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.




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? 🙂


Queso Fundido Pizza

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.

Inspired by the best choriqueso dip ever, we created a pizza that displays all the fiesta-fresh flavors of queso fundido!

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. ❤

Me, being loco in love at Chile Rojo, 2015.

Ingredients

2 chorizo sausage links, casings removed

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 cup cream, half and half or whole milk* (see notes)

3 oz. white American cheese, cubed*

2 oz. cheddar and pepperjack cheese combination

A few shakes Flatiron Pepper Co. hatch valley green chiles (optional, but wow)

1/2 cup fire-roasted corn (fresh or frozen)

Small handful pickled jalapenos, patted dry on paper towels

1 small Fresno chile pepper, thinly sliced

1 ball My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough (or your favorite dough)*

1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese (or Monterey Jack for less heat)

For serving:

1/2 avocado, cubed

Handful fresh cilantro, washed and chopped

Fresh squeeze of lime

*Notes

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.

The queso is beautifully browned and creamy, and the chorizo crisped up a bit in the oven.

Instructions

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.

And now, the rest of the pizza!

Muy bueno!


“Big Kahuna” Pizza

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 hour on 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.

This beautifully browned pie emerged from the oven with the most pleasing aroma.

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.


Ingredients

One deep-dish pizza dough—you choose: King Arthur Baking or Food Network’s Jeff Mauro

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2/3 lb. thinly shaved steak*

1/2 cup pickled jalapenos, patted dry and chopped

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

About 4 oz. white American cheese, cubed

1 1/2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese

Let’s walk through it together:

Instructions

  1. Prepare the dough for your deep-dish pizza. This will take some time, depending on the recipe you choose.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in the center of the oven.
  6. 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.
  7. Scatter the shredded pepperjack cheese evenly over the pizza dough, and press down firmly to ensure good coverage.
  8. Load up your toppings, including the steak, vegetables and jalapeno peppers.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Les is so good at this part! He uses a large spatula and a fish turner to move the whole pie.

In case you are curious about the outcome… Wow, what a difference a day can make!

Before and After!


Sausage and Eggplant Leftovers Pizza

“I’ve got leftovers on my leftovers!”

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.

Les was proud of the success of this leftover creation, and it just happened to have all his favorite flavors. 🙂

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!


Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza

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! ❤

Nilla keeps her eye on the prize, and she is wicked fast!

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?) 😉

Oh. My. Goodness.


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!

Look at those layers! This will be coming up in rotation again very soon.

Adapted from Jeff Mauro’s Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza

Ingredients (crust)

11 oz. (about 1 1/3 cups) lukewarm water

A packet active dry yeast* (see notes for quick yeast or sourdough adjustment)

1 tsp. sugar

12 oz. (about 2 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour*

3 oz. (about 2/3 cup) whole wheat flour

3 oz. (about 2/3 cup) medium grind cornmeal

2 tsp. fine sea salt

3 oz. (6 Tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil


Ingredients (pizza)

1 1/2 pounds deli-sliced mozzarella (the firm style, not soft white)

12 oz. spicy Italian bulk sausage*

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced

1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 fat handfuls fresh washed baby spinach leaves

1/2 package thinly sliced pepperoni

28 oz. can San Marzano whole tomatoes, drained

1/4 cup prepared pizza sauce

1/2 cup parm-romano blend cheese


*Notes

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.


Instructions


  1. 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.
  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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. Preheat oven to 450° F, with a rack in the center position of the oven.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

Of course, we could not resist an extra sprinkling of our spiced-up parm-romano blend for serving.

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Spinach Balls with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

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. 🙂

Terrie

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.

These spinach balls are great as appetizers, or just snacking in general.

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.

Enjoy!

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

*Notes

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).

I also use our blend of grated parmesan and romano cheeses, but regular grated parmesan would also work.


Instructions

  1. Heat oven to 350° F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Defrost spinach and dry as thoroughly as possible with paper towels.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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


Instructions

  1. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and preheat oven to 425° F.
  2. Toss peppers and tomato in 1 Tbsp. of olive oil and the kosher salt and arrange skin side up on the cookie sheet.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Add red wine vinegar, a good pinch of salt and solid shake of pepper.
  7. 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.
Thanks for letting me share these with you. I hope you enjoy them.

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DIY Parm-Romano Blend

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.

This is serious business!

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!


Ingredients

1 block parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano (cold)*

1 block Pecorino-Romano (cold)

*Notes

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.


Instructions

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!

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Pierogi with Potato, Leek and Spinach Filling

One of the most satisfying cooking achievements is striking an item off my culinary “bucket list.” I started my running list a couple of years ago as a way to challenge myself in the kitchen, and my late-night Pinterest surfing (which, unfortunately, coincides with midlife insomnia) is making it longer. Occasionally, I might see a Pinterest recipe I want to try as it is, but more often, I see something that inspires me in a different direction. Either way, you don’t have to be good at math to recognize that my habit (plus my imagination) can only grow the bucket list, so moving an item over to the “made it” column feels like a major accomplishment. Today’s dish has been on the bucket list for at least a year. It’s time!

These pierogi—yes, that is the plural—will be coming up again in rapid rotation, because they were delicious and filling, but also easier to make than I expected. In the big picture of comfort foods, these Polish dumplings are about as far as you can go—tender dough stuffed with potatoes, onions, vegetables or whatever else you like, then boiled and fried in a skillet. With butter! What’s not to love? The arrival of fall seems like the perfect time to tackle them, too. The challenge for me in trying a classic dish for the first time is choosing which recipe to use, and that’s what I’m really sharing today.

An internet search for “best pierogi” will yield at least two pages worth of results that declare to be the original, the best, the most authentic, etc. One person’s “perfect” pierogi dough will fully contradict the next, and here’s the deal on that—everyone had a grandma, and everyone’s grandma made dishes that were “original” for their family, and so that was the best for them. But my grandma was Scandinavian, so how do I know from a cultural standpoint what is truly authentic—at least when it comes to pierogi?

Simple—I research it.

I dig deeper to learn where a dish comes from, who were the people who created it, what was their life and what foods were common to their everyday diet. All of these background notes help me arrive at my own approach to the dish. The central and eastern Europeans who created this dish were likely Jewish peasants, and so they would have used simple, inexpensive ingredients. Over time, the dish caught on with other classes, and sweet, fruit-filled versions evolved, but I’ve decided to keep them savory for my first run-through.

Next, I consult trusted recipe resources, whether that is cookbooks I already own or internet sites such as AllRecipes.com that provide multiple recipes for a particular food. I do not select a single recipe and give it a go. Rather, I look for commonality among the recipes, and then I trust my own cooking instinct as I dive in to create it.

I’ve trusted this book, The Gefilte Manifesto, for the dough portion of the pierogi recipe, primarily because their ingredients and technique are very similar to Italian pasta dough, which is in my wheelhouse so I have a bit of confidence going into this. I’ll save the cream cheese-based dough for another time. For the filling, I followed early tradition and made a potato-cheese-onion mixture. And I’ve added sauteed fresh spinach because my half-Polish, all-Jewish husband (whose family, unfortunately, never made him pierogi) can’t get enough of it, so I always have spinach on hand.

Here we go!


Dough Ingredients

(adapted from The Gefilte Manifesto)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup spelt flour

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. warm water

The original recipe made a very large batch of pierogi, and in hindsight, I wish I had gone that way because they turned out so delicious. But I halved the ingredients, as I often do when I make something for the first time. The original used only AP flour (which I never follow on anything), so I’ve adjusted for some whole spelt flour so that we can have some amount of whole grain. The original recipe said 3 eggs, but chickens don’t lay eggs in halves, so I used 2 and cut back on the suggested amount of water. I suppose I could’ve whisked three eggs together and divvied out half by weight, but that seemed overkill, and the eggs add richness and protein. I followed my instinct and made the dough the same way I make pasta dough but with less kneading, and set it aside to rest while I made the filling.

Unlike pasta dough, this pierogi dough was only kneaded enough to be fully mixed.

Filling Ingredients

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and boiled until fork-tender

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 leek, white and light green parts, split lengthwise and sliced thin

2 handfuls fresh baby spinach

1/3 cup small curd cottage cheese

1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 oz. finely shredded white cheddar cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

For frying (optional): 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves.

Some of the suggested filling recipes I considered mentioned addition of an egg, but I didn’t feel this was important, given that the Yukon gold potatoes already had a creamy quality. I decided the cheddar and cottage cheeses provided enough binder. I put the mixture in the fridge to chill while I rolled and cut the dough into circles.


Putting it all together

Rolling out the dough proved more time consuming than I expected, given that I hadn’t kneaded it much. It was surprisingly strong, which means gluten strands had formed during the rest time. Again, I followed my instinct from experience with pasta, and covered the dough a few minutes to relax those strands, then continued rolling, until the dough was about 1/8” thickness. I did this in two batches.

All the recipes I found suggested cutting about 3 1/2” circles, and the only thing I had that size was a little ice cream bowl. Note to self: buy a biscuit cutter already!

On to the fun part—shaping the pierogi! I spooned about 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling mixture onto the center of each dough round, then I dipped a finger into a small dish of water and wet the outer edge of the rounds to help seal the dough. This is important, because a good seal prevents the filling seeping out during boiling. Anything oily along the edge of the dough will cause the edges to separate, so I was also careful to keep the filling right in the center of the rounds as I closed them. I cupped the dough round in one palm, and used my other hand to seal the edges tight, stretching the dough as needed to fully envelop the filling. Once the rounds were sealed up into half moon shapes, I crimped the edges with a floured fork and let them rest while the water came to boil.


Boiling and Pan-frying

As with pasta water, I used a generous amount of salt. Don’t skimp on this out of fear of sodium—remember that most of the salt will stay in the water, and the pierogi (like pasta) will take up just enough to season it well. Various recipes I’d seen suggested that the dumplings would initially sink but eventually float, and I followed the recommendation to cook them about 4 minutes from the float stage. They cooked at a gentle boil, just above a simmer. I scooped them out onto parchment paper, and though they could have been served exactly like that, I pressed on with the pan frying to give them some extra texture—and, of course, the browned butter. 😊

This half-batch of pierogi fed us for dinner twice, and I ended up with enough leftover to freeze for later. I laid the (un-boiled) individual dumplings out on a parchment-lined sheet, covered loosely with another sheet of parchment and frozen overnight, then I transferred them to a zip top bag for cooking later.

Ready for a quick weeknight meal later this fall! Boil them straight from the freezer.

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These turned out so comforting and delicious, I wish I had made them sooner, but I’m glad to get them off my bucket list! 🙂 Here is a sampling of my remaining “someday” recipes, and I hope that sharing this glimpse with you will give me the accountability I need to get cooking:

Porchetta (an Italian specialty made with pork belly wrapped around pork tenderloin)
Why I haven’t made it: It looks fussy and complicated, and that scares me a little.

Black-and-white cookies (one of Les’s favorite NYC classic treats)
Why I haven’t made them: He loves them so much, I’m worried I’ll mess them up (crazy, I know).

Barbacoa (slow cooked spicy beef, which I love, thanks to Chipotle chain)
Why I haven’t made it: I’m committed to only using grass-fed beef in my recipes, and our city doesn’t have the best options for grass-fed, so I need to venture out to a market in a nearby city.

Hold me to it, dear friends! Those dishes deserve a shot in my kitchen. What foods are on your bucket list, either to cook or just to try?


Kentucky Bourbon Pecan & Cheese Biscuits

It’s been a long summer of waiting, but today in Louisville, Kentucky, 20 thoroughbred horses will finally be turned loose in the 146th “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby.

For the race originally scheduled for the first Saturday in May, I had cooked up a storm for a Kentucky Derby Preview Party. If you missed those recipes, by all means check them out. You’ll get a chance to imagine two twists on the traditional Kentucky Hot Brown, and three fun cocktails that captured the essence and excitement of spring.

Today, I’m keeping it low key, with two special cocktails that celebrate the spirit of Kentucky Derby, with a late summer, headed-into-fall flavor palette. And because no party is complete without snacks, here’s my twist on southern classic cheese straws. These bite-sized biscuits are buttery and crisp, flavored with sharp cheddar (the standard for these down-south favorites) and gruyere, in a nod to the mornay sauce on a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich. The biscuit is speckled with flecks of fresh rosemary, and crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches. They taste southern and look downright fancy, and they’re just the right bite to accompany my Run For the Roses 2.0 cocktails. Let’s make ’em!

Ingredients

About 1 cup pecan halves (approximately 30)

2 oz. bourbon

1 stick butter, softened*

1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

8 oz. finely grated cheddar cheese* (see notes)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper*

pinch kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

2 tsp. bourbon

*Notes

Use either salted or unsalted butter for these cookies. The butter should be softened enough to mix, but not room temperature or melted.

Substitute other cheeses as you wish, but stick with a cheese that has similar texture to cheddar. I found a terrific cheddar-gruyere blend at Trader Joe’s, and it immediately took me back to May when I made the Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict. It’s fun to be able to keep a theme when making food for a special occasion.

The cayenne is optional, but it does add a subtle hint of “kick” that is a nice balance to the cheese flavor.


Instructions

  1. Sort the pecan halves to select the best looking pieces. Place pecans in a shallow glass dish, and pour the 2 oz. bourbon to evenly cover. Gently turn and toss the pecans to ensure they are uniformly soaked. Set aside for about one hour.
  2. Drain the bourbon off the pecans, and arrange the nut halves on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 300° F for about 12 minutes, until nuts are dry and just lightly toasted. Allow them to cool completely and store in a covered container until you’re ready to make the biscuit cookies.

For the cookies:

  1. Using a box grater or food processor, grate the entire amount of cheddar cheese. Use the smallest grating holes you have for a very finely textured cheese. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine flour, cayenne, rosemary, salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer, beat together the softened butter and worcestershire sauce until butter is light and somewhat fluffy.
  4. Add the cheese to the butter mixture and beat to combine. I found that the cheese virtually disappeared into the butter to become a very soft and spreadable consistency.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the cheese mixture all at once, and beat on low speed only until all the flour is incorporated. Do not overmix.
  6. Transfer to the mixture to a covered bowl and refrigerate at least three hours or overnight.
  7. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  8. If cookie dough has chilled overnight, it will be very firm. Remove from the fridge 15 minutes ahead of time before shaping.
  9. Combine brown sugar and 2 tsp. bourbon in a shallow dish. Place the cooled pecans, top side down, into the mixture. Gently shake the dish to ensure mixture gets worked into the nooks of the pecans, but only on one side. Allow them to rest in the bourbon sugar several minutes, about the same amount of time for shaping the cookies.
  10. Shape cheese mixture into 1″ balls and arrange on a parchment lined baking sheet, approximately 1″ apart. Use a fork to slightly flatten the balls into disc shapes, similar to making peanut butter cookies.
  11. Carefully press bourbon halves, top side up, onto the cookies. If cookies have become warm at all, place the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm them.
  12. Bake cookies for 18-20 minutes, until set and lightly crispy at the edges.
  13. Transfer baked cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
Crispy and savory, with an extra kiss of bourbon in the pecans.

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