“Trust me, you have to order the spinach Maria as your side,” was the instruction given to me, in no uncertain terms, by at least six of my now-husband’s family members, who had gathered from every corner of the world for his mom’s 90th birthday celebration in Boca Raton, Fla. On our second or third day of this visit, which I should mention was my first introduction to Les’s family, about 16 of us were seated at a very long table at the Ke’e Grill, an upscale Boca restaurant that specializes in exquisite seafood dishes. I watched and listened as the server moved along the table, taking order after order for spinach Maria. It didn’t seem to matter whether the desired entrée was lobster tail, shrimp or salmon—even steaks, chops or chicken—literally everyone at our table ordered the spinach Maria, and it appeared true for the tables around us as well.
What was this mystical side dish, I wondered, that was so delectable that it united all the personalities present at this table and beyond? Creamy, crumb-topped heaven in a ramekin, that’s what.
This was no ordinary creamed spinach, and on subsequent visits to Boca, I requested return trips to Ke’e Grill so that I could experience the flavors enough to deconstruct it in my mind and then recreate it at home. I have made it three times in recent history, and after a few tweaks here and there, I’m finally confident to share my version of this memorable side dish. The base of the sauce is a bechamel, but only barely thickened because the cream and cheese are weighty themselves, and the spinach adds quite a bit of body. The buttered panko crumb topping is a delightful textural contrast to the richness that bubbles underneath.
It is relatively easy to make, but it takes a bit of time, and the Ke’e Grill menu even reminds guests to be patient for spinach Maria, as it is made to order and baked to bubbly, crispy perfection just before serving. If you wish to make it ahead, perhaps for an elegant New Year’s Eve dinner, prepare the filling and portion it into ramekins, then refrigerate up to 24 hours. Bring the ramekins to near-room temperature before topping and baking.
Ingredients (for 6 servings)
1 lb. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed very dry
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour (a 1:1 gluten-free alternative would be fine)
It is important that you use roasted garlic, and not fresh, which would be much too sharp for spinach Maria. If you have never made your own roasted garlic, you can follow the recipe link for easy instructions, and you’ll want to make that ahead so it is ready for your spinach Maria.
We keep a large container of freshly grated parmesan and romano cheese blend on hand all the time, and you can follow that recipe link as well if you’d like to give it a try. Or simply use a good quality parmesan from the supermarket deli (please, for the love of good food, not the stuff in the shiny green can).
Prepare the spinach by thawing, rinsing and draining. It must be squeezed very dry for this recipe, and I recommend spreading it out onto a clean, unscented kitchen towel and rolling and twisting to extract all the excess moisture.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed sauce pot, melt the unsalted butter. Stir in the flour and minced shallots. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat a few minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and has a slight nutty fragrance.
Add the milk all at once and whisk until smooth and thickened. Stir in the heavy cream until blended. Add the fontina and gruyere cheeses and stir until melted through. Stir in cayenne and dry mustard. Squeeze the roasted garlic directly into the sauce and whisk to break up the pieces.
Optional: At this point, the cream-cheese sauce will appear chunky, with visible bits of softened onion and roasted garlic. If you have an immersion blender, I highly recommend using it to cream up the sauce further; 60 seconds should do it. This step is optional, but it amplifies the creamy texture of any bechamel-based sauce, so I do it even for simple mac and cheese recipes.
Break up the packed dry spinach into the sauce and stir to blend it. It may seem that there is not enough spinach to match the sauce, but as you stir and blend, the bits will separate and disperse more evenly. Give the mixture a taste and adjust seasonings (salt, pepper, cayenne) to your liking.
Divide the spinach Maria mixture evenly into six 1/2-cup ramekins and place them on a small baking sheet. If you are preparing it ahead, cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to one day. Bring them to near-room temperature before baking.
In a small saucepan or skillet, melt salted butter and toss the panko crumbs in it until moistened. Stir in parm-romano blend just until evenly mixed. Divide the topping among the ramekins. Bake on the cookie sheet at 350° F for about 25 minutes, until the crumb topping is crispy and golden, and the spinach Maria is bubbly at the edges. Serve immediately.
I used to be a sucker for interesting cookbooks. When my kids were young (and I was always looking for fun things to make that might somehow appeal to them), I bought a collection of recipes bound in a half book, half loose-leaf from a church, featuring members’ faves.
One day, I decided, based on the name and ingredients, that one of those recipes looked safe to try for the kids. It was called “crunchy cheesy beefaroni,” and basically was a home version of hamburger helper. As I recall, the recipe included ground beef, a can of tomato soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, elbow macaroni, and lots and lots of cheese. In fact, the recipe called for two full 8-ounce blocks of cheddar, one sharp and one medium sharp. The casserole was topped by French-fried onion rings. Hence, the crunchy.
Now my kids loved this concoction, but it had an unfortunate side effect on some in the household. And the kids, who do speak their truth, did some intentional mangling of the name when they asked for it again. They asked for “crunchy cheesy fartaroni.” It was a big laugh at the time.
Time marches on. My son now lives in Budapest. My daughter is a vegan and wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole.
I hadn’t made it in many years, but from the time I shared the story of this legendary dish with Terrie, she wanted me to go for it. This even though Terrie typically recoils at the mention of Campbell’s condensed soups, and any of the other ingredients with decidedly “GMO” and other non-organic leanings. However, in our household, I have learned that everything has a substitute, and this dish can, indeed, be made in a “clean” fashion. More than a year ago, I made it for Terrie for the first time, using some leftover shaved steak meat from another dish, as well as incorporating previously made mac and cheese. I threw in some organic mushroom soup and some organic diced tomatoes, and the 2020s version tasted great and met Terrie’s environmental and food-quality standards.
With the kitchen renovation still rendering our kitchen in a largely “not-ready-for prime time” state, we’ve been looking for some filler meals. On a recent weekend while Terrie was under the weather, I decided to take on the cooking duties and try the beefaroni again, this time with a southwest spin.
I’m pleased to say that southwest crunchy cheesy “fartaroni” worked out great. A bowl of protein, veggies and carbs with flavor, kick and comfort.
1 pound ground beef, 85% lean* (see notes)
1 12-ounce box of Barilla veggie pasta rotini*
Half a medium yellow onion, diced
Half a red and half a green bell pepper, diced
1 small can of chopped green chilis
1 can of Rotel diced tomatoes*
1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
½ packet Frontera skillet sauce with chipotle and lime*
8 ounces colby-jack cheese, cubed or shredded
2 ounces habanero cheddar*
Ingredients for Cheese Sauce
Terrie suggested the cheese sauce, with a thin bechamel base, as a topping for the casserole because it seemed dry after its 45 minutes in the oven. This version had no soup! And who am I to argue against more cheese? Or against anything Terrie suggests in the kitchen (OK, Terrie, I can see the look on your face already).
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 cup of milk*
8 ounces of sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded*
1 ounce habanero cheddar*
3 ounces cream cheese*
3 to 4 Tbsp. salsa*
One of Terrie’s standards is that in our household, we eat only grass-fed beef, and that’s what I used for this. Any ground meat with similar fat content would work.
We like the veggie pasta for a healthier option, so I used rotini, as I couldn’t find a veggie version of elbow macaroni, which was part of the original recipe. Rotini worked great and offered plenty of texture.
I used Rotel’s Mexican-style version with lime juice and cilantro. If you want to seriously kick up the heat in the dish, try the hot diced tomatoes or the diced tomatoes with serrano peppers.
The Frontera skillet sauce was the same thing I used to flavor the ground meat in my thick and hearty chili recipe. Look for it in the grocery section where you’d find packets of seasonings.
The habanero cheddar is a Trader Joe’s product, and it packs some major heat. You can use other cheeses to add variety to the cheese sauce; notice I only used 10 ounces total cheese, well below what the original recipe called for. The dish is plenty cheesy, even before the cheese sauce.
You might use a little more or a little less milk depending on your preferred thickness of cheese sauce.
Terrie also noted that, especially for queso-style sauces, American cheese provides a smooth base, but I had no American on hand for this meal, so I settled for what was left in the fridge, plus a little cream cheese (another Terrie suggestion). And I supplemented with another small dose of the habanero cheddar for heat.
Any salsa will do, but pick what you like for your heat preference, keeping in mind everything else you’ve put in the dish.
I used our multi-function slow cooker for the heavy lifting in putting together this casserole. I browned the ground beef in it, seasoning with salt and pepper and then mixing in the Frontera skillet sauce. I removed the ground beef and sauteed the onions and peppers, then returned the beef to the slow cooker, which I set to slow cook. I then added the diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles, as well as the tomato paste, using a little less than 2 chile cans of water (10 ounces) to thin the mixture.
I’d already had salted water boiling and added the rotini, draining it when it reached al dente state. I also used this period to cube up the cheese. I added the drained rotini to the slow cooker and mixed it all up.
I pre-heated our oven (which we could finally access, though the kitchen was not completely ready) to 350° F and sprayed a 9-by-13 casserole dish. Then, I doled out about half of the pasta/beef/vegetable mixture into the casserole and topped it with about half the cheese. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and cheese. Then crush up some tortilla chips until they are small and sprinkle over the entire casserole and place into the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, depending on how your oven heats.
While the casserole is baking, prepare the cheese sauce. I did this using our induction burner by creating a roux with the butter and flour. Once the roux is yellow or golden, add the milk and keep stirring. Once it thickens and appears creamier, begin blending in the cheese, stirring until smooth and adding the onion powder to offer a little seasoning. Finally, add the salsa, which should give the mixture a more orange-reddish look.
The casserole is ready when you can see the cheese bubbling; you may need to cover the casserole with foil about halfway through cooking if it appears to be dry on top. Serve in a bowl and spoon the cheese sauce over the top.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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
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!
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.
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.
Combine mayonnaise and Italian dressing until smooth.
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.
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.
Serve on a bed of baby spinach leaves, topped with halved grape tomatoes and a sprinkling of grated parm-romano cheese.
In our early months of getting to know each as slightly more than “just friends,” my husband, Les, and I took a road trip into southern Virginia for an afternoon of antiquing. He had been working on redecorating his living room and was on the search for an interesting accent table or other cool décor item. And mostly, we were both looking for new ways to hang out together.
Along the way, we found this funky table with an adjustable wooden top that screwed down into the base. It was not very practical, given that the three legs are not properly spaced out and it tipped over if you set something on it. But it was fun and different, and with a fresh coat of paint, it livened up his living space. We also stopped at a few roadside stands, browsing through fresh peaches, honey, jams and preserves, along with all varieties of handmade crafts.
The most fun thing about that day, though, was our visit to a Mexican restaurant called Chile Rojo, just inside the N.C. state line. The music and décor were lively, the food was delish and the company of this guy who once seemed so serious to me was just about the best thing going. Les and I met in a pool hall, where we both played in a 9-ball league, and our first impressions of each other (as is often the case with married couples) were not particularly positive. He thought I was flirty (for sure, I was) and a bit on the flighty side. I thought he was intense and without much sense of humor. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that second part, and it was interactions such as this road trip that really helped me see the relaxed, authentic side of this man who would, nearly two years later, become my husband.
It didn’t hurt that we both have a passion for great food and adventurous palates that make us open to trying each other’s favorite things. On this visit to Chile Rojo, his eyes scanned the menu, landing on their choriqueso dip, which he called “queso fundido.” It was a typical Mexican queso dip—creamy, melty and salty—but this one had spicy, crispy bits of chorizo sausage floating around in it, causing a flavor explosion in every bite. Truth be told, I had probably experienced this stuff at some point in my past, and maybe I had just never heard the name of it. But in the heat of that July evening, as Les and I sipped our Mexican lagers and enjoyed dragging our crispy warm tortilla chips through this queso fundido dip, everything seemed new and delicious.
That first of many road trips for us as a couple is still on my mind whenever we order queso fundido, and in honor of Cinco de Mayo this week, Les and I decided to put those fabulous flavors onto a pizza. My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough went south of the border for the occasion, as I subbed in a portion of corn flour for the usual amount of whole wheat flour, a subtle nod to the tortilla chips we like so much. Shredded pepperjack cheese provided a base for the toppings. The chorizo sausage was browned up with chopped onions, and accompanied by fire-roasted corn, pickled jalapeno and fresh slices of fresno chiles. The hot oven transformed the dollops of melty queso dip into blistered patches of ooey-gooey deliciousness, and when we pulled the pizza from the hot steel, we topped it with cool cubes of avocado and fresh cilantro leaves. Like all of our adventures, this pizza was awesome.
Oh, and it turns out Les isn’t always so serious. Thank goodness, because neither am I. ❤
2 chorizo sausage links, casings removed
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 cup cream, half and half or whole milk* (see notes)
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese (or Monterey Jack for less heat)
1/2 avocado, cubed
Handful fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
Fresh squeeze of lime
Depending on the type of dairy you use (cream, half and half or milk), you may need to adjust the ratio a bit. Cream, of course, has the highest fat content and whole milk has the lowest. I do not recommend 2% or skim milk for queso, as they don’t have the fat content to support the melted cheese. For readers abroad, “half and half” is a popular product in the U.S. that is essentially a 50/50 mix of cream and milk, and it amounts to about 12% milkfat.
I always use American cheese for its incredible meltability. I’m not sure if that is a word, but I think you understand my point! Regular cheddar has great flavor on its own, but without the special enzymes that exist in American cheese, a sauce made with only cheddar will break in the heat of the oven. I purchase American cheese in chunks at the deli counter of my supermarket, rather than the dairy aisle.
Our pizzas are baked on a steel, preheated at 550°F for an hour before baking. If you bake at a lower temperature, you will need to adjust baking time, and consider turning on the broiler for a brief minute at the end, to put a nice blister on the queso topping.
Note also that this pizza is par-baked before the queso dip is added, then returned to the oven for final browning. Do not add the queso at the start of the baking time, as it will burn and may prevent even cooking of the dough.
First, the queso dip, which we love on its own, so we made more than we needed for this pizza. Without question, we will enjoy the rest on homemade nachos or just snacking with tortilla chips. If you make the queso ahead of time, note that it will become solid in the fridge. No worries, just warm on low heat to creamy consistency again, and cool to room temp for topping the pizza.
When you are ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 550°F if using a steel, or the recommended temperature for your pizza stone. Your oven rack should be about 8 inches from the top of the oven. If you are using a pizza pan, place the rack in the lower third of the oven to ensure thorough baking of the crust, and plan to adjust your baking time.
I didn’t have much notice to plan for it or I would have announced to all of you that this past Friday was “National Make a Ruckus Day.” My husband, Les, and I have been planning various improvement projects this spring, and we had no sooner made a final decision on the color of architectural shingles we liked for a roof revamp when his phone rang just after dinner Thursday night. The shingles were in stock and the weather was right, so the crew would arrive at the crack of dawn!
The crew arrived early, and there were either six or seven of them—it was hard to tell because they didn’t stand still long enough for a headcount, and I am still in a bit of shock that their work was completed in one day. The noise was non-stop, from the stomping overhead, to the ripping and peeling sounds of the old shingles coming off, to the banging of hammers and air nailers installing the new roofing materials, to the construction-grade boombox that was blasting lively mariachi music just outside my home office window. All day Friday, both entrances to our home were blocked, and tarps stretched out across the yard to catch the refuse that was being flung from above. Les was working from home that day, so we were sequestered into our own “zones” of the house. The dog, who is terrified of any noise she cannot see, spent most of the day crammed against my knees underneath my work desk, the cat was just plain pissed that she couldn’t go outside (she didn’t understand that her life might have been at risk), and I was so frazzled about all of the above that I started contemplating tequila shots at about 2 in the afternoon.
On top of what was happening at our address, the neighbors across the cul-de-sac had a contractor show up to replace flooring in their master bedroom, and our yard crew was running a day behind on mowing and trimming, so they showed up on Friday to pretty up the common spaces.
There were trucks and trailers and service vans everywhere, and full-on RUCKUS.
There was no way I could escape the house, even to take my daily walk, let alone to make a grocery run, and so I was thankful that dinner was already planned. The whole experience of chaos, Les said, was good practice for the excitement we will experience if we follow through on remodeling our kitchen later this year. I’ve been griping about our kitchen since I moved into the house with him a few years ago, and we are finally ready to apply solutions for our lack of counter space, poor traffic flow and shortage of pantry storage. But committing to the project is scary, not only for the cost, but the time involved. Each contractor we have spoken to has said, “plan for at least six weeks without your kitchen.” And it is true—no matter what Chip and JoJo seem to accomplish in one houron HGTV—new kitchens take time, and that will be a big challenge. We will figure out how to eat, but how will I be able to sustain the blog?
There might be a lot of grilling recipes coming your way, or it could be a good time for me to catch up on the vast backlog of recipes I have made but not yet transformed into posts. Or I may turn my attention to other ideas I have had for Comfort du Jour, including fun furniture projects and artistic ventures. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at upcycling tables and worn out chairs. Of course, I may also spend six weeks sharing nothing but cocktail recipes, which—given my low tolerance for ruckus—will probably be in hot rotation.
Anyway, we relaxed under our new roof Friday night with this pizza, our interpretation of one of our favorite take-out sandwiches. We have long enjoyed the “big kahuna” sandwich from Jersey Mike’s, which is a variation of a Philly cheesesteak, but with mushrooms and jalapenos thrown into the mix, and plenty of gooey white cheese. The sandwich is awesome (especially when we ask for extra jalapenos), but it’s so packed with ingredients that we knew that our usual N.Y. thin crust could not hold it all in pizza form.
We went with a deep-dish pie this time, beginning with the crust, adapted from a King Arthur Baking recipe. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter except for a partial sub-in of white whole wheat flour. You know I’m always going to share my honest opinion, and frankly, I did not love this crust. It was easy enough to make, and instructions were clear and complete, but the recipe called for oil and also quite a bit of melted butter, which I haven’t really seen before as an ingredient for pizza dough. It rose on schedule and baked up beautifully, but the end result, for me, was too similar to pie crust or biscuits, and not quite right for pizza. I would consider it again for some kind of vegetable tart, but for pizza I will stick with the formula offered by Jeff Mauro from Food Network. His recipe with all olive oil makes a wonderful, crunchy-but-soft crust that is so, so good on a deep-dish pizza.
As with most near-misses in our kitchen, this pizza was still delicious. And it was extra yummy after such an unexpectedly noisy Friday.
Prepare the dough for your deep-dish pizza. This will take some time, depending on the recipe you choose.
Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add a couple swirls of olive oil and saute the onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Onions should be soft and translucent and mushrooms should be browned on both sides. Transfer vegetables to a dish and set aside.
In the same skillet, over medium-high heat, swirl in olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering, add the shaved steak, a few pieces at a time, and toss around to brown it all over. Don’t overcrowd the pan, or the meat will steam rather than brown. Transfer cooked steak to a dish and continue until all the steak is cooked. You may not use all of it on the pizza.
Make the white cheese sauce, beginning with a butter and flour roux in a medium saucepan. Heat the butter until bubbly, then add the flour and whisk together until it appears foamy and the butter is browned. Add the milk all at once and whisk constantly until mixture is smooth, thickened and lightly bubbling. Add cubed American cheese and stir or whisk until melted. Reduce heat to very low to keep sauce slightly warm and pourable while you prep the pizza crust.
Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in the center of the oven.
Place your prepared deep-dish dough into a 14-inch pan (or two 9-inch cake pans), and press gently to spread the dough out to the edges and up the sides about an inch. If the dough is very springy, cover the pan for 15 minutes, allowing the gluten to relax before proceeding.
Scatter the shredded pepperjack cheese evenly over the pizza dough, and press down firmly to ensure good coverage.
Load up your toppings, including the steak, vegetables and jalapeno peppers.
Drizzle the white cheese sauce all over the top. If the sauce does not readily flow into the nooks and crannies, give it an assist with a spatula or spoon.
Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese sauce is browned and bubbling, and crust is a deep golden brown. Check on it at the halfway point, and tent loosely with foil, if necessary, to prevent over-browning of the cheese. Rest finished pizza about 15 minutes before using large spatulas to transfer it to a cutting board or round pizza sheet.
In case you are curious about the outcome… Wow, what a difference a day can make!
This is what I shouted as I was assembling this patchwork pizza, which had all the classic Italian flavors of eggplant parmesan, lasagna and spicy pepperonata. Yep, all that on a crust. But make no mistake, I did not plan it this way.
The end-of-weekend fridge clearing ritual at our house took an interesting turn last night when my husband, Les, who will never, ever turn his nose up to anything pizza or anything eggplant, suggested that we take the remnants of a sausage and eggplant noodle casserole (which was already a leftover creation), and chop it all up to top some fresh N.Y. pizza dough. After all, he reasoned, the flavors were right for pizza and we knew from experience that cooked macaroni on a thin crust pie was next level comfort food—we had tried it last summer with some leftover mac and cheese and it was awesome—plus, we had just enough scraps of pepperoni and shredded mozzarella to hold it all together. Why not?
I wish I had taken just one photo of the “original” leftover creation, which was sort of a poor man’s lasagna, made of layered cooked elbow macaroni, two leftover grilled spicy Italian sausage links, the sautéed peppers and onions that had topped the sausages on sandwiches earlier in the week, a can of diced tomatoes, ricotta mixed with Italian herbs and our favorite parm-romano blend, plus an eggplant that I had sliced, sweated and quick-roasted, and every last random slice of provolone and thin-sliced mozzarella that had been taking up space in the deli drawer. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother cataloguing the details of the casserole at the time because I hadn’t planned to share it here on Comfort du Jour, and I also hadn’t really planned on sharing this pizza. I have no specific measurements of ingredients or step-by-step photos to share. Sometimes I need to just focus on feeding us, you know? But the end result—this I must share, because it underscores the fact that one should never underestimate the power of leftovers. It’s one of the essential kitchen rules I learned from my grandmother.
Not every idea in the kitchen has to be new and interesting, nor should everything be same old, same old. But sometimes, if you play it just right, the two collide and become something unexpectedly delicious, as we learned with this pizza. We had three slices leftover, naturally, and they will warm up nicely for lunch as leftovers of the leftover leftovers.
What crazy good thing have you made with leftovers recently? Drop it in the comments section so we can all be inspired!
It’s long been said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Just don’t tell that to our dog, Nilla, who learned at age 10 how to politely request the fresh vegetable treats she loves so much. She latched on quickly to my command of “where are you supposed to be?” It usually only takes one ask to get her to back up out of the kitchen and plop down into position in the doorway to receive her healthy snacks, which she catches in mid-air at least 95% of the time. I love that about her! ❤
And you better not tell my husband, Les, about new tricks, either. Because just last week, this N.Y.-born-and-raised-pizza-snob hubby of mine was scarfing down on a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Who’d have thunk it? (He tells me he has enjoyed Chicago pizza before, just not in the five years we’ve been together. Wait, does that mean I’m the old dog?) 😉
Distinctly different from a classic New York pie in so many ways—the tender crust, the order of layering the toppings, the longer time in the oven—this deep-dish pizza reminded me of a meat and cheese casserole with a crust that was crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy inside. After two-plus years spent tweaking my technique for a perfect New York thin-crust pizza, you may wonder what inspired me to give this deep dish a go. Easy, a sign in the supermarket announcing that the baking pans were 30% off! I’m a sucker for a sale, and the truth is I’ve wanted to try a deep-dish pizza for a while but refrained, given Les’s loyalty to the thin crust. Turns out, Chicago is a fine place to enjoy a pizza! He loved it (actually, we both did), and we are already dreaming up ingredient ideas for the next one. I want to make a deep-dish pie with roasted broccoli, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms, mmm.
As with so many recipes, what’s traditional or correct for Chicago-style pizza depends on who you ask, and the internet is jam-packed with declarations about authenticity. My first go-to was Food Network celebrity chef Jeff Mauro, the self-proclaimed “Sandwich King” who also happens to be an expert on Chicago foods because he’s lived in the area most of his life. His recipe for Chicago-style deep dish caught my eye, mostly for its simplicity but also for the kudos given by commenters on the Food Network site. I tweaked it a bit (don’t I always?), swapping in some cornmeal and whole wheat flour—for texture and nutrition, respectively—and embellishing with topping ingredients that suit our taste. Or maybe for this style pizza, I should call them “filling” ingredients rather than toppings, because it all bakes down into a delicious, melty mass. Yes, this is a fork-and-knife kind of pizza, a whole new level of comfort food for our Friday night quarantine pizza party.
You will need a deep-dish pizza pan or a large (12-inch) cast-iron skillet for baking this pizza. Note that the recipe requires a lengthy rise time on the dough, so you’ll want to plan ahead to stay on schedule for dinner. I hope you enjoy it!
Does your yeast packet say “instant?” If so, skip the first instruction step for blooming the yeast in warm water. Only “active dry” yeast requires blooming. Instant yeast may be added directly with the flour.
If you’re a sourdough nerd like me, here’s how I converted the recipe to accommodate 4 ounces of ripe sourdough starter: omit the yeast (or only add a small amount to boost rising action), reduce AP flour to 10 ounces and water to 9 ounces. Skip the step of blooming yeast. My starter had not been fed in a few days, so I added 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast. I did not need to adjust the rising time.
If you prefer an all-white flour crust (first of all, you’re missing a lot of flavor), adjust the amount of all-purpose flour to 18 ounces. (about 3 1/2 cups).
Jeff Mauro’s recipe suggested adding the bulk sausage in raw form, but I couldn’t get behind this, so I crumbled and browned it lightly in a cast-iron skillet, then cooled it before topping the pizza.
Mix 1 cup water, active dry yeast and sugar in a bowl and let it rest a few minutes until foamy on top. If using instant yeast, skip to step 2.
In a stand mixer or large bowl, combine yeast mixture with flour, cornmeal, salt and remaining water (and sugar, if you didn’t use it to bloom the yeast). Mix until a soft, shaggy ball of dough forms. Pour in olive oil, cover and let rest about 15 minutes.
Knead in olive oil until dough is soft, smooth and sticky. This should come together within about 3 minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled clean bowl, cover and let rise at room temperature until it’s doubled in size. This may take up to 6 hours, depending on the yeast method and the warmth of your kitchen. If you want to speed it up a bit, put the covered bowl in the oven with the oven light on, and check on it at the 3 hour mark.
Prep the other pizza ingredients by browning sausage, onions and peppers. Sauté spinach leaves until wilted and moisture is cooked out of them. Slice or shred your cheese. Drain the can of tomatoes, reserving puree and juice for another purpose. Set all topping ingredients aside until dough is ready to bake. Keep the cheese in the fridge until it’s time to bake.
Preheat oven to 450° F, with a rack in the center position of the oven.
Spray your deep dish pan or skillet with olive oil spray and transfer risen dough to the pan. Using your hands, spread dough out across the pan, gently stretching to meet the edges and up the side of the pan. The dough may spring back a bit but this is OK. Cover with a clean towel for 10 minutes to relax the gluten then proceed with the dough shaping. If you’re using a 12-inch skillet, you may only need about 3/4 of the total dough.
Layer the sliced mozzarella all over the bottom of the pan, on top of the dough, with edges of the cheese overlapped for good coverage. I ran out of slices and filled in gaps with shredded mozzarella—no big deal.
Scatter the browned sausage crumbles evenly over the cheese, then layer on the sautéed onions, peppers and spinach. Finally, arrange the pepperoni slices evenly around the pizza.
Use your hands to squish each plum tomato slightly, and arrange them all over the top of the pizza. Spoon the pizza sauce into the gaps between tomatoes.
Liberally sprinkle the parm-romano blend cheese completely over all the pizza toppings, and finish with a swirled drizzle of olive oil. I saved the grease from browning the sausage and drizzled that on top. No sense wasting that flavor, right?
Slide pizza pan into the oven and bake 25 minutes, until crust is evenly browned and parmesan cheese is golden and bubbly. Give it a turn at the halfway mark for even baking. Allow pizza to rest at least 5 minutes, then carefully slide it out of the pan to a pizza sheet for serving at the table. My husband is good at this part, and he was able to move the pizza using two large spatulas on either side of the pie. If it’s too difficult, cut and serve directly from the pan.
Hi, everyone! I’m bustling about this week, putting together plans for Thanksgiving, so my awesome husband is stepping into the Comfort du Jour kitchen to share one of his fabulous appetizer recipes! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. 🙂
Water logged, salt bloated, mushy.
I think we can all agree that canned vegetables suck. I grew up on them, though, force fed night after night by my mom, who was trying to make a thin budget stretch enough to feed three hungry kids.
Perhaps my mother was worn down by the time I came around after my two sisters, but mom did let me get away with complete rejection of canned peas and asparagus. I choked down string beans and carrots. Grudgingly. I actually liked two types of canned veggies. Corn and, somewhat inexplicably, spinach.
Maybe it was the Popeye cartoons. You remember how Popeye always was getting whaled on by Bluto until, miraculously, he discovered a can of spinach, opened it with a variety of odd devices he would somehow pull out of thin air and, voila, POW! Bluto was punched off the planet.
Maybe it was the fact I could mix spinach, with a liberal amount of margarine, into the baked potato we had every night. The spinach-potato glop was my favorite—until I discovered frozen creamed spinach in early adulthood in the supermarkets of Southern California, where I moved after college.
It was only a matter of time until I discovered fresh spinach. Tasted good in a salad. Tasted even better sauteed in butter. In short, I discovered the world beyond the can. Years later, I had the good fortune to be invited to a restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, the Ke’e Grill, where “Spinach Maria” achieved the rank of “best spinach dish ever.” Even more fortunate for me, I have a wife, the inspired, genius founder of Comfort du Jour, who loves the challenge of creating dishes even better than we have out. Hence, I’ve enjoyed Terrie’s Spinach Maria and consider it better than the original. Not unlike her version of New York-style pizza.
But I digress. My point is that tastes change and grow over the years, but I still love spinach, and love using it in dishes that I can do, too. Like spinach balls.
I first made these by searching recipes when I was tasked with creating an appetizer dish for an annual holiday potluck at work. First time out of the box, they drew raves, especially from one of the office vegetarians. I guess he enjoyed the savory taste, a blend of seasoned bread crumbs, butter, eggs, cheese and spices. They were clean and neat, easy to just keep popping in your mouth. I’ve been making them, especially around the holidays, ever since, and Terrie has done one of her “elevate” tricks by making use of leftover spinach balls and recasting them as an ingredient, in, say, breakfast waffles. She’s working on a way to incorporate them in some form (Crumbled, sliced? Who knows? That’s the joy of living with a creative kitchen mind) one of her specialty pizzas. I can’t wait.
Spinach Ball Ingredients
1 10-ounce package of frozen spinach*
2 cups seasoned herb mix*
2/3 cup grated Italian cheese*
1/2 cup (1 stick) of salted butter, melted and cooled
3 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
½ tsp. black pepper
Some frozen bagged spinach comes in 12-ounce size, and the extra will not harm the final outcome.
I use a combination of Pepperidge Farm herbed turkey stuffing mix (about 2 parts) and panko bread crumbs (1 part).
Heat oven to 350° F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Defrost spinach and dry as thoroughly as possible with paper towels.
Blend dry ingredients, grinding the bread crumbs so they are largely fine in texture. Add spinach, then eggs and butter, mixing until thoroughly blended and dough-like in consistency.
Take 1 to 2 tablespoons worth of the spinach mixture between your palms, pressing it together to help it take an oval form, then gently roll it between your palms to form golf ball-sized bites, spacing each about an inch apart on the cookie sheet. Be careful to ensure the mixture is pressed initially and to roll it gently to avoid crumbling. If the mix itself is too crumbly, add an egg and another tablespoon of butter, remix and start again.
Spinach balls should cook 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the oven. Turn them once midway when one side has a slightly brown coloring.
The red pepper sauce is something new, and it came about quite coincidentally. Except I don’t believe in coincidences. So here’s the story. One Monday, Terrie asked me to make the spinach balls for the coming weekend. The next day, I peeked at my email and there was one of The New York Times’ 12 emails a day (Yes, I have an online subscription. Sue me; I’m a former journalist.) that crowd my inbox. This one said “Giant couscous cake with red pepper sauce.” I didn’t give a hoot about the couscous cake, but “red pepper sauce” caught my attention. I love sauces. Love to try them, love to create my own. I looked at the recipe and immediately thought it would be perfect for the spinach balls, which we typically serve with a marinara. So we tried it. And like Mikey in the old Life cereal ads, “we liked it.”
Pepper Sauce Ingredients
2 medium red bell peppers, quartered and seeds removed
1 medium tomato, halved and seeded
2 full heads of garlic
1 1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
4 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and preheat oven to 425° F.
Toss peppers and tomato in 1 Tbsp. of olive oil and the kosher salt and arrange skin side up on the cookie sheet.
Cut off ends of garlic heads, drizzle with olive oil and place in foil either on the same cookie sheet if there is room or alongside.
Place the cookie sheet in the oven to roast. After 35 minutes, the peppers and tomatoes should show a nice brown. Remove them from oven and allow to cool slightly; let the garlic continue to roast another 15 minutes until the individual cloves are deep golden color.
Once slightly cooled, remove skins from peppers and tomato and put in a food processor. Remove garlic and squeeze bulbs into the processor as well, taking care not to drop the garlic paper in.
Add red wine vinegar, a good pinch of salt and solid shake of pepper.
Pulse the processor several times to begin the blend, then leave it on and slowly drizzle in remaining 3 Tbs. of olive oil until mixture is smooth. Additional olive oil can be drizzled on top of the sauce upon serving.
This post might seem like the simplest thing in the world, but in keeping with my realization that the “why” reveals a great deal about the “what” in my kitchen, I’m about to unwrap the secret of the most favored cheese in the Gura household—the parm-romano blend. We buy chunks of parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino-Romano and shred them together at home. All the hyphenated names can be a little confusing, and the quality of the cheese is of utmost concern, so here’s a little background info to help you identify one from another.
What kind of cheese is parmesan?
Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano (which might be one and the same) are made with cow’s milk, then aged for a period of time—depending on where the cheese is produced, it could be aged for a year or up to three years. The longer it ages, the sharper and more salty the cheese becomes. It is crumbly and doesn’t melt well, but parmesan’s intense flavor provides a nice “finishing” touch, as you have no doubt enjoyed on foods such as pizza, mac & cheese or pasta dishes.
What’s the difference between “parmesan” and “Parmigiano-Reggiano?”
Maybe nothing—or perhaps everything, depending on where the cheese is made. Within Europe, both terms are protected under European Union laws and used to identify that the cheeses are produced in the upper-middle region of Italy under the supervision of a special consortium. But once you move outside the E.U., the term “parmesan” could indicate the cheese is a similar style, but not authentic to that region. If you really want to dive deep into this subject, check this out, but you better pack a lunch because it’s a lot to learn. The bottom line is, the only way to know for sure that you have the real deal cheese is to look for this seal of authenticity, which you can really only see if you’re looking at one of the huge wheels of cheese.
Once the cheese is already cut and wrapped or shredded, its true origin is anybody’s guess, but the seal doesn’t lie and reputable suppliers won’t either.
What kind of cheese is pecorino? And how is it different from Pecorino-Romano?
Like Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino is a hard, salty cheese produced in Italy and name-protected by the EU laws. This one, however, is made from sheep’s milk rather than cow’s milk. It is lighter in color (and typically less expensive) than parmesan and has a slightly funky flavor, though not in a pungent way as goat cheese. The word “pecorino” literally means “sheep” and the other name listed with it identifies where the cheese was produced. Thus, Pecorino-Romano is sheep’s milk cheese, produced in Rome. You might also see pecorino produced in Sicily, Tuscany, Sardinia or other Italian regions, and they will also be high quality and delicious.
Why do you blend the cheeses?
Put simply, I love blends of many things, including wine, coffee and grains because you get the best of what’s great about the individual components. The same is true with cheese—marrying two (or more) varieties creates complexity and interest. As with so many things I do in the kitchen, shredding the blocks of cheese at home ensures that we have a more pure product, free from additives such as cellulose powder and artificial preservatives. This DIY cheese tradition was started in our house by my husband, Les, who began shredding his own blend many moons ago. It’s cost-effective and easy to do (especially with a food processor), and we go through it pretty quickly because we love it in so many different foods, including many of the dishes I’ll share with you closer to Thanksgiving.
Let’s start shredding!
1 block parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano (cold)*
1 block Pecorino-Romano (cold)
It is not necessary to use equal amounts of the cheeses you’re blending. At our house, we frequently use a slightly higher percentage of parmesan, and we have also occasionally thrown a third cheese such as asiago into the mix. The important thing to consider for long-term freshness is moisture content—you want to keep it low. I would not recommend adding a soft, high-moisture cheese such as mozzarella or fontina to this mix, as you will lose the texture and also the longevity of the finished blend.
I recommend working with cold cheese, as it shreds more evenly and reduces clumping in the final mixture.
I’ve used this parm-romano blend in several recipes already on Comfort du Jour. Obviously, any kind of pizza and most Italian foods are a perfect canvas for this cheese blend, but as you see, there are many other great uses as well. Leave a comment to share your own ideas!