Sourdough Pumpkin Spice Waffles

As eager as I have been to get things rolling on our kitchen remodel, I have enjoyed being able to make some of the fall recipes I thought would get left behind. If we must be delayed, I may as well keep cooking fun things, right? We still have a few days of “Better Breakfast Month,” and this simple twist on your favorite waffles is covering a lot of territory for me.

If you have never tried them, sourdough waffles are the best thing going—with delicate, crispy exterior and soft, fluffy goodness on the inside. They are not as sweet as some other waffles, which is fine by me, given that I usually drench them in real maple syrup. In keeping with the season (we are now five full days into fall), I have also spiked these easy-to-make, overnight waffles with pumpkin and warm spices, the two flavors everyone seems to either love or hate. If you’re in the first camp, keep reading. If not—well, perhaps you simply need to try these waffles, so you might want to keep reading, too.

I used to hesitate on pumpkin spice recipes, imagining that maybe this ubiquitous flavor combination was too cliché. But then I went to Trader Joe’s, otherwise known as the pumpkin spice capital of the world, and I found myself surrounded by pumpkin spice cookies, donuts, yogurt, coffee, granola bark, cake bites, scented candles—well, you know the scene. And it was there, standing amid all those fall-inspired goodies, that I realized 75 million Trader Joe’s fans can’t be wrong. And neither are these waffles.

I love the rich autumn color of these pumpkin spice waffles!

The addition of pure pumpkin puree gives these waffles a gorgeous fall color and a big dose of antioxidants, while a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice brings the essence of the season. Here’s a bit of happy news: if you don’t have a sourdough starter, you can still make a version of these. I made only those two modifications to my favorite sourdough waffle recipe for this variation, and I expect you can do the same with whatever recipe you like to use, sourdough or not. Just add pumpkin to the wet ingredients and pumpkin pie spice to the flour.

Obviously, you do need a waffle iron to make waffles. I have had good results using both a Belgian-style maker and a standard square maker, though the recipe will yield different amounts depending on the size of the waffles. No waffle maker, but jonesing for a pumpkin spice breakfast? Reduce the oil a bit, keep everything else the same and make pancakes instead.


Ingredients

Overnight Starter

1/2 cup sourdough discard

1 cup cultured buttermilk

1 Tbsp. cane sugar

1/3 cup pure pumpkin puree

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or white whole wheat)

A heaping 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or a few pinches each of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger)


Combine the first four ingredients in a large bowl (twice as large as you think you’ll need) until smooth. Stir in the flour and spice ingredients. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and leave it on the counter overnight to ferment.


In the Morning

Heat waffle iron to medium-high heat. Preheat oven to 200°F with oven rack in center position. Place a cooling rack inside a baking sheet inside the oven, for keeping the first few waffles warm while you finish the batch.


Whisk together these ingredients in a glass measuring cup:

1 large egg

2 Tbsp. canola oil (or melted butter)

1/2 tsp. baking soda

2 pinches salt


Pour the mixture into the pumpkin-sourdough starter and fold together, just until evenly combined. The buttermilk and baking soda will react, and the batter will become rather bubbly and rise in the bowl. Let the batter rest on the counter for about 10 minutes before you proceed with making the waffles.

Follow manufacturer’s instructions for making the waffles, transferring them to the oven to keep warm until ready to serve.


This recipe will make about four tall Belgian waffles, or about 12 squares. Either way, it’s plenty of breakfast for four people.


Homemade Giardiniera

One of the challenges (or joys, depending on your outlook) of flying by the seat of your pants is you can’t confidently predict an outcome. This is true for me in the kitchen, even when I am doing that flying through a familiar recipe. When I cook, I generally do not follow a recipe to the letter; rather, I follow my instinct to complete a meal using the ingredients I can find. This is why my mac and cheese is never exactly the same, and why I have so many meatloaf recipes in my repertoire, including a stuffed one that I made last winter that I never got a chance to share with you—but I will (it involves bleu cheese).

Last month, when I whipped up the Italian Deli Tortellini Salad, I made a promise that I would share my homemade version of giardiniera, which I had declared is far and away better than any stuff you’ll buy in a jar. I’m making good on my promise, but before I continue, I must explain that my on-hand ingredients this time produced a giardiniera that would be perfect for serving at, well, Easter.

It’s pink!!!

In my previous times making this quick-pickled vegetable medley, I have used sweet or yellow onions and I didn’t have this pastel outcome. But in the ruckus of preparing to remodel, I had to forego an extra trip to the market, and I just used the red onions that I had. It was disappointing at first, because I am a perfectionist who wants everything to be just so, especially if I am sharing it on my blog. But there is also great joy in some of these culinary surprises, and it got me wondering what would happen if I used purple cauliflower along with the red onions, and maybe even purple carrots?

No matter the hue, I find the homemade version to be not only more flavorful, but also far crunchier than the jarred versions. I grew to love this stuff when I worked in a supermarket, as a house-made version of it was always in the prepared foods section of our deli department, and it was a perfect side to a beef on weck sandwich (now there’s a recipe for my culinary bucket list)!

Giardiniera is simple to make, but I suggest you plan ahead because it requires a few days and a decent amount of space in the fridge, at least during preparation. When it is finished, you’ll need a tall jar or good-sized container for keeping it, and it will last in the fridge for a few weeks.

One more thing to mention about my variation of giardiniera—it is intended as a riff on the Italian version, not the “Chicago-style,” which is marinated in olive oil rather than pickled.


Ingredients

About 4 cups fresh cauliflower florets                                            

1/2 cup carrot slices

1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, or pepperoncini or cherry peppers

1/2 onion (remember that red onion will make the dish pink!), cut into slices

3 celery heart stalks (strings removed), sliced thickly on the bias

Other vegetables would be good in this as well, provided they are crunchy. If I had made that trip to the store for yellow onions, I would have also picked up a bulb of fennel—that would be fantastic.

1/4 cup kosher salt* (see notes)


*Notes

I use kosher salt for most of my cooking and especially when brining or pickling. It has a pure salt flavor and the large grains take up more space than regular table salt. The additives in table salt (iodine and anti-caking agents) can add an unpleasant flavor and will likely result in a cloudy liquid. If you only have table salt, it is OK to use it here, but I’d recommend using less of it—maybe 3 tablespoons plus a teaspoon.


Instructions – Day One

Combine all the cut-up vegetables in a large bowl. Pour salt over them and use your hands to toss until evenly salted. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and refrigerate several hours, up to overnight.


I’ll stop right here and admit that in my distraction over all the remodel prepping activity, I let my vegetables brine in the salt way too long, but it was not a disaster; a couple of extra rinses on the second day washed away the excessive saltiness.


Instructions – Day Two

Drain the released liquid from the vegetables and rinse well under cold running water for about two minutes. Taste one or two pieces for saltiness. If they are too salty, cover them in the bowl with cold water and let them rest half an hour, then drain and rinse again. When they taste seasoned, but not unpleasantly salty, they are ready for the next step of pickling.

This part of the recipe project felt like a scavenger hunt, mainly because I have packed away my spices based on which ones I figured we would likely need for easy cooking during our remodel.

Believe it or not, I used to know where everything was.

In case I have not mentioned previously, I have a lot of spices—enough to fill up both sides of this cabinet (and surplus spices, which live in a cabinet above the washer and dryer), and there are too many jars to fit in a single box for short-term storage. We expected to be put out of the kitchen two weeks earlier, and when the delays gave me time to make giardiniera, I had to go in search of my ingredients.


No worries. It will all be worth it when the kitchen is done. 😊


Pickling Ingredients

1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar* (see notes)

1 1/4 cups water

3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed*

2 tsp. each mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds

1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

3 Tbsp. cane sugar

2 tsp. kosher salt (slightly less if using table salt)


*Notes

I usually have two kinds of apple cider vinegar on hand. One is raw, which means unfiltered and unpasteurized, which I will use for salad dressings or health purposes, but it is expensive. The other is a grocery store brand that is clear, which means it is filtered and pasteurized. I use the latter for this purpose because the vinegar is heated and that destroys the probiotic benefit of the raw vinegar anyway.

Unfortunately, I was so consumed in my search for fennel seeds that I did not remember the garlic when I made this batch, but I recommend it for an extra zing of flavor.

Combine the pickling ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt, then remove from heat. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables in a clean bowl and press the veggies under the surface of the liquid as much as possible. If it seems there is not enough liquid to go around, add equal splashes of vinegar and water to ensure good coverage.

Cover the bowl with plastic or a lid. Allow the giardiniera to cool, then refrigerate it at least overnight before enjoying it. For longer storage in the fridge, I transfer the giardiniera to a tall jar, and pour the pickling liquid through a mesh strainer to catch the seed spices and bay leaf.




Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna

Today marks the beginning of something I’ve been looking forward to, and I don’t mean that my kitchen renovation is underway—we are still waiting, but we do at least have good news today. After a few false starts related to the delivery of our new cabinets, we finally got word from Matt, our contractor: “We have the cabinets!!” So that hurdle is cleared and now the real chaos (the tearing out of the existing kitchen) is slated to begin on Friday (Yay)!

The delay gave me enough time to whip up a few dishes that I would have otherwise missed, including this one, which is a flavorful shout out to the significance of this day.

What I’m referring to is Autumn Equinox, otherwise known as the first full day of fall, but affectionately known at my house as the start of soup and stew season, the unpacking of my favorite sweaters, the countdown to the first flick of the switch on the gas fireplace, and the return of the hot toddy, and I am loving all of the above.

In fact, it feels like the perfect time to introduce you to one of my favorite homemade autumn-themed dishes, this butternut squash lasagna, which I first started making almost 10 years ago. This comforting casserole is layered, not with Italian seasonings or tomatoes or mozzarella, but with flavorful, seasonal vegetables, including onions and kale, two kinds of mushrooms and oven-roasted butternut squash. Nestled between the vegetable layers you’ll find a lemon-scented ricotta, shredded fontina and a creamy, cheesy bechamel that is spiked with even more butternut squash. It is rich and satisfying, even without meat, and makes my taste buds very happy.

Layer upon layer of comforting fall flavor!

There is nothing complicated about this meal but, like any lasagna, it does take some time to pull together. My suggestion is to break it up into two days; prep the separate components ahead of time, so assembly and baking will be a snap on the second day. The other thing that is great about this dish is that you can customize it to increase the amounts of favorite ingredients and reduce any of the others that are not favorites. If you prefer more squash and less kale, just swap the amounts and change up the layering.


Ingredients

1 medium or large butternut squash, peeled and cubed* (see notes)

1 large bunch curly kale, washed and stripped of heavy stems*

12 oz. fresh mushrooms (I used a combination of cremini and shiitake)

1 medium onion, chopped

14 oz. whole milk ricotta, strained of excess liquid

2 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Zest of one lemon (organic is best)

1 large egg

4 Tbsp. butter (either salted or unsalted is fine)

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

1 bulb roasted garlic

1 cup shredded gouda cheese*

A few shakes ground white pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg (about 6 passes on a microplane)

Enough lasagna noodles or sheets for three layers of it in your preferred pan*

2 cups shredded fontina cheese*

About 1/3 cup grated parm-romano blend


*Notes

Part of the squash will be cubed and roasted, and the rest will be simmered and mashed to be blended into the bechamel. I usually use the smooth neck part of the gourd for roasting, and the round part, which usually appears stringy after cleaning out the seeds, gets boiled and mashed to be added to the bechamel sauce. Keep this in mind as you prep the squash.

For this year’s version of my recipe, I went heavier on the kale than usual. It would be perfectly fine to use half as much, and perhaps double the mushrooms or increase the butternut squash to make up some of the volume. You could also substitute swiss chard or spinach; it all depends on your palate.

I chose Gouda and fontina cheeses for this dish because of their creamy, meltable texture and rich, nutty flavors. Some other cheeses would work well in this dish, including Havarti, Gruyere, raclette, mild white cheddar or Monterey jack. I do not recommend mozzarella, which has too much “pull.” 

Normally, I use a special square lasagna baking dish, but we are in the middle of planning for this remodel, and darned if I can find it! No worries, I pulled out a glass 9 x 13 and it worked great. The noodles do not have to be boiled first; I usually just moisten them for several minutes in hot water while I get everything else into place. If the noodles are layered next to ingredients with plenty of moisture, they will cook just fine.

We are still trying to trim down the pantry, so I used the random lasagna noodles we already had!

Prep the Squash

Divide the squash so that you have uniform cubes from the neck of the squash, which you will toss in olive oil, salt and pepper, and then roast at 350°F until evenly browned, about 40 minutes. Allow it to cool on the pan before transferring to a separate bowl. Set aside until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna.

Add the remaining squash (from the bulb end) to a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.


Prep the Kale

Strip the heavy stems and wash the kale leaves. Working in batches, pulse handfuls of the kale about six times in a food processor, until kale is a fine texture. Sauté in olive oil until wilted and lightly browned on some of the edges. Just before cooking the last batch, sauté the chopped onion in the skillet first, then add kale. Season this final batch with salt and pepper and combine with previously cooked kale. Set aside.


Prep the Mushrooms

Clean and dry the mushrooms, then trim the stems and slice evenly. Brown the mushrooms, about one-third at a time, in olive oil. Season the last batch with salt, pepper and a few sprinkles of dried thyme leaves. Combine all mushrooms in a separate bowl and set aside.


Prep the Ricotta Mixture

Drain the ricotta in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Stir occasionally to evenly strain the excess liquid from the cheese. Different brands will release varying amounts of liquid, but 30 minutes should do it. Discard the drained liquid. Add lemon zest, fresh garlic and black pepper to the ricotta. Stir in egg. Set aside for now if you’re working ahead.


Make the Bechamel

Remember, this is just a fancy French word that means “thickened cream sauce.” It’s easy to make! I prefer to make the bechamel just before assembling the lasagna, but if you are pressed for time, it’s fine to make it ahead and then re-heat in a pot until it is a smooth, pourable consistency. There are several steps for this component, and several flavorful add-ins, so I’ll describe it in pictures.

Heat a large sauce pot over medium heat. Add butter until melted. Whisk in flour and cook until it is bubbly, lightly browned and fragrantly nutty. Add the milk, about half at a time, whisking the first amount until smooth before adding the rest. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thickened and bubbly. Whisk in about 2/3 cup of the mashed butternut squash and cook until heated through. Stir in shredded gouda, whisking until melted. Use an immersion blender, if you have one, to blend the bechamel sauce to a super-smooth consistency. This is not an essential step, but I love the silky texture that is achieved with the blender. Keep the sauce warm enough to be pourable and spreadable for assembling the lasagna.


Assemble and Bake

Ladle about 1/2 cup of the butternut-bechamel sauce into the bottom of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. Then, layer the individual components as follows:


Cover casserole with plastic wrap or foil and allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes, to give the noodles time to absorb some of the moisture from the other ingredients. Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center position.

Remove wrap or foil and bake about 45 minutes, or until layers are bubbly throughout and cheese on top is browned in several places.

Let the lasagna rest about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.




Cheesy Stuffed Crust Supreme Deep-Dish Pizza

Every so often, I get a kick out of looking at the National Day calendar, which reminds me of the non-official occasions I can choose to celebrate on a given day. For example, yesterday was Talk Like a Pirate Day, but I didn’t mark the occasion because that felt ridiculous.

Perhaps it is a bit of serendipity, or just coincidence (which my husband, Les, does not believe exists) that I discovered today, Sept. 20, is both National Pepperoni Pizza Day and National String Cheese Day. The two seemingly separate “events” are both going to be recognized with this insanely over-the-top deep-dish pizza that we made at our house a full three months ago. Sometimes, in the rush to get something else posted on the blog, I end up putting some delicious thing on the back burner. In this instance, it worked out, because this pizza, which I dubbed “Go Big or Go Home,” happens to be perfect for this day. The toppings included pepperoni, but also sausage, peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and a ton of cheese, and the Chicago-style crust had a circle of string cheese strips enclosed all around the edges.

So much Italian flavor in here and soooo much cheese!

We had been dreaming about a cheesy stuffed crust pizza for a while, but I had a hard time imagining how to keep thick mozzarella sticks secured inside the dough without making a square pie. My solution was to tear the string cheese into strips and then overlap the strings in layers all the way around. Why didn’t that occur to me sooner? It resulted in a perfectly cheesy, ooey-gooey pizza experience, and made it one of the most fun versions of a deep dish that we have made (so far 😉).


Ingredients

1 recipe deep dish pizza dough (see my previous post for Chicago Deep Dish or use your own)

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

5 sticks of mozzarella string cheese, pulled apart into about four strips for each

1 packed cup shredded whole milk mozzarella, divided

1/2 cup cooked Italian sausage (we used a spicy variety)

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped and sauteed

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped and sauteed

About 20 pieces thinly sliced pepperoni

1/2 can San Marzano tomatoes, drained and squeezed by hand

A few spoonfuls of your favorite prepared pizza sauce

Several shakes of your favorite Italian seasoning blend


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in center position.
  2. Add olive oil to a 14-inch, deep dish pizza pan and swirl it around. Shape the pizza dough, leaving as much extra dough around the edges as possible.
  3. Arrange the strips of string cheese, overlapped so there is plenty of cheese thickness all the way around the edges of the pizza dough. Gently stretch and pull the edges of dough over the string cheese strips and press to seal it to the base of the dough. Portion half of the shredded mozzarella onto the base and use your hands to press it firmly into the base of the pizza and also to cover the stuffed crust seam.
  4. Layer on the cooked Italian sausage, then the peppers, onions and mushrooms. Arrange slices of pepperoni generously all over the pizza. Scatter the crushed canned tomatoes randomly over the pepperoni, and then drop a few spoons of pizza sauce in-between the tomatoes and spread it lightly.
  5. Sprinkle the pizza, including the dough around the edges, with your favorite Italian seasoning blend. Sprinkle the rest of the shredded mozzarella, along with any remaining strips of string cheese, on top of the pizza.
  6. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. The cheese will be lightly browned and bubbling also. Let the pizza cool in the pan for 8 minutes before transferring it to a pizza tray. We use a large pancake turner and a wide fish spatula to get under the pizza to move it. Alternatively, cut the pizza right in the pan and serve up the wedges.

See? Go big or go home!


Easy Puff Pastry Pinwheels

Of all the things I love about writing a blog—and there are many, from seeing a record of my kitchen accomplishments to moving another bucket list item to the “done” column to hearing the stories from others who have tried my dishes—the best benefit of all is meeting new friends. I had the most wonderful opportunity to do just that when my husband, Les, and I traveled by car for our recent vacation. Our trip was slated to take us up I-95 through Virginia, D.C., Maryland, Delaware and into New Jersey, and I was thrilled that my blogging pal, Bernadette, was open to a meet-up. She had mentioned many times on her own blog, New Classic Recipe, that she was a resident of the Garden State, and fate was on our side because we were able to meet just one quick exit off the highway, on our way up to the northern part of the state.

I first came to know about Bernadette because she began commenting on some of my posts near the end of 2020, most notably the Oysters Rockefeller Pizza, and when I checked out her blog (WordPress is good that way, encouraging you to check out the bloggers who like your pages), I found myself also mesmerized by stories of her travels and food adventures, and especially the Italian recipes, including this one for fried, stuffed olives. We began following each other’s blogs, but I didn’t expect I would meet her one day.

At least, not until a couple of weeks ago. 😊

Les, me and Bernadette. 🙂

Once our travel plans became clear, I reached out to Bernadette privately, and she was terrific to recommend places near her that we could connect in person, and I’m so glad that we did! We gabbed over lunch—about food and blogging, about family and friendship, and the time just went so fast, as Les and I were suddenly back in the car and on our way to the rest of our action-packed vacation.

Before we parted, my new friend surprised me with a gift bag that contained two jars of handmade preserves, which I treasure. One of them is fig, which we will most certainly dig into when the holidays arrive, and the other is blackberry-prosecco. As much as I have enjoyed slathering the latter on my breakfast toast, I wanted to make something delicious and special with it, both to honor my new friend and to show appreciation for this (literally) sweet handmade food gift. This recipe is simple to make because it relies on store-bought puff pastry, but it has a little bit of “wow” factor, thanks to a pretty shaping method that is very easy to do. And the blackberry-prosecco preserves offer just the right kiss of sweetness on top of a cream cheese cushion.

The laminated dough puffs up during baking and makes the prettiest pastries!

My intention for these pastries is to serve them for breakfast or brunch, and because September is Better Breakfast Month, it seems apropos to do so. But honestly, there’s no reason these could not also be served as a light dessert, perhaps even with a glass of prosecco, in a friendly nod to the prosecco in Bernadette’s preserves.

Wait, why not both? 😉


Ingredients

1 sheet refrigerated (or frozen, thawed) puff pastry

3 oz. cream cheese, slightly softened

1 heaping Tbsp. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. vanilla

6 tsp. favorite fruit preserves

1 egg (+ 1 tsp. cold water, for egg wash)


Instructions


  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F, with oven rack in the center position.
  2. Remove puff pastry from package and roll out on a lightly floured counter or board. Use a rolling pin to gently press out any folds in the pastry and aim to keep the pastry sheet in a mostly square/rectangle shape.
  3. Using a pizza wheel, trim the edges all around and cut the pastry into six roughly equal size squares. Arrange the squares on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. It is not necessary to have much space between them.
  4. Use a paring knife to cut diagonally from the corners of each pastry square toward the center, but keep about 1½ inches of the center fully intact. Fold every other point toward the center, slightly overlapping them in the middle. Press down firmly on the centers with your thumb to ensure the pastry stays put.
  5. Divide the sweetened cream cheese mixture among the pastry pinwheels. Each should have about 1 tablespoon. Gently press the center of the cream cheese with the back of a spoon to create an impression. Fill each impression with a small spoonful of your favorite preserves.
  6. Brush all exposed pastry dough with egg wash. Bake for about 18 minutes, or until pastries are puffy and golden. Rotate baking sheet about halfway through the time, for even browning.
  7. Cool pastries on the baking sheet for about 2 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.

Making breakfast better!


“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 7 – “Kielbasa City, here we come!”)

Our quest to knock down the inventory of our pantry, fridge and freezer has been a big one, and Chef Les has given me one final basket to conquer before the big kitchen remodel begins. I have to hurry this up, because our contractor, Matt, is on his way over with his crew, ready to start tearing out our existing cabinets (I’m not kidding, he really is)!

Before we started our challenge, Les and I established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:

  1. Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
  2. The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  3. Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  4. Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  5. Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (we do).

I made myself a dry martini to take the edge off, because Les was wearing a mischievous grin when he assembled my seventh mystery basket. Here we go!

We’re going to need a bigger bar.

Yes, I was cringing on that last ingredient. Les and I have joked about that massive package of frozen kielbasa ever since this challenge began, but neither of us had dared put it in the other’s basket until now. We love smoked sausage of any kind, so that wasn’t a problem for either of us. The issue is that this was a 3pound package, and that’s a lot of kielbasa for two people to consume in a short period of time.

After this meal was finished and judged, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t kielbasa at all; a closer look at the package revealed it as “mesquite smoked sausage,” but I was lured by the brand name, Kiolbossa, which is apparently the name of the family that owns the company. This had both of us quite perplexed (especially my ex-journalist husband, for whom facts still matter), so I did a quick search to see if we were correct in calling this sausage “kielbasa.” Based on this article on The Spruce Eats, kielbasa is the same as sausage, as least in the Polish language. As luck (or genes) would have it, Les is half Polish, so we are calling this one correct. Whew!


I bought the kielbasa at Costco in March 2020, on the same visit as the 7-pound bag of quinoa, three towers of canned tuna, that huge bag of mixed lentils, two cases of chicken and veggie broth, and umpteen cans of black beans. If we had a COVID apocalypse, at least we would not starve. In the heat of the moment, I did not have the presence of mind to downsize the sausage haul into smaller packages; I just popped the whole thing into the freezer. Later, when it became apparent that we would not perish in a pandemic version of The Hunger Games, we lamented the stockpiling, and the sausage became a bit of a punchline at our house. There are plenty of ways to cook and enjoy smoked sausage; my main concern is how to use so much of it, and I knew immediately that I would have to make multiple dishes to accomplish that.

Only one of the dishes I had in mind would use all four of the basket ingredients, and that’s what I’ll be presenting to Les for judging. To challenge myself further, I decided that I would try to prepare said dish without using our stove (might as well get used to it, given that our kitchen remodel will be underway any minute now). Our slow cooker, which Les purchased a few years before we met, is a serious workhorse —way better than my old Crock Pot—and the only reason we don’t use it more often is that I work from home, and I find cooking in the background is usually easy to manage during the day. Besides the usual high-low-warm functions of any other slow cooker, this one also has a roasting option and a setting to brown food, and I expect that it will come in super handy as we navigate the fall cooking season without a stove or oven.


Under normal circumstances, the slow cooker has lived on a utility rack in the garage, right next to the “downstairs” fridge (check out my post for baby back ribs with root beer bbq glaze to understand that inside joke). After several months without use, it needed some attention. As I was washing the accumulated dust from the slow cooker, it occurred to me how similar this scene was to some of the miserable, cringe-worthy dating experiences I’d had before things got serious with Les:

 “Hey there, Gorgeous! I know it’s been a long time—since, when? –Super Bowl two years ago, I guess. Wow, we’ve had some good times, haven’t we? By the way, you look great! So anyway, my circumstances have changed and I’m gonna be without a kitchen for a bit and I wondered if you’re free for, oh, maybe the next six weeks or so? I was thinking we could get together and make some new memories. I’ll make it up to you when the kitchen is done. Look, I’m putting in a tall pantry cabinet so you won’t have to live in the garage anymore. You up for some fun? Aw, you’re the best!”

Thankfully, appliances don’t have feelings.


Let’s review these mystery basket ingredients again. First of all, there were (count ‘em) 10 fat links of kielbasa in that package, and there’s no way all of them can go into one dish. I wanted to find creative ways to use the kielbasa in multiple applications, and for this meal, I used three of the links—two were processed with the large shredder blade of my food processor, and the third was cut into chunks to be added to the final dish.

The mushrooms and lasagna noodles were easy, because I planned to make a variation of a stroganoff, and the lasagna only needed to be cut into smaller pieces.

The jar of maple-bourbon braising sauce has been in the back of a cabinet for a couple of years, and I always imagined it might be useful for doing some kind of roast in the slow cooker, but it didn’t have much flavor on its own (neither maple nor bourbon). With mostly salt and vinegar flavors to its credit, I decided to “beef” it up (so to speak) with some shredded kielbasa. This would add much-needed flavor to the sauce and also allow me to use the sausage in more than one way.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. It would be most unexpected for you to find yourself in possession of these exact ingredients, so I didn’t keep up with how much of every ingredient I used. But I hope you enjoy the story.


I used the “brown” setting to render the residual fat from about half of the shredded smoked kielbasa, and used the other side of the slow cooker to saute up the onions that would make their way into the meatball mixture with the other half of it. Along with those ingredients, I rounded up the usual suspects for any meatball mixture—a panko panade (paste made with milk), a large egg, a few shakes of dried oregano, black pepper and a small handful of chopped fresh parsley.


I did a quick browning on the sliced cremini mushrooms—again, right in the slow cooker. And then I added the maple-bourbon braising sauce with a few spoons of beef base and some brown sugar to amp up the flavor.

The kielbasa on its own had a pretty salty flavor, so I was reluctant to season the mixture as I normally would, and I couldn’t very well just taste the raw meat mixture to know how much salt was right. My solution was to cook two tiny meatballs and give them a taste. Definitely salty enough on their own.


I was kicking myself a little bit because I could have easily browned the meatballs right there in the slow cooker, but I had already dumped the jarred sauce into it. In the heat of the moment, I am not prone to make the best decisions (please refer to above-referenced purchase of the sausage, and the imagined conversation with slow cooker), so I forgave myself and pulled out a skillet. Thankfully, I did still have use of the gas range, at least for the moment. When the meatballs were browned, I sent them into the slow cooker to simmer on low until Les comes home at dinner time, and hopefully he will say, “the house smells great!”


I had planned to serve this meal in a “stroganoff” style, though I decided not to swirl in sour cream because it looked unappetizing. The partial box of lasagna noodles that Les had given me had eight noodles, which I boiled and cut into manageable strips for serving.

All the components are in there; the kielbasa, mushrooms, lasagna noodles and maple-bourbon braising sauce.
Fingers crossed!

Yeah, take a big ol’ bite, Babe!

As promised, I also found three other ways to use up the remaining smoked kielbasa.



Mexican Street Corn Hash and Eggs

Before we get too carried away into kitchen renovation land, I owe the month of September its due respect. We are now 10 days into National Better Breakfast Month, and given that breakfast is my favorite meal, I should have more breakfast recipes on the blog already. But at our house, weekends are the only time we do anything fun or fancy for breakfast, so my opportunities are somewhat limited (much to my chagrin).

Today’s recipe is not fancy, but it gets high marks in the fun department because of all the flavors and textures. My inspiration for the dish came from a restaurant where my work team had its first face-to-face meeting since the pandemic started. The restaurant, which specializes in breakfast and brunch, had a “specials” board that announced, “Mexican street corn hash,” featuring chorizo, corn, potatoes and a sunny-side egg. It was good, but not particularly spicy, and it was missing a little something for me (smoke). My mind started working to break down the flavors and figure out how to improve it, and the outcome was delicious!

My adjustments made this breakfast spicier and smokier than the restaurant version.

For my version of the dish, I amped up the flavors of a store-bought chorizo, using ordinary spices and a surprise ingredient (keep reading) to boost the texture of the sausage while enhancing the Mexican flavors. I used a combination of red jalapeno peppers and onions to make the potato hash interesting, and I finished the plate with crumbly cotija cheese, avocado cubes and a quick squeeze of fresh lime juice.

As I was discussing with a friend recently, if you have dietary restrictions, you don’t necessarily have to give up all the flavors you love. In this recipe, the yummy Mexican chorizo flavor can be easily adapted to turkey sausage or ground turkey (but be sure to adjust the spices and use a little oil for browning). You will still get the texture and flavors that made this dish delicious, without the ingredients that cause discomfort or health problems.


Ingredients

3 small, skin-on red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into cubes

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 lb. fresh chorizo sausage* (see notes)

1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika (or combine with cayenne, if you dare!)

A few shakes ground cumin

A few shakes of dried Mexican oregano*

1 to 2 Tbsp. fine ground corn meal or masa harina*

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped

1/2 red jalapeno pepper, finely diced* (handle with care!)

1/2 cup frozen fire-roasted corn kernels*

2 large eggs (and a swirl of oil to fry them)

1/2 ripe avocado, cubed

1/4 cup crumbled cotija cheese*

1/2 fresh lime


*Notes

I used 3 fresh chorizo links, similar in size to Italian sausage, with the casings removed. I don’t recommend the hard chorizo sausage that is typical of Spanish cuisine. If you substitute 1/2 lb. ground turkey or turkey sausage, add a bit of garlic powder and adjust the other seasonings to assimilate the flavor of chorizo, and be sure to use a little canola or olive oil in the skillet to make up for the sausage fat.

Mexican oregano, not to be confused with typical Mediterranean oregano, has an earthy flavor with similarities to citrus. This gives a different impression than the oregano you’d use in Greek or Italian recipes, which is a member of the mint family.

Are you wondering about the corn meal? I discovered a few years ago that adding corn meal (or masa harina, the ingredient used to make corn tortillas) gives a distinctly Mexican flavor to taco seasoning, and for this recipe, it adds a bit of the grainy, gritty texture that is so good in chorizo. It also seems to help absorb some of the grease when the chorizo cooks. Try it and see!

If jalapeno is too spicy for your palate, sub in a similar amount of red bell pepper.

I used Trader Joe’s fire-roasted corn, available in the freezer section. Regular sweet corn would work just as well, but I really like the slightly charred, smoky flavor that the roasted corn conveys.

Cotija is a dry, crumbly cheese that lends a salty touch to Mexican dishes. If you cannot find it, crumbled feta would be a good substitute.


Instructions

  1. Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Add the potatoes when the water comes to a boil and stir in the baking soda. This will “rough up” the surface of the potatoes to make them more crispy and more porous to the seasonings in the skillet. When the potatoes are just tender enough to pierce with the tip of a knife (but not mushy), drain and set aside.
  2. Remove any casings from the chorizo and sprinkle the paprika, cumin, oregano and corn meal over it. Using your hands, squeeze to combine the seasonings thoroughly into the sausage.
  3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Crumble the sausage into the skillet and cook until all sides have a nice brown crust on them. Add the onions and jalapenos; continue cooking until the onions are soft.
  4. Move the sausage and onion mixture to the edges of the skillet. Add a quick swirl of oil if the skillet is dry. Add the potatoes to the center of the skillet, cooking them to desired texture. Add the corn and cook until heated through.
  5. In a separate, non-stick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. oil over medium heat and fry the eggs to desired doneness.
  6. Divide the hash for two servings. Sprinkle each with 2 Tbsp. of the cotija cheese and scatter the avocado cubes around the plate. Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the hash, top with an egg and serve. Any chorizo drippings left in the skillet may be drizzled over the egg if you like. 😊



Time Flies When You’re Having Fun!

On Memorial Day weekend this year (the unofficial start of summer), my husband, Les, and I enjoyed a few craft beers at our favorite local brewpub, dreaming up fun things to do for a late-summer vacation. We were hoping to make good on some travel plans that we had to cancel last year, and our decision to drive rather than fly gave us a lot of flexibility for how to spend a week away from home. We knew that we wanted to visit the Northeast, through New York and Connecticut, and we were game for just about anything.

On a whim that afternoon, my husband looked up the concert schedule for one of his favorite Jersey-based bands, and would you believe it? —they were scheduled to play on Labor Day weekend, right at the end of our planned vacation time! Our spontaneous decision to hit the “buy it” button on those tickets turned out to be one of our best moves ever. We counted down the months, weeks and days until our trip, and now the vacation that we had so eagerly anticipated has ended and it feels a bit blurry. The experience of time is an odd thing, and even more so after having spent nearly a year and a half not going anywhere. We are safe at home, exhausted, and still reeling from all the incredible adventures we had over 10 days and across more than 1,800 miles.

During our getaway, which was conveniently timed to coincide with Les’s birthday, we enjoyed visits with family and old friends, made new friends and met a few others face-to-face for the first time, including Bernadette, one of my blogging buddies that I met here on WordPress, and our musician friends, Glenn Alexander and Oria. Those experiences gave me joy that I cannot quite put into words. We also had some of the most incredible food, including pizza at three of America’s top-rated pizzerias and some chicken wings in Connecticut that were, quite frankly, better than any wings I have had from my time near Buffalo. Les and I walked more than 7 miles in one day in NYC, including lunch at Chelsea Market and happy hour at a classic tavern in Greenwich Village, mere days before the record-setting rainfall that wreaked havoc on the city and parts of New Jersey and Long Island, all locations we stayed during our trip. We visited a legendary music venue made famous by Bruce Springsteen, attended a fabulous outdoor concert by a favorite band, and did I mention all the terrific food?

I’m still trying to get my arms around these experiences, and also trying to resume the routines of work-from-home life, and it is a little overwhelming, but I promise more details are coming. Here’s a glimpse of what is to come in the weeks ahead, as I aim to replicate or re-invent some of the culinary experiences we had along the way.

Nearly every leg of our journey was tied in some way to Comfort du Jour, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the many ways starting this blog has changed my life for the good.

We are happy to be home, sleeping in our own bed and loving on our precious pets. It is back to business-as-usual status around here, but not really. This action-packed vacation was a pre-emptive strike against stress, as our kitchen remodel is finally about to begin, so brace yourself for some new posts that will probably be a bit chaotic at times. We still have a lot of pantry items to use up, and Les will be giving me a new “Chopped” basket this evening, and it will be the last one I am able to navigate before the kitchen is dismantled. And then we will have a new adventure, perhaps named “The No-Kitchen Challenge.” Oh, these are the good times!

Thank you, dear reader, for hanging on for the ride. ❤


Italian Deli Tortellini Salad

It does not seem possible that we are already heading into Labor Day weekend, the U.S. holiday that was established in 1894 to honor all the hard-working people whose efforts built social and economic strength for our country. But here we are, days away from the first Monday in September, and for most of us, that means an end-of-summer cookout, or at least some time in the great (hot) outdoors.

I promised a couple of weeks ago to present a few new ideas for easy salads that are perfect for backyard gatherings—I shared the tangy apple cole slaw, which brings a bit of tart fruit to the usual cabbage-and-carrots mix, and the tzatziki potato salad, leaning on the zesty flavors of a popular Greek condiment to bring some zip into one of our favorite summer sides.

To make good on my promise for a twist on pasta salad, I let my imagination run wild through an Italian deli case and all the salty, meaty, cheesy flavors one might find there. Initially, I had planned to use a basic pasta shape, such as penne or rotini, but I stepped it up and used cheese-stuffed tortellini instead. The result is this hearty, satisfying salad that could be a side dish (if you have the discipline to only scoop out a little bit of it), but we found it perfectly filling as a cool dinner salad, served up on a bed of fresh baby spinach and topped with halved grape tomatoes.

Since the time that I made this hearty salad, I have had the pleasure of visiting a real Italian deli, so I expect that my next version of this salad might hold a few additional flavors, but this was a good, flavorful start. 🙂

Mangia!

A small scoop of this salad would be a good side, but a large scoop on a bed of baby spinach was hearty enough for dinner!

Ingredients

1/2 package fresh cheese-filled tortellini* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise (optional, see notes)

4 Tbsp. prepared Italian vinegar-and-oil dressing (I used Good Seasons)

Several slices provolone cheese, cut into bite-sized pieces

Several slices uncured Italian salami, cut into bite-sized pieces

Several slices uncured pepperoni, cut into bite-sized pieces

About 1 cup giardiniera vegetables*, drained well and chopped

1/2 can garbanzo (ceci) beans, drained

Handful of fresh grape tomatoes, halved

Fresh baby spinach, for plating


*Notes

I used Buitoni fresh pasta, the kind you find in the refrigerated case near the ricotta cheese. Frozen tortellini would probably work well, too. Or you could go crazy and make it from scratch! If you want a lighter salad, substitute about half a box of penne or rotini pasta.

If you prefer a dressing that is not creamy, skip the mayonnaise and increase the Italian dressing by a tablespoon or two.

This was one of those times that I thought a store-bought ingredient would be “just as good” as a homemade one, but this giardiniera does not hold a candle to the one I make myself. Before fall officially begins, I promise I will share that recipe!


Instructions

  1. Cook the fresh tortellini according to package instructions, stopping just shy of tender. Drain it, and then immediately transfer the cooked pillows to a bowl filled with ice water to halt the cooking. Drain completely, and if you have enough time, chill the pasta by itself for an hour or two before adding the other salad ingredients.
  2. Prep all the other ingredients, along with anything else you think belongs in an Italian deli pasta salad. Be sure to drain any ingredients that are packed in water.
  3. Combine mayonnaise and Italian dressing until smooth.
  4. Toss the add-ins into the bowl with the cooked, chilled tortellini. Pour the dressing over the mix and gently fold with a spatula to combine and coat all the ingredients.
  5. Chill for at least one hour before serving. I found that this salad was better the second day, because the cooked tortellini tightened up a bit.
  6. Serve on a bed of baby spinach leaves, topped with halved grape tomatoes and a sprinkling of grated parm-romano cheese.

I tried to include all the great flavors of an Italian deli. Did I miss anything? 🙂


Moroccan Zucchini “Boats”

One clear advantage to growing your own garden vegetables is that you have a wider range of varieties and sizes of veggies to choose from. I can find zucchini, for example, at my local supermarket, but only smallish ones that can be fried, steamed or skewered. Because this year we gave in to the deer and decided to forego attempting our own garden, I had to go to the farmers’ market to get a large zucchini, like the ones everyone gave away for free this time of year in my hometown. I appreciate that unlike grocery store produce, whatever I bring home from the outdoor market was probably hanging on the vine mere hours before.

You can make a generous meal from a foot-long zucchini!

On our last visit to the market, I was specifically on the lookout for large zucchini because I wanted to make a “boat” out of it. I have enjoyed stuffed zucchini for years, dating back to my hometown days and first apartment meals. Through the years, I have made them with sausage stuffing, ratatouille flavors or Italian-themed ingredients, depending on what else I had in the fridge at the time.


This time, I kept it entirely plant-based and gave it a spicy Moroccan twist. Israeli pearl couscous found its way into the mix, along with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic. I added a robust harissa paste for a big afterburn flavor. It was a double win for me—I got my wish for a hearty garden-based meal, and it was a fun flavor twist that my heat-loving hubby enjoyed, too.

 

Harissa is a staple seasoning of North African cuisine. It packs a spicy punch, so use it sparingly.

Ingredients

Large zucchini, halved lengthwise and insides scooped out

Olive oil spray

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup Israeli couscous* (see notes)

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 or 5 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Half of a large can of whole peeled tomatoes with puree*

1 tsp. harissa paste (more or less to taste)

1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp. melted vegan butter*

Fresh chopped parsley for garnish


*Notes

Couscous is essentially really tiny pasta, and for this recipe, I used a blend from Trader Joe’s that combines Israeli (“pearl”) couscous, which is larger than regular couscous, with various other ingredients, including split baby garbanzos, orzo (another tiny pasta) and quinoa. Any type of cooked grain would work here, including bulgur, freekah, wheat berries or even brown rice. You need about 1 cup cooked.

I almost always have San Marzano tomatoes in play in my kitchen, and half of a 28 oz. can was about right for this recipe. Use a standard can of diced tomatoes or, obviously, go for fresh! 🙂

There are so many good options for non-dairy “butter.” I am fond of the olive oil version made by Country Crock. It looks, melts and spreads just like dairy butter.


As usual, Nilla is ready and waiting for a piece of vegetable to fall! ❤

Instructions

Here’s a quick visual walk-through for making this yummy, plant-based zucchini boat. Steps are listed below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then score the inside to scoop out the seedy flesh. Cut the flesh up into chunks and toss with salt in a colander to remove excess moisture.
  3. Drizzle, brush or spray olive oil onto the cut sides of the squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the squash on the parchment and roast for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender.
  4. Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
  5. Heat a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil and sauté the onions until softened and translucent. Add mushrooms and zucchini chunks to the pot and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a separate bowl.
  6. Add another swirl of olive oil to the sauce pot and simmer the tomatoes and garlic over low heat until the tomatoes are soft enough to break when pressed. Stir in harissa paste and adjust seasonings to taste. Return the onions and mushrooms to the tomato mixture, along with the cooked couscous and the reserved salted zucchini pieces.
  7. Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
  8. Spoon the couscous filling into the zucchini shells. Top with buttered panko crumbs. Return the zucchini boats to the oven and bake until crumbs are browned and crispy. Serve with chopped parsley sprinkled on top.

Delicious and satisfying!