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.




Coq au Vermouth

Excuse me, where is the umbrella?

I spent two years in French class during high school, and that is pretty much all I remember how to ask—“excusez-moi, où est le parapluie?” I suppose it is a question that would have been essential had I become a world traveler (I didn’t), and in fact it was a common question asked among my fellow French club members when we took our senior trip to Quebec City, Canada—they don’t speak much English there, in case you didn’t know. It rained the entire three-day weekend, but it was still a glorious visit to a city rich with history and speckled with exquisite, copper-roofed buildings.

Spanish would undoubtedly have been a more useful class for me, given the increase of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. since I graduated all those years ago. But there was something sooo sexy about the French spoken word, and well, my best friend signed up for French so I did, too. Our teacher was cool and we got to choose our own names for the class, which was good because there wasn’t a name on the list that was a literal translation for Terrie. My friend Debbie became Christine, pronounced CREE-steen, my friend Christine became Danielle and yours truly selected the name Jacqueline, which was fun to say—zhah-KLEEN, like the French fashion designer who steals Nigel’s dream job in The Devil Wears Prada.

French class was always lively, and we were encouraged to play up the accent and the nasal sound as much as possible. We went through round after round of language exercises, covering the French words for common places, including the bookstore (la librairie) and the library (la bibliothèque) and reciting all the various tenses of the verb words, and for every kind of individual and group instance. For example: for the verb “go,” we would cycle through the French words that meant, “I go, you go, he goes, she goes, we go and they go.” Round and round we went, and after all that repetitious recitation, all I remember how to say is “where is the umbrella?”

Anyway, for me, there is still a lot of mystery and intrigue associated with the French language, and I learned during my short time working in the Pinch of Thyme catering kitchen that if you want people to swoon over food, call it something French! As luck would have it, I do at least remember some of the French words for certain foods, including poulet (chicken), champignons (mushrooms) and carottes (carrots, obviously). I was excited to find this recipe in my most recent digital edition of Imbibe magazine because I have used splashes of vermouth in a few dishes and found it more complex and vibrant than wine, which would traditionally be used for braising chicken in the classic coq au vin. But this recipe was more than a splash, it was a generous amount in a very French-technique kind of recipe.

I could not resist turning this into a Sunday Supper meal, with a side of buttered red bliss potatoes and sauteed spinach, and it was—how shall I say—très délicieux!

This dish was rich and succulent, exactly as it should be. The chicken thighs remained tender and moist.

A word or few about vermouth…

I have known about vermouth for decades, but it has only been the past couple of years that I have become more closely acquainted with it, and today I almost always have a bottle open in the fridge for an end-of-day gin martini. Vermouth is a fortified wine, which means other alcohol has been added to grapes during fermentation, and that results in higher alcohol by volume than typical wine. Any variety of botanical ingredients are thrown into the process as well, including herbs, bitter ingredients, bark, roots and spices. Vermouth may be red or white, dry or sweet or really sweet, depending on its origin and method, and it is commonly used as an ingredient for classic cocktails, including martinis and Manhattans. Vermouth, on its own, is also a popular apéritif (pre-dinner drink) in Spain, Italy, France and my house.

In a literal French-to-English translation, coq au vermouth would demand use of a rooster, but it is not every day that you’d find such a creature in your local market. Large hen thighs is what I used for the recipe, and it was tender, flavorful and oh so fancy. Don’t be intimidated, though, because despite all of the foreign language I’ve been throwing around, this was a very simple dish to make. All you need is a cast iron skillet, chicken thighs, bacon, mushrooms and mirepoix—oops, another French word that is simply a mix of carrots, onions and celery. All that, plus a decent amount of dry white vermouth. Don’t worry, vermouth is easy to find, wherever you might buy wine. To keep the recipe true to its origin, choose a brand from France. I used Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, dry, in the green bottle. 😊

This is one of my go-to vermouth brands for Gibson cocktails:
2 oz. dry gin, 1/2 oz. dry vermouth, shaken or stirred with ice, strained into a cocktail glass and served with a pickled pearl onion.

Inspired by Coq au Vermouth – Imbibe Magazine

Ingredients

3 slices bacon, cut into thin pieces

4 large, free-range chicken thighs (bone-in and skin-on)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 medium onion, sliced or diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into thick diagonal slices

2 stalks celery, cleaned, ribs removed and diced

3 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced

About 1 cup cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters

1/2 cup dry vermouth (extra dry would be fine, also)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

2 fresh sprigs of thyme

2 Tbsp. cold butter

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon


Instructions

Let’s run through it in pictures first, and if you keep scrolling, you’ll find the instructions spelled out (in English), and I’ll also include a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper. Cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and the edges begin to crisp. Transfer the pieces to a paper-towel lined dish, keeping all the bacon grease in the skillet. Arrange the chicken thighs, skin side down, into the skillet. Cook them until the skin is crispy and golden, then turn the pieces and cook the other side about two minutes.
  2. Transfer the thighs to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep them warm. Add the mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery) to the fond (pan drippings) in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and mushrooms, tossing with the other vegetables until slightly browned. Pour in the vermouth and vegetable broth, and simmer for about two minutes.
  3. Return the chicken thighs to the skillet, skin side up. Sprinkle the bacon pieces over the top and lay the whole thyme sprigs in a criss-cross fashion over the combination. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.
  4. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the chicken thighs to a plate. Add the cold butter and lemon juice to the simmered vegetable mixture and stir until it is a rich, luscious sauce. Just before plating, place the thighs, skin side down, into the skillet to drench them in the sauce. Plate the chicken, then spoon the simmered vegetable mixture (a.k.a. mélange) over the thighs.
I love when an elegant dish is this simple!


Cajun Shrimp & Garlicky Cheese Grits

Take a road trip across the Southeast, and you’ll find a wide array of flavors and presentation in dishes that all claim to be “shrimp and grits.”

And they all are.

There is no right-or-wrong when it comes to this classic southern dish. Whether served with a lush and savory gravy, or piled high with onions, peppers and tomatoes, or spiked with spicy andouille or tasso ham, cheese or no cheese, you are guaranteed a flavorful experience. Over the 34 years that I’ve lived in N.C., I’ve developed my own recipe into what I believe captures the best of all the varieties I’ve tasted around these parts, though I can’t claim to make it the same every time. My “comfort du jour” usually depends on what ingredients are in the fridge, and many times, my decision to make shrimp and grits is a last-minute one.

I almost always have good quality, wild American shrimp in the freezer. I’m guaranteed to have some kind of pork product—ham, bacon, sausage or chorizo—and just about any kind of onion or pepper works, so whatever I have on hand can slide into place. I may or may not incorporate cheese, depending on the other ingredients. One thing that remains constant is my method of cooking the grits. You cannot rush them, and for goodness sake, don’t cheat yourself by using instant. It should take a minimum of 20 minutes on the stove, unless you have, you know, “magic grits.” I think we all remember how that played out in My Cousin Vinny.

If you have ever eaten grits and thought they were, well, gritty—the simple explanation is that they were not cooked long enough or with enough liquid. Grits (or polenta, which is nearly the same thing) are made of broken-down, dried corn. They are tooth-cracking hard straight from the package, and I have found that it takes a good bit longer than the package instructions suggest to get them right. They are kind of like oatmeal in that regard—you can have creamy, soft oatmeal that drips off the spoon, or sticky, gloppy oatmeal that sticks to everything it touches. The difference is all in the cooking process.

The other complaint some people have about grits is a common one—“they’re so bland.” And if you use only water to cook them, they certainly are. Grits do not have much flavor on their own, but you can coax the flavor out of those dry little kernels with the right technique and the right stuff. In other words, ignore the package instructions and use your own cooking instincts. There is no magic to it. 😉

Here’s my secret for perfect, creamy grits every time: treat them like risotto. Cook them low and slow, with plenty of broth additions and plenty of stirring, and finish them with a little cream or half and half. You’ll be rewarded with a silky, luxurious base for whatever you choose to pile on top of them.

These grits are perfectly creamy, with no clumps and no gritty texture.

For this batch of shrimp and grits, I used smoked andouille sausage, cut up and lightly fried until the edges were crispy, sautéed cremini mushrooms, a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning on the shrimp, and scallions on top to finish the dish. The grits, as always, were creamy and delicious, with a few cloves of chopped garlic in the broth and just enough cheddar cheese at the end, to give them some extra body, and a few shakes of RedHot sauce for tangy-spicy flavor.

This recipe serves 2, with a scoop of grits left over to go under your weekend eggs.

There’s so much texture here, beginning with the juicy shrimp and crispy sausage, and down to the creamy, cheesy grits. This is one of our faves!

Ingredients

1 cup yellow grits, a.k.a. polenta* (see notes)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

About 2 cups hot water, as needed for cooking the grits*

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Frank’s RedHot Original sauce, to taste*

2 Tbsp. light cream or half and half*

1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

2 links smoked andouille sausage, cut into bite-size pieces

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

About 2/3 pound of wild-caught shrimp, peeled and de-veined

A few shakes of your favorite Cajun seasoning*

2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and sliced

*Notes

For the best results, and creamy grits, do not use anything packaged as “instant.” My preferred brand is Bob’s Red Mill polenta, which you can find in well-stocked supermarkets, including Super Walmart.

It’s helpful to heat the water in a teakettle or the microwave ahead of time and keep it on standby. When you add liquid to polenta or risotto that is already cooking, you want the liquid to be warm.

As always, you will need to adjust the salt amount to work with your other ingredients. I lean toward low-sodium versions of broth and seasonings so that I have more control of the overall salt in my recipes. Check your labels and taste as you go.

I love the flavor of RedHot sauce, but Texas Pete or Tabasco would also be good for a spike of flavor in the grits.

For readers abroad, “half and half” is a term used to describe a popular dairy product in the U.S. It is essentially equal parts light cream and whole milk, with about 12% milkfat.

We use a dry Cajun seasoning that my husband picked up in New Orleans, but there are plenty of options available in your supermarket. You could also make up your own, with some combination of garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, black pepper and thyme.

Instructions

I’m a visual learner. If you are, too, then follow along with my slideshow or keep scrolling for written instructions and a pdf you can download for your recipe files.

  1. Place a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add vegetable broth, garlic, salt and pepper, and heat to nearly boiling. Add polenta, stirring constantly until it is fully mixed with the broth and no visible clumps appear. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
  2. Add hot water, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue with frequent stirring until each addition is absorbed and grits take on a smooth, creamy appearance. This may be up to 2 cups of additional liquid, and may take as long as 40 minutes.
  3. When grits achieve desired consistency, add a few shakes of RedHot sauce and stir in the light cream. Stir in shredded cheddar until melted and smooth. Remove grits from heat and cover to keep warm until you are ready to assemble the dish with the shrimp and other ingredients.
  4. Season the prepared shrimp with a few shakes of Cajun dry seasoning, and toss to let the flavor meld with the shrimp.
  5. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and brown the andouille sausage bits until they have slightly crispy edges. Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan, tossing to brown them on both sides. Transfer sausage and mushrooms to a bowl.
  6. In the same skillet, again over medium heat, swirl in another tablespoon of olive oil. When oil is shimmering, place shrimp into the pan, one at a time. Allow them to cook, undisturbed, about one minute, then begin turning them, following the same order, to cook the other side.
  7. Add the cooked sausage and mushrooms back to the skillet and give the whole thing a few quick tosses to heat everything through.
  8. Spoon a generous amount of grits onto your serving bowls or plates, top with sausage, shrimp and mushrooms. Sprinkle dish with scallions and serve.

Time for dinner!


“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!


Scallops with Spinach on Bacon Risotto

Seafood has snagged the spotlight here on Comfort du Jour, and today’s post continues that trend, with a scallop and risotto dish that is both elegant and simple (yes, really).

If you have ever watched “Chopped” on the Food Network, there’s a good chance you have seen the elite panel of judges gasp collectively in sheer horror when a contestant announces an attempt to make risotto. Honestly, I gasp as well—not because risotto is complicated or difficult (it isn’t)—but because risotto is a tricky proposition in the very limited time the chef contestants usually have to complete their culinary challenge. Those chef-judges know from decades of experience that risotto in 20 minutes will not likely be successful.

The soft, creamy texture of risotto is achieved by the breakdown of the starch inside the rice grains. There’s a lot of science to explain why, but the upshot is that you need to cook it gradually, stirring all the while, so that the starches release and become a thick, slurry-like coating. Eventually, the grains are softened and the rice seems to be floating in a creamy sauce that doesn’t depend on cream at all, though most cooks add a little at the end. This kind of perfection doesn’t happen in a hurry.

Find an hour to spare this weekend and you can be successful with risotto. I’ve jazzed up this version with smoky bacon and mushrooms, and I also added a touch of cream. Then I draped it with a layer of sautéed spinach and topped it with perfectly seared sea scallops (also easy). It looks and tastes like it came out of a restaurant kitchen, but I’m going to show you how to whip it up in the cozy comfort of your own home.

Time for dinner!

Gather up your tools—you’ll need two skillets and a medium saucepan, plus a ladle and a wooden spoon. See? Not complicated at all. 🙂

Serves: 2
Time to make: 90 minutes
Leftover potential: Oh, yes! (at the end of the post, I’ll show you how we enjoyed the leftover risotto)


Ingredients

3 slices smoky bacon

3 to 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (most of a standard carton)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (optional, see notes)

1 cup Arborio rice* (see notes)

1/2 smallish sweet onion, minced fine

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and chopped

1/4 cup half and half or cream* (optional)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 portions sea scallops, patted dry

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend, for serving


*Notes

A typical risotto recipe uses a few ounces of wine to flavor the broth, but that isn’t critical. Make up the difference with additional broth, if you wish. If using wine, go with something dry, such as Pinot Grigio. I frequently substitute dry vermouth, as I have a bottle in the fridge all the time. This particular day, I poured in the remnants of a champagne split. Whatever works.

Arborio rice is specifically used for risotto because of its starch makeup. You will likely find it specially packaged in the rice section of your supermarket. In a pinch, choose any white rice labeled “short-grain,” and follow the same instructions. It may not result in the same level of creaminess, but it will be close. It is unusual for me to choose anything other than brown rice, but I will share honestly that I haven’t yet found success with brown rice risotto, although some internet resources suggest that soaking it overnight may help. I’ll save that challenge for another day. 😉

The addition of cream at the end is not absolutely essential, but I love the softness it lends to the finish of the dish. If you are trying to eat lighter, you might try substituting an equal amount of low-fat evaporated milk. It has similar consistency with lower fat and calories.

Before you begin…

Risotto is best served immediately after reaching perfect consistency. This recipe also requires cooking of mushrooms, spinach and scallops. You may want to employ a helper for these additional tasks, unless you are confident you can manage to cook them simultaneously while tending the risotto. You might also choose to cook the mushrooms and spinach in advance, and re-warm them at plating time. Either way, it’s best to have every ingredient, tool and utensil ready to go before you begin.


Instructions

As usual, the images tell the story, but I’ve offered written instructions below, plus a PDF version you can download for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. In a skillet large enough for cooking the risotto, begin by cooking the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel to cool, reserving the bacon fat (or drain the fat and substitute butter or olive oil for the next step). When cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable broth over medium-low heat, and keep it simmering. I usually begin with the full amount of broth, but if you prefer to heat it in batches and use only what you need, that’s OK. Begin with 3 cups, plus wine (if using). Season it with salt and pepper.
  3. In a second skillet, brown up the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. Transfer them to a bowl, and then sauté up the spinach leaves and transfer them to a separate bowl. If you’re uncomfortable multi-tasking, you can do this work ahead, or ask a helper to work alongside as you cook the risotto.
  4. To the same skillet used to cook the bacon, add the dry Arborio rice to the fat (or butter or olive oil) in the skillet. Over medium heat, stir the rice around with a wooden utensil until it’s completely coated in the oil. Continue to cook until rice has a lightly toasted aroma, which should be only a couple of minutes.
  5. Add chopped onions to the rice and continue to cook and stir another minute, just long enough for the onions to appear translucent.
  6. Use a ladle or small cup to scoop about 1/2 cup warm broth into the skillet. Stir it around in the rice, scraping any browned bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth and repeat. Continue this effort until the broth is nearly gone. After about 30 minutes, give the rice a taste. It should feel creamy but slightly firm, similar to pasta that is cooked just beyond al dente. For me, risotto usually takes about 40 minutes total. You may end up using the full 4 cups of broth—I usually do.
  7. In the second skillet, melt the unsalted butter over medium heat. Arrange the sea scallops, allowing a bit of space between them for easy turning. Do not move them around, but allow them to cook several minutes until browned. Turn scallops (only once) to cook the other side. Season them with salt and pepper.
  8. To the finished risotto, add the bacon crumbles and cooked mushrooms. Add half and half (if using) and stir to blend.
  9. Plate a mound of risotto onto serving plates immediately; top each portion with sautéed spinach and parm-romano blend, then scallops.

You’ll probably have extra risotto after plating, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (see below).

Time for dinner!

Want to make this easy-at-home recipe?


Here’s what I cooked up with the leftover risotto

As risotto cools, the starches gelatinize and the mixture becomes somewhat clumpy—similar to the way cold oatmeal sets up, and it isn’t necessarily delicious. Rather than trying to “loosen” it up again (which doesn’t work, by the way), I took a chance on the waffle iron. And wouldn’t you know? It was fan-freaking-tastic.

We had about 1 1/2 cups of cold leftover risotto from our scallop dish. I added 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 1/4 cup parm-romano blend, and stirred until the mixture was uniform. It had a thick, clumpy consistency that was similar to cold cookie dough.

I preheated our waffle iron to 400° F, and scooped the risotto mixture into it and pressed the lid closed. A few minutes later, voila! We had crispy exterior and smooth, soft and creamy interior. It reminded me of arancini, but in waffle form.

I made a quick onion-herb gravy with chunks of leftover roast chicken, and another fab 2.0 dinner was served!

I couldn’t have planned it better than this! And now, I always have a fun way to use up leftover risotto. 😀

Sausage Stuffed Turkey Meatloaf (& “faboo” mushroom gravy)

Here I go again, twisting up a classic to put the best flavors of Thanksgiving on the table with minimal stress. If you’re looking for a way to simplify your homemade holiday dinner, but still have your favorite turkey, sausage stuffing and gravy combo, this might be the best thing you read all day.

My ground turkey meatloaf has a swirl of spinach and sausage stuffing, packing all the flavor of Thanksgiving into one easy but impressive main dish. As a bonus, I’m sharing one of our family’s favorite turkey day sides—a rich and tasty mushroom gravy, which happens to be vegan (but don’t let that stop you). You may wonder, “why offer a vegan gravy over turkey meatloaf?” I love having a single gravy on the table that makes everyone happy, whether or not they eat meat, and this one is the stuff. It is as good on any meatloaf with mashed potatoes as it is in the sauce of your favorite green bean casserole or as a savory accompaniment to nearly anything you serve at Thanksgiving.

If you enjoyed my darling husband’s recent guest post for spinach balls, now is the time to make a batch because the sausage stuffing swirl in this meatloaf makes use of leftover spinach balls. If you don’t have time to make the spinach balls in advance, you could create a similar blend with some herb stuffing mix and frozen spinach (I’ll offer suggestions).

This meatloaf exceeded my own expectation, which is really saying something, given that I have made many other “stuffed” versions of meatloaf in the past. We liked it so much it will find its way to our table again as a Sunday Supper later in the winter, you can bet on it. And we’ll serve it up with Les’s amazing garlic mashed potatoes, just like we did with this one. This is teamwork, friends, and it is delicious!

Served with Les’s incredible potatoes and the savory mushroom gravy. I’m in heaven!

Ingredients

1/2 cup dry herb stuffing mix (I used Pepperidge Farm brand)

1/4 cup whole milk

1 lb. all-natural ground turkey* (see notes)

About 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, diced (divided between layers)

A few shakes poultry seasoning

1 large egg

2 large leftover spinach balls,* cut into very small dice, measuring almost 1 cup

1 bulb roasted garlic

4 oz. ground breakfast sausage (uncooked)

1/4 cup plain panko or other bread crumbs


*Notes

For turkey meatloaf, I always choose regular ground turkey rather than turkey breast, which tends to be drier. If you choose ground turkey breast, consider adding an extra egg white or an extra tablespoon of olive oil to make up for the lost moisture.

The spinach ball recipe my hubby shared a couple weeks ago gets a lot of attention at our house, especially with Thanksgiving guests. If you don’t have time to make them in advance of this recipe, try this as a substitute:

3/4 cup dry herb stuffing mix
1/4 cup frozen dry spinach (thawed and squeezed dry)
2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend
Additional egg white + 2 Tbsp. chicken or vegetable broth

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and allow time for the dry mixture to absorb the liquid ingredients. It should still feel somewhat dry and rather firm; from there, proceed with the recipe.


Instructions

Follow along in my kitchen to see how I made this mouthwatering meatloaf. Written instructions are below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.

  1. Combine dry stuffing mix and milk in a small bowl and rest at least 20 minutes, allowing time for crumbs to be fully moistened.
  2. Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Swirl in extra virgin olive oil and add the diced onion. Saute until onions are soft and translucent. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the ground turkey, half of the sauteed onions, stuffing “paste” and egg. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, then set aside.
  4. In the bowl of a food processor, combine spinach ball bits, remaining sauteed onions, roasted garlic and raw sausage (pulled apart into pieces). Pulse mixture several times until it is uniformly blended.
  5. Line a small baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Scatter panko crumbs evenly over the paper. Using a rubber spatula, spread the ground turkey mixture evenly over the crumbs, shaping a rectangle approximately 9 x 13″.
  6. Using your hands, grab up tablespoon-sized lumps of the sausage mixture and place them over the turkey layer. Don’t rush this step because it will be tough to separate the layers if you misjudge the amount as you go. I placed “dots” of the sausage mixture all over (keeping one short end bare for sealing the roll later), then filled in noticeable gaps with the remaining mixture until all was used. Press the sausage mixture firmly to seal it to the turkey layer. Lay a sheet of plastic film on top of the sausage layer and refrigerate the mixture for at least an hour. The chilling time will make it easier to roll up the meatloaf.
  7. To roll up the meatloaf, begin by lifting the parchment and slightly fold the meatloaf onto itself. Continue this motion, keeping the roll tight as you go. Some of the turkey may stick to the parchment, but you can use a rubber scraper to remove it and patch the roll. Full disclosure: this step was pretty messy, but I pressed on to finish the shaping.
  8. Press on any loose bits of panko crumbs, adding more if needed to lightly coat the shaped meatloaf. Wrap the rolled-up meatloaf as tightly as you can in a sheet of plastic film, twisting the ends as with a sausage chub. Tuck the twisted ends underneath, and chill the roll overnight.
  9. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  10. Place the meat roll onto the lined sheet and lightly spray the entire meatloaf with olive oil spray.
  11. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 375° and bake 45 more minutes.
  12. Test internal temperature to be sure it is at least 165° F. Cool 15 minutes before slicing.

Want to print this meatloaf recipe?


But wait, there’s more!

BONUS RECIPE:

Put-it-on-Everything Mushroom Gravy

This all-purpose sauce is so delicious, and we use it in many ways at Thanksgiving, especially when Les’s vegan daughter has been able to join us. It’s fantastic on mashed potatoes and turkey, in casseroles with green beans or (I’m speculating) perhaps even straight from the pan by the spoonful.

Please don’t assume, if you’re a meat eater, that you’d feel cheated with a vegan gravy recipe. I’m not exaggerating to declare that everyone at our table chooses this gravy over standard turkey gravy, hands down. My friend, Linda, has a special word for it: “faboo!” 😀

I prefer to make this gravy ahead, so that I have it ready when the mood strikes me to add it to another recipe, but if you’re short on time, it can certainly be served immediately after preparing it.


Ingredients (makes about 2 cups)

4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil* (see notes below)

1/2 medium onion, finely minced

About 6 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced small

1 tsp. Umami seasoning*

1 bulb roasted garlic

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth*

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

*Notes

Any good quality olive oil will work here, but I’m somewhat addicted to this one (pictured below), which is infused with the flavors of wild mushroom and sage. You can find it at one of the specialty olive oil stores that have popped up all over the U.S. It’s terrific for roasting butternut squash, too!

The Umami seasoning is a Trader Joe’s item, and it contains mushroom powder, garlic powder, sea salt and red pepper flakes. If you cannot find it, just add a few of the red pepper flakes or a slight sprinkle of ground cayenne for a subtle touch of the same heat. The recipe already has plenty of mushroom and garlic.

Vegetable broth ingredients vary a great deal, and for most of my recipes, I recommend one that does not have tomato in it. I favor this low-sodium version from Costco, which contains carrot, onion, celery and mushroom, but not tomato, which changes the acidity of some recipes. If you are not concerned with the vegan aspect, you could also use chicken broth.

Instructions

  1. Place a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and sauté the onions until soft and translucent.
  2. Add another tablespoon of oil and half of the mushrooms. Sauté until moisture is reduced and mushrooms are soft, then repeat with remaining oil and mushrooms.
  3. Season with salt, pepper and umami seasoning. Add roasted garlic and stir to blend it in.
  4. Sprinkle flour over the mixture and cook one minute until the flour seems absorbed and mixture begins to bubble.
  5. Add broth, a little at a time, and stir or whisk into a smooth and thickened sauce consistency. Simmer on low heat several minutes before serving.

Want to print this recipe?


Welcome Autumn Whole Grain and Bean Soup

Today is the first official day of autumn, and I’m so ready for it this year. Six months ago, it seemed as if time was standing still, as the pandemic threw us into uncharted territory and isolation with very little warning. The world became so weird, and it felt like the days dragged on. Now, we are in the opposite place—or back to normal, you might say—in that the days are moving very quickly once again. I think it’s because we’ve had little choice but to normalize what is happening around our world, and with the new precautions for safety and distancing becoming second nature, time is getting back on track—at least as much as possible.

My favorite part of fall and “cooler weather” is that I’ll soon unpack all my sweaters and leggings and boots, and I can finally put my kitchen focus on my favorite foods, like this autumn soup. Oh, yum!

It’s everything I love about fall, all in one beautiful bowl.

Though I’ve paid a lot of attention so far this month to breakfast (it being “better breakfast month” and all), it bears repeating that September is also designated as “whole grains” month and “mushroom” month. I don’t know who decides these things, but I’m happy to play along by offering up one of my own favorite recipes that incorporates both whole grains and mushrooms, and plenty more hearty satisfaction as well.

The main ingredient for this soup is a dried whole grain and beans soup mix from Bob’s Red Mill, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to see it back on their website. I first discovered this product while browsing through Big Lots discount store, and I felt pangs of sadness when it disappeared from store shelves and Bob’s website a year or so ago. But it’s back online, and I just hit the “buy it” button for two more packages. I love this wholesome blend because it has so much going on in terms of flavor and nutrition. Check out the ingredients list: small red beans, pinto beans, lentils, whole oat groats, brown rice, triticale berries, rye berries, hard red wheat, pearl barley, Kamut Khorasan wheat, buckwheat groats and sesame seeds. That’s a whole lot of hearty going on! It’s simple to cook, with a quick rinse and then bring to a boil and simmer with broth or water. It would be delicious and satisfying on its own, but for my “welcome autumn” soup, I’ve added browned ground turkey, onions, garlic, roasted butternut squash, mushrooms and vegetable broth. It all cooks up into the heartiest autumn weather dinner in a bowl.

It would be so, so easy to make this dish vegan, too. Simply omit the turkey and use vegetable broth and bouillon. You’d never miss the meat.

The comforting nature of this soup is exactly the right way to usher in my very favorite season. You might even say it’s a Sunday Supper kind of meal, given that it builds flavor over a few hours and has a good many ingredients (though all are simple). I make this soup on the stove top, but the recipe is perfectly adaptable to a slow cooker. Begin with cooking the grains and beans on low setting for a few hours, then add the other cooked ingredients and simmer on low another hour or two. However you make it , the leftovers will leave you as satisfied as the original bowlful, and if you happen to have some crusty dinner rolls or baguette slices on the side—well, even better. This recipe will make approximately 8 servings.

Ingredients

2 cups Bob’s Red Mill “whole grain and beans” soup mix

2 cartons (8 cups) vegetable or chicken broth*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 lb. ground turkey (omit for vegan)

1 medium onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, strings removed and chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup sun dried tomato, cut into small pieces

1 tsp. poultry seasoning (or 1/4 tsp. each ground sage, thyme, onion powder, celery seed)

1 small butternut squash, cubed into 1” pieces

8 oz. package cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced*

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. low-sodium vegetable or chicken bouillon base*

*Notes

Broths are not all created equal, and my recommendation is to be attentive to the sodium content in the broth you choose. Some brands labeled “low-sodium” contain around 570 mg per serving, and others are only around 120 mg. As a rule, I select the lowest sodium broths, as it gives me more control over the final outcome of a recipe. You can always add salt, but you cannot take it away. For this soup, I used vegetable broth, and added richness with the chicken bouillon base.

Cremini mushrooms are my go-to for most recipes, but white or shiitake mushrooms would also be terrific in this recipe.

The bouillon is optional, but I love the extra richness it adds to this soup. I use the Better than Bouillon brand, but it isn’t always easy to find in “reduced sodium” version. I’m thankful that Costco carries it, but you can also buy it online or use another bouillon base. Again, noting the sodium content will help you achieve good results.

A spoonful of this adds incredible depth to my soup.

Instructions

  1. Use a fine mesh strainer to rinse both cups of grain and bean mix.
  2. Add soup mix and 2 cartons of broth to a large stock pot. Bring to boil momentarily, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender (approximately 2 hours).
  3. Heat oven to 400° F. Drizzle olive oil on butternut squash cubes, season with salt and pepper, and roast about 30 minutes, or until just fork tender.
  4. In a skillet over medium heat, swirl in olive oil and cook ground turkey until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onions, garlic, celery and sun-dried tomato bits and cook 3 more minutes. Season with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning.
  5. Add browned turkey mixture to the bean soup and stir to combine.
  6. In the same skillet used to brown turkey, add another tablespoon of olive oil and saute mushrooms until just lightly browned. Avoid crowding the pan, or mushrooms will steam rather than brown. You may need to do them in two batches.
  7. When mushrooms are browned, add them to the soup.
  8. Add roasted squash to the soup and stir to combine.
  9. For an extra boost of flavor and richness, stir in a tablespoon of bouillon base, straight from the jar. Alternatively, add two bouillon cubes, and perhaps dissolve them in a very small amount of boiling water to keep the flavor concentrated.
  10. Allow the soup to simmer for a few hours. Enjoy on its own, or with a crusty dinner roll or baguette slices.

Nourishment, flavor, comfort–it’s all in there!

Want to print this hearty soup recipe?


Lemon Mushroom Chicken

Three favorite key ingredients, plus onions, garlic, butter and a splash of white wine—it sounds simple, because it is. This is a delicious entrée I like to call a “Sunday Supper” because there are a few extra steps that make it special without making it complicated. A recipe that takes a little more time is what I love, in part because it feels relaxing to prepare food slowly with more intention, but mostly because as the meal develops and the house becomes increasingly filled with savory aromas, it creates a tension and anticipation that isn’t often present with a quickly cooked weeknight meal.

The result of the extra care and patience required for this dish is well worth the time and effort—tender, juicy bites of chicken with a rich, onion-y mushroom gravy-like coating. It’s satisfying and comforting, in a way that only a home-cooked meal can be. You can taste the love in this kind of food. The mushrooms contribute an earthiness that is not overwhelming, and the freshly squeezed lemon, thyme and white wine give the impression of something far more gourmet than the simple instructions I’m about to describe.

I prefer to make this recipe on the stove in a skillet because it’s usually just me and my husband at the dinner table, and I like to keep my counter space open. But if you are doubling the recipe and happen to have a large electric skillet, that would be a terrific option—provided it has a cover, which is an important part of finishing the recipe. I’ll walk you through preparation of the dish, but if you’re ready to dive straight into it, you can scroll to the bottom to download a printed copy of the recipe. But then, of course, you’d miss the pictures. 🙂

A quick twist of the fork is enough to grab a bite of this lemon mushroom chicken. How scrumptious and tender is that?

Here’s how to make it.

First, the chicken breasts are sliced and pounded thin to ensure tender, uniform pieces. I do this myself at home because it’s an easy way to save the extra cost of pre-sliced cutlets. It’s OK if you don’t have a meat tenderizer; you can use the bottom of a small pot to do the same. Next, season the pieces with salt and pepper and a couple of pinches of dried thyme. It’s important to do this first, because you want the seasoning in the chicken—not just on the coating. Then drag the cutlets through some seasoned flour and let them rest while chopping a sweet onion and a couple cloves of garlic.


Clean and slice a full package of fresh mushrooms. It may seem overkill for a four-serving recipe, but they cook down considerably and they are a key component of the dish. My favorite type is cremini (sometimes called baby portabella, though technically they are not), but white button mushrooms or shiitake would work fine as well. Are you on the fence about the right way to clean mushrooms? I used to be afraid that rinsing them would make them soggy, but I learned a few years ago that mushrooms don’t absorb much water unless you soak them (thank you for that, Alton Brown!), so go ahead with a thorough cold water rinse then use a clean paper towel to dry them and wipe away any remaining debris. Finish the prep by trimming the stems and slicing them into 3/8” thick, perfectly uniform slices. Say what? Here’s how to do the slicing part in less than one minute:


My egg slicer is made of metal, with cutting wires that are sturdy enough to tackle slicing mushrooms and strawberries, and I love that I get clean, uniform slices with minimal effort. Maybe someday I’ll use this thing to slice eggs. If you don’t have an egg slicer, use your best sharp knife, and don’t sweat over the thickness—just slice them as evenly as you can, but not paper thin.

The onions go into a heated skillet with olive oil, but you’ll notice in the photos that I don’t take them very far toward caramelization. You want them to be nice and soft, so keep the heat in the medium-low range and cook just until they soften and begin to look translucent. Add the mushrooms in batches and cook them without crowding the pan. These guys give off a lot of moisture when they cook, and if you have too many at once, they will steam rather than brown. Take your time, and when the first handful of mushrooms reaches that “lightly browned” stage, move them aside and add another handful. When the whole batch is finished, add the chopped garlic and sauté briefly, then transfer the mixture to a bowl.


Give the cutlets another quick dip through the seasoned flour while you melt butter in the same skillet. It’s not unusual for the flour to absorb moisture from the chicken during the initial rest, and they should be completely (but lightly) coated before they hit the hot butter. This will create a roux-like coating on the chicken, and the broth you add later will break that down into delicious gravy as it simmers.

When the butter is melted and bubbly, carefully arrange the cutlets into the pan in a single layer, again taking care not to crowd the pan. Depending on how many pieces you have, this may need to be done in batches as well. Turn the cutlets over when they are a nice golden brown on the underside, and stack them on top of each other when both sides are done, to make room in the pan for any remaining cutlets.

Remove the browned cutlets and rest them on top of the reserved mushroom-onion mixture. This will make room for you to de-glaze the skillet, bringing all the beautiful browned bits back into the dish. Reduce the heat to low, then working quickly, pour in the white wine and use a whisk or other utensil to scrape up those flavorful remnants. Squeeze in the lemon juice and swirl the pan to combine. Place the chicken cutlets back into the skillet and pile the mushrooms and onions on top. Carefully pour in chicken broth, but only enough to slightly cover the chicken. Give the skillet a gentle shake to help the broth get under and around the chicken, then cover the skillet and walk away.


The chicken will simmer at this low temperature for 35 to 40 minutes. It will be fully cooked well before this time, but the long simmer will result in the tenderness and richness I described at the beginning. What’s great about a recipe like this is that while the magic is quietly happening in the skillet, I have time to tidy up the prep dishes, set the table and enjoy a glass of wine with my husband. This is also a good time to prep whatever vegetable or salad I plan to serve. When the main dish is more involved, as this one is, I usually opt for a simple vegetable side. The lemon mushroom chicken deserves center stage.

I love how the sauce becomes part of the chicken, rather than being poured over it. This dinner will melt in your mouth.

For this meal, I roasted fresh asparagus. If you are cooking asparagus some other way, I will be so bold as to declare you have been missing out! Try roasting once and you’ll see what I mean. Rinse and trim the stalks, arrange them on a parchment lined baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and roll them around to coat. Give them a little salt and pepper to taste, and pop them into a 400° F oven for 15 minutes. They should be slightly tender and retain a bright green color. Easy, yet so elegant.


And there you have it—this “Sunday Supper” dish takes a little more time than an average weeknight meal, but the payoff for your patience is a tender portion of delicate chicken, covered in savory mushrooms and fully enveloped in a rich, gravy-like coating. We like this on its own with a fresh roasted vegetable or salad, but it would also be beautiful on top of your favorite mashed potatoes, rice or linguine.

Ingredients

1.5 lb. package skinless, boneless chicken breast (or same weight of prepared thin cutlets, if you prefer)

Salt, pepper and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion, sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. package fresh cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter (cold from the fridge is fine)

1/3 cup dry white wine (I use pinot grigio, or sometimes dry vermouth as substitute)

1 fresh lemon 

1/2 to 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth (use enough to just cover the browned cutlets)


Ready to make this recipe?

If you make this lemon mushroom chicken, please let me know in the comments how it turned out for you.


Creamy Spinach & Mushroom Tortellini

It seems like a never-ending battle, trying to evict leftovers from our fridge and stay on top of the new groceries coming in. Four months into pandemic lockdown, I still haven’t mastered the challenges of “shopping for the week.” But my culinary muse has been on some kind of caffeine kick lately, and I’m at it again today with a Meatless Monday-worthy pasta dish, made almost entirely with leftovers. Not to worry, though—I’m sure it would be fantastic with fresh-bought ingredients, too.

This one uses up leftover fresh tortellini from a soup recipe last week, and a few fresh produce items starting clamoring when I opened the fridge, so in they went! Cremini mushrooms, with all their warm, earthy flavor, plus baby spinach, sweet onions and fresh garlic. I happened to have a half bag of sweetly sun-kissed dried tomatoes in the pantry cabinet, and we’re off and cooking. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this cluttered fridge yet!

We are empty nesters, and many of my recipes are designed to serve two people. But doubling a recipe such as this one is easy, as long as you’re mindful about the size of your pan.

It’s creamy, rich and packed with earthy flavor!

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion (tennis ball size), cut in half and sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 handfuls fresh baby spinach, rough chopped

1/4 cup soft sun-dried tomatoes*

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream* (see notes for a lighter option)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (something like Pinot Grigio is perfect)

2 cups fresh cheese tortellini (this was half a large package)

Trader Joe’s umami seasoning, optional

3 Tbsp. parm-romano blend* (plus extra for serving)


*Notes

My sun-dried tomatoes are the soft variety, packed in a zip-top bag. If yours are dry and hard, it’s probably a good idea to rehydrate them for a few minutes in hot water before proceeding. If they’re packed in olive oil, you’re good to go.

Want to lighten this up? Here’s a trick that works great in recipes where the fat of heavy cream isn’t as important as the texture. Swap it out in favor of canned evaporated milk. It is more concentrated than fresh milk, but with a fraction of the fat. Give it a try!

If you prefer, you could substitute a vegetable broth for the wine, plus a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of red wine vinegar. This will make up for the acidity the wine adds to the dish.

We go through a LOT of parm-romano blend at our house, and I mention this ingredient in many of my recipes. Rather than purchasing the pre-grated stuff at the market, we buy parmesan and romano in blocks and grate it in our food processor. It’s terrific to be able to reach into the fridge and have a container of it ready to go, plus it’s fresher and more flavorful with no added stabilizers or anti-caking agents. Did I mention we save money with this method?


I’m a visual learner, and if you are as well, have a look at the slideshow before you advance to the recipe. Fair warning: it might make you hungry!


Instructions

  1. Place a large pot of water on to boil over medium-high heat, for cooking the tortellini.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion slices to the skillet and cook, tossing occasionally, until softened and browned on the edges.
  4. Remove onions to a bowl, add another splash of olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms, cooking and tossing until they are soft and moisture has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Move the mushrooms to the outside edges of the pan and add the spinach leaves to the middle. Toss them around until wilted then add the sun-dried tomato pieces.
  6. Stir in the heavy cream, then add the white wine and parmesan-romano blend and reduce heat. Return the caramelized onions to the pan. Cover and allow mixture to simmer on low heat a few minutes while the pasta cooks.
  7. When water comes to a boil, season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt (don’t worry—most of the salt ends up down the drain). Add tortellini and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to medium and allow pasta to cook at a low boil for about 5 minutes. It’s OK to undercook them slightly because they’ll cook further in the sauce.
  8. Drain tortellini (or use a large straining spoon, as I did) and add to the sauce mixture. At this point, I tasted and decided it need just a little something. Remember the Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning we introduced in the Lentil Moussaka? It’s perfectly at home in this dish, underscoring the flavor of the mushrooms already in the dish, and throwing on just a touch of extra savory depth.
  9. Give it a good toss to thoroughly coat the tortellini, then go set the table. It’s a good time to pour another glass of wine, while you’re at it.
  10. Divide the creamy pasta between two pasta bowls, sprinkle with additional parm-romano blend and serve.

It doesn’t look like leftovers and it sure doesn’t taste like it, but I’ve regained some ground on the shelves of my refrigerator. Plus, we ended up with one lingering portion of this dish, perfect for my husband to reheat for a work lunch. And that’s a win-win!

Want to print this recipe?


Creamy Garlic Mushroom Pizza

The savory, earthy flavors of this non-traditional pie will transform your ordinary pizza night into something far more elegant. The two different kinds of mushrooms provide a meaty texture in every bite, leeks and spinach add depth of flavor, and the trio of cheeses are in pleasantly sharp contrast to the creamy béchamel base.

I recommend prepping all the topping ingredients as much as a day ahead of time, as assembly of the pizza moves quickly and you won’t want to wait one extra minute for a bite of this!


Ingredients

1 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole milk

Freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch white pepper

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

1 leek, cleaned and sliced thin (white and light green parts only)

4 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned, sliced and sautéed

8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, sliced and sautéed

2 Tbsp. dry white wine (or dry vermouth, which is what I had open)

1 fat handful fresh baby spinach leaves

1/4 cup extra sharp white cheddar cheese (try Cabot’s “Seriously Sharp” or Trader Joe’s “Unexpected Cheddar”)

2 Tbsp. coarsely grated parmesan cheese

2 Tbsp. coarsely grated romano cheese

Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1 ball real New York pizza dough


Instructions

Make the béchamel by melting butter in a small skillet, then sprinkle in flour and cook until bubbly. Add the milk and whisk until smooth and thickened. Season with fresh nutmeg and white pepper. Squeeze entire bulb of roasted garlic into sauce and whisk until fully incorporated. Remove from heat and set aside to cool (or refrigerate until ready to make the pizza).

Place a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, swirl in about 2 Tbsp. olive oil and sauté leeks until cooked down and lightly browned. Remove from heat. Sauté mushrooms in two batches, being careful not to crowd the pan. Add a small amount of additional olive oil if needed. When all mushrooms are finished, remove them to a bowl, then de-glaze the skillet with wine or vermouth and scrape up all the browned bits. When liquid is almost fully evaporated, add spinach leaves and cook until wilted.

Shape pizza dough into a 12- to 14-inch disk. Remember how we do this?


Drizzle or brush the dough with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Carefully spread the roasted garlic béchamel onto the dough, and spread it out to within 1/2” of the edges. Distribute leeks, cremini mushrooms, spinach and shiitake mushrooms onto the pie, then scatter all cheeses evenly over the top. Add a quick shake of crushed red pepper, and slide it onto a steel in a 550° F oven for about 8 minutes, until crust is golden brown and cheese is bubbly.

This pie is earthy and savory, and not missing a thing.
But if you wanted to add crumbled cooked bacon? Who am I to judge?

For baking on a pizza stone, follow manufacturer’s instructions regarding maximum temperature. Some stones will crack or break at higher temperatures. For baking on a pizza pan, lightly grease the pan before placing dough on it, and bake in the lower third section of your oven for a few minutes longer than recommended in the above recipe. We do all our pizzas on a baking steel by Dough-Joe, and it is the best thing that has ever happened to our homemade pies.

The crust is perfectly crisp, and you can see the lovely char marks on the underside. Thank you, Dough-Joe!

Want to print this recipe?