I can’t remember exactly when I ditched boxes of potato flakes and started making mashed potatoes the real way for Thanksgiving (and every other time I wanted mashed potatoes). But I can say the process has evolved over the years. As my wife, Terrie, creator of this blog often says, cooking is about being inspired, taking chances and elevating your dishes. Just as I continue to try new methods and ingredients on the first dish I ever successfully created (chili), I’ve tweaked these garlic mashed potatoes over the past 20 years. In fact, they didn’t even start out as garlic mashed!
When I was growing up, I would sometimes take the baked potatoes my mother made, scoop out the innards, add margarine (Parkay, to be specific) and mash. It seemed to make them more tolerable.
For the current version, I’ve upped the ante by adding real butter, roasted garlic, our grated parm-romano blend and heavy cream, none of which were in the early year versions of this dish. About a decade ago, I decided to experiment with the potato mix. I loved Yukon Gold and had a hunch doing a 50-50 mix of Yukon and russet would work well. I was right. The garlic mashed I’m serving up here is a silky blend of flavor that kind of melts in your mouth. I usually add more butter than what the recipe calls for. Just because, as Terrie and I say about certain recipes, “There’s too much butter (or parm-romano blend, bacon, bourbon, chocolate). Said nobody. Ever.”
Preheat oven to 350° F. Roast the head of garlic by cutting off the top, adding oil (olive oil preferred) either from a bottle or a spray can. Wrap tightly in foil and roast for about an hour. You can check out Terrie’s post from yesterday for more detail and step-by-step pictures, but it goes like this:
Peel and dice the potatoes and heat stove-top on high. As the water begins to boil, add salt and reduce heat to simmer. Cook until potatoes are soft enough to pierce with a fork. Drain potatoes and return to pot.
Add butter and heavy cream, add salt and pepper. Squeeze out the roasted garlic bulbs into the potatoes. Use a potato masher and mash by hand if you like. Or use a potato ricer if you like (before adding ingredients) for an even silkier texture. There was a time when I added the blend to a stand mixer, but I’ve since disavowed those years (the potatoes get too pasty).
As you mix, continue to taste, adding salt and pepper as needed, but also adding additional butter and/or cream if it feels too potato-ey. Add the grated cheese blend and continue to mash until it completely disappears into the mix, which won’t take long.
Serve with an additional pat of butter, gravy or your own preferred alternatives. Terrie is already eating it straight from the pot.
The blend of potatoes Les uses makes these so special because the Yukon golds are smooth and creamy, while the russets add a soft fluffiness. The roasted garlic and parm-romano add new levels of savory flavor. They are good for Thanksgiving, but we also make them as a side for more casual meals, such as meatloaf, steaks, pork chops and beer can roasted chicken. I confess that I’m always on the lookout for another new main dish that would be an excuse to make these again. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section. 🙂
Hi, everyone! I’m bustling about this week, putting together plans for Thanksgiving, so my awesome husband is stepping into the Comfort du Jour kitchen to share one of his fabulous appetizer recipes! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. 🙂
Water logged, salt bloated, mushy.
I think we can all agree that canned vegetables suck. I grew up on them, though, force fed night after night by my mom, who was trying to make a thin budget stretch enough to feed three hungry kids.
Perhaps my mother was worn down by the time I came around after my two sisters, but mom did let me get away with complete rejection of canned peas and asparagus. I choked down string beans and carrots. Grudgingly. I actually liked two types of canned veggies. Corn and, somewhat inexplicably, spinach.
Maybe it was the Popeye cartoons. You remember how Popeye always was getting whaled on by Bluto until, miraculously, he discovered a can of spinach, opened it with a variety of odd devices he would somehow pull out of thin air and, voila, POW! Bluto was punched off the planet.
Maybe it was the fact I could mix spinach, with a liberal amount of margarine, into the baked potato we had every night. The spinach-potato glop was my favorite—until I discovered frozen creamed spinach in early adulthood in the supermarkets of Southern California, where I moved after college.
It was only a matter of time until I discovered fresh spinach. Tasted good in a salad. Tasted even better sauteed in butter. In short, I discovered the world beyond the can. Years later, I had the good fortune to be invited to a restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, the Ke’e Grill, where “Spinach Maria” achieved the rank of “best spinach dish ever.” Even more fortunate for me, I have a wife, the inspired, genius founder of Comfort du Jour, who loves the challenge of creating dishes even better than we have out. Hence, I’ve enjoyed Terrie’s Spinach Maria and consider it better than the original. Not unlike her version of New York-style pizza.
But I digress. My point is that tastes change and grow over the years, but I still love spinach, and love using it in dishes that I can do, too. Like spinach balls.
I first made these by searching recipes when I was tasked with creating an appetizer dish for an annual holiday potluck at work. First time out of the box, they drew raves, especially from one of the office vegetarians. I guess he enjoyed the savory taste, a blend of seasoned bread crumbs, butter, eggs, cheese and spices. They were clean and neat, easy to just keep popping in your mouth. I’ve been making them, especially around the holidays, ever since, and Terrie has done one of her “elevate” tricks by making use of leftover spinach balls and recasting them as an ingredient, in, say, breakfast waffles. She’s working on a way to incorporate them in some form (Crumbled, sliced? Who knows? That’s the joy of living with a creative kitchen mind) one of her specialty pizzas. I can’t wait.
Spinach Ball Ingredients
1 10-ounce package of frozen spinach*
2 cups seasoned herb mix*
2/3 cup grated Italian cheese*
1/2 cup (1 stick) of salted butter, melted and cooled
3 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
½ tsp. black pepper
Some frozen bagged spinach comes in 12-ounce size, and the extra will not harm the final outcome.
I use a combination of Pepperidge Farm herbed turkey stuffing mix (about 2 parts) and panko bread crumbs (1 part).
Heat oven to 350° F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Defrost spinach and dry as thoroughly as possible with paper towels.
Blend dry ingredients, grinding the bread crumbs so they are largely fine in texture. Add spinach, then eggs and butter, mixing until thoroughly blended and dough-like in consistency.
Take 1 to 2 tablespoons worth of the spinach mixture between your palms, pressing it together to help it take an oval form, then gently roll it between your palms to form golf ball-sized bites, spacing each about an inch apart on the cookie sheet. Be careful to ensure the mixture is pressed initially and to roll it gently to avoid crumbling. If the mix itself is too crumbly, add an egg and another tablespoon of butter, remix and start again.
Spinach balls should cook 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the oven. Turn them once midway when one side has a slightly brown coloring.
The red pepper sauce is something new, and it came about quite coincidentally. Except I don’t believe in coincidences. So here’s the story. One Monday, Terrie asked me to make the spinach balls for the coming weekend. The next day, I peeked at my email and there was one of The New York Times’ 12 emails a day (Yes, I have an online subscription. Sue me; I’m a former journalist.) that crowd my inbox. This one said “Giant couscous cake with red pepper sauce.” I didn’t give a hoot about the couscous cake, but “red pepper sauce” caught my attention. I love sauces. Love to try them, love to create my own. I looked at the recipe and immediately thought it would be perfect for the spinach balls, which we typically serve with a marinara. So we tried it. And like Mikey in the old Life cereal ads, “we liked it.”
Pepper Sauce Ingredients
2 medium red bell peppers, quartered and seeds removed
1 medium tomato, halved and seeded
2 full heads of garlic
1 1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
4 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and preheat oven to 425° F.
Toss peppers and tomato in 1 Tbsp. of olive oil and the kosher salt and arrange skin side up on the cookie sheet.
Cut off ends of garlic heads, drizzle with olive oil and place in foil either on the same cookie sheet if there is room or alongside.
Place the cookie sheet in the oven to roast. After 35 minutes, the peppers and tomatoes should show a nice brown. Remove them from oven and allow to cool slightly; let the garlic continue to roast another 15 minutes until the individual cloves are deep golden color.
Once slightly cooled, remove skins from peppers and tomato and put in a food processor. Remove garlic and squeeze bulbs into the processor as well, taking care not to drop the garlic paper in.
Add red wine vinegar, a good pinch of salt and solid shake of pepper.
Pulse the processor several times to begin the blend, then leave it on and slowly drizzle in remaining 3 Tbs. of olive oil until mixture is smooth. Additional olive oil can be drizzled on top of the sauce upon serving.
Genealogically speaking, I don’t believe I have a single Italian bone in my body. Nope—my people came from other parts of Europe and beyond. But I am so in love with Italian food, especially the southern regional dishes, such as layered baked pasta dishes and big red sauces (or “Sunday gravy,” as it would be called). My grandmother taught me some authentic Scandinavian dishes, but I had to do my own research to learn the real deal on Italian flavors, so I could ditch the bland and overly sweet jarred sauces. I’ve learned how to make my own pasta (that’ll be another post), and hopefully I’ll prove today that I can rock a red sauce that is molto buono!
Chicken cacciatore is my “comfort du jour,” moist and oh-so-tender chicken, stewed slowly and thoughtfully with tomatoes and Italian herbs and spices. This is some serious, old-school Italian comfort food right here! I can’t say that I’ve added a twist to this recipe (maybe the bomba?), but if you’ve never made cacciatore before, I hope you’ll find my recipe approachable. You’ve got this—and here’s a quick rundown of what I learned before I made my own.
What’s the big deal about San Marzano tomatoes?
For Italian sauce recipes, there is really no substitute for San Marzano tomatoes. They are super meaty with a perfect acidic-to-sweet balance, and exceptional for the richest Italian sauces. In appearance, they are essentially plum tomatoes and they are the genetic ancestors of the common supermarket Roma, but to be legally called San Marzano, they must be cultivated in the southern region of Italy of the same name, where the climate and rich, volcanic soil work their magic. Are real San Marzano tomatoes worth the extra buck per can? You bet!
What is bomba sauce?
Delicious, that’s what! Bomba sauce is typically a paste-like seasoning, centered around dried chile peppers from the southern regions of Italy, mixed with olive oil, spices and vinegar. It’s a pungent condiment that is meant to be used sparingly. Trader Joe’s has its version of the sauce that I absolutely love—it’s unique because the Calabrian chiles are fermented, which lends extraordinary depth and flavor. I’ve added a very small amount to my cacciatore, but it wouldn’t be the same without the bomba.
Can I substitute skinless chicken breast for the chicken thighs in this recipe?
Of course, you can always substitute white meat, skinless or boneless, but the dish will not have as much depth and richness, and you’d need to use extra oil to prevent the meat from sticking in the pan. I choose large, bone-in chicken thighs for this recipe because they’re a perfect portion size and the dark meat is so flavorful. Keeping the skin on allows you to draw every bit of chicken-y goodness into the meal. Also, I only select organic, free-range chicken because birds that have freedom to roam in the fresh air and sunshine are healthier, and you know what they say—we are what we eat.
What flavors are in Italian seasoning?
Italian cooks have always relied on the abundant flavors of fresh herbs. If you pick up any bottle of “Italian seasoning” at the supermarket, you can predictably find it contains the big three—oregano, basil and thyme, but there are many other flavors that play well with Italy’s flavorful sauces and roasted meats. In the north, you’d expect to see rosemary and sage. In the south, spicier flavors like red pepper are prominent. Two of my favorites are marjoram (cousin of mint and very similar to oregano) and fennel seed, which has a floral, slightly licorice flavor. It’s what makes Italian sausage taste special. I make my own “Mama Mia” seasoning blend without salt, and I use the big three, plus garlic, fennel seed and crushed red pepper. It’s good for a little punch of flavor in any Italian red sauce, sprinkled on pizza or mixed with olive oil as a bread dipping condiment. If you want to make mine, the recipe is at the end. Otherwise, substitute as noted in the ingredients.
Serves 4 – Prep in 20 minutes, cook for 90 minutes
Extra virgin olive oil
4 large chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on)
2 large bell peppers, seeded and sliced lengthwise, about 1/4” thin
4 or 5 cloves fresh garlic, rough chopped or sliced
2 tsp. Mama Mia Italian seasoning blend—or 1/4 tsp. each: oregano, basil, ground fennel seed, thyme leaves, garlic powder, onion powder, crushed red pepper flakes (this is not exactly the same as my Mama Mia blend, but close)
1 or 2 tsp. Trader Joe’s Italian Bomba hot pepper sauce
Handful Kalamata olives (pitted), rough-chopped into pieces
1/4 cup dry red wine (It doesn’t have to be Italian; I used a CA red blend that was already open)
1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes in puree (San Marzano, if possible)
1/2 package linguine (preferably “bronze-cut” for best texture)
Freshly grated parmesan or parm-romano blend, for serving
Small handful Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned and chopped
A loaf of fresh Italian bread for sopping up every single drop of the sauce
Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and season both sides generously with kosher salt and black pepper.
Heat a large (12”) cast-iron skillet (or electric skillet) to medium-hot, and swirl in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When oil is just shimmering, place chicken thighs in pan, skin side down, leaving plenty of room between them. Cover the pan (I use a spatter screen) and leave them undisturbed about 7 minutes to allow a deep golden crust to form on the skin. Loosen and turn the thighs and cook until just lightly browned on the other side, about 2 minutes. The chicken will finish cooking later in the sauce. Remove the pieces to a plate and keep warm while you prep the sauce.
If the remaining oil is sputtering or popping in the pan, allow a few seconds for the moisture droplets to cook off. Reduce heat to medium. All at once, add your onions and bell peppers to the pan, and stir them around until they begin to soften. Add the Mama Mia seasoning, plus salt and pepper, over the entire mixture. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onions are slightly translucent. Stir in the Kalamata olives, the Bomba sauce and the red wine.
Add the peeled tomatoes, using your hand to squeeze each one into the pan. This releases more of the juices quickly and gives the tomatoes a head start on breaking up. Pour all remaining juice from the tomatoes into the pan, but discard any large basil leaves that may have been included in the can (they’ve already done their job). Add a splash of water (or wine!) to the tomato can to swish out every last bit of flavor in there. Scrape up any browned bits that may be stuck to the pan and stir the mixture until it has a uniform appearance. Cover and allow the mixture to come up to a slight boil.
Add the chicken thighs back to the pan, skin side up, and spoon the tomato mixture lightly over the tops. They don’t need to be buried in it, but you want to moisten them with the flavorful sauce. Cover the pan and reduce heat to medium-low, turning the chicken only twice over the next 90 minutes.
When the sauce is a deep red color and the chicken shreds with a light twist of your fork, reduce heat to warm and prepare your pasta water. Remember to use plenty of water and plenty of salt.
When the salted water reaches a steady boil, add your pasta and stir at once to prevent sticking. Cook to just barely al dente, or a couple of minutes under what seems perfect. You’re going to finish it in the sauce. Before draining the pasta, ladle out 2 to 3 tablespoons of the water into the sauce. This adds the pasta starch to the sauce, which helps “marry” them to coat the pasta better.
Move the chicken pieces to the outer edges of the pan (or remove to a plate if the pan is crowded), making a well of sauce in the center. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the center of the pot, stirring quickly to evenly coat it in the sauce. I use silicone tongs to do this because I can grab hold of the pasta while moving it. Cover the pan and turn off the heat while you pour another glass of wine and call everyone to the table.
Portion the pasta onto the serving plates, top with a spoonful of sauce, then a chicken thigh, and divvy out the rest of the flavorful sauce. Sprinkle some grated cheese and a bit of fresh chopped parsley on top and enjoy!
Mama Mia seasoning (makes about 1/3 cup seasoning blend)
I created my own blend of Italian spices, to customize the flavors we like best at our house. Most of my blends do not contain salt, and this allows more flexibility with different application and better control of the sodium in my dishes. Most of the time, I double the recipe so I always have a jar of the blend at the ready. The beauty of a blend like this one is that you can increase or decrease or even eliminate ingredients based on your taste preference. And every time, it’ll be perfect!
This blend is great for your own Italian red sauce, or add a teaspoon to a puddle of extra virgin olive oil and top with freshly grated parmesan for a flavorful bread dipping oil.
Heat a dry skillet (no oil!) over medium high heat and add fennel seeds, swirling the pan constantly for about one minute, until the seeds become fragrant. Remove immediately to a bowl to cool completely, then crush seeds with a mortar and pestle or pulse a few quick times in a spice grinder.
Add all other seasoning to the bowl and stir to combine. Transfer to a jar or empty spice bottle.
A couple of unexpected things have begun to happen since I first started this blog back in April. The first is that I’m getting more serious about using up foods from the freezer and the other is that I’m finally tackling some of the foods on my culinary “bucket list.” I keep a running list of dishes I’d like to try one day—either because I’ve seen it in a magazine or cooking show or because I’ve tasted it somewhere. And when I taste something and love it, my instinct is “I’ve got to make that!” As of now, the list includes (among other things) pierogis, handmade mozzarella, and black-and-white cookies, a childhood favorite of Les, my NYC-raised husband.
Today, I can scratch off a dish that I only added to the list as a “maybe someday” item—fried squash blossoms. I’d never dared even think about what was involved in making these lovely delicacies, but I knew how delicious they are from a wine dinner menu years ago at one of our city’s authentic Italian restaurants. So I added them to the list even though they intimidated me.
Last week, once the shock of discovering life in my raised-bed garden wore off, I got serious about trying them for real. After all, I had a hearty handful of these perfect little blossoms, and what’s the worst that could happen—I’d fail?
The thing is, it was not a failure at all. Quite the contrary. They were surprisingly simple (yes, really) and perfectly delicious. I scanned a few internet recipes for suggestions of what they should be stuffed with and to learn how to fry them without overwhelming their delicate structure, and then I got to work. When I launched Comfort du Jour, I had two goals, but I’ve put most of my effort toward only one of them—taking a classic comfort food to new levels. This project is a delicious example of my second goal—finding a way to make a complex or intimidating dish more approachable.
Before you shake your head and decide you could never make these, let me put this out there—if you can pick a flower and if you can squeeze ricotta cheese from a corner-cut zip top bag, you can make these. Yes, it’s really that simple. Grab an apron and let’s get started.
Handful of freshly picked squash blossoms* (see notes below)
3/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
Handful of fresh basil leaves*
1/4 cup grated parm-romano cheese
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 can chilled, unflavored seltzer water (or club soda or very mild beer)
1/2 cup canola oil for frying*
In my First Fruits post earlier this week, I pointed out what I’d learned about squash plants having “male” and “female” blossoms. For this recipe, I used only male blossoms. It’s easy to identify them because they don’t show the beginnings of any tiny squash fruit. Once the female blossoms have been pollinated (as mine were), the male flowers are basically just decoration.
Basil is one of those polarizing herbs. Some people swear it tastes like dish soap, and I’d hate for that to stop anyone from trying these special treats. Swap the basil out for thyme, parsley or oregano as you like.
Another neutral oil would be fine for frying. Be sure it is an oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado, coconut or grapeseed oil.
Place the ricotta in a mesh strainer over a measuring cup to drain excess moisture.
Carefully reach inside the squash blossoms and remove the stamen, which is a bulbous yellow thing inside. It’s the, um—how shall I say it?—male part of the blossom. Don’t worry if the petals tear a little bit. And may I suggest that you consider doing this step outside at the garden. I made a first-timer’s mistake of doing this at the kitchen sink and scared the bejeezus out of a pollinator bee inside a blossom. Sadly, I had to smash it in the sink because Les is terribly allergic to bee stings. I felt awful about it, but I went through a lot to find this wonderful man, and it was him or the bee.
Rinse the blossoms under cold running water, and gently shake them to empty out excess water. Lay them on a couple layers of paper towel to drain.
Rinse and blot dry the fresh basil leaves, then stack and chop them into small pieces. Mix the basil leaves into the strained ricotta, along with the parm-romano cheese, salt and pepper. Spoon the ricotta mixture into a small zip top bag and seal it.
Snip a small corner off one end of the zip top bag, and gently squeeze a heaping tablespoon of the ricotta mixture inside each blossom. The blossoms will “give” a little bit as you go, and it will feel obvious that you’ve filled them enough. Stretch the blossom petals around to fully cover the filling and twist the tops very gently to seal them up. They don’t have to be perfect, but the goal is to keep the filling from spilling out during frying. Rest the filled blossoms on a paper towel while you prepare the batter and frying oil.
Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add the canola oil. This is not a lot of oil, so it will heat up fairly quickly. It should be about 1/2″ deep in your skillet.
In a medium-size bowl, mix some salt and pepper into the flour, and stir in enough seltzer water to make a thin batter. It will bubble quite a bit, and that’s a good thing. It should be thinner than pancake batter, but not quite as thin as heavy cream. When I dipped the blossoms into the batter, they were coated, but I could still see them through the batter.
Very gently lay the blossoms into the hot oil and be careful not to crowd them or they will stick together. When the bottom side is lightly golden and crisp, turn them to cook the other side. Drain the fried blossoms on fresh paper towels, sprinkle immediately with sea salt and serve.
So light and crispy, and they didn’t need any kind of dipping sauce or other accoutrements. To keep our dinner easy and light that evening, I put together a simple tomato sauce (thank you, leftovers) with bucatini pasta. These three pictures describe how easy that was, and it really needs no additional explanation. Simple is good, right?
My “bucket list” experiment of making fried squash blossoms ended very, very well. It was also Les’s first experience tasting them, and though skeptical at first, he declared during dinner that he was a fan.
Do you have foods on a bucket list? Tell me about it in the comments, and then go cook them. Be brave in your kitchen!
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.
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)
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!
Place a large pot of water on to boil over medium-high heat, for cooking the tortellini.
Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
Add onion slices to the skillet and cook, tossing occasionally, until softened and browned on the edges.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Of all the recipes I stashed away in my mind during the time I spent working in a catering kitchen, the hot artichoke dip takes the gold as my most durable. During my two years as a kitchen assistant, I probably made this dip more than 100 times. It was a favorite among clients, and for good reason. It’s easy to make ahead, easy to serve in large quantity and an undeniable crowd pleaser. It also happens to be extremely adaptable to other ingredients, as we learned with the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip a few weeks ago. By keeping the base recipe the same, I’m able to adjust the other ingredients to create whatever impression I wish, and I encourage you to do the same with ingredients that sound good to you.
What I haven’t confessed is that the cream cheese part of the recipe I share today is technically my own adjustment to the original, which (I’m sorry to say) was completely off the charts in fat content. If you spend even a little bit of time in a commercial kitchen, you will quickly come to realize the overwhelming dependence on mayonnaise. I’m not kidding—pro chefs use that stuff for everything—from dips and dressings (which makes sense) to spreading on fish before rolling in bread crumbs (why not eggs or Dijon?) and replacing butter for grilling sandwiches (I’m sorry—what’s wrong with butter?). As crazy as it seems, the solution presented in the catering kitchen to the oiliness that would appear when the artichoke dip was drowning in melted mayonnaise was, “add more bread crumbs.” Yowza. When I decided to make it at home, this recipe got an easy makeover.
For any creamy hot dip, light cream cheese fits the bill as a substitute for so much mayonnaise. It maintains the silky creamy texture, gives better structure and (in my humble opinion) improves the overall experience of the dip because it doesn’t separate or become greasy. I don’t need to create an infographic to describe to you the nutritional comparison. (Spoiler—the cream cheese wins.)
And although the original recipe is for artichoke dip, the base is a neutral canvas for whatever you want in the dip. This time, I kept the marinated artichoke hearts, added cooked crab, swapped out cheddar in favor of cheeses that paired better with the delicate crab, and topped the whole thing with garlic-buttered (not mayonnaise-laden) panko crumbs. We wanted something on the “heavy hors d’oeuvres” side for a backyard happy hour, and this was perfectly transportable and an absolute winner. As you can see, the ingredient list is short and sweet, just like our time spent laughing and relaxing with our friends on a beautiful spring evening. Charlotte was convinced this must be difficult to make—just wait until she sees the simplicity of this recipe! 🙂
Whether you’re gathering safely with friends as we did or hoarding the whole batch for yourself (I’m not judging), I hope you’ll feel free to swap ingredients to suit your palate for your next “happy hour.”
8 oz. brick light cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened
1/3 cup canola oil mayonnaise
2 tsp. dried chopped onion (or 1/4 cup sauteed onion)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A few shakes of Old Bay seasoning (optional, but so good with crab)
1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (to save time, I used a pre-shredded blend from Trader Joe’s)*
4 oz. prepared crab meat*
3/4 cup marinated artichoke hearts, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 Tbsp. salted butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup parmesan-romano cheese
I’m eating my words from other posts regarding the use of pre-shredded cheese. Normally, I cringe at their use because of the no-clump coating that generally prevents even mixing or melting. The truth is, I was pressed for time on the day I made this scrumptious dip, because my stylist was able to squeeze me in for my first hair appointment in more than 90 days! As always, my tips are only suggestions. If it comes down to taking a shortcut or missing the opportunity, please always take the shortcut!
Use any cooked crab meat you prefer. In some dishes, fresh is crucial—but in this hot dip, I’ve found that the prepared blue crab available in my supermarket’s seafood section is perfectly suitable.
Using either a stand mixer or handheld mixer, beat the cream cheese and mayonnaise together until smooth and creamy. Add the dried onion, plus salt and pepper to taste, and mix to combine. This is the base recipe, and you can use it as a backdrop for any other ingredients you wish, provided you follow the general ratio of added ingredients, and none of them are excessively wet.
To continue with the crab artichoke dip recipe, add the Old Bay seasoning and shredded cheese and stir or mix on low until it’s evenly incorporated. Use a rubber spatula or spoon to gently fold in the crab meat and artichoke hearts. You want these ingredients to keep their shape, so easy does it here.
For serving at home, transfer the mixture to a 9-inch pie plate. Because we were planning to share the dip at a safely-distanced backyard happy hour, I divided it among three smaller oven-safe ramekins—one for us, one for our friends, and a third to leave behind for them to enjoy later in the weekend.
Melt butter in a small skillet and sauté the garlic over medium-low heat. Stir in the panko crumbs and toss them around until all are coated evenly. (Want to save a bit of time here? While the butter is melting, put the panko crumbs in a small Rubbermaid-style bowl. After sautéing the garlic, pour the butter mixture over the crumbs then seal the bowl and shake the heck out of it. It’s one more dish to wash, but you will make quick work of blending the butter with the crumbs more evenly.)
Sprinkle the buttered crumbs evenly over the crab-artichoke mixture, then sprinkle with parm-romano blend and cover with foil and tuck it into the fridge until you’re ready to bake.
Bake at 350° F for 35-40 minutes, or until dip is bubbly and parm-romano crumb mixture is lightly browned. Serve warm with crackers, pita or toasted baguettes. Wouldn’t you know?—we were in a rush to get over to our backyard happy hour, and I was so excited about seeing our friends in person, I forgot to snap a picture of the bubbly dip while it was hot from the oven. I guess I’ll have to make it again, and then I’ll update the post. 🙂
Before I present my recent addition to the Meatless Monday lineup of recipes, some unfortunate news—it looks like my garden isn’t going to make it this year. After only four weeks in the soil, so many of my tender plants have succumbed either to the deluge of rain we had over Memorial Day or the woodland critters who have decided to munch on the leaves. The yellow squash is withering, its stems split wide open from too much water. The zucchini vine is missing several of its broad protective leaves, having fallen victim to the hungry deer. And at least three of my red bell pepper plants are nothing but stubs. Though the deer don’t particularly care for the fruit of the pepper plants, they’ve made it clear they don’t mind snacking on the tender leaves and blossoms. What’s left of the garden is looking sad and puny, and I fear the nutrients in the soil have washed away with last month’s rainwater. Poor plants hardly stood a chance.
The happy news is that I’ve been able to find some fresh and good-looking vegetables at the market, a little ahead of season, and I’m not going to waste any more time wishing for my beloved ratatouille. On the contrary—I intend to enjoy it in as many different ways as possible. The dish is a favorite of mine, though I didn’t really become acquainted with it until I was well into adulthood. In case you have trouble remembering what’s in ratatouille, let me share with you a simple word trick that makes it easy. Several years ago, during the season five competition of the “Next Food Network Star,” finalist Melissa D’Arabian (who went on to win the title that year) shared an acronym that perfectly describes ratatouille.
“Just remember E-Z-pot,” she told the judges. Eggplant, zucchini, peppers-onions-tomato, easy to put together and made in a pot. That’s a perfect description, and also an easy way to jot down the ingredients on my grocery list.
Ratatouille, in its most rustic, southern-French form, is a hearty, chunky summer vegetable stew, seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs—a satisfying meatless meal made complete with a piece of crusty baguette and a glass of Provençal wine. In a fancier version, you might see ratatouille assembled in a striking pattern of layered thinly sliced vegetables, elegantly stacked with a garlicky tomato sauce and fresh sprigs of thyme.
If you’re a fan (as I am) of the Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille, you probably can’t help but recall the scene near the end, in which harsh, unemotional food critic Anton Ego takes a single bite of such an elegantly presented ratatouille, prepared by Remy—a rat (yes, a rat) who defied convention to follow his dream of being a chef. In a fraction of a moment, the stodgy Ego is transported back in time to his mother’s kitchen, where, as a young boy, he created his early memory of the rustic dish considered by many to be “peasant food.” One taste brought back all the feelings for him, and the incident changed his mind and his heart. For real, that one scene sums up Comfort du Jour. I’m even crying a little bit right now.
Today, I’m taking the rustic, casual approach to ratatouille and adding yet another twist. We are going to put those fresh garden flavors onto a pizza. I’ll send hubby out to the grill with the eggplant, zucchini and red bell pepper to reduce their moisture and bring out the best of their flavors. The onions will be pan-caramelized with fragrant herbs de Provence, and just for the heck of it, I’m tossing in some sautéed mushrooms. With the application of ratatouille’s classic flavors on a pizza crust, I’m sort of visualizing the south of France knocking on neighboring Italy’s door to borrow a couple of ingredients. A simple Italian tomato sauce will lay on an airy, rye-infused crust (sourdough, naturally), with a combination of gruyere, parmesan and romano to punctuate the grilled vegetables. Wow, it’s making me sooo hungry.
You don’t have to make your own dough to enjoy this pizza—before I made my own bread, I favored the Boboli pre-made crusts. There’s no judgment here if you want to use a pre-made pizza dough or other favorite crust and just focus on the flavors of the vegetables. Or trade in the crust altogether for a fresh bowl of hot pasta, tossed with the grilled vegetables and herb-infused sauce. Or really merge Italian into it by serving it on risotto or polenta. Re-imagine it exactly however you like. Isn’t that the beauty of comfort food?
1 ball rye pizza dough*
1 medium eggplant, sliced into 1/2″ rounds, salted and sweated*
1 medium zucchini, cleaned and sliced 1/4″ thin, lengthwise
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into wedges
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 large sweet onion
4 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thick
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes
1 bulb roasted garlic
1 tsp. herbs de Provence seasoning*
2 oz. dry white or rose wine
2 oz. finely shredded gruyere cheese
2 oz. coarsely shredded parmesan and romano blend cheeses
3 Tbsp. prepared pizza sauce (we love Dei Fratelli brand for its authentic, simple flavors)
If you wish to make the rye pizza dough, follow my instructions for My Real NY Pizza Dough but swap out the sourdough starter with equal amount of starter fed with 100% rye flour. Allow the starter to ferment 14 hours at room temperature before building the final pizza dough.
An hour or so ahead of preparing the rest of the dish, spread a double layer of paper towels on a baking sheet, salt liberally and arrange the eggplant slices. Salt the tops of the slices, cover with additional paper towels and place a weighted baking sheet on top. This will draw out the moisture and remove any bitter flavor from the eggplant before you grill it. After the “salt and sweat” period, use a damp towel to wipe off all excess salt.
Herbs de Provence is a classic French blend of herbs and seasonings, including thyme, savory, basil, lemon and a hint of lavender. You can make your own, but it’s easier to pick up a bottle of McCormick or any other brand at the market. Take note of the salt content so you know how to adjust your recipe.
Spray or brush eggplant slices, zucchini and bell peppers with extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and grill at 350° F for approximately 10 minutes, or until they reach your preferred level of caramelization. We let them go until they were lightly charred, but still tender.
Place the grilled peppers in a bowl, cover with foil and wait 15 minutes until the skin is loosened enough to peel away. Cool all vegetables and chop into large, rough pieces.
Place a medium non-stick skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and sauté onions until they are softened with charred edges. Sprinkle onions with salt, pepper and 1/2 tsp. herbs de Provence. Remove onions to a bowl, and repeat the same process with the sliced mushrooms, seasoning with remaining herbs de Provence.
In the same non-stick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over low heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and heat slowly until tomatoes are soft enough to burst when pressed. Continue to cook until tomatoes are broken down and saucy and squeeze the roasted garlic into the pan.
Season with salt and pepper, add dry wine and simmer until liquid dissipates. It should have the texture of a soft jam. Set all ingredients aside (or refrigerate them) until you’re ready to make pizza.
Time to bake!
Shape pizza dough into a 14” circle. Brush or spray with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Swirl on tomato sauce, parmesan and romano, sauteed and grilled vegetables, then finely shredded gruyere. Finish the pie with the roasted garlic-tomato mixture and slide into a very hot oven on a preheated pizza steel or stone.
We bake our pizzas on a steel at 550° F for approximately 7 minutes. Please use the temperature and time best suited to your method.
We must be headed into summer, because I can hardly tear myself away from grilled food ideas. I’m dreaming about classic summer favorites, but I’m also having fun imagining new ways to enjoy fruit, vegetables, pizza and who knows what else on the grill. One thing you can expect from me in the coming weeks is a grilled watermelon gazpacho. True story, I woke up thinking about it the other day. After a bunch of rainy days and weekends, we’ve finally eased into some nicer days, and cooking outside is the best part of that!
Most of the time, mentions of grilling conjures images of burgers and ribs and heavy smoky things. But I’ve definitely been feeling it more for freshness lately, and craving lighter foods that will help me feel less sluggish after so many weeks of “comfort food,” Zoom happy hours and going absolutely nowhere.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be planning an expansion of our patio and some other embellishments to help make it even more inviting. And hopefully one day soon (or at least not too far off), we will be able to share the space with friends more than current circumstances allow.
For now, we’re thankful to have comfy patio chairs, a private backyard, and a great Char-Broil gas grill, and tonight we’re cooking up a grilled chicken Caesar. Not just grilled chicken on the Caesar, mind you—more than that, the Caesar will be grilled as well. If you have not yet enjoyed grilled romaine, it’s such a treat, and yet so, so simple. It’s basically a poster child for Comfort du Jour—a familiar comfortable food, but with a fun and simple twist to elevate your happy. Let’s get cooking!
1 romaine heart (the tender inside part of romaine lettuce)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp. bottled Caesar dressing (the simpler, the better)
4 anchovy fillets
Freshly shaved parmesan or pecorino romano cheese for serving
Check your brand of garlic pepper seasoning for salt content, and adjust your marinade ingredients to taste. We have McCormick brand, and the salt is just right. If yours is salt-free, you’ll probably want to add about 1/4 tsp. salt along with it, or season the chicken with salt before you add the marinade.
In our house, we’re careful to avoid a lot of highly processed ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and just about any version of soybean oil (it has no nutritional value and is usually genetically modified). We like the brand pictured in this post (Marzetti’s “Simply Dressed”) because it’s made with real ingredients and nothing that makes us cringe. Find it refrigerated in the produce section of your market.
Anchovies have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. For a long time, I assumed I didn’t like anchovies because other people didn’t like them. But in small amounts, and paired with the right things, they add a fantastic savory pop to a dish. If you haven’t tried them lately, give them a shot in this recipe!
Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and set aside while you prepare the simple grilling marinade.
In a small bowl, combine red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon and garlic pepper seasoning. Drizzle in olive oil in a slow and steady stream, whisking constantly to incorporate and emulsify. Pour the marinade over the chicken breasts in a covered glass dish or a zip top plastic bag. Put in the fridge until about 30 minutes before grilling.
Next, prep the romaine for grilling by trimming the end and any loose leaves, and cut in half lengthwise. Rinse under cold water, ruffling the leaves to let the water get inside the layers. Shake off excess water and place romaine halves, cut-side down, on a plate lined with a double layer of paper towels. Lay a damp paper towel over the top and put the plate in the fridge for several hours. The water will continue to drain from the cut leaves, and the romaine will get nice and crunchy during its chill time.
Preheat your grill or grilling pan to about 450° F. The chicken should rest at room temperature about 30 minutes. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it helps the chicken cook more evenly. Reduce the temperature to about 350° and grill the chicken until it’s nicely charred on the outside and the juices run clear. At this point in the recipe, I usually bid adieu to my husband, Les, who handles most of our outdoor cooking. He’ll tend the chicken while he sips on a cold one and catches up with his Facebook feed. I have my own business to tend—the dressing.
Straight honest truth, if you’ve ever had authentic, scratch-made Caesar dressing, you know that there simply is no equal. The lemon, egg, anchovy and garlic create a perfect harmony that literally is the Caesar salad. Without it, you have basically a pile of romaine. But on a busy weeknight, who has time to coddle eggs? Me neither. What we can do instead is elevate a store bought “Caesar” dressing (I’ve yet to find one that has all the right stuff) with the addition of a couple of simple ingredients.
Don’t start making faces now. Anchovies are surprisingly delicious if you don’t overdo it, and we definitely won’t here. I’m only using a few fillets of these salty little fishes, and they will add a whole new layer of flavor to my otherwise “OK” dressing.
Chop them into small pieces (so you don’t get too much in any single bite), then stir or whisk them into the Caesar dressing. If the dressing seems a little thick, also pour in a little of the oil packed with the anchovies. Give it a quick taste—if it’s too salty, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to tone it down. Grind some fresh black pepper into it for a little more bite. This is your salad, so make it work for your taste.
Pull the romaine from the fridge and move it to the next step by drizzling good quality extra virgin olive oil over the cut side. Allow the oil to trickle down between the leaves a little, but don’t drench it. Season the halves with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, then take it out to the grill.
When the chicken is nearly finished, place the romaine halves directly on the grill, cut side down. And leave it. The first time I made grilled romaine, this felt so strange—putting delicate lettuce on the grill? But it’s really an incredible difference it makes in the salad, and I look forward to grilling season for things just like this. Obviously, we can eat salad all year, but in our winter months, it isn’t always practical to fire up the grill. For sure, my hubby isn’t gonna stand out there in 20° weather. Especially in the dark (which is usually is at dinner time during winter). It is, of course, possible to do this on an indoor grill pan, but there’s something more special about it when it’s cooked outside.
When the romaine has a nice amount of caramelization on the cut side (you decide when it reaches that point), turn over the halves and allow the other side to grill for a minute or two.
To serve, rest the chicken breasts then slice into crosswise strips. Serve alongside the romaine half, drizzling both with the jazzed-up Caesar dressing and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese. If you prefer, chop the grilled romaine as well, and toss it together with the chicken and dressing, then divide on two plates and top with shredded cheese.
It’s only been three weeks since our state went into lockdown over the COVID-19 risks, but it sure seems like I’ve been rationing fresh food items a lot longer than that. We’ve managed to only do our grocery runs about once every 10 to 14 days since the middle of March, when the walls first started to close in. And the consequences of our few-and-far-between trips became evident a few nights ago when I reached for the “brand-new” package of grape tomatoes I’d purchased, and found this:
If that isn’t disappointing enough, imagine my horror when I peeked into the crisper drawer to find another so-called fresh item to be way past its prime.
I know. Kind of like those pics all over Instagram of celebrities without their makeup. Our produce drawer has been so jam-packed these past weeks, it has become a real challenge to keep up with the fresh ingredients we’re buying in greater quantity than usual. This discovery of wrinkly tomatoes and shriveled zucchini wrecked my plan for making ratatouille, one of my very favorite vegetable-centered dishes. I’m not even going to show you a picture of the eggplant. It’s rough, people.
So, a change of plans, but this need not be a disaster. I’ve been here before with the tomatoes and knew I could save them. With a little patience and the magic of slow poaching in some good quality olive oil, you can do it, too. We’re going to turn these sad little misfit vegetables into something delicious. This recipe serves two.
Let’s Get Cooking!
One pint really wrinkled baby tomatoes (of course, fresh is good, also!) 1/2 cup chopped onion (I like sweet ones, but use whatever you have) 3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped 1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil 1 tsp. Italian blend herb seasoning About 1 1/2 cups leftover cooked chicken (shredded scraps from a rotisserie market chicken is perfect) 1 medium shriveled-up zucchini (or fresh, if you must) Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper Parm-Romano cheese for serving
First things first—we need to identify any tomatoes that truly shouldn’t be used. If they are wrinkled and a bit withered, they’re OK. Soft, oozing or moldy? Sorry fellas, you’ve been chopped.
Rinse the tomatoes that remain and set them aside on a paper towel to absorb the excess water. Place a large, non-stick skillet over very low heat and add the full amount of olive oil. It’s going to seem like a lot, but it’s all good.
Add the onions, garlic and baby tomatoes to the olive oil and tilt the pan around to “roll” and coat the tomatoes in the oil. Add the Italian herbs, and season with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Keep the heat to a bare minimum. This super-slow pace might feel a little awkward if you are accustomed to sautéing in oil. We’re doing something else—rehydrating the tomatoes should not be rushed, and I can’t emphasize enough that your heat should be at the lowest setting your burner allows. You don’t want to see or hear any sizzling at all; if you do, it’s too hot. The pictures in this slideshow are time-stamped, and the captions will help explain how this should progress:
Pretty awesome, right? And you wouldn’t believe the depth of aroma and flavor the olive oil is able to extract from those sad little tomatoes. Actually, it’s more than that; studies have shown that cooking tomatoes in oil releases more of their lycopene, an antioxidant linked to heart health and protection against certain types of cancer. And to think, we almost threw them away!
If you only had the tomatoes, you could stop right here, toss this sauce with some freshly cooked pasta and call it dinner (just add a sprinkle of parmesan and a glass of wine). But today is also the deadline for that pitiful zucchini, so I’m going to take this a step further and turn the squash into “noodles.”
One day soon, I’ll share my honest opinion about the different spiralizers I’ve tried. They definitely are not created equal, and although you’d think the expensive ones would be the best, I usually prefer this little gadget—called a “Vegetti”—that I picked up for about $6 at TJMaxx (a couple years ago—you know, when things were open).
It has two sides: one for thick spirals and one for thin. I’m using the thick side today, and as you can see, after twisting the zucchini through it, there’s very little waste. Just the butt ends and these cute little swirly buttons. Lucky for me, even these will not be wasted because our dog, Nilla, is certifiably crazy about vegetables. Sweet girl has such patience.
We’re now in the homestretch, where we will see the final transformation of too-far-gone vegetables turned into a delicious and healthful, zero-waste meal. I’m scattering my leftover chicken pieces over the top of my luscious poached tomato sauce, then the zucchini noodles, salt and pepper, and covering it with a lid to heat it through.
Turn up the heat about two notches to medium, set the table and pour the wine. By then, this one-skillet meal will be ready to be tossed and plated. Enjoy!
There’s a reason “tomato bisque” is on so many restaurants’ menus. It’s a classic comfort food, and so simple to make from regular pantry ingredients you’ll wonder why you ever settled for the stuff in a can. My version includes a bit of red bell pepper and carrot for a touch of extra flavor and sweetness. This is perfect on a chilly day or rainy night, and we love to pair it with a tuna on homemade rye or classic grilled cheese sandwich.
Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper
1 medium onion, chopped (I like sweet onions, but yellow works well here, too)
1/2 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tsp. Italian herb seasoning (or some combination of oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary)
A pinch of crushed red pepper
28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible)
1/2 cup vegetable broth or 3/4 cup V-8 juice
1/4 cup whole milk, half-n-half or heavy cream (omit or substitute canned coconut milk if vegan)
Freshly grated parm-romano cheese blend (omit for vegan) and chopped parsley or basil for serving
cutting board and knife, heavy-bottomed tall pot, flat wooden utensil or spoon, immersion blender*
Let’s Get Cooking!
Place a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil (about 2 to 3 tablespoons). When oil begins to shimmer, add onion, pepper and carrot all at once. Salt and pepper to taste, then stir and cook until all begin to soften. Add chopped garlic and seasoning blend, stir and cook another minute or two until onions seem slightly translucent.
Add the plum tomatoes, using your hand to squeeze each tomato into the pot. This helps release the juices and gives them a head start on breaking up in the pot. Squeeze slowly and gently so you don’t wear it! Add all the tomatoes plus all remaining liquid from the can, but discard any basil leaves that may be in the can. Add broth or juice, stir to mix evenly and bring just to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered on medium-low about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent burning. Adjust seasoning to taste.
When mixture appears less chunky and somewhat reduced, turn off heat and use an immersion blender to puree until mixture is as smooth as you like. Simmer on low another few minutes to allow air bubbles to disperse and soup to reduce to your preferred thickness. If it’s too thick, stir in a bit more vegetable broth. Remove from heat and swirl in milk or substitute. Ladle into bowls and swirl a drizzle of olive oil over the top of the soup and sprinkle with parm-romano cheese and fresh chopped herbs as you like.