Shelled In

Hello. Hi there. How’s it goin’? It’s nice to see you here. It’s nice to know I can move across the country, start a new job, move again, unpack, unpack some more, and then get my internets hooked up and see your smiling faces. Well, not really see you, but you get my drift, yes?

I’m glad you’re here, and I’m glad I’m here.

I’m also glad to have my kitchen back. As of Sunday night, all boxes are unpacked. Now, this doesn’t mean everything is in its place, but great progress has been made on the home front. I will say that it’s hard to move to a smaller place, but I think we’ll manage just fine here.

I think we’ll eat a lot of good dinners together, and I think that, once we procure another dining room table (and chairs of course. chairs are good here.), we’ll eat a lot of dinners with other people too.

But for now, it’s just the two of us (we can make it if we try; just the two of us). That works out  nicely when I make a dish I don’t enjoy sharing, which happens often. Of course, stuffed shells aren’t exactly a novelty, but considering I had an unopened box of jumbo shells in my pantry that made it’s way here all the way from Chicago, I felt it worthy of a housebreaking meal.

Also, my favorite mother-and-father-in-law mailed me some extra-tasty fine Italian cheeses for my birthday, and I took this as an opportunity to use some of them. Now, you don’t have to go all out and put your best cheese on this dish, but you could if you wanted. In our house, cheese has to get used quickly, or else it risks getting eaten by a certain cheese-lovin’ boy.

But why eat cheese alone with you can eat it with more cheese, the best tomatoes ever, and pasta? No brainer.

Swiss Chard Stuffed Shells
serves 4

time commitment: 1 hour (30 minutes active)

printable version

ingredients
20 jumbo shells (~1/2 box)
1 15-oz container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 bunch swiss chard, chopped
salt and pepper
1 28-oz can San Marzano tomato puree
1/3 c Asiago cheese, shredded
1/3 c Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shredded

instructions
preheat oven to 350 F. bring a large pot of water to boil. cook pasta shells according to package directions, being careful not to overcook them. drain and rinse with cold water; pat dry.

meanwhile, make filling. in a medium bowl, combine ricotta cheese through chard. season with salt and pepper.

taking one shell at a time, stuff with filling until overflowing. place in small baking dish (you want them to all be touching one another, not spread out). pour tomato puree atop stuffed shells and top with the two cheeses. bake, covered with foil, for 30 minutes. uncover, and bake another 5 minutes.

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This is How I Roll

When I told you I was going pescaterian for a month, you didn’t think I was going to talk about super-healthy dishes for the duration of May, did you?

If you did, and it’s ok if you did, I wanted to layeth the smacketh down relatively early, so as not to further confuse anyone. I do not roll that way. And as a matter of fact, not eating meat does not necessarily = eating healthier, per se. Because, quite frankly, you might find yourself loading up on cows and cows worth of cheese instead, and I do love cheese. It is for that reason that I will never, ever understand why a vegan becomes vegan. But I’m not here to understand everybody, that’s for sure.

I am here to report on my recent feelings about eggplant, however. I’ve never been a big fan of meat imitators. I suppose I should retract that statement, since I like tofu and tofu is, by all accounts, a meat imitator. But veggies such as mushrooms and eggplant that make their way between two pieces of bread and are called “burgers” usually come off resembling mush and downright soggy messes. I’ve also never really liked eggplant parmesan, as it is again, too mushy and not reminiscent of the real thing, chicken parmesan, which is far more chewy, and in a good way, than eggplant.

Of course, the fact that I’m spewing this and that about eggplant and all its ickiness may seem strange since you’ve by now noticed that this recipe is all things eggplant. I never said I wasn’t a hypocrit, people. But to rewind a little, I did say that I’ve never been a fan. Never, until now. Or honestly, until our Seattle trip where I ate the crunchiest eggplant fries (fries!) that were flecked with sea salt and honey (honey!); fries that melted in your mouth and made you forget where you were, what your name was, and certainly that you were in fact, eating eggplant.

Those fries, I will perfect one day, but last Friday was not the day. The ones I made were (surprise!) mushy, cut too thickly, and water-logged (still edible though, with the honey on top).

In this case, you get the best of both worlds. You get the eggplant and the parmesan, and with those you get plenty of other goodness – swiss chard, kale, ricotta, and even mint. And instead of thick, spongy eggplant that’s breaded and fried so the oil gets soaked in too, you get baked, thin rolls that when folded up nice and pretty, look and taste a lot like stuffed shells, or lasagna, or something else equally yummy.

And oh yeah, the sliced mozzarella on top really seals the deal. Like I said, where I cut back in beef, I more than make up for it with cheese. It’s a give and take sorta thing – and somehow, I’m still on top.

Eggplant Parmesan Rolls w/ Swiss Chard, Kale, & Mint
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010

this is an easily adaptable dish, honest. the original recipe called for chard and mint, and i added some leftover kale i had frozen away. you could also use spinach, which is probably more traditional, and instead of the mint you could use any other herbs. the tomato sauce here is canned, but you could easily make your own or add spices to the sauce if you so choose. do it up!

printable version

ingredients
2 medium eggplants, trimmed, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (or as close as you can get it)
kosher salt
evoo
1 bunch red Swiss chard, center ribs removed and stems removed
1 small bunch Tuscan kale (cavolo nero), about 2 c
2 large eggs
1 15-ounce container part skim ricotta cheese
1 c finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 T chopped fresh mint
freshly ground black pepper
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 8-oz ball fresh water-packed mozzarella, drained, thinly sliced

instructions
spread a layer of paper towels on cutting board or other flat surface. place eggplant slices down (1 layer), and sprinkle liberally with salt. let stand at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour. rinse eggplant slices to remove excess salt; dry thoroughly with paper towels.

position oven rack 5 to 6 inches from heat source and preheat broiler. line a large-rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. arrange eggplant slices in single layer on prepared baking sheets (will take 2-3 rounds). brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil. broil 1 sheet at a time until eggplant slices are tender and beginning to brown, flipping slices once and watching closely, removing eggplant slices as needed if cooking too quickly, 3 to 4 minutes per side. remove baking sheet from oven, repeat as needed, and cool eggplant while preparing filling.

meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. add chard and kale to pot and boil just until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain; rinse with cold water. Squeeze chard and kale very dry, then chop coarsely. squeeze chard and kale dry again between paper towels. whisk eggs and pinch of coarse salt in medium bowl. Stir in chopped chard, ricotta cheese, 3/4 c Parmesan, mint, and black pepper to taste (I used close to 1 t).

spray a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. spread half of tomato sauce evenly over bottom of dish. divide chard-kale-ricotta filling among eggplant slices, placing about 1 heaping tablespoon filling at short end of each. Starting the short end with the filling, loosely roll up eggplant slices, enclosing filling. Arrange rolls, seam side down, atop sauce in baking dish. spoon remaining tomato sauce over. place mozzarella slices in single layer over rolls. sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. if making in advance, cover with foil and chill until ready to bake.

preheat oven to 350 F. bake eggplant Parmesan rolls, covered with foil, until heated through, about 30 minutes if freshly made or 40 minutes if refrigerated. uncover and bake until brown in spots and sauce is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes. serve hot.

Going Green

Over the course of 29.9 years, I’ve ever so slowly heeded my parents’ advice, or demands, rather. I’ve eaten my vegetables. And I take that back – I’ve heeded my mom’s advice; my dad despises any food that’s green. In fact, he just hates green altogether.

My mama though, she bonded with my dad’s family over collard greens like you wouldn’t believe. Even though my parents are divorced, she still comes to Aunt Faye’s house for Christmas dinner with us, and I’m sure those collard greens are in the top three on her agenda. She eats beans and carrots and broccoli, and she never understood why even eating one spoonful (my “no, thank you” serving) was almost as bad as having one’s mouth washed out with soap, perhaps worse.

I remember it all very clearly. I remember those canned green beans, the fresh-from-gramma’s peas, and those lumps o’ mustard greens at Christmas that were dumped into a bowl and eerily similar to creamed spinach, without the cream. They all scared me; they were soft and chewy, reminiscent of baby food (except the mashed bananas, which I continued to eat for quite some time) and when paired with barbecue chicken and french fries, it was hard to take even one bite, let alone an entire serving.

I like to think that, had my mom fed me a dish of sauteed chard with steak and edamame, that I wouldn’t have turned my nose up at it. But since she didn’t, I’ll never know whether introducing chard in adolescence would have been a pivotal moment in my opinion of and love for greens, or not.

And though I enjoy chard in a hearty ribollita, or stuffed into pork chops, I think this dish may be my favorite use of this beautiful green leafy veggie thus far.

Though you’d think the sirloin would play a major role in this dish since it’s the primary source of protein, it actually takes a back seat, and the green components are really what stand out here. The chard is perfectly, barely-wilted and the edamame add a wonderful crunch; herbs thrown in at the end add freshness and brightness. Toss it all around with caramelized onions, asian flavors, and a new favorite of mine, red rice, and you’ve got yourself one lovely, healthy, vegetable-lovin’ dish; the steak happily lurks in the background.

So sure, years 1-25 were not full of vitamins A, K, and beta-carotene, but they are now, and happily so. My mom can finally be proud of her little daughter’s food choices. I doubt she even eats chard or kale, but I know it makes her happy that I finally do.

Collard greens? Southern I may be, but still, “no, thank you”.

Stir-Fried Red Rice w/ Sirloin, Edamame, & Chard
Adapted from Food & Wine, March 2010; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
1/2 c red rice
1 c water
3 T canola oil
8 oz thinly sliced sirloin steak
salt and pepper
1 lg vidalia onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 T minced fresh ginger
1 bunch red swiss chard, thinly sliced
1 c shelled edamame, fresh or thawed
3 T reduced sodium soy sauce
1/4 c cilantro, coarsely chopped
2 T mint, coarsely chopped
lime wedges, for garnish

instructions
in a small saucepan, cover rice with water and bring to boil. cover saucepan and cook on low for about 25 minutes, until rice is tender. spread rice out on baking sheet to cool. can be made in advance and stored until needed.

in a large skillet, heat 1 T oil. add garlic and cook over mod-hi heat for 30 seconds. add sirloin, season with salt and pepper and cook, turning once, until browned – about 1 minute. transfer to plate.

heat remaining 2 t oil. add onion and ginger and cook over mod heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 6 minutes. stir in greens and stir fry over high heat until wilted, about 1 minute. stir in rice and edamame, then soy sauce and steak and stir well. season with salt and pepper. garnish with cilantro, mint, and lime wedges.

Once Bitten, Twice Boiled

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I found my very own Italian Stallion while drinking & eating my way through Europe’s boot. Hubs and I met during a 5-week Florence-based study abroad trip, and despite his trying to woo me from week 1, I was (somewhat) slow to reciprocate.

Nonetheless, those 5 weeks were some of my very favorite weeks, for many reasons. Well, the obvious – meeting the person I hope will put up with me until the end of time. And making wonderful friends, even though we only keep in touch with less than a handful of them. Where else can you buy a decent $3 bottle of wine? When you’re downing a bottle a night, that’s more than economical :).

And oh my, the food. If I knew then I’d be sitting here today writing about Italian cuisine, I would have taken notes, I would have taken pictures, I would have done my research and made sure to try all those rustic Italian dishes, those dishes I see today and drool over, wishing I’d tasted “the real thing” in 2001. I would have brought back a lot of Caputo 00 flour.

But, alas, I didn’t. And instead, I ate a hella ton of gelato (I think I tried every single flavor at the shop outside of our school), Margherita pizza, and occasionally some pasta with some sauce and some bread. With a drizzle of that heavenly Italian olive oil that at the time, I simply called “dipping sauce”. I don’t remember what type of wine I drank because all I cared about was the price and that, if I bought cheap wine, I could use the rest of my loot to buy pretty Italian clothes and leather jackets and oh yeah, Murano glass.

I know for a fact that I did not have soup. Hell, it was so hot you practically had to wring out your clothes; you couldn’t have paid me to order soup. In actuality, I’d never even heard of “ribollita” until Heidi made it a few weeks ago. It sounded nice, rich, and über-hearty; it seemed like a great Sunday dish. And then I saw it again, in this month’s BA and, despite my general avoidance of vegetable soups, I knew at that point that I had to give it a try.

I do not regret it one bit.

Unlike any veggie soup I’ve ever had, this here is perfect for the (hopefully) last few weeks of winter. Packed with protein and carbs, it’s filling and thus completely appropriate as a vegetarian main dish. It makes plenty (probably more than 8 servings if you use large bunches of greens, as I did) and like a fine Italian wine that I didn’t taste in Italy, it gets better with time, so you can eat it throughout the week and freeze what’s left for later.

Needless to say, I’ll be looking for this dish as we venture out to Tuscany next year in celebration of our 5-year anniversary. And this time, I’ll make sure to take pictures, drink wine that costs a little more than $3, and lay off the Murano glass. I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay away from the gelato, however.

Other Italian dishes:
Sweet Potato Gnocchi
Eggs in Purgatory
Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto (it’s almost asparagus time!)

Tuscan Ribollita
Inspired by 101 Cookbooks; adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010 & 101 Cookbooks

this recipe is highly adaptable. use any beans you want, and any quantity. mix it up with different greens; the kale is a staple of ribollita but if you don’t like it, substitute chard, cabbage, whatever. i enjoy the potatoes, but feel free to leave them out. and the pesto, i added for extra flavor, but it’s just fine without it. definitely keep the zest – it brightens this rich soup up, just a bit.

also, this is a great time to stock up on cooked white beans. I quadrupled the beans and froze the rest – they’ll last for a long time as long as you freeze them in their cooking water (which I forgot to keep all of, so any water works, really).

printable version

ingredients
8 c water, divided
1 1/4 c dried cannellini beans
1 bunch of fresh sage leaves
8 garlic cloves; 5 sliced, 3 chopped
3 t fine sea salt, divided
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus additional for drizzling
1 lg onion, chopped
2 lg celery stalks, diced
1 med carrot, chopped
2 unpeeled Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered through core, sliced crosswise
1 large pinch of dried thyme
1 sm bunch black (Tuscan, lacinato) kale, cut crosswise into 1-inch ribbons
1 sm bunch redchard, center stem removed, cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide ribbons, stems diced
4 c thinly sliced savoy cabbage
5 large plum tomatoes, chopped
1 2-inch square Parmesan cheese rind (even better if cheese is remaining!)
1 t dried crushed red pepper
1 T tomato paste
2 T basil pesto, optional
4 c vegetable broth
6 1/2-inch-thick slices whole wheat bread, coarsely torn with crusts; if soft, toasted in advance
2 T balsamic vinegar
meyer lemon zest (or regular lemon), for garnish

instructions
Combine 8 c water, beans, sage, and sliced garlic in large saucepan. Bring to boil; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until beans are tender, stirring occasionally, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on age of beans. Add 1 t sea salt; simmer 10 minutes. Uncover and cool beans in liquid. [Can be made and stored in water in advance.]

Heat 3 T oil in large pot over medium heat. Add onion; sprinkle with sea salt. Cook until onion is translucent, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add chopped garlic; stir 2 minutes. Add celery, carrot, potato, fennel, chard stems, and thyme; cook until vegetables are tender and begin to turn brown in spots, stirring often, 15 to 18 minutes. Add kale, chard, cabbage, tomatoes, Parmesan rind, 5 cups water, and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add beans with cooking liquid (minus 2 c) and crushed red pepper. Add 4 c broth, tomato paste, pesto. Season with salt and generous amount of pepper.

Add bread to soup and simmer, stirring often until heated through. Season with sea salt and pepper and stir in balsamic vinegar.

Divide ribollita among bowls, sprinkle with lemon zest, and serve.

On Friends & Grits

kris and me

I took a trip back to NC late Friday night to be with my bestest bud. She’d had surgery this past Thursday. Did she expect me to be there? No. Did she want me to be there? Well, maybe, but she would have never asked. But did I want to be there and know that I really did need to be there? You bet – and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Although I know we’re far in distance, I know I’m never too far to be there when I need to be.


My best friend and I for the most part, we grew up together. I’ve known her since the 4th grade and I must say, we’ve been pretty tight. We’ve been through a bunch of rough times and an overwhelmingly number of even better times. We have both changed immensely over those years and if I must say, we’ve both become people we are both pretty darn proud of. On the other hand, we’ve become radically different and of course we have a lot less in common than we did when we were wandering down the halls in high school. But through all of those changes, our love of and respect for one another has never wavered.


While we have always respected one another’s opinions and decisions, we definitely do not always agree. In particular, her recent surgery is a decision I could have never made. She’d decided months ago to undergo gastric bypass surgery. My best friend is the type of person who, when she does something, she does it with her entire heart and she never looks back. And making this choice is no exception. I think, rather I know, that we talked about it for 90% of every conversation we’ve had since Fall! It was the first thing on her mind in the morning, before bed, and every minute in between. She was totally intensely passionate about it. So you know she was dead-set on doing it. And although the thought of her having surgery worried me silly, I knew that for her to make this decision she must have known what she was doing and knew everything about what was involved. She’d researched and researched until she knew with certainty that this was right for her and that she was ready for all things that would follow. And for me this was comforting – I knew she’d be ok and I knew she was doing the right thing. The right thing for her.


Would gastric bypass surgery ever be something I’d consider? Would I ever want to make my stomach small so that I can eat less? Hell no. I have such a strong relationship with food – and it’s a bond I could never ever break. While she will eventually be able to eat most things she’d previously eaten, she can’t eat nearly as much and will essentially be limited to 2 oz portions per meal. Wowsers!! And no thank you. That’s just like a big bite per meal! Now, is food one of the most favoritist things in her life like it is for me? Well, no. Is she spending three nights a week in culinary school just because she likes food and because she can? Well, no. But still. I’m sure that nonetheless, it’s got to be hard. Although I can never imagine making this choice for my life, the simple fact that she is my best friend means that I support her no matter what decision she makes. I smile at her, I hug her, I rub lotion on her feet, I watch her sip won ton-less won ton soup while I inhale vegetable lo mein and a greasy egg roll, I watch Food Network with her (why she chooses to watch this given her situation is beyond me), and all the while I think about how strong she is and how even though I could never do what she’s doing, how much respect I have for her just knowing that she will be ok and that, if it’s possible, she’ll be even better of a person than she is today.


And so, a trip to NC usually leads me to a point where I’d talk about a tasty, fatty, greasy meal I enjoyed while I was here. Usually when I go to NC for a holiday or weekend trip, we plan visits around the food that we miss: we hit up Bojangles for some dirty rice and fried chicken, we visit my gramma at which time we also incorporate a visit to my Aunt Faye, we find some sweet tea, and if I’m lucky one day I might get to eat at Bandido’s again for my favorite black bean quesadilla. This weekend, you might imagine, was different. I stayed with her as much as possible and only left her side to get some take-out. Food was not the highlight of this trip. But something much more important was – being there for my best friend, and even if she didn’t need me I know she was happy I was there. And on a more selfish level, I needed to be there to further confirm that I knew she was ok. To stop myself from thinking about it constantly. And maybe the procedure itself is straightforward, it’s one thing to hear about someone you don’t know going through it than it is to know that the person you share all of your secrets with is going through it. It takes a lot for her to cry, and a lot less for me, and we both did when we saw each other and I knew instantly I’d made the right decision for the both of us.


So do I have a wonderful recipe of Southern foodie experience from this trip like I usually would? Nope. But I will post a recipe I made the other day that reminded me of home. It was a lovely stuffed bone-in pork chop with tomato sauce and GRITS! The grits are the southern part that made me so happy. Leftovers were even better because the sauce had really soaked in to the grits and pork. There are a lot of ingredients and lots of prep, so feel free to substitute the stuffing (or even leave it out) if you don’t love cutting and prepping like I do.


And whether you make this recipe or something else tonight, may you really savor every bite and be thankful for the day. And for your large stomach 🙂 I know I am.

stuffed chops


Stuffed Pork Chops w/ Creamy Grits
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine

Ingredients
Pork:
4 cups water
4 cups fresh orange juice
1/2 cup coarsely chopped jalapeño pepper (about 2 peppers)
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons fine sea salt
4 (8-ounce) bone-in center-cut heritage pork chops (such as Berkshire)
2 slices bacon
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup finely diced apple
1/4 cup thinly sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup finely chopped peeled butternut squash
1/4 cup finely chopped Swiss chard
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil


Sauce:
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 teaspoon minced jalapeño pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fat-free, less-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup no-salt-added canned whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped


Grits:
2 1/2 cups water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup stone-ground grits
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons fat-free, less-sodium beef broth


instructions
1. To prepare pork, combine first 5 ingredients in an airtight container, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add pork; seal and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Remove pork from brine; pat dry. Discard brine.


2. Cook bacon in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove bacon from pan; crumble. Add 1/2 cup onion and next 5 ingredients (through 1 minced garlic clove) to drippings in pan; cook 8 minutes or until squash is tender and liquid evaporates, stirring frequently. Stir in bacon.


3. Cut 1 (1-inch) horizontal slit through thickest portion of each pork chop to form a pocket. Stuff about 3 tablespoons vegetable mixture into each chop. Sprinkle both sides of chops evenly with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Add pork to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove pork from pan; reduce heat to medium-low.


4. To prepare sauce, add 1 1/2 cups onion to pan; cook 4 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently. Add celery, jalapeño, and 1 garlic clove to pan; cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup broth and 1/2 cup water, stirring until flour dissolves. Add tomatoes; increase heat to medium-high. Return pork to pan; simmer 10 minutes or until desired degree of doneness.


5. To prepare grits, bring 2 1/2 cups water and 1/8 teaspoon salt to boil in a saucepan. Slowly add grits, stirring constantly. Reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; stir in butter and 2 tablespoons broth. Serve with pork and sauce.