjusting to life with our newborn son. I’d prepared a couple tins of baked ziti and macaroni and cheese in advance and stocked the freezer with frozen pizza and a few packages of our favorite frozen chicken tikka masala (with plenty of garlic naan, of course). Takeout from our local Panera and Five Guys would round out our no-fuss dining options for the first few weeks.
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Well, it took my husband all of a week before he went stir-crazy with the frozen foods and takeout. I knew he’d reached his breaking point when he came downstairs with a cookbook in his hands and started asking questions about the flavor of cumin and how to poach chicken. Apparently, one week is the frozen food and takeout limit for someone who is accustomed to home-cooked meals.
Now, my husband has many talents, but ever since he tried to cook the cardboard packaging along with a frozen pizza, I have a hard time handing him the reins in the kitchen. So, one week after the birth of our son, it was back to the kitchen for me. And somehow, with a few little tweaks to our routine, I’ve managed to put food on the table each night (and my husband has put down the cookbook).
Slightly-frazzled, busy moms (such as myself) will appreciate the simplicity of this make-ahead, one-dish meal. Broiled salmon is combined with crisp cucumber slices and orzo pasta in a flavorful lemon-dijon vinaigrette for a refreshing dish, which would make a perfect addition to any summer potluck! The entire dish can be prepared ahead of time and is served cold, leaving more time and flexibility to enjoy the warm days with family and friends.
***
Salmon, Cucumber, and Orzo Salad in Lemon-Dijon Vinaigrette
***
Ingredients
  • 1 pound salmon fillets
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, for salmon
  • 2 cups orzo pasta, uncooked
  • 1 cucumber, cut into fourths lengthwise and sliced
  • 2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, for vinaigrette
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons djion mustard
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • Salt and Pepper

Directions

Preheat broiler. Place salmon fillets on a baking sheet. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the salmon several inches below the broiler and cook for about 10 minutes, until cooked through. Cool completely, then break or chop the salmon into small pieces.

Cook the orzo according to package directions. Rinse with cool water.

To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, as desired.

Add the salmon, cucumbers, and parsley to the pasta. Toss with the vinaigrette, adding a little at a time, until the salad is well-dressed. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve cold.

Creamy Chicken, Bacon, and Mushrooms

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Happy Cinco de Mayo!! Time to dress in your best sombrero and put your basic level Spanish to good use! Dos cervezas, por favor, should suffice. Celebrate the day with some delicious, spicy Mexican food and a frosty margarita! Heck, have one for me while you’re at it; perhaps something frozen and mango flavored, no salt please…

Had I been thinking ahead, I would have prepared some delectable Mexican dish to celebrate this festive occasion; perhaps some spicy chorizo tacos or tender carne asada or maybe some sweet, cinnamon-coated churros… But, thinking ahead has not been my strong suit of late. We’re in full baby-waiting mode around here, completely preoccupied with last minute preparations and eager anticipation. Soon enough though, soon enough…

In the mean time, you might say that cooking has taken a place on the back burner. Pun fully intended.

But the family still needs to eat, so our kitchen remains semi-operational; just keeping things quick and simple. And recently, one of my younger readers contacted me with a request, which provided the perfect inspiration for a super easy, delicious weeknight meal. Her request was simple; something involving chicken and bacon. I admit that I’m guilty of neglecting chicken recipes. It just rarely occurs to me to cook chicken. Now, bacon, on the other hand, is a completely different story. When am I ever not thinking about cooking with bacon??

So, in answer to my young reader’s chicken and bacon request, here is a delightfully simple, creamy and flavorful meal. It’s hard to go wrong with a dish involving bacon and cream, which is served over hot buttered noodles!

Enjoy!

Creamy Chicken, Bacon, and Mushrooms

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces bacon, chopped
  • 1 1/2 pounds chicken breast, chopped into chunks
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup light cream
  • 2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Hot, buttered egg noodles

Directions

Cook bacon in a pan over medium heat until crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, leaving the bacon grease in the pan. Season the chunks of chicken with salt and pepper. Then, toss with the flour until evenly coated. Add the chicken to the bacon grease in the pan and cook over medium heat for a few minutes on each side, until mostly cooked through. (The chicken will finish cooking in the simmering sauce.) Add the chicken broth, cream, and mushrooms to the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes. (This would be the perfect time to cook the noodles.) The sauce should thicken as it simmers. Return the cooked bacon to the pan. Stir in the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired.

Mac & Chitos, Anyone??

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I love macaroni and cheese; any type of cheese, baked or creamy, imaginative or traditional, fresh or frozen. It barely matters. I love them all. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a macaroni and cheese I haven’t enjoyed for one reason or another. But, I do have my favorites; some for the combination of cheese, some for the addition of interesting ingredients, and some for purely sentimental reasons.

One of my favorite macaroni and cheeses in the whole world is easily my Grandma’s. It is the macaroni and cheese I grew to know and love as a child. I’d know it blindfolded by its smell, taste, and texture. It’s a spoonful of perfect comfort. My grandma, (or Bunger, as she’s lovingly known within the family) uses a familiar combination of Cheez Whiz, cheddar, and American cheese. Crunchy corn flakes complete the comforting dish.

The secret might be in the Cheez Whiz, but I suspect otherwise. Though she didn’t mention it when I called for the recipe, I’m pretty sure the secret ingredient is a hefty dose of love! So, don’t forget to throw some in!

It should be noted that when I called my grandma for the recipe, she couldn’t give me any exact measurements. Like many familiar family favorites, she cooks the dish by instinct; a little of this, a little of that, and a little more of this until it’s right. And you just know it’s right when it is. The recipe which follows is my attempt at putting precise measurements to my grandma’s recipe. It may not be exactly like hers, but it’s pretty close!

Bunger’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds elbow macaroni
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 15-ounce jar Cheez Whiz or other cheese dip/sauce
  • 1 8-ounce package shredded mild cheddar or 2 cups shredded Velveeta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Pepper
  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), divided
  • 2 cups cornflakes, crushed
  • 12 slices American cheese or Velveeta cheese

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Strain, toss with two tablespoons of butter, and set aside.

In a separate pot, bring the milk and one tablespoon of the butter to a simmer over medium heat. Turn the heat down to low to maintain a gentle simmer. Slightly warm the Cheez Whiz for a few seconds in the microwave. Add the Cheese Whiz and shredded cheese to the simmering milk. Stir until melted and well combined. Crack the two eggs into the Cheez Whiz jar. Close the jar and shake vigorously to whip the eggs. (I’m pretty sure there’s a little magic in this step!) Slowly pour the whipped eggs into the milk and cheese mixture. Stir to combine. Add the garlic powder and pepper. Cook for a few minutes over low/medium-low heat.

Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni and toss to combine. Divide the cheesy macaroni between two large (13×9 inch) baking dishes. Cover the top of the macaroni with the American cheese slices and the crushed corn flakes. Melt the remaining five tablespoons of butter and drizzle over the top of the cornflakes.

Bake for about 25-30 minutes until hot and bubbly around the edges.

Makes 2 Large Baking Dishes…one for dinner, one for the freezer!*

*Freeze the extra dish prior to baking. Defrost and bake before serving.

After making this dish, you’ll probably find yourself with a bit of leftovers. And I’ve got the best way to use them! Recently, an old friend of mine from college posted a picture of her newest culinary creation; a macaroni and cheese burrito! I’ve always thought that Sara was one of the funniest people I know. I’m now convinced that she is also one of the smartest! A burrito filled with macaroni and cheese and crispy fried onions for crunch; a Mac & Chito, if you will! Pure genius!

To prepare yourself a gourmet Mac & Chito, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place a slice of American cheese in the center of a burrito-sized flour tortilla. Place a scoop of warmed macaroni and cheese on top of the cheese. Sprinkle with a generous quantity of fried onion pieces, such as French’s French Fried Onions. Wrap the tortilla burrito style (fold the top and bottom over the macaroni, then roll). Partially wrap the burrito in foil and bake for about 10 minutes, until thoroughly heated.

Fusilli with Braised Beef and Oven Roasted Tomatoes

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The closer I get to my due date, the slower all of my movements become. I’m normally quick and efficient at most tasks. I am now painfully slow and awkward. My every movement is choreographed to a soundtrack of grunts and other sounds of physical exertion.

Ok…thankfully it’s not quite that bad, though I’m definitely better suited to sitting on my couch writing this little post than bopping around the kitchen preparing meals these days. I suspect we’ll be enjoying a lot of takeout during these next few weeks.

With my due date rapidly approaching, I just don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to deal with lengthy ingredient lists and complicated cooking steps. As I waddle my very pregnant body around the kitchen, with two active toddlers running circles around me, simplicity is essential. Heck…I’ve got a low tolerance for lengthy, complicated recipes even on my best days!

Thankfully, mouthwatering dishes with fantastic depth of flavor don’t require long, complicated ingredient lists or intricate culinary techniques. A few well-chosen ingredients and a simple slow-cooked technique can produce an extremely satisfying meal with intense flavors.

Fusilli with Braised Beef and Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 package fusilli pasta (or other pasta)

For the Beef:

  • 2 pounds beef short ribs (about 4-6 ribs)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 1/2 cups beef stock
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper

For the Tomatoes:

  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan cheese and fresh parsley, for garnish
Directions
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large oven-safe pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper. Place the short ribs in the hot oil and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Add the beef stock, tomato paste and garlic to the pot. Stir to combine. Cover and place the pot on the middle rack of the oven. Allow to cook, covered, for 1 1/2 hours. Then, partially uncover a corner of the pot and cook for 30 minutes more.
  • For the tomatoes, toss in a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in the oven for the last 35-45 minutes of the beef’s cooking time.
  • Once the beef has cooked, remove the pot from the oven. Remove the short ribs from the sauce and set aside to cool slightly. Pour the sauce into a large measuring cup. (You should have about a cup or so of sauce.) Allow the sauce to settle for a few minutes. The excess oil and fat will rise to the top. Pour off the excess fat or use a spoon to skim away the excess fat. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, as desired.
  • When the beef is cool enough to handle, cut off any excess fat or cartilage. Then, use your fingers or a fork to pull the meat apart.
  • To serve, cook the pasta al dente, according to package directions. Toss the pasta with the sauce. Place some of the shredded meat and several roasted tomatoes on top of the pasta. Garnish with parmesan cheese and fresh parsley.

Serves 2-4


Kids Cook Monday – Brought to you by the letter P!

Today’s recipe is brought to you by the letter P. This meal started out with a general plan for Pasta in a Parmesan cream sauce with Prosciutto. Inspired by the natural alliteration in this simple dinner idea, I figured we may as well make it Penne Pasta and throw in a few Portabella mushrooms and Peas for good measure. Dinner by the letter P.

This easy weeknight meal comes together in a Pinch! But, it’s not without opportunities for getting kids involved. Young children may not be ready to participate with the stovetop cooking involved in making this dish, but they make fantastic prep chefs, measuring level cups of cheese and peas, pouring the cream, and taste-testing the mushrooms and prosciutto.

And while the sauce simmered on the stove, the kids set to work artfully decorating large cutouts of the letter P, while giggling their ways through chanting Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers… Even when the meal preparation is simple, there are easy ways to get everyone involved and build authentic, memorable learning experiences into the process!

Penne Pasta in Parmesan Cream Sauce with Prosciutto, Portabellas, and Peas

Ingredients

  • 1 pound Penne Pasta, cooked according to package directions
  • 1 1/2 cups Light Cream
  • 3/4 cup Parmesan Cheese, grated
  • 1 1/2 cups Baby Portabella Mushrooms (Cremini mushrooms), sliced
  • 1/2 cup Prosciutto, chopped
  • 1 cup Frozen Peas, defrosted
  • Salt and Pepper

Directions

Prepare pasta according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Combine cream and 1/2 of the parmesan cheese in a saucepan. Add the mushrooms. Simmer for about 5 minutes, until the cream has thickened and the mushrooms are tender. Add the remaining cheese, prosciutto, and peas. Simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, as desired. Toss the cooked pasta in the sauce and serve immediately.

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