Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Feeding a Small Army

My dad has 10 brothers and sisters, and my mom has three. As you can imagine, I have a TON of cousins- I think over 30 when you count cousin’s children. When my family gets together, it’s a little bit of a mob scene. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, food is always a major element of those gatherings. Being both Puerto Rican and Filipino, and having family members that span just about every ethnicity from white to black to Native American, we always have a huge selection of cuisine’s to choose from. And, as you probably realize from the varying recipes I’ve written about in previous entries, I’m game to cook anything and everything.

One of my favorite things to make to feed a bunch of people is lasagna. In fact, last December, when I invited my Auntie LaLa and Uncle Ringo (…your probably thinking “their names are what?!?!” Well, really, their names are Dolores and David, but that’s no fun now is it? I’ve never called either of them by their real names and never will!) over for dinner before they went to Virginia to spend Christmas with another aunt of mine, that’s what I made. I would have loved to invite more of my family over… but realistically, it was a tight squeeze having my aunt and uncle, parents, sister and niece in my kitchen at once.

I make my lasagna with whole wheat noodles ( I know that doesn’t surprise you), a mixture of sautéed ground chicken, spinach, mushrooms, onions, and garlic, fresh basil and parsely, sliced roma tomatoes, and sliced fresh mozzarella cheese, on top of a few ingredients that I think lasagna wouldn’t be lasagna without. I make it so that you can taste the fresh, classic, Italian flavors, but it still tastes like comfort food. Here’s my recipe:

  • 12 whole-wheat lasagna noodles
  • 1/2 pound ground chicken
  • 1 can mushroom pieces and stems
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
  • 5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 16 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 10 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
  • small handful fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 24-oz jar of pasta sauce, I like Classico Cabernet Marinara
  • 5 roma tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, I use 2%
  • 1/2 of a large ball of fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

Boil a pot of water and cook lasagna noodles according to package directions. While the noodles are cooking, brown the chicken over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, then add the chopped onion, garlic, spinach, and mushrooms. Sauté for another 5-10 minutes, until onions are translucent, then remove from heat.
In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, egg, and chopped basil and parsley. In a 13x9 inch pan, begin layering your lasagna. Start with a layer of sauce, then noodles (three for each layer, lengthwise), ricotta mixture, chicken mixture, sauce, then shredded cheese and roma tomatoes, loosely spaced. Next a layer of noodles, then all layers except for tomatoes. The third and final layer should have everything, including tomatoes. Finish it off with a layer of noodles, ricotta mixture, shredded cheese, then top with sliced mozzarella and tomatoes. Cover loosely with foil and bake for 40 minutes at 400 degrees, until bubbly. After 40 minutes, remove the foil and turn the oven up to broil for an additional 5-10 minutes, watching closely so that it doesn’t burn. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving. Makes one 13x9 inch pan.

Like I said, I normally make at least two pans of this to feed my army-sized family, but this time, I made it just for me and my sister, and sent some over to my parents too. I use a mandolin slicer to slice both the roma tomatoes and mozzarella (I got mine at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $11.99). Also, if you ever use a mandolin slicer, don't follow my lead in the picture below and hold whatever you're cutting by hand- I'm lucky I didn't slice off one of my purple tipped fingers!Angie kept me company in the kitchen while I made it, so I had her mix together the ricotta mixture. She quizzically asked me why in the world she was mixing an egg into it, and I explained to her that it helped hold it together. I had tons of leftovers, which was fine with me- I brought it to work for dinner for a few nights.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Solitude and Glowing Sea Creatures

This week, I have my apartment all to myself.

My roommates, Jon (who has been my best friend since we were teenagers) and Melissa (who I’ve gotten to know since the two of them began dating six years ago) are away on vacation, and while, in theory, having a whole week to myself is great (and I am enjoying it), it gets sort of lonely. Not that I spend every waking moment with them or anything like that. They both work day shifts, and I usually don’t leave the newsroom until 9 p.m. then make the 45-minute drive back to New London from Middletown. So, a lot of times, when I get home at night, they are already holed up in their room, and leave for work before I’m out of bed in the morning. So I see them mostly on weekends, when I am not spending time with my sister, niece, mom, etc. Despite all of that, Jon and Melissa are family to me, so just knowing that they are not in the next room when I get home leaves me feeling, well, alone.

Added to that was that my sister was working night shifts all weekend at the hospital, and I wouldn’t even get to enjoy my weekly dinner with her. I was kinda bummed, but I spent Saturday afternoon with her at the beach, where I flipped through the most recent Everyday with Rachael Ray magazine (I know, I know, I have to start getting recipes from other places, too.) I came across a recipe for Sausage and Mussel Spaghetti, which I thought looked really good. Angie agreed, though she’s never eaten a mussel in her life- and I’ve only had them once or twice, nevermind cooked with them (those food stylists really know what they’re doing, I guess!) So then and there, sitting on the beach, I decided I’d be cooking a romantic dinner of spaghetti with mussels for myself for dinner that night.

Angie brightly suggested I jump in the water and look for mussels to take home (growing up, we used to come home from a day at the beach with TONS of mussel shells that we found lying around in the sand).Laughing (and kinda grossed out by the idea), I said,”…..Um…. I think I’ll get them at Stop and Shop. Thanks for the suggestion though.” I could just imagine a fridge full of freshly harvested mussels, straight out of the Thames River, glowing neon with all the wonderful stuff leached into the water from nearby Electric Boat and Millstone Nuclear Power Plant. Ok, well, maybe that doesn’t and wouldn’t happen, but still… I prefer to get my seafood from the grocery store. Let’s just leave it at that.

So the recipe called for scrubbed and debearded mussels. DE-WHAT-ED??? Like I said I’ve only eaten mussels once or twice before, and certainly never cooked them, so this was a huge puzzle to me. Having to know right then and there, I Googled it on my phone, and found step by step instructions, with pictures, here. Basically, you have to soak them in fresh water to get rid of sand from inside them, pull the threadlike strands that come out of the mussel’s shell off before you cook them, and scrub the outside to get rid of any “oceanic” attachments?! It seemed like quite a process but I figured why not? It would be one more thing I knew how to cook. Later that day, I bought the mussels and went at it. It wasn’t too bad, since I was only cooking a half recipe, and only needed 12 mussels. But still, it took me about 15 minutes to get rid of those gross little strands and scrub them down…

The original recipe called for sausage… which you all know I don’t eat, so I used chicken sausage instead. I swapped out whole-wheat pasta for regular spaghetti. Also, it requires one bay leaf, which I thought I had at home but couldn’t find in the spice cabinet, so I subbed in about 10 fresh basil leaves, which is a whole different flavor… but I figured, basil makes just about anything better! Here is my altered, half-size recipe:


  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1/2 pound whole-wheat thin spaghetti
  • 1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/2 pound chicken sausage
  • 1 rib of celery, including the leafy top, finely chopped
  • 1/2 of a small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 10 fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 1 pint of grape tomatoes
  • 1/6 cup white wine
  • 12 mussels, scrubbed and debearded

Boil and salt a large pot of water to cook the pasta in- about 7 minutes, then drain. While the spaghetti is cooking, coat a large pan with the olive oil over medium-high heat.
Crumble in the sausage and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the celery, onion, garlic, and fennel seeds, and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, turning the heat up to high and cook covered for about 5 minutes, until the tomatoes burst. Lower the heat to medium-high and add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the parsley and basil, season with pepper and stir together. Add the mussels and cover the pan, cooking for 3-5 minutes, until the mussels open (throw away any that remain closed). Add the cooked pasta and toss together. Let the pasta sit for a couple minutes, then serve.

I ate my dinner alone, with a glass of the Riesling I used to cook it with, enjoying the relative silence, and… it was pretty good. Only thing is, I accidentally threw the basil and parsley in with the celery, onion, garlic, and fennel… so I didn’t have that fresh herb taste that you would get from adding them at the end of cooking. Also, you might have to help some of the tomatoes “burst” by squishing them a little, but be careful! I had exploded tomato juice all over the stovetop to clean up when I was done! It was pretty easy to prepare, aside from cleaning the mussels, and cooked very quickly. It is definitely something I will make again.

I saved half of the pasta for Angie, and brought it to my mom’s house for her to pickup before she went to work for the night the following day. But… she ate it a little sooner than that. Sunday morning, I arrived at my mom’s house before heading to work, to find Angie noshing on her dinner! I watched her as she tried her first mussel- ever- and laughed at the face of apprehension she had before eating it. She liked it though, and ate every last one.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cooking for One

In general, when I think of cooking, I associate it with a gathering of family, or friends, or both. But, in reality, often times I am cooking just for me. Over the years (since college, really), I’ve learned to cook small amounts, at most 2 servings (leftovers for the next day). So, while I am very comfortable cooking for my whole family, I’m just as comfy whipping something up just for me.

During the work week, I cook in the late-morning, and package my food up in Tupperware containers for dinner at work. Today, I decided to make chicken stir-fry with Thai inspired “satay” sauce. I originally got the recipe from the Food Network Web site- you can find the original recipe here.

  • 1 cup cooked stir fry noodles
  • 3/4 cup frozen stir fry vegetables
  • 2 chicken breast tenders, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/2 of a small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 heaping tablespoon chunky peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon tamari soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • sliced green onions, for garnish
  • chopped peanuts, for garnish

Boil the water for the noodles, and cook until tender. While they are boiling, chop the onion, garlic, and chicken. Cook in a preheated pan drizzled with olive oil.
Once the chicken is cooked through, add the frozen vegetables. While they cook, mix together the peanut butter, orange juice, lime juice, tamari, honey, ginger and garlic powder, and microwave for one minute, stopping halfway to stir. Add noodles and sauce to the pan of chicken and vegetables, and stir together. Serve garnished with chopped green onions and peanuts.

The original recipe uses fresh vegetables and is paired with orange scented rice. It very good, but takes a little more time to make since you are chopping several different veggies and making a pot of rice. What I did was use the basic recipe for the satay sauce, but paired it with noodles that only take about 5 minutes to cook, and used frozen mixed stir fry vegetables instead of the fresh ones. It took about 20 minutes to cook and package up, and it’s waiting in the fridge in our offices cafeteria for later.