Scampi with Asparagus

It happens every time. The start of a new year is filled with good intentions, as everyone makes their resolutions to get fit, lose weight, improve their health. This is the reason for all the TV ads for gym memberships, weight loss products and home exercise equipment. It isn’t a terrible idea, of course, but there are simpler (and more sustainable) things we can do to get back into better habits, and most of them begin in the kitchen.

Along with many other people at the end of holiday indulging, I’m tired of so much rich food and find myself aching for fresher, lighter fare. After the heavy flavors of Thanksgiving dishes, it was spicy that I craved. But after the double whammy of Christmas and New Year’s, and all the sweets and booze that came with them, I just want to eat something—anything—fresh. Oh, and easy would be nice, too!

That’s where this recipe comes in, and there’s plenty to love about it. The dish is light and lemony, with big, juicy shrimp and bright, barely-crunchy asparagus. Piled high on a bed of al dente pasta, it looks like it came from a restaurant kitchen, and it tastes like fresh air after all the decadence we’ve plated in this house over the past six weeks.

You don’t have to go to a restaurant for a beautiful, tasty seafood dish. This one is easy to make at home!

Scampi is a simple dish to make, and the main thing to embrace is patience. You will cook the garlic slowly in olive oil over low heat, which allows it to essentially poach rather than sauté. This low and slow approach leads to the soft, mellow garlic flavor that is distinctive in scampi. And yes, it is a fair amount of oil, but remember that extra virgin olive oil is monounsaturated—what nutritionists call “good fat.” The meal will satisfy, and there are health benefits to boot. Sounds good to me!

If you don’t care for asparagus, sub in another crisp green vegetable, maybe some sugar snap peas or fresh broccolini. Or skip the sauteed veggie and serve the scampi alongside a salad. After the holidays, you deserve whatever fresh flavors suit your craving. Make it your own.

Serves: 2
Time to make it: About 35 minutes

Ingredients

2/3 pound fresh or frozen (uncooked) shrimp, 16-20 count* (see notes)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1/2 medium sweet onion, halved and sliced in crescent moon shapes

1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

A few shakes crushed red pepper flakes, if you like it spicy

Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus the zest

2 portions linguine or angel hair pasta

A few shakes of parm-romano blend cheese, for serving

Five cloves is a lot of garlic for two dinner portions, but the slow simmer mellows the flavor. Cut the onions and asparagus into similar sized pieces.

*Notes

The “count” on shrimp refers to its size, and represents the average number of shrimp per pound. The higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. I have no problem with using frozen shrimp, especially because supermarkets often receive the shrimp frozen anyway. For many reasons, including food safety, fair trade and human rights, I always purchase shrimp harvested in the U.S., and my preference is white gulf shrimp. It’s sweet and juicy, whereas some other types of shrimp can be sharp and briny. Check with your seafood department for flavor recommendations, and whatever you purchase, be sure to thoroughly clean and de-vein it (instructions for this at the end of the post).


Instructions

  1. Place a large, non-stick skillet over low heat. Add olive oil and garlic (plus the red pepper, if using) and leave it alone. When the oil heats very slowly, the garlic gets softer and more mellow, which leads to the flavor we all know in scampi. Rush this step and the garlic will burn, which is definitely not delicious. Expect this low, slow cooking to take about 20 minutes.
  2. Thaw the shrimp (if frozen), and then peel and de-vein each one. If you have never done this before, it’s easy but extremely important, and I’ve provided some images at the end of the post to walk you through it. Removing the peel is pretty simple. Next, use a sharp paring knife to make a shallow cut down the outside curved part of the shrimp, revealing a dark stringy thing. I hate to tell you, but this isn’t actually a vein—it’s a digestive tract. Disgusting, but important to know. Slip the sharp tip of the knife underneath this nasty thing and pull it out. Lay the cleaned shrimp on layers of paper towel and set aside for now. If working ahead, cover and refrigerate.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to boil for cooking the pasta. Season it generously with kosher salt and (once boiling) add the pasta, stirring to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente, according to directions on the pasta box. While this is underway, continue with the recipe below.
  4. After the garlic has poached about 20 minutes, turn the skillet heat up to medium. When oil begins to bubble around the garlic, add the onions and asparagus and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions are translucent and the asparagus is slightly softened but still bright green.
  5. Move the veggies to the outer edges of the skillet and arrange the cleaned shrimp in the center. Cook only long enough for the bottom of the shrimp to become pink and opaque.
  6. Turn the shrimp, season the whole skillet with salt and pepper, and add in the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon half over the mixture and continue to cook until the second side of the shrimp is cooked. Move all the skillet ingredients to the outer edges.
  7. Using tongs, move the cooked pasta directly to the center of the skillet and swirl it around to coat it with the flavors of the skillet.
  8. Arrange the pasta on serving plates or bowls, hit it with a little parm-romano blend, if you’d like, and top with veggies and shrimp.

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Here’s the down and dirty on de-veining

For goodness sake, do not skip this important step. As noted above, the “vein” in the outer curve of shrimp is actually a digestive tract, and the gunk inside is what’s left of the critter’s most recent meal (yuck). Food safety experts haven’t expressed serious concerns about eating it, but if it grosses you out (as it does me), grab a sharp paring knife and get that thing outta there!


“Un-stuffed” Cabbage Roll Soup

One of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is an unexpected twist on a food from my childhood. I remember seeing a recipe card in some family member’s collection for a dish called “glumpkies” or “go-umpkees” or something like it. Who knows the story on the name of the dish, but I remember that I really liked these rolled up packages of seasoned meat and rice inside tender leaves of cabbage and smothered in rich tomato sauce. It was pure comfort food, and though I’ve made them plenty of times in their classic form, I much prefer this simple, one-pot interpretation.

My Comfort du Jour twist on stuffed cabbage is what you might call a “deconstruction,” and it makes the classic dish a lot more approachable with minimal effort. It’s a pain to pre-cook the cabbage for traditional stuffed rolls, and in many ways, it even feels dangerous. I’ve burned myself in some of my early attempts to make the rolled-up version, and in some other attempts I’ve ended up with too much of the cabbage head remaining, and limited options for how to use it because it’s been boiled. That certainly won’t work for cole slaw, and what else are you gonna do with a bunch of extra, partially-cooked cabbage?

One of the flavors I always associate with cabbage rolls is caraway, the same seed that gives deli rye bread a distinct seasoning. I don’t know where the caraway was introduced to this dish for me, but it adds a little something that really works with the rustic chunks of cabbage, tomato and ground beef. If your family has a favorite traditional season, consider how you might put your own spin on my recipe with those beloved flavors.

The rest of the ingredients are simple, and you only need a medium stockpot and about an hour of simmering to get it on the table. Enjoy!

Served with a slice of crusty bread, this soup is hearty, satisfying and comforting.

Ingredients

1 lb. lean ground beef (90% lean is good)

1 tsp. caraway seed, crushed or milled in a spice grinder*

1 medium onion, rough chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

2 cups green cabbage, rough chopped

15 oz. can diced tomatoes, preferably low sodium

Salt and pepper

1 32 oz. carton beef broth, preferably low sodium

Cooked brown rice for serving


*Notes

Caraway seed is the same spice that gives rye bread a distinctive flavor. I’m not sure how I came to associate this flavor with stuffed cabbage rolls, but it is really delicious with the cabbage, tomato and meat. Substitute your own favorite flavor, or simply omit this ingredient. The soup will be delicious either way!


Instructions

  1. Press ground beef on a cutting board or parchment into a flat shape, about 1/2″ thick.
  2. If you have a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, use it to crush or grind the caraway seed into smaller bits. This is not essential, but it contributes flavor without the seed texture.
  3. Sprinkle the caraway powder or whole seeds all over the surface of the ground beef, and press to fully adhere it.
  4. Place a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Swirl in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add onions and sauté until slightly softened and golden. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Tear off bits of ground beef and add them, only a few at a time, tossing in the hot oil to cook the edges before adding another small handful. Repeat until all ground beef is lightly browned. Avoid the temptation to add all the meat at once, as this will result in mushy meat rather than browned, individual bits.
  6. Add the chopped cabbage to the pot and toss to begin cooking. Add tomatoes, sauce included.
  7. Add beef broth and stir to combine. Allow mixture to come to a light boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer about an hour, until cabbage is tender.
  8. Serve over brown rice.

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Sloppy “Dogs”

Recently in my news feed wanderings, I spotted an article claiming to list the “7 Classic American Dishes No One Eats Anymore.” This type article always grabs my attention because I immediately assume I’m the exceptional person—the one who does actually still eat the foods that are supposedly yesterday’s news.

The list held a few surprises for me.

Chicken cordon bleu made a showing at #5, and I cannot get behind that. Soon, I’ll share my recipe for this classic dish and a story about the time I made chicken cordon bleu from memory at midnight—on a dare. Some of the other dishes listed in the article truly are better left in the past, such as turkey tetrazzini, which is just a hot mess of a dish that includes leftover turkey with spaghetti and canned peas (blech), and the dreaded creamed chipped beef on toast. Folks, there’s a reason everyone started calling that dish sh!t on a shingle. Let’s just leave it behind, shall we?

Today though, I’m showing due respect for the food item that ranked #1 on the list, the sloppy joe. What is the world coming to, if people are giving up on this fun and tasty handheld, with all its sweet, spicy, tangy sauce? Was it the SNL skit featuring Adam Sandler and the late Chris Farley? I thought that catchy tune was responsible for saving the sloppy joe, not burying it.

The only thing I can find to blame for sloppy joe’s ill-fated appearance on this list of “has-beens” is that people have grown bored with the mass-produced stuff that made sloppy joes so common in the first place, and that would be the canned sloppy joe sauce. Yep, good old Manwich. It exploded onto the convenience food scene in 1969, and everyone embraced this miracle in a can that turned a pound of ground meat into an easy, casual family dinner.

Fast forward 51 years. Palates have evolved (for better or worse), and at the same time, Manwich and other convenience foods went all in with the use of cheap, controversial ingredients—namely, high fructose corn syrup (boo, hiss). Despite mounting flak from savvy consumers, the fake sweetener is still listed as an ingredient on the Manwich label, so it won’t land in my grocery cart anytime soon. No matter, because it’s super easy to make sloppy joes at home without a pre-made commercial sauce. I’ll show you how to mix and match ingredients that are already in your refrigerator door to get the same fun, tangy flavor, but without weird additives (caramel color doesn’t add a thing to Manwich anyway). Use any kind of ground meat you like—I’m going to lighten mine up with ground turkey, and I’m also switching up the presentation by serving them on toasted hot dog buns. That makes them sloppy dogs! Who’s hungry?

Chunky, meaty, tangy, spicy.
Sloppy dogs, sloppy, sloppy dogs!

Ingredients

1 pound ground turkey

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (most of a 15 oz. can)

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

2 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar

2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 Tbsp. molasses (or substitute brown sugar)

1 tsp. sweet smoked Spanish paprika

1 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of cinnamon

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 Tbsp. chopped pickle chips (sweet, spicy or whatever you like)

4 toasted hot dog (or burger) buns, for serving


Instructions

  1. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and saute onions and bell peppers until soft and translucent, but not browned.
  2. Add ground meat in a large chunk, on top of the vegetables. Gradually break up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula and aim to keep the meat chunky.
  3. Combine tomato sauce, tomato paste, vinegar, mustard, molasses, Worcestershire and spices. Add to the meat mixture and stir gently to blend. If mixture looks is too thick, add a splash of water. If it’s too thin, add another spoon of tomato paste. It’s your kitchen, so take charge and don’t worry about my recipe. Let your taste buds tell you whether the mixture needs more salt,  sweet or tang, and adjust accordingly.
  4. Add the chopped pickles near the end of cooking time, for a zippy crunch.
  5. Cover mixture and simmer a few minutes as needed to prepare the rest of your dinner.
  6. Butter the cut insides of your dog (or burger) buns, and toast the buttered side on a griddle or hot skillet.
  7. Pile the sloppy mixture onto the toasted buns and enjoy!
These sloppy dogs were delicious served up with my Snakes in the Pumking Patch beer cocktail.

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Mahi Hemingway

Friends frequently ask my husband and me how it’s possible we aren’t gaining 10 pounds a week, given all the “rich foods” they see on my blog or his Facebook page. It’s a fair question after you’ve seen the Waffled Mac & Cheese or some of the unconventional creations on my Pizza Party page. But we don’t always eat heavy foods, and sometimes our meals just look more decadent than they really are thanks to presentation. That’s important to remember: If a food looks beautiful, it may be more appetizing, but that doesn’t mean it’s decadent. This Mahi Hemingway—a recipe I’ve adapted from a local restaurant—is a good example.

This dish is deceptively easy to make, and its flavor and presentation both rival the restaurant I “borrowed” it from. The restaurant version has a light and elegant white wine, lemon, tomato and caper sauce, served over delicate angel hair pasta and topped with a pan-seared fillet of fresh grouper. I first tasted it more than 15 years ago, and it’s still on the menu for $30. I’m not going to say it isn’t worth it, but I do know you can make it at home (with exactly the same flavors) for a fraction of that price, and it’s easy.

If you have never tasted capers (first of all, where’ve you been?), expect a briny, pickled flavor—kind of like a tangy green olive, but about the size of a green pea. I don’t use much in any recipe because capers pack a lot of flavor. You’ll see capers in Mediterranean cuisine, especially paired with seafood. I also love to chop and add them to condiments for seafood, such as tartar sauce.

The lemon is straightforward citrus, and it’s crucial (as I declare in most of my recipes) that you choose fresh. Bottled lemon juice is full of weird preservatives and has no place in my kitchen, as long as lemon trees are still alive somewhere on the planet.

The remaining ingredients are petite diced tomatoes (fresh is great, but canned works fine), a splash of white wine, about half a medium onion, your favorite long pasta and a couple of pats of butter. I’ll assume you already have extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

Lots of great flavor, and all perfectly good for you.

The Prep

I love a recipe that comes together quickly, especially on a busy weeknight, and this one takes only about five minutes to prep. First, cut thin slices of onion, and then dice them small. Cut the lemon in half. Measure out a heaping teaspoon of capers (no need to rinse them). Cut up a roma tomato into small diced bits or use a slotted spoon to scoop about 1/3 cup from a can of petite diced (it’s OK if you also get some of the juice). Put on a pot to boil for your pasta, and salt and pepper the fish.

This is a very simple recipe, including these items plus a splash of white wine. You’ve got this!

About the fish

The restaurant version I mentioned is made with grouper, which isn’t always easy to find. I substituted mahi the first time I made it myself and liked it so much I never looked back. Mahi is a firm fish—stronger in flavor than grouper or tilapia, but not as “fishy” as a sea bass or mackerel. Choose any firm-fleshed fish you like. I keep the skin on during cooking because much of the healthy omega-3 fats are very close to the skin. I’ve found that with most fish, the skin is super easy to remove once that side has been cooked, but this is strictly a matter of preference. If you don’t like the skin, ask the fishmonger (I love that word) to remove it for you.

Mahi is an oily fish, with loads of good omega-3 fats. It’s concentrated in that red line down the middle.

Choosing your pasta

For pretty presentation, choose a “long” pasta—something delicate like spaghetti or angel hair works nicely. Whole grain is an excellent choice, and today, I’m using a new thin spaghetti Les picked up for us. It’s durum wheat (ideal for pasta), and made with spinach, zucchini, broccoli, parsley and kale. We are adding a whole serving of vegetable to our dish, but without extra effort. I’m good with that!

This “super greens” pasta is such a dark green, it almost resembles seaweed!

So far, this recipe is ticking all the boxes—healthful, quick, easy. I’m loving it.

Putting it all together

The fish and sauce will cook quickly, so get going with the pasta first. Remember to use plenty of water and salt it generously.

I use the same skillet for the fish and the sauce. Begin over medium heat, sautéing the onion with a little olive oil until it begins to soften. Move the onion to the edges of the pan, and add the mahi fillets, flesh side down. For the best sear, resist the urge to move it around much. After about seven minutes, it will release freely so you can turn the fish and cook the skin side.

Add the tomatoes, capers, lemon juice and white wine to the skillet, give it a gentle shake to mix the ingredients, then cover and allow it to simmer on low heat until the pasta is cooked al dente. Remove from heat. Transfer the fish fillets to a plate and cover to keep them warm. Add a pat of cold butter to the sauce and use a fork to swirl and melt it. This technique creates a silky richness without a lot of extra fat. Immediately drain the pasta and use tongs to give it a quick swish through the sauce to coat it before plating. Spoon some of the sauce over the pasta, then top with the mahi fillet and the remaining sauce. Sprinkle a little fresh, chopped parsley on top and enjoy!

The slides will give you a visual walk-through of how easy this is to make. If you want to save the recipe for later, there’s a button at the end of the post to download and print for your recipe book.


Ingredients

Makes two servings (easy to double; choose a large enough pan)

2 6 oz. fillets fresh mahi or other firm fish

2 servings thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta

1/2 medium sweet or yellow onion, thinly sliced and diced

1/3 cup petite diced tomatoes, strained from can or chopped fresh

1 heaping teaspoon capers

Juice of 1/2 large lemon

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 Tbsp. cold butter

Fresh chopped parsley, for serving

Every bit as good as the high-dollar restaurant.

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Souvlaki Pork Chops with Grilled Zucchini Salad

The warmth of summer is fading, and I’m not complaining. My favorite things to cook are autumn and winter foods, and I’m scheming to bring exciting new flavors into the new season.

But we still have to eat between now and then, and the grill has been our BFF this summer, especially as we have challenged ourselves to elevate our home-cooked meals while so many restaurants were closed. Here’s a quick look back at some of the fun grilled foods I’ve put on my plate since I launched Comfort du Jour:


Before the sun sets on summer 2020, I’m throwing down a Mediterranean twist on simple grilled pork chops. I love the flavors of souvlaki, the Greek specialty that highlights the brightness of lemon and pungency of garlic, and is often applied to chicken or pork on skewers, so why not just skip chopping the chops into chunks and just marinate them as they are?

Does this look healthy and delicious, or what?

And tasty grilled meat deserves a fresh grilled side, so I have also whipped up a flavorful, healthy salad made with fresh summer tomato, crunchy red onion and marinated grilled zucchini squash. Here we go!


Ingredients

2 thick sliced, bone-in pork chops

4 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of one lemon

1 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar (or any white wine vinegar + pinch of sugar)

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (I used Greek Kalamata)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the salad:

1 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into wedges

1 medium firm tomato, cut into chunks

2 thick slices red onion, cut into chunks

6 Kalamata olives, drained and chopped

Dressing: 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. white balsamic, a few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, whisk in 2 Tbsp. olive oil.

Feta cheese, cut into cubes

Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish


Instructions

Take a walk through the slideshow for visual instruction, and refer to the notes below if you need them. Remember, you can download the recipe in PDF format to try it yourself, and please let me know how it comes out for you!

  1. Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
  2. In a glass measuring cup, combine lemon juice, vinegars, oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle olive oil into the blend, whisking constantly, until mixture is emulsified. Stir in minced garlic.
  3. Pour most of the marinate over the pork chops in a glass dish and set aside for 30 minutes. Turn once or twice during marinating time to ensure even distribution of flavor.
  4. Pour the remaining marinade over the zucchini strips in another dish. Salt and pepper the zucchini and set those aside while you chop and prep the remaining salad ingredients.
  5. Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
  6. Prepare grill and pre-heat to about 450° F (medium). Carefully place the pork chops over direct heat and sear each side about 1 minute to seal in juices. Then reduce the heat to about 350° F. The olive oil may cause flare-ups, so keep that cold beer in your hand to splash if necessary. Just kidding; either keep a squirt bottle nearby or use a grill tool to try to put out the flare or move the chops.
  7. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
  8. When you turn the chops, pile the zucchini onto the grill also, and turn them frequently to cook evenly and to get those beautiful grill marks.
  9. Allow the finished chops to rest and chop the zucchini spears into bite-sized chunks. Immediately toss the grilled zucchini with the rest of the salad ingredients. Whisk the dressing briefly, then pour over salad and toss gently to combine. Scatter cubes of feta and fresh parsley over salad and serve alongside the pork chops.
Grill, I’m gonna miss you…

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Shakshuka (shiksa style)

We are inching toward a special day—and time of year—in Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah, in the simplest of terms, is the onset of the “High Holidays,” a 10-day celebration that concludes with Yom Kippur. The whole event is a spiritual reset button of sorts, a time for personal introspection leading to atonement. When I became engaged to my husband, Les, in 2016, I joined him for High Holidays services, and though I likely will not ever convert to Judaism, I love learning about this sacred part of my husband’s heritage. Going through the Hebrew readings and stages of reflection is something Jesus would have done as a regular practice (he was Jewish, remember?), and I have found that it gives me richer insight into my own Christian faith.

The fact that I am not Jewish, regardless of my stance on Jesus, earns me the unenviable title of “shiksa,” a Yiddish word politely translated as “a non-Jewish woman.” Some other definitions are less diplomatic and even derogatory, meaning something along the line of “sketchy non-Jewish woman who has taken romantic interest in a good, upstanding Jewish guy.” Yep, I’m guilty of all that! I take no offense, and our religious differences have never presented a conflict for Les and me. On the contrary, we find that it makes our relationship more interesting.

During our preparation for marriage, Les and I met a few times with Rabbi Mark, whom we had asked to officiate our small and informal ceremony. Over lunch, I mentioned how much I was enjoying exploration of the traditions, especially the foods. I had already learned to make latkes, one of the most recognizable Jewish foods (which I’ll share more about when we get closer to Hanukkah). Rabbi Mark made a recommendation for a next recipe to try—shakshuka. It’s fun to say (shock-SHOO-ka), and not the same as shiksa. 😀

I’d never heard of this, and neither had Les, so it was immediately placed at the top of the bucket list. Our first shakshuka turned out terrific, and when Les posted this picture of it to his Facebook page, he got an immediate thumbs-up from Cousin Caryn in Israel—“that is SO Jewish!”

Not a bad first effort in 2017!

Shakshuka is typically served at breakfast, so I’m counting it as part of my “better breakfast month” series, and it’s remarkably simple to make and flexible to accommodate a variety of ingredients. It usually begins with a thick tomato sauce base, though I’ve seen some interesting “green” shakshuka recipes on Pinterest. Any other favorite vegetables or ingredients can be incorporated, including cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, kale, peppers, onions, squash, chickpeas, or nearly anything else you have on hand. You stew it all together with Mediterranean spices in a cast-iron skillet, then you crack raw eggs directly into the sauce and simmer until they’re cooked to your liking, or (as I often do) slide it into the oven to finish.

It’s great for breakfast, or breakfast for dinner!

The result is a savory blend of nutrition and flavor, hearty enough to satisfy your morning hunger, or for “breaking the fast,” because after the 24 hours of fasting and prayer at Yom Kippur, you’re gonna get pretty hungry!

The cool thing about shakshuka (as if the flavor and flexibility aren’t cool enough) is that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy it! You may have seen a similar dish from Italy called “eggs in purgatory,” featuring the same stewed tomato foundation. Both dishes are likely drawn from nearby North Africa during the Ottoman Empire, and during that time, meat (not tomatoes) was the original main ingredient.

My produce and pantry inventory included everything I needed for a hearty shakshuka, and it landed on our table last night as breakfast for dinner on Meatless Monday. I couldn’t resist serving this with the soft pita breads that have become such a staple in our home.

The soft pita is perfect for sopping up this rich tomato stew.

Basic Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil (how much depends on what you’re adding)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in puree*

4 eggs

Optional Ingredients

Depending on your taste, and your inventory, consider adding any of these ingredients. It’s your kitchen, and you can make your shakshuka as chunky or saucy as you’d like. For the most authentic experience of this dish, I’d recommend keeping with ingredients that are common to the Middle East, where shakshuka was born.

Up to 1 cup other vegetables, such as fresh cauliflower, fresh cubed eggplant, fresh chopped bell peppers

Up to 1 cup canned chickpeas or cooked lentils, or 1/2 cup in combination with your favorite vegetables (above)

Up to 2 cups fresh greens, chopped (they will cook down to small amount, so be generous)

Other flavor enhancers, such as olives, capers, spices, tomato paste, chile peppers

There’s so much tangy, rich sauce in this dish, you’ll want to have some kind of bread nearby for sopping. Pita is a great option, or any other kind of soft bread is just right.

*Notes

I’ve never made the same shakshuka combination twice, but I tend to steer toward more body and texture when we are having it for dinner. And it always depends on what I find in the fridge. For this post, I used the basic ingredients, then reached into the fridge for some add-ins. Les made his fabulous pimiento cheese last weekend, and a half can of spicy Rotel tomatoes and a half jar of pimientos were still in the fridge. In they went, along with about a cup of chopped fresh cauliflower, 1/2 can garbanzo beans, a fat handful of chopped kale leaves, some briny olives and capers, tomato paste to thicken and harissa to add flavor and heat.

Harissa is a spicy paste-like seasoning that has origin in Northern Africa. It has hot chiles and garlic, plus what I call the three “C spices”—cumin, coriander and caraway. Harissa is common to Moroccan cuisine, and lends wonderful depth of flavor to stewed dishes like shakshuka.

Instructions

  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and sauté onions, cauliflower and any other firm vegetables until lightly caramelized.
  2. Add garlic, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and any other add-ins that strike your fancy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For my recipe, I also added a little smoked paprika and ground cumin. Stir to combine ingredients evenly and cook over medium low heat for about 20 minutes so that the tomatoes lose the “canned” flavor and mixture begins to thicken like a stew.
  3. Use the back of a large spoon to create slight depressions to hold the eggs. Crack eggs, one at a time, into a custard cup and transfer them into the dents you’ve made, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, cover the skillet and simmer until eggs are set to your liking. Alternatively, you can slide the skillet into a 350° F oven and bake about 15 minutes, or until eggs reach your desired doneness.
  4. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley or oregano and serve with soft pita breads or other bread for sopping all the shakshuka sauce.
Oh, yes, some crumbled feta on top!

So easy, even a shiksa can make it! Shakshuka is delicious, easy and economical. Serve it family style, and let everyone scoop out their own portion into a bowl.

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Confetti Chicken Meatballs

Once upon a time, I cooked these fun and colorful meatballs for a little girl…

OK, it wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t “once” upon a time—rather, multiple times over the better part of a decade. During a previous marriage, I had the joy of cooking for (and eventually, with) a bright and sassy, food-loving child who was my stepdaughter. From a distance, it was clear that this blue-eyed towhead was not a blood relative. Up close, however, one might swear that she must have been mine, given that she swooned over cooking shows such as Emeril Live, Good Eats and The Next Food Network Star. The child was obsessed, even, and she always had something intelligent to say about whatever food was being prepared on our TV screen.

“I’ll bet Emeril’s gonna put that skillet into the oven to finish it.” And, sure enough, that’s what he would do.

To nurture her curiosity and passion for food, I did the only thing that made sense to me—I bought her a junior-sized denim apron and put her to work alongside me in the kitchen. I passed down to her the food lessons and techniques that had been passed down to me, and it wasn’t long before she was the most excellent sous chef. I could ask her to “julienne those two carrots over there” and she’d return in short order with perfectly uniform little matchsticks. She knew what it meant to “chiffonade” fresh basil or “caramelize” onions without burning them. Her palate became even more sophisticated as she continued to help in the kitchen, and by the time she left home for college, she requested written copies of some of her favorite recipes that we had made together.

Whether this recipe was included in the request I cannot recall, but it was undoubtedly one of her favorites. I’ve tweaked it recently, opting to make my own dressing rather than depending on a bottled version from the supermarket, though we’d have no objection to anyone taking that shortcut. I’ve also discovered that coconut sugar produces a better glaze on the meatballs than my original method of rolling them in regular sugar. Coconut sugar is richer, both in color and flavor, and it’s lower on the glycemic index, so probably a better choice anyway.

This dish is similar to my copycat chicken lettuce wraps, but only in the fact that both contain ground chicken and Asian-inspired flavors. Although the “copycat” version is distinctly spicy and savory, this dish is more of a mixed bag of flavors and textures. The chicken is shaped into firm meatballs, each one carrying its own little confetti explosion of sweet bell pepper and sharp garlic and scallion, but softened on the outside by a sweet, sticky glaze. The sesame ginger dressing permeates the senses from the moment it reaches the table, and no wonder—it’s inside the meatballs, too.

The coconut sugar produces a lightly sticky glaze, boosting the flavors over the top and complementing the barely spicy, tangy dressing.

Serve this on its own or with steaming hot jasmine rice. As a meal, it’s good for 4 servings. If serving as appetizers, the recipe makes 18.

Ingredients

1 lb. ground chicken (not chicken breast)

3 scallions (white and green parts)

2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 large red bell pepper

1/2 large yellow bell pepper

1 egg

1/2 cup unseasoned panko bread crumbs

1 tsp. sesame seeds

About 1 Tbsp. Sesame Ginger dressing (recipe below)

1/2 cup coconut sugar (to “frost” the meatballs before baking)


For Serving

1 large romaine heart, rinsed, dried and separated into individual leaves

1/2 medium red onion, cut into thin slices

A handful of fresh cilantro leaves (optional, but recommended for serving)

Additional sesame seeds to sprinkle (optional, or serving)

Jasmine rice, if desired, for serving


Sesame Ginger Dressing

2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or Tamari)

1 Tbsp. coconut sugar

1 tsp. sriracha (optional, if you like a little heat)

1 tsp. fish sauce

3 Tbsp. canola or peanut oil

1 or 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil (depending on taste)


Instructions

First, the visuals:


  1. Combine the garlic, peppers and scallions in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 10 times, for 1 second each, until the mixture looks like colorful confetti. Sprinkle a generous pinch of kosher salt over the pepper mixture.
  2. Line a colander with double thickness paper towels and transfer the processed pepper mixture to it. Allow it to rest in the colander long enough to absorb the excess moisture from the mixture, about 10 minutes.
  3. In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the first five dressing ingredients. Slowly drizzle in the canola or peanut oil while whisking constantly. This will help to emulsify the ingredients. Whisk in 1 teaspoon of the toasted sesame oil and give it a taste. Add more if you like. This oil is very pungent, so generally speaking, a little goes a long way.
  4. Season ground chicken with kosher or sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Combine confetti veggies with chicken, egg, a splash of sesame ginger dressing, sesame seeds and panko crumbs. Mix with a wooden spoon or your hands. It will be a gooey mix, but if it’s too wet to hold together, add an extra sprinkle of bread crumbs. If it seems dry, add another splash of sesame ginger dressing.
  5. Add coconut sugar to a shallow dish or small bowl.  Shape the mixture into meatballs about 1 1/2” diameter. Working quickly, roll the meatballs through the sugar, just enough to frost each one, and roll again in your hands to fully adhere the sugar, which will become a glaze on the baked meatballs. Place meatballs into a 9×13 glass baking dish, allowing space between them. Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes.
  6. Arrange romaine leaves on a platter, then bed your meatballs on them. Whisk the dressing ingredients again. Scatter red onion slices over the top and drizzle with the sesame ginger dressing. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and sesame seeds and serve (with rice, if desired).
What happened to the 18th meatball? And why am I licking my lips right now?

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“Copycat” Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Ever since I started browsing recipes on Pinterest, I’ve noticed something that bothers me—the prominence of so-called “copycat” recipes. For some reason, everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea of bringing home the dishes they’ve enjoyed in a restaurant. And with great frequency, the restaurant they copy is a chain.

How did we get here? I remember a time when restaurants made claims like “as good as Mom used to make,” or “from a three-generations-old recipe.” Does this mean I’m old? When did we make this shift from holding restaurants to standard of homemade foods we remember from childhood—to seeking a fettucine alfredo that’s “just like the Cheesecake Factory?”

Most of the time, chain restaurant menus strike me as calorie- and sodium-laden oversized portions, often indistinguishable in terms of cuisine style. For example, it wouldn’t seem so strange to find a salad on a chain menu with blackened chicken (Cajun), a soy-based dressing (Asian), topped with roasted corn (Tex-Mex) and dried cranberries (um, what?). These are the kind of things that keep me up at night. What is a salad such as that even trying to be?

So when I asked a friend a couple of years ago for her preference for a girls’ lunch date, I admit that I cringed at her response—“How about P.F. Chang’s?”

A chain? Ugh. It’s my own fault, but my friend’s workplace isn’t near to many independent spots, so I agreed, and as luck would have it, I’m glad I went. Not because the food was exceptional (it was fine), but because I (finally) became inspired to delve into cooking the mouthwatering world of Asian food. For years, I loved the flavors but felt intimidated by this particular cuisine, with all of its complex special sauces and high-temperature cooking techniques. So how did a single meal at an Asian chain restaurant open my culinary mind?

Two words. Lettuce wraps.

Spicy, fresh and crunchy. Why did I wait so long to discover these?

I loved the idea of the lettuce wraps—crunchy fresh lettuce wrapped up around a small mound of spicy sauced chicken with flash-fried rice noodles on the side. It seemed fresh and healthy, and the server was happy to bring me a side of their “ring of fire” sauce, which is pretty much the hottest thing you’d ever imagine ingesting. Man, that stuff was good. But later in the day, after my fourth glass of water, I remembered why I steer clear of the chains. My food was really, really salty. After a quick online lookup, I discovered that my lunch, considered an appetizer on the Chang’s menu, had 1,820 mg of sodium. In one appetizer.

That sent me off in search of a better way. I went to the market and discovered that nearly every Asian sauce is available in a reduced sodium version, so those were the ones I brought home (after inspecting the label ingredients for any other deal breakers, of course). I tasted each one, experimented with flavor combinations and figured out some other ways to add texture and flavor. And today, I present my very own copycat recipe—for chicken lettuce wraps. My version is decidedly lower in sodium, swaps out boring iceberg leaves in favor of crunchy romaine, with addition of sweet red bell pepper (did you know they are higher in vitamin C than oranges?), and nutty brown rice rather than bland, deep-fried rice noodles.

So maybe this is the reason for all the copycats on Pinterest. Perhaps other amateur chefs have the same idea—to enjoy the flavor they’ve had in other places, but with more control over the ingredients, the fat and the sodium. It also has occurred to me that because I grew up in a small community with no chain restaurants at all, I do not have any history of food memories tied to them, as others probably do. In the end, I learned something and found a new favorite to make at home.

These wraps are delicious, the heat is adjustable (either way) to taste, and my husband and I enjoy them so much, that lettuce wraps are now in our regular menu rotation. All because of lunch at a chain restaurant. If you’ve been nervous to try an Asian recipe at home, allow me to introduce you to a few of the key ingredients:

You can mix and match these in so many ways.

What is in hoisin sauce?

Hoisin sauce is a sweet, sticky sauce, made from fermented soy beans and garlic, and flavored with aromatic spices such as fennel, cinnamon and star anise. It is very common in Chinese and Thai dishes, sometimes used as a cooking ingredient but also sometimes as a dipping sauce. Think of it as an Eastern-world barbecue sauce. It’s delicious!

What is tamari?

Tamari is a wheat-free alternative to traditional soy sauce. The organic, low-sodium versions are often significantly lower than the low-sodium soy sauces, but the flavor is nearly identical. Because it’s wheat-free, it’s suitable for gluten-free diets—but for this recipe, be sure to check every other ingredient label for hidden sources of gluten if this is a concern.

What is sriracha?

Sriracha is an Asian-style condiment, made from aged hot peppers, vinegar, salt and a bit of sugar. It adds plenty of heat to this recipe but is balanced with the tang of the vinegar. Adjust this one to suit your taste but consider using at least 1 teaspoon to get the chili flavor that makes this dish special.

What’s different about chili-garlic sauce?

Chili-garlic sauce is similar in flavor to sriracha, but it’s a chunkier sauce that adds texture and a lot of savory heat, with underlying notes of garlic and not a lot of salt. If you love spicy food, double it (as I often do); if you aren’t into as much heat, use half or skip it altogether.

Anybody besides me getting hungry?


Ingredients

1 lb. lean ground chicken* (see notes for vegan option)

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small red bell pepper, chopped

3 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced

1/2 can sliced water chestnuts, drained and diced small*

Sauce

4 Tbsp. hoisin sauce (low sodium)

2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar (not the “seasoned” variety, which has extra salt)

2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or tamari, which is even lower)

1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce

1 Tbsp. chili-garlic sauce

For serving

2 tsp. toasted sesame oil*

Fresh romaine heart, trimmed and prepped*

Hot cooked brown jasmine rice

3 scallions (green onions), trimmed and thinly sliced

Sesame seeds (optional), sprinkled on for serving


*Notes

Want to make this vegan? Swap the chicken for firm, cubed tofu (patted very dry) and a handful of cashews. Delicious!

In case you’re wondering, it’s not accidental that salt is not listed in the ingredients. Part of the goal with this recipe is reduction of the high sodium in the original dish. The sauces have enough to cover it.

Most supermarkets sell water chestnuts in their Asian section, and sometimes they are available in a diced form, but the pieces are almost as large as sugar cubes. I prefer the slices, because it’s easier to cut the slices into a smaller dice.

A little bit of toasted sesame oil goes a long way, so don’t be tempted to use more of this. Additionally, you don’t want to cook in this pungent oil because its low smoke point will cause it to scorch.

To prep the romaine heart, trim the stem end and rinse the individual leaves under cold running water. Drain them of excess water, then wrap them up in paper towels and place the bundle in the fridge until it’s time to serve. The chilly air will keep them crisp, and the towels will absorb lingering moisture.


Instructions

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add canola oil, then brown the ground chicken together with the garlic and fresh ginger. Add the chopped yellow onions and red bell pepper and sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add the chopped water chestnuts and heat through.

In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine the hoisin sauce, soy or tamari, sriracha, chili-garlic sauce and rice wine vinegar. Whisk to combine.

Adjust the heat level up or down, simply by changing the amounts of sriracha and chili-garlic sauce.

Pour the sauce combination over the chicken and stir to coat evenly. Just before serving, drizzle in the toasted sesame oil and stir to combine.

Yes, they’re as fresh and yummy as they look.

For serving

You could probably pre-fill the lettuce leaves with the chicken mixture for serving, but we enjoy the DIY aspect of serving it at the table. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a plate, with the brown rice in one bowl and the meat mixture in another, sprinkled with sliced scallions and sesame seeds.

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What restaurant recipes have you copied (or wanted to)? Leave me a comment, and maybe we can tackle it together!


Seared Tuna with Forbidden Rice and Tropical Salsa

This colorful dish proves two points—that eating healthy does not have to be boring or bland, and that you don’t need to be in a restaurant to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.

When it comes to fresh seafood, I believe in keeping the fish (or shrimp, scallops, crab, whatever) as close to its true state as possible. Trust citrus juice, salt and pepper to bring out the best in seafood and bring in other complementary flavors on the side. That’s what I’ve done with this pretty plate, featuring a fresh-caught ahi tuna steak and a tropical fruit salsa that comes together in about 7 minutes. The most time-consuming part of the dish is waiting for the rice to cook.

If you’ve never seen or cooked with forbidden rice before, here’s a quick list of facts to help you get to know this delicious, somewhat exotic ingredient.

Black rice is sometimes called “forbidden” rice.

Where does black rice come from, and why is it “forbidden?”

Black rice originated across the continent of Asia, and has long been a significant crop in China, Bangladesh, parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Northeast India. The grain is no longer considered “forbidden,” but it was given that distinction in ancient China because of its former scarcity. The cost of this rare food put it out of reach for all but the wealthiest people, and so it was forbidden to everyone else. That has changed, however, as it is now cultivated more widely and available in larger supermarkets or online.

What gives black rice its color?

The rice has a very deep color that looks nearly black in its raw state, but in bright light and after cooking, it’s easier to see that it is actually more of a deep purple. This is because of anthocyanin, a type of plant pigment that also occurs in blueberries, raspberries, purple cauliflower and “blue” corn. Although some websites suggest the anthocyanins have antioxidant properties, scientific studies have so far only shown this to be true in a lab environment—not in the human body by food consumption.

What does black rice taste like?

If you were to close your eyes while tasting black rice, you might think you were enjoying smaller grains of brown rice because of the similar mild, slightly nutty flavor.

What do you make with black rice?

You can use black rice the same way you’d use any rice—in side dishes, pilafs, soups and salads. Also, because of its unusual color, it is commonly used in Asian countries in special dessert dishes, especially rice pudding made with coconut milk.

Ingredients

1 cup cooked black rice

2 portions fresh tuna steak

1 cup fresh pineapple, cut into bite-sized pieces* (see notes)

1 fresh honey mango, cut into chunks*

1/4 red bell pepper, diced (or 1 Tbsp. jarred pimentos, drained)

1/4 cup red onion, diced

1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and finely diced (optional to taste)

4 fresh mint leaves, cut into thin strips* (see slides for tips)

1 Tbsp. peach white balsamic vinegar*

1 Tbsp. neutral extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and fresh black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lime

*Notes

Save some time on the pineapple and pick it up pre-cut from your produce department. I don’t recommend canned pineapple for this, but you could probably use frozen (thawed) in a pinch.

There are hundreds of varieties of mango, but usually two at my market—“regular” mango, which is kind of round-oval and darkish green with blushing orange areas, and the one they call “honey” mango, which is usually smaller, deep yellow all over, and (my reason for choosing it) easier to cut up. Use whatever variety is your favorite, or whatever is available. If you’ve never cut a mango, check out the slideshow below for some easy tips.

The peach white balsamic is a specialty product I purchased at a gourmet olive oil and vinegar store. I chose it because it’s soft and fruity, but feel free to substitute any light vinegar you like, especially one that plays well with the fresh tropical flavors in this salsa—think fruity, citrus or mint.

Here’s a visual walk-through of how I put this together, and written instructions appear below.

Instructions

  1. Season tuna steaks with only sea salt and black pepper, and set aside, covered, at room temperature.
  2. Cook black rice according to package instructions. Try not to stir it too much to avoid additional “stickiness.”
  3. While rice is cooking, prepare salsa—combine pineapple and mango pieces, add jalapeno, red onion and red bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Use a mini whisk to combine peach balsamic and extra virgin olive oil, stirring briskly until a thick emulsion results. (If your vinegar is not a balsamic, it may be thinner consistency)
  5. Stack mint leaves, then roll them lengthwise into a tube shape and cut across into slices. When unfurled, these will be thin strips.
  6. Pour dressing over fruit salsa blend and toss to coat evenly. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle mint leaves into blend, gently toss again and set aside.
  7. When rice is ready, sear tuna steak on a medium-hot griddle, grill or skillet, turning to sear other side to desired doneness. Ideally, good quality fresh tuna should be cooked rare, but if you’re squeamish about that, push it to medium-rare.

Plate by spooning about 1/2 cup black rice, then lay tuna steak halfway over the pile. Spoon salsa over the top, squeeze lime over both plates and serve!

It’s light, fresh and pretty!

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“Leftovers” Mac & Cheese with Collards

I’m on a crusade to empty out all the random dishes of this-and-that in the refrigerator, and that usually leads to a short list of outcomes. We might end up having a “potpourri” night, where nothing really goes together but at least it’s sustenance. Or we might decide we’ve enjoyed the original dishes on their own for long enough, and we quietly turn the dishes out into the trash can, which is wasteful and leaves me feeling unresourceful. And every once in a blue moon, the random leftovers have a common thread and speak to me in a way that leads to a crazy good meal that hardly feels like leftovers at all.

Option No. 3 is on our plate this time, with leftover southern collard greens, a single leftover smoked sausage (infused with Texas Pete flavor), some crumbs of ghost pepper potato chips and too many half-used chunks of cheese in the deli drawer.

Kicked-up mac and cheese, baby. The sausage is cooked in smoke, so it has a nice firm texture, easy to cube and fry in a skillet until crispy. I’m inspired to add the collard greens because of a trip Les and I made to NYC in late 2018, and we took the subway up to Harlem for dinner at The Red Rooster, owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. He has a popular dish on his menu called “mac and greens,” featuring (you guessed it) cooked collards.

We were lucky to get a table at Red Rooster during the holiday season. All of New York was bustling, and the restaurant was lively and loud and fabulous. I ordered Poppa Eddie’s Shrimp & Grits, which was like a rich and flavorful gumbo served over creamy cheese grits. Les enjoyed the Hot Honey Yardbird. Yes, it was half a chicken, and yes, he finished the whole thing. But the restaurant staff told us, by far, the most popular menu item was the mac and greens, so we ordered it as a starter to our incredible meal. It was so crazy good, and I can’t explain why it has taken me until now to create my own version of it at home.

This is another perfect example of Comfort du Jour—a classic comfort food elevated with unexpected ingredients, and, as a bonus in homage to my frugal grandmother (and role model in all things kitchen-y), this one happens to empty out a bunch of leftovers to boot. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

I haven’t made mac and cheese since my first blog post back in April, so it’s definitely time. If you missed that post, you can check it out now, but I’ll offer a quick refresher course on making the star of the dish, which is the bechamel-based cheese sauce.

For starters, get some American cheese for the melting quality that cannot be matched with only block cheeses. The rest of the cheese is best freshly grated rather than pre-shredded in a bag. We are looking for extreme creaminess, and if you have an immersion blender, pull it out of the cabinet because that is my secret weapon for the silkiest, creamiest cheese sauce in minutes. Ready?


Ingredients

6 oz. orrechiette* (I had half of a 12 oz. box)

3 Tbsp. each butter and flour

1 3/4 cups whole milk (2% would be OK, but less rich)

5 oz. American cheese (the kind you get by the pound in the deli)

6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded* (most of a regular block)

A few twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 cup leftover cooked collard greens, drained if resting in liquid)

1 leftover “Texas Pete” smoked sausage*

Leftover crumbs from the bottom of a bag of Ghost Pepper potato chips from Trader Joe’s (c’mon, you have this, don’t you?)

*Notes

Orrechiette is a small pasta shape, and I happened to have a half-box of it. Its name translates to “little ears” in Italian, and it can easily be swapped out for another small shape of pasta, such as elbows or rotini—essentially, you want a shape that will grab hold of your delicious cheese sauce. I’ve noticed that the popular pasta shapes have been in scarce supply, which makes this a fun time to try new ones!

I had cheddar in abundance in my deli drawer, but of course any cheese that melts well would work. Most of the time, I gather up all the scraps and bits and throw them in—it’s why my mac and cheese is hardly ever the same twice.

The smoked sausage was a lone straggler from a meal Les had grilled up a few nights before. Smoked sausage has a really firm texture (think kielbasa), and this one in particular was seasoned before smoking with Texas Pete sauce.


Here’s a visual run-through for you. Because it was leftovers, it made enough to feed the two of us for dinner, with a bonus portion of mac and greens without the sausage.


Instructions

  1. Melt butter, cook flour until bubbly, add milk and whisk until smooth. Melt American cheese into the sauce and whisk until smooth. Add grated cheddar, whisk until smooth.
  2. Use immersion blender to emulsify cheese into an ultra-smooth mixture. Season with smoked black pepper.
  3. Cut smoked sausage into bite sized pieces, cook in small hot skillet to crisp up the edges of the sausage.
  4. Cook pasta to “early al dente” stage. It will soften further in the oven with the cheese sauce. Add finished pasta to cheese sauce, add cooked collard greens and stir until evenly combined.
  5. Layer mac & cheese in ramekins with the crispy sausage bits, top with crushed potato chip crumbs. Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and top is lightly browned with crisp edges.

I made ours in individual serving ramekins, and put the rest in a small casserole we can use for lunch sides later in the week.

Does this really even need words?

From the oven, the mac and cheese is hearty and satisfying, with an ultra-creamy sauce and occasional bites of crispy smoked sausage. And the savory collards add another level of flavor, not to mention the nutritional value they bring to the table.

It’s creamy, but still has so much interesting texture, thanks to the sausage, collards and spicy potato chip crumbs. If I hadn’t made it myself, nobody would convince me it was made from leftovers.

Now, if I could only plan ahead to come up with these exact leftovers, because I sure would like to make this dish again. Of course, who knows what will be taking up space in the fridge next week.

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