Bring on Fall…Spinach Alfredo Casserole

There are signs of Fall all around us. The trees (those that can) are beginning to show their autumn paletes of red and gold. The vibrant petunias and impatiens of Summer are being replaced by more subtly colored and hardier mums. Squirrels are hunting and burying with gusto. Kitchens are beginning to fire up the ovens as often as firing up the grill.

In case you haven’t guessed, I love Fall. It is my favorite time of year. Those of you who only know it is Fall by the month on the calendar or the inexplicable appearance of pumpkin spice everything, are missing quite an experience. Whatever the weather is where you are, it is time to think about making those comfort filled one dish wonders, casseroles.

Here is one to get your autumnal juices flowing. This starts quite simply with penne pasta as a base, but any cut pasta would do. Baby spinach and crimini mushrooms team up with onion and garlic to give some plant presence to the dish.

The sauce is Alfredo. You can make this sauce, and it is really quite easy, or you could buy pre-made sauce which is even easier. I am not a proponent of prepared foods in general, but once in a while it doesn’t compromise my integrity too much to reach for a jar or carton. Find one with an ingredient list that has things you can easily identify and not too many non-food additives. They are out there.

The vegetables were sautéed in a little olive oil, taking turns based on cooking time. Once everything was as it should be, the sauce was added. Once it was at a bubble some asiago cheese went in. Th penne was added and everything went into a good-sized casserole.

I gave it a blanket of cheesy breadcrumbs and let it bake until it displayed all of the requisite casserole characteristics; bubbly edges and golden brown crust. It was delicious, it made the house smell wonderful, and it was the perfect comfort food for the first chilly night of the season.

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Spinach Alfredo Casserole


Servings: 4
Ingredients
  • 8 Ounces Penne Pasta Any cut pasta will work
  • 1 Tbsp. Olive Oil
  • 1 Mediium Onion Chopped
  • 8 Ounces Crimini Mushrooms sliced
  • 4 Cloves Garlic Chopped
  • 6 Ounces Baby Spinach Chopped
  • 1-1/2 Cups Alfredo Sauce Home made or prepeared
  • 1/3 Cup Milk More or less as needed
  • Salt and Pepper To Taste
  • 4 Ounces Grated Asiago Cheese
  • 3/4 Cup Bread Crumbs
  • 1 Tbsp. Parmesan Cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. Butter
Instructions
  1. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water 2 minutes less than the box directs. Drain and put in a 2 quart casserole dish that has been generously sprayed with olive oil cooking spray. Prepare the sauce while the past cooks

  2. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the olive oil swirling to coat the bottom of the skillet. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

  3. Add the mushrooms and garlic to the skillet and cook another 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.

  4. Add the spinach and toss well to combine. Cook 3 - 4 minutes until the spinach begins to wilt. Stir in the Alfredo sauce and continue to cook until it comes to a bubble, stirring often. If the sauce seems thick, add the milk a little at a time until you have a medium thick sauce.

  5. Turn the heat to low and add the Asiago cheese. Stir until it is completely melted. Taste and add salt and pepper as you need. Pour the sauce over the pasta and stir to completely combine.

  6. Melt the butter and stir in the bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese . Toss until the crumbs are well coated. Sprinkle on the top of the casserole.

  7. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes. The crumbs should be brown and the sauce should be bubbly. Allow to rest a few minutes before serving.

Fall likes to take its time around here. Right now it feels far more summer like. We all know that this is only a fleeting event and soon the weather will demand something from the oven. This casserole is a good place to start.

Melrose Peppers, Another Love Story

This is a story about Melrose Peppers. It is also a story about growing up in Melrose Park surrounded by family. Not everyone can claim that their hometown has a pepper named after it, but I can.

The Melrose pepper, an Italian sweet variety, came to Melrose Park along with many Italian Immigrants. My grandfather was one of those settlers and like so many others he had a garden. When I was little, I was fascinated with the garden across the street from our house. I remember my grandfather spending hours tending the tomato and pepper plants. There were lots of other vegetables, but those are the ones I remember most. I grew up taking for granted that everyone had a giant field of food within walking distance.

Sadly, my grandfather passed away and before long, so did his garden. The field became home to a trio of brick three flats. The tradition of garden fresh produce continued in Melrose Park, however. There was a converted school bus that came down our street several times a week in the summer. Inside was a veritable wonderland of fruits and vegetables. There always seemed to be plum tomatoes and Melrose peppers. That was a convenience that is no longer a reality.

If for some reason we missed the bus, there was always Tom Naples stand. To call it a stand is an understatement. It was huge (at least to an 8-year-old) and had every vegetable imaginable. There were fields of Melrose peppers growing behind his stand. I think he supplied the entire Chicago area Italian population with these sweet little beauties.

They were a staple in Italian kitchens in the summer. Fried in olive oil and seasoned with salt they crowned sausage and Italian beef sandwiches. They could simmer in tomato sauce and in a time when there was plenty of time they could be stuffed with sausage. My favorite treatment was when they were added to scrambled eggs for that Friday Supper Favorite, Pepper and Egg Sandwiches. Tucked into crusty Italian bread there was nothing better. It was delicious enough that I never missed the meat.

Years passed and access to the peppers did too. With all the bounty of produce we experienced living in California, there was never a Melrose Pepper. Once we moved back to Illinois it took some time before I re-discovered them. I have sung the praises of Caputo’s Fresh Market before, but I may love them the most because they reunited me with my cherished peppers.

This year my love affair reached a new level. I actually found Melrose Pepper plants and two have lived happily in my tiny garden plot. They have withstood heat, rain (and lack thereof), and rabbits and have given me if not a bounty at least some tasty meals.

Since I am always interested in the next “Can you grill it?” adventure I thought it was time to put my small bounty of Melrose beauties to the test. What better way then to pair them with one of their most popular partners, Italian sausage. I chose Scratch Family Chicken Italian Sausage because I got to talk to the creator at my favorite Caputo’s and his passion was as remarkable as his sausage. The sausage which is made with natural ingredients tastes remarkably like its pork cousin. The company is local, based in Montgomery, serving a limited market in the Chicago area. I think it’s due to get more widely known.

This sausage is also fully cooked which made it an even better choice for Mama D’s Grill Basket of Love.

While not traditional, I added a few red bell pepper strips for some color and some sliced sweet onions for a bolder flavor. Everything cooked together so the flavors really had a chance to blend. The result was a one dish meal that would have made my grandfather proud.

There isn’t much of a recipe to write. All you need is enough sausage, peppers, and onions to feed your family. Olive oil, maybe a bit of Italian herbs, and a sprinkle of some Pecorino Romano and you are good to go.

As my lead picture indicates, the last batch of peppers are turning their fully ripe crimson, an event that makes them even sweeter. The last peppers are waiting to be picked and I will miss them. A year is a long time to be without them. The season for these little guys is short and they may be hard to find but, keep an eye out for them, they are worth the hunt.

In Praise of Gas Grills…and Roasted Red Peppers

Summer is at its peak and fresh vegetables are overflowing their bins. Grills everywhere are fired up and working up a major sweat. Vegetables and grills have a special affinity that is at its best at this time of the year.

Purists will swear by charcoal and I do love me some char-grilled meat, but there are times when the convenience of gas has many of its own attributes. Disclaimer: I have no choice other than using a gas grill. Apartment living requires it for safety reasons (at least in my complex). That being said, I used gas long before I had to. It is at times a love hate relationship but, lately I love it and here is why.

The biggest plus (in my book) is how quickly it is ready to cook. Turn on the gas and press the button and you have a flame.  In a few minutes it is hot and ready to cook. What I love the most about this almost instant grill gratification is that it allows me to grill only the ingredients that I want. These ingredients can then come inside and become part of a pasta dish, frittata or salad. and yes all of those have happened this past week.

Woodman’s, a local mega grocery store, discounts their slightly sad produce. The discount is deep (think large bags of produce for 99 cents) and it is done daily with Mondays seeming to be the biggest day. While there are often some things that are sadder than others, there is usually enough usable produce to be well worth the under a dollar price. Quick processing then becomes the top priority. My bag of peppers, all of which were usable went in several directions. I chopped up a few and froze them for later, some where good enough for a salad and the rest went on the grill.

Grilling peppers accomplishes two things. The peppers cook into a silky textured scarlet bite of deliciousness and the charring allows the skin to easily be peeled.  This peeling step is a must do. For as silky as the pepper flesh gets the skin becomes tough, chewy and isn’t fun to eat.

As with peeling chili peppers, covering with plastic wrap and allowing the peppers to sit for a few minutes makes the skin easy to remove. The jewel like flesh that is revealed is a thing of beauty.

I opted to roughly chop the peppers for the recipes that I made, but slicing them into strips and adding some herbs, vinegar and olive oil create the perfect star for your next relish tray. As I said they made several appearances in the kitchen. My favorite was their co-starring role in a Panzanella Salad.

Cucumbers, cannellini beans, red onions, tomatoes, and whole wheat baguette joined the peppers and some kalamata olives to create a Mediterranean main dish salad that was wonderful. 

A Mediterranean Vinaigrette laced with lots of Rosemary gave a light yet zesty flavor to the salad. A sprinkling of Feta and it was ready to enjoy.

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Mediterranean Vinaigrette

A twist on the classic vinaigrette with plenty of lemon and more than a hint of garlic. Add any fresh herbs of your choice. This is wonderful on a Greek salad, but it would be equally delightful as a dressing for grilled vegetable or a pasta salad. It makes a great marinade as well.

Ingredients
  • 1 Medium Lemon Juice and zest
  • 2 Cloves Garlic Grated
  • 1/4 Cup White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/2 Tsp. Red Pepper Flakes Optional, to taste
  • 3 Tbsp. Chopped Fresh Herbs Parsley, thyme, basil, or you choice
  • Kosher Salt and Pepper To taste
  • 1 Tsp. Dijon Mustard
  • 1/4 Cup Olive oil
Instructions
  1. Combine all of the ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until completely blended. Allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

As far as Panzanella Salad Recipes go…anything goes. Tomatoes and cucumbers seem to be a must and of course crusty bread has to be present as this is a “Bread Salad.”

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Cannellini and Roasted Red Pepper Panzanella Salad

Another variation on the classic Panzanella Salad.  This is totally open to your own interpretation. add or subtract what you want, just make sure the tomatoes and bread stick around.

Servings: 4
Ingredients
  • Can Cannellini Beans Drained and rinsed
  • 2 - 3 Roasted Red Peppers Chopped
  • 1 Cup Sliced Cucumber
  • 1/2 Cup Sliced Red Onion Scliced vertically
  • 1/4 Cup Kalamata Olives Sliced
  • 1 Cup Grape or Cherry Tomatoes Halved
  • 2 Cups Crusty Bread Cubes Day Old is best
  • 3/4 Cup Mediterranean Vinaigrette Recipe above
  • 1/3 Cup Crumbled Feta Cheese
Instructions
  1. If the bread cubes are soft toast them lightly in a 325 degree oven. they should be dry and lightly golden. Combine the peppers, tomatoes, onion, olives, bread, and beans in a large bowl.

  2. Add the dressing and toss to coat everything nicely. cover and chill for several hours.

  3. When you are ready to serve, re-toss the salad adding a little more dressing if necessary. Sprinkle with the Feta cheese and serve.

So now that I have “said my piece” about grills and peppers, I will leave you with this bit of philosophy: Grills and peppers come in all shapes and sizes. Kind of like everything else in the world. Find what works, find what you love, and make it your own.

Summertime is Pesto Time

Summer is here in all of its radiant (and humid) glory. I love this time of year. Flowers are peaking, showing their most vibrant color and gardens are beginning to give forth their bounty. Basil plants are thriving and beg to be snipped back almost daily. Basil always brings pesto to mind. I’ve shared my version of the traditional Pesto recipe and it is still number one on my Hit Parade, but this summer I have stepped out of my comfort zone (a little) and experimented with some different flavors and ingredients.

First off is a Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Pesto. Grape tomatoes and garlic are roasted to perfection before they are added to ricotta and pine nuts. Basil actually plays a supporting role here, but is present enough to lend some color and lots of flavor.

This is wonderful on pasta. or as a base for bruschetta.

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Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Pesto
Servings: 2 Cups
Ingredients
  • 1 Pint Grape Tomatoes
  • 4-5 Large Garlic Cloves Skin on
  • 1/4 Cup Olive Oil Plus more for roasting
  • 3/4 Cup Ricotta I used Part Skim
  • 1/2 Cup Grated Pecorino Romano
  • 1/4 Cup Pine Nuts I toasted mine
  • 1/2 Cup Basil Leaves Firmly packed
  • Salt and Pepper To taste
Instructions
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Toss the tomatoes with a generous dose of olive oil, add a bit of salt and pepper. and spread them out on the baking sheet. 

  2. Place the garlic cloves on a piece of foil. Drizzle with a little olive oil and pull the foil up around the cloves to make a nice bundle. Seal well, but leave a little room for steam.

  3. Roast the garlic for about 30 minutes until it is very fragrant. Roast the tomatoes 15 - 20 minutes until the begin to blister and give off a little juice. Remove things from the oven as the are done and set aside. 

  4. In a processor combine the tomatoes, garlic, pine nuts, oil, and the cheeses. Process until fairly smooth. Add the basil and pulse just long enough to coarsely chop. You want those pretty green flecks.

  5. Use with your favorite pasta or as a base for bruschetta or pizza.

This pesto takes its inspiration from what is flourishing in my (balcony) herb garden. These are my standbys that are always planted. Nothing exotic or fancy just some rosemary, basil, and lemon thyme. Just out of camera range is a chive plant that is happily snipped at everyday.

This Garden Herb Pesto is based what’s in my garden. You can make it your own by snipping in you own garden. Lemon juice and zest along with some toasted almonds join the traditional pecorino, olive oil, and roasted garlic to create a bright blend. Once again, basil doesn’t take center stage, it co-stars with thyme. Rosemary is there but in a quantity that imparts flavor without hitting everything else over the head. Parsley would be a welcome addition here. Sadly, my success with parsley has never been great so I use it at times that I have enough. This was not one of those times. Herb Pesto is the perfect sauce for some angel hair pasta. It also shines as a topping for grilled or roasted vegetables. I’ve even added bread crumbs and a little stock and used it to stuff chicken breasts and pork chops.

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Garden Herb Pesto
Servings: 4
Ingredients
  • 1 Lemon Zest & juice
  • 4-5 Cloves Garlic Roasted
  • 1/2 Cup Thyme Leaves
  • 1/3 Cup Basil Leaves
  • 2 Tblsp. Rosemary Leaves
  • 1/4 Cup Chives
  • 2 Tblsp. Slivered almonds Toasted
  • 1/4 Cup Pecorino Romano Grated
  • 3 Tblsp. Olive Oil
  • Salt & Pepper To taste
Instructions
  1. Roast the garlic by wrapping the skin-on cloves in foil. Add a bit of olive oil before sealing the packet. Roast 30- 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

  2. Combine all of the ingredients, except the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times until everything is chopped but not to the point of being a paste.

  3. Drizzle in the olive oil blending until it is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper as needed and it's ready for its culinary adventure.

There you have two quick pesto recipes that are ready for their day in the sun. I know that these are only a small corner of what can be done with garden bounty. Let your green (and red if you are using tomatoes) flag fly and make pesto your own. Its time is now.

Hail Caesar!! The Salad Dressing of Summer

This is shaping up to be the “Summer of Salads” in Mama D’s Kitchen. Posts here and those published directly on Facebook have definitely had a vegetable forward approach. It just feels right because here in the MIdwest we are experiencing a very warm June, in fact it has felt more like August for the better part of a week.

Salads can be easy to prepare and are the perfect light supper for those warm Summer evenings. This post is paying tribute to Caesar Salad Dressing as I make it. This is not the traditional coddled egg and anchovy version though these ingredient are present in slightly different forms. Even with these “shortcuts” the result is creamy, tangy, and worthy of reining over anything.

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Caesar Salad Dressing

This is a basic dressing that can be adjusted to your tastes. The recipe can be doubled and because it can be used in many different ways this is a good idea.

Ingredients
  • 1 Clove Garlic Smashed
  • 1 Tsp. Salt
  • 1- 1/2 Tsp. Anchovy Paste More or less to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. Mayonnaise Olive oil based is nice
  • 1 Tbsp. Lemon Juice
  • 1 Tsp. White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1 Tsp. Dijon Mustard
  • 1/2 Tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
  • 1 Tsp. Cracked Black Pepper
  • 1/4 Tsp. Cayenne Optional, to taste
  • 1/3 Cup Olive Oil
Instructions
  1. Combine all of the ingredient in a small food processor. Pulse until everything is nice and smooth.

  2. Give it a good taste and adjust the flavors to make you happy. Store, in the refrigerator  in a jar with a tight fitting lid. 

Once you have your dressing made, use it in whatever way you like. The two dishes I’m sharing are pretty basic, but they are a great place to start. First there is the Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad. Classic, easy, and delicious. Marinate Chicken Breast in a bit of the dressing. Use boneless/skinless whole breasts or use tenderloins like I did. Threaded on a skewer they cook in no time and have more grilled surface which means more flavor.Torn Romaine Lettuce, the cubed chicken and a couple of tablespoons of dressing are tossed together. Once plated add some shaved Pecorino (or Parmesan) and a few croutons. Heaven on a plate. Swap the chicken for shrimp or salmon or even leave out the added protein and enjoy it as a delectable side.Caesar dressing is wonderful on any vegetable salad. It can turn grilled vegetables into the perfect accessory for grilled meat, poultry, or fish.

Toss your vegetables of choice with a little of the dressing and let them get well acquainted in the refrigerator for several hours. Cook them in a grill basket over medium heat. For this dish I used zucchini and yellow squash, asparagus. red onion, and Yukon Gold potatoes. You want everything to be barely tender so depending on how hot your grill is, this will take 15 – 20 minutes.

A note here: The potatoes take longer to cook. To even the cooking time out, steam them for about 10 minutes or cook them in the microwave for 3 – 5 minutes.

Toss the vegetables with a little more of the dressing and allow to mellow in the refrigerator for several hours. This type of salad tastes best slightly cool or at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge accordingly. You can add a few grape tomatoes, some chopped fresh herbs and a grating of cheese if you are so inclined. Take as many liberties with the vegetables as you would like. green beans, eggplant, or peppers would enjoy this royal treatment.

There is no need to stop at salad and marinade. Use it as an ingredient in burgers, drizzle a bit on a sandwich, or use it as a dip for artichokes. The possibilities are almost endless and summer is only just beginning.