Friday, February 27, 2009

Penne, Sausage, and Meatball Bake

Bring back the gluten! This is a recipe I've had in my binder for a very long time, but hadn't made it because I knew it would be very labor intensive: meatballs are made by hand, sauce is made from scratch, sausage and pasta are cooked separately, and then everything is assembled. But it looked so tasty I knew I would make it eventually.

What prompted me to get around to making it is that Jason had "chosen" it. I get frustrated with him sometimes because he is so picky... he complains about not liking stuff I want to make, but when I ask him what he wants to eat he can't give me an answer. So on occasion when he has complained about not liking things I've made for dinner, I've asked him to go through my cookbooks or my binder (where I keep copies of recipes from the internet or newspaper, or photocopies from library cookbooks) and flag stuff that he would like me to make. This was one of the recipes he had flagged quite a few months ago. I had to laugh when he made a comment about how it seemed like this recipe involved too much work, and I asked if he hadn't noticed that it involved a homemade sauce, and he said "no, I just looked at the titles of the recipes and that's it." (And please know that I'm not trying to make fun of my husband, I just think it's funny that something I am so interested in is just an afterthought to him.)

This recipe was from a cookbook called "You've Got It Made" by Diane Phillips. It's meals that can be prepared ahead and then frozen, to be defrosted and baked later. This dish was meant to be made in a 9 x 13 inch pan, so instead I made two 8 x 8 inch pans, cooked one right away and froze the other one for later.

I made the meatballs and the sauce on Thursday evening, and then tonight I cooked the sausages and the pasta and assembled everything. None of the prep was that difficult, but when you look at the number of dirtied pans it was really a lot!! I did have a little trouble with the sauce not thickening, but I just ended up simmering it longer than the recipe called for and it was fine. When I was assembling the dish (casserole? is this considered a casserole?) I thought I had too much meat, so I didn't use all of it. But I realized when we were eating it that I should have really piled it on there instead of worrying about making a neat single layer. Jason and I both agreed that when you took a bite of pasta with a bite of meatball or sausage it tasted amazing, but when you took a bite of just pasta with no meat it was kind of blah. So the meat is really crucial to the dish.

One more note before I give the recipe: I didn't actually use penne, as you can see from the photo... I used wagon wheels because that's what I had on hand! I also made a few other substitutions that you will probably make at your own discretion, like bread crumbs instead of the slice, dried parsley instead of fresh, shredded mozzarella instead of fresh, etc.

1 slice crusty bread
2 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 large egg
1/2 pound lean ground pork
1/2 pound lean ground beef
1/2 cup olive oil
5 sweet Italian sausages
1 pound penne, cooked according to package directions
Carol's Spicy Vodka Cream Sauce (recipe follows)
8 ounces small fresh mozzarella balls, drained, or 1 large ball fresh mozzarella cut into small cubes
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. To make the meatballs, soak the bread and milk together in a large mixing bowl for 5 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, Romano, and egg, and stir until blended.

2. Add the pork and beef and mix by hand until the meatball mixture is combined. Shape into balls 1 inch in diameter. (At this point, you may refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 6 weeks.)

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Set a wire rack on a baking sheet. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Brown the meatballs on all sides, until they have formed a nice crust, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oil to the rack set on the baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. (At this point, you may refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 1 month.) Cut the meatballs into quarters.

4. In a medium skillet over the medium-high heat, brown the sausages on all sides. Prick the sausages with the sharp tip of a paring knife on all sides to allow some of the fat to drain off. Add 1/3 cup water to the pan, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the sausages are cooked through and the water is absorbed. Cool the sausages and cut into 1/2-inch rounds.

5. To assemble the casserole, coat the inside of a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Combine the penne in a large bowl with 1 1/2 cups of the vodka sauce, stirring until the penne is coated with the sauce.

6. Spread half the penne in the dish and top with the meatballs, sausage, and mozzarella cheese. Spread 1 cup of the vodka sauce over the mixture, then top with the remaining penne and vodka sauce and the Parmesan cheese. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 weeks.

To Bake it Later:
1. Defrost the casserole in the refrigerator overnight, if necessary.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Allow the cassrole to come to room temperature for about 3o minutes.

3. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 20 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is golden brown on top. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Carol's Spicy Vodka Sauce
1 cup vodka
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 cups whipping cream
one 32-ounce can crushed tomatoes (do not drain)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Pour the vodka into a small saucepan, stir in the red pepper flakes, and let sit for about 1 hour.

2. Bring the vodka to a boil and boil for about 4 minutes. Add the butter to the saucepan. When it has melted, stir in the cream and tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the Parmesan cheese. (At this point, you may cool the sauce and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 1 month.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I wanted to share this web site because it's become my new favorite diversion:

I apologize in advance if any reader out there should take credit for telling me about this site. I feel like someone has recommended it to me in the past but I don't remember who. Wherever I heard about it, I'm glad because it's so much fun to look at and I've already found a few recipes I can't wait to try.

Basically the site is just luscious photographs of food folks have made, about 80-odd photos displayed on the front page in little squares that make them look like Polaroids. If you see something that looks appetizing you can click the photo and it will take you to the external blog entry about that recipe from the person who submitted it. It's entirely reader-contributed, although there are moderators who decide which submissions to post. New posts appear throughout the day.

There is a search bar if you have a particular recipe in mind and would like to search for it, but I think it's more fun just to see what serendipitously appears on the front page each time you visit. You might find something you want to try that you never even thought of.

I am addicted. The other night I was scrolling through and I was practically drooling.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Orange Dreamsicle Margarita

This is a recipe I came across on when I was trying to find a good margarita recipe (which I still haven't found, by the way). I was intrigued but didn't get around to trying it for a long time because it uses a few ingredients I don't often have on hand (orange pop and ice cream). If you like orange creamsicles I recommend this! It didn't seem very margarita-ish but honestly tasted like an orange creamsicle in smoothie form with an alcoholic kick. And I made the rookie mistake of saying to Jason as I was making this, "hmm, proportionally this just doesn't seem like it has enough alcohol in it." But like a smart girl I didn't add any more, which was good because it ended up being just right.

1 1/2 ounce tequila
1 ounce triple sec
3 ounces orange pop
1/4 cup frozen orange juice concentrate
1/2 cup vanilla ice cream
1 1/4 cup crushed ice

Process everything in blender until smooth.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Gluten-Free Experiment

This weekend I ended what I consider to be a 10-week experiment in living gluten-free, and I thought I would write about it here. I decided to try out a gluten-free diet in early December, for a number of reasons. The idea was spurred after I read an interview with Carol Alt (the supermodel, who is almost 50 and recently posed for Playboy) in which she raved about how a raw diet changed her life and gave her an amazing body and lots of energy. I didn't know much about what a raw diet was, but was intrigued by the amazing benefits she described. After doing some internet research on the raw diet I realized it would never work for me (it is what it sounds like... eating food that hasn't been cooked), but in the process of googling about it I came across another diet that people raved about the benefits of: gluten-free.

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Foods that contain gluten include anything made from flour, such as bread, pastries, and pasta. Beer has gluten too! Many people who start a gluten-free diet do so out of necessity, either because of a gluten allergy or celiac disease, which is an autoimmune condition in which the presence of gluten causes an unpleasant reaction in the intestine.

As I was reading about celiac diesease and gluten-free diets the wheels in my brain started turning. I read that folks with one autoimmune condition often tend to have multiple autoimmune conditions. (My thyroid disease, Hashimoto's, is an autoimmune condition.) I read the symptoms of celiac disease and could relate to some of them. I didn't believe I had celiac disease, but I read that some people just felt better after adopting a gluten-free lifestyle, just as some people might thrive on vegetarianism. I hadn't been feeling my best lately, so I figured I would give it a shot and that it couldn't hurt to at least try.

It was actually very easy to go gluten-free. Yes, it required breaking some habits, like no more beer. I didn't miss the gluten-laden foods as much as I thought I would. In fact I found myself craving some foods that I rarely ate, like donuts and pretzels, rather than staples like pizza and pasta. What I missed more than the foods themselves was the convenience of them. It was always so easy to order a pizza or throw together a pasta dish when time was short. Meals now required a lot more planning. But I loved what I was eating: grilled meats, lots of veggies on the side. Potatoes. Rice. Rice krispies treats! Another benefit was that I could eat more of the good stuff, since I wasn't filling up on bread.

It was strange to find out what foods had gluten in them that you would least expect, such as soy sauce or chicken broth. Fortunately I could find gluten-free versions of each. There were also gluten-free versions of flours that could be used to bake brownies, cakes, etc., and gluten-free pastas made from rice flour. I gave these a try (using a gluten-free brownie mix and gluten-free macaroni and cheese, both from Trader Joe's) but wasn't happy with the results, so I just stuck to foods that were naturally gluten-free.

In the first few weeks I loved this diet. I did feel healthier and think I went through sort of a detox phase. Over time I relaxed somewhat and stopped caring about tiny sources of gluten in my food, like if a chicken tender had breading on it, so I was getting some gluten here or there. (Since I don't actually have an allergy I am fortunate to not have to worry about that.) I still avoided the obvious gluten sources, like bread and beer.

I don't think I would have necessarily chosen to end my gluten-free diet, if it weren't for a few factors. First, it wasn't the miracle cure I had hoped it would be. (I have suffered from sinus problems since I was a kid and I secretly hoped that maybe an undiscovered gluten sensitivity was the cause... it wasn't.) I didn't notice any major health benefits beyond the immediate detox, except for a slight weight loss. Second, I had been sick much more than I can remember in recent years. I had a major cold for a few weeks, got a few weeks reprieve, and then my cold came back with a vengeance and brought a fever with it. After spending both three day weekends in January and February (MLK JR. weekend and Presidents Day weekend) sick the whole time, I started to consider why this was happening, and I started to wonder if my body was asking for gluten.

So, on Saturday night I ate a slice of pizza. And honestly, I thought it was kind of gross. But it didn't make me sick and I didn't have any noticeable reaction to it. And then tonight I ate some pasta. I'm going to try to ease back into this, because I don't want my body to go haywire and gain back the weight I lost. I think this diet was a great experiment for me. I recognized that I don't like pizza and sandwiches as much as I thought I did, and I'll try to limit those in my diet from now on. But I definitely foresee gluten in my future. Plus I missed baking too much.