Thursday, April 29, 2010

Comfort Food Basics: Gigantic Meatballs aka Italian Mini Meatloaves

I really wish I could tell you that my life has been less crazy lately, that all of the issues I have been dealing with in my personal life have been magically resolved and everything is smooth sailing from here on out. Unfortunately, that is not the case quite yet. I am incessantly busy, there is a whole lot of stress flying around, and wow job hunting is such a challenge! In addition to my own chaos, the daily tasks of ordinary life still persist, which means picking up my daughter and taking her to her skating lessons and making sure that she gets good healthy meals. It is soooo tempting to just eat out on these busy nights, and alas, I find myself falling into the trap many folks do, you know the one. The it is too late to cook, let's just grab something trap.

This kind of thinking actually goes against everything I have believed for so long. Cooking for me has never been a chore or something that "takes too long." Why then am I taking the bait and eating out, when it is far more cost effective to eat in, not to mention far more soothing and healthful to create my own meals? It is a brand new bad habit that I am determined to put a stop to, or at least put a huge crimp in. Last night, even though I was stuck in traffic while driving my kid home from an appointment, I resisted the urge to just pull into Cracker Barrel on the way home. I knew I had some fresh lean ground beef waiting in my fridge and a home cooked meal was, if not minutes away, at least not more than an hour. Actually, it look a lot less than that, as it turns out. And these little tiny bundles of meat and gooey, oozing mozzarella cheese were just the thing to remind me that eating at home is truly a comfort in itself.

See the cheese just beginning to ooze out of the side? Mmmmmm

Gigantic Meatballs aka Mini Italian Cheese-Stuffed Meatloaves
(as adapted from an Apron's recipe)
(serves 4)

1-1 1/4 pound lean ground beef (I used 93% lean)
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups marinara sauce (homemade or store bought), divided
1 large egg
1/2 cup dried Italian seasoned bread crumbs
4 sticks of mozzarella string cheese (or just cut 4 logs of cheese from a larger block)

optional garnishes:
extra marinara sauce
fresh parsley, minced
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 400 F. Lightly grease a baking pan big enough to hold 4 mini meatloaves. If you bought the string cheese, be sure to unwrap them from their plastic sheaths now. Do you have any idea just how hard it is to open little string cheese sticks when your hands have meatloaf mixture all over them? I do, hence the recommendation ;)

In a large bowl, combine the meat with the chopped onions, 3/4 cup of the sauce, egg, and bread crumbs. Mix together well by hand until everything is combined together nicely. Shape into 4 portions. Take each portion of meat and form it around a stick of cheese, making sure the meat covers every speck of cheese. If you leave any gaps, then the cheese will start oozing out of the meatballs and all over your pan instead of of melting nicely inside the meatloaf.

Pop the meatloaves into the prepared baking pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, until they are cooked through. Remove from oven and let rest about 5 minutes or so, to allow the molten cheese middles some time to cool slightly. While the meatloaves are resting, heat up the remaining 3/4 cup sauce. If you prefer more sauce, you might want to go ahead and heat up a little extra. Once the sauce is hot enough, spoon some over each meatloaf. Before serving, you might also want to spoon a bit of extra sauce directly onto the spot on your plate where you will set the meatloaf. Garnish with a little fresh parsley and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if you like.

I served these with some leftover broccoli casserole and some red potatoes that were simply cooked for 12 minutes in the microwave, then tossed with some garlic butter and fresh parsley, as suggested in the original recipe.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Japanese Style Pasta? Yes, really!

A few nights ago, when pressed for time and with limited ingredients in my house, I stumbled across a recipe online for this Japanese style pasta dish, Napolitan, as presented by Frances on CWD. This is not at all Italian style, so before any of the purists out there start getting too irate about a few of the, shall we say, non traditional ingredients in this recipe, please remember that this is a Japanese dish. It was inspired by Italian cooking, yes, but this is something unique to Japanese culture, their spin on things, with touches that pleased their palate and reflected the ingredients readily available at the time of the recipe's inception. Try, if you can, to suspend any preconceived notions about how Italian foods should taste, and simply embrace the dish for what it is - a simple pasta dish with veggies and ham. It really is a nice, tasty, and rather inexpensive meal. Yes, I know there is a tiny bit of ketchup in there. It works, I promise you.

What follows is my version of Frances' recipe, with a few changes I made based on what I had on hand in my kitchen at the time.

Japanese Napolitan Pasta (as adapted from a recipe shared by Frances at CWD)
(serves 2-4)

1/2 large onion, cut into slivers
1 small handful baby bella mushrooms, sliced thinly (Frances used white button mushrooms)
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded, cut thinly into strips
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
6 slices Canadian bacon, cut into strips (turkey ham would be fine here)
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
6 1/4 cups water
2 tsp salt
6 ounces thin spaghetti
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp ketchup
2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for garnish
1 1/2 tsp unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

Make sure you have all of your veggies and the meat chopped and sliced before you begin cooking anything.

Fill a large pot with the water and add the salt. Yes, add the salt now, before it boils. Bring the water to a simmer only for now.

Meanwhile, get to work on the vegetable sauce mixture. Heat olive oil in a deep skillet or wok and saute the onions until they begin to soften up and turn a light golden color. Don't worry about browning them too much. Add the garlic and continue cooking and stirring until you can smell the aroma of garlic (this only takes maybe a minute). As soon as you can smell that delicious scent of garlic cooking, add the mushrooms and the Canadian bacon, tossing and cooking until the mushrooms begin to soften slightly. Add the green bell peppers, cooking for just a minute or two to soften.

Add the ketchup. Don't be scared - it is such a small amount and it really does add a lovely color. Remember your pot of simmering salted water? Grab a ladle and scoop out some water (about 3 Tbsp) and add it to the pan. Like magic, your ketchup will melt and the sauce will take on a glossy sheen. There will not be a lot of sauce, this is intentional. Turn off the heat and allow the sauce to rest while you cook the pasta. I dropped a lid on to keep the sauce from drying out.

Raise the heat on the remaining salted water and add the pasta once the water has come to a full boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. When the pasta is almost ready, remove the lid from your pan full of vegetable sauce and turn on the heat to about medium-low. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and the butter until both have melted into the sauce.

Scoop the cooked pasta noodles directly into the vegetable sauce, keeping most of the water in the cooking pot, but allowing the noodles to still be quite wet. Toss and serve, garnished with fresh minced parsley and some additional cheese.

NOTE: While the actual Japanese way is to use canned powdered Parmesan cheese, it really is perfectly fine to use freshly grated Parmesan instead. Back when this recipe was originally made, freshly grated Parmesan was very likely not something available or common in a typical household. However, since I always do have a wedge of fresh Parmigiano Reggiano hanging out in my fridge, that is what I prefer to use.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nothing like a little baking controversy to stir things up at the Bake-Off

Last week, the winner of the most recent Pillsbury Bake-Off was finally announced. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I have been trying to complete a project of sorts - testing out every grand prize winning Bake-Off winner, as well as some of the finalists entries that I felt like trying. I had already tried a few of this year's finalists recipes out, such as Java Glazed Cinnamon Rolls, as well as Mini-Greek Turkey Burgers and Blueberry-Almond Creme Muffins. I actually thought the blueberry muffins had an excellent shot at winning, as they were not only beautiful to look at and easy to make, they were so delicious and called for really ordinary ingredients. Even though I was not an entrant in the contest, I anxiously awaited the announcement of the winner this year, which was presented on the Oprah Winfrey show. Out of the four main category prize winners, the million dollar grand prize winning recipe was Sue Compton's Mini Ice Cream Cookie Cups.

Almost immediately the Pillsbury forums were filled with many comments questioning the appropriateness of the winner. Some questioned its ease, limited actual baking, and heavy use of ready made ingredients. Well, as I have been studying the winning recipes very carefully over the past several months, I can tell you that one thing they seem to always look for is a clever way to use a common or prepared ingredient and turn it into something very different from its original form, either by creating something unexpected, such as turning breakfast waffles into stuffing as in Baked Chicken and Spinach Stuffing (Grand Prize Winner #42) or a clever new cooking method, such as the water rising technique used in the Nut Twists (Grand prize Winner #1). While it may be true that the current winning recipe didn't involve much scratch baking, that has not been a requirement of the contest for many years, so there really isn't much to complain about there. In fact, all entrants are required to utilize sponsored ingredients, many of which are things like prepared cookie dough and other ready made items.

However, one complaint that did perhaps ring a bit true was over the originality factor. Just how unique and creative was this recipe, making it worthy of such a generous prize? Whether or not Sue Compton intended to or not, her recipe does seem awfully similar to another prize winning recipe from a 2004 Taste of Home cooking contest for Coffee Ice Cream Cups. While technically there are some differences, they are really two variations of the same really clever idea.

Actually, the idea of using cookie dough to create dessert cups is even less original. Recipes from The Pampered Chef and even a previous Bake-Off category winner used this technique (Choco-Peanut Butter Cups). So OK, fine, so she might have seen cookie cup desserts before and perhaps was inspired to come up with her own version, but this does not mean she cheated. The judges loved her spin on it and felt hers was original enough. At some point, you just have to understand that with the nature of recipe sharing, especially over the internet, clever new cooking methods can easily become household standards. What if the winner had instead been the fish tacos? Would we all have been hunting down every pre-existing version and saying see look, she copied? A quick Google search for fish tacos recipe draws 615,000 results. So to all the naysayers and sour grapes out there, why not give Sue Compton the benefit of the doubt?

As for the recipe itself, I made it over the weekend and it was really cute and tasty, if a bit fiddly to make. I think kids would have a blast helping out with this, especially the part where you get to dunk the cookie cups into the melted chocolate and then roll them around in the sugary nuts. A note of caution - you need a lot of freezer space to store these. I somehow missed that part of the instructions until I was scooping the ice cream. Finding space for 24 mini ice cream filled desserts in a well stocked freezer can be quite a challenge.