Tag Archives: pasta

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

Tax day has come and gone, meaning it is time for the annual Feast.  We have a lovely barter deal with  our friendly CPA to prepare and file our taxes.  She gives us a nifty planner to fill out each year, we add the required forms and documents, hand it to her and she does all the rest.  While she certainly is honest in the preparation, she also knows how to get us every single deduction possible no matter how seemingly insignificant.  Gotta love that.  And in return, I make her family a feast for dinner just after tax season ends.  Talk about a win-win situation!

Each year I ask her what she would like, and each year she gives that awful response that cooks hate, “oh anything since everything you make is great.”  Sigh, no direction there to point the way.  Fortunately, her teenage son was home while I dropped off the paperwork this year, so I asked him.  Bingo!  He had an answer.  The beef skewers with peanut sauce were a hit with him last year, so this year the meal was built around that along with shrimp and vegetable skewers.  This Mediterranean orzo salad, loaded with veggies, was the perfect accompaniment.  It was simple and delicious, with clear flavors that don’t overwhelm the main dish.

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

inspired by this recipe at My Recipes


  • 1 cup uncooked orzo
  • 3 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup oil packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 3 TBS red onion, chopped
  • 3 TBS kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1  jar marinated artichoke hearts
  • 3 oz feta cheese, crumbled, divided


  1. Cook the orzo according to the package directions, omitting salt and oil.  Drain and rinse with cold water.
  2. In a large bowl, combine orzo, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, red onion, olives, salt and pepper.
  3. Prepare artichokes and vinaigrette by removing the artichokes from the jar, leaving the oil behind.  Chop artichokes and add to orzo mixture.  Add 1/2 of the feta cheese to the oil in the jar, put the lid back on the jar and shake to mix.
  4. Finish salad by adding feta vinaigrette to the orzo salad and tossing gently.  Sprinkle with remaining feta.


  • May be served cold or at room temperature.  
  • This was easy to double by just using a larger jar of marinated artichoke hearts.
  • Check your grocery store’s olive bar for kalamatas so you don’t have to splurge for a whole jar.  Unless they are a staple in your pantry, of course.
  • This recipe was originally printed in Cooking Light magazine in 2005.
  • The full menu: beef, shrimp and vegetable skewers, peanut dipping sauce, Joe’s Stone Crab sauce, Caribbean Cocktail sauce, grilled asparagus, Mediterranean Orzo salad, lemon pound cake with fresh strawberries.

Linguini with Sausage and Zucchini

“Pasta with.”  About twice a month we have what I’ve come to call “Pasta with” for dinner.  Sometimes it is spaghetti with cheap canned sauce.  Sometimes it is tortellini with pesto.  In the summer, it’s often bow tie pasta with fresh tomatoes, a bit of olive oil, and torn basil.  Winter begs for pasta with Sunday Gravy.  In order to accommodate the preferences in the household, the pasta is drained in the colander and the “with” is in a skillet or bowl nearby.  Everyone gets as much pasta and much topping as desired.

But then, I was watching a bit of Lidia on the local public TV station. Lidia doesn’t seem to do pasta with, but does pasta in.  Long story short, I’ve been playing with ingredients, proportions and timing for a few months now and have finally found the perfect weeknight dish.  One, it is really tasty.  Two, the timing is, dare I say, perfect.  Put the water on the stove, get the skillet heating, prep the veggies and sausage, start cooking the pasta at the same time as the other ingredients, and both finish at the exact same time.  Bon Appetit.


  • 1 lb linguine
  • 2 hot Italian sausages, casings removed,
  • 1/2 lb medium shrimp, shells and veins removed
  • 1 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1/2 in pieces
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely diced
  • 2 TBS Parmesan cheese, grated


  1. Set pot of water and pan on medium – high heat while ingredients are being prepped.
  2. When water is boiling, set pasta in water.
  3. Add sausage to pan, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring to prevent burning.  Add tomatoes, and stir for 1 minute.  Add zucchini, and let set for 2 minutes.  Add 3 ladles of pasta water to the pan, followed by the garlic.  Let cook another 2 minutes.  Add shrimp and stir the mixture gently.
  4. Drain pasta in a colander.  The shrimp should be a bit translucent in the middle, but go ahead and add the pasta to the pan.   Using tongs, gently mix the sausage and vegetables into the pasta.  The pasta will absorb the liquid in the pan.
  5. Plate and top with a bit of Parmesan if desired.


  • This recipe / technique has been tried and tried again at home.  Finally I came upon the correct timings, ingredients, and flavors. Enjoy!
  • Yes, this was tried with wine, but I found that the wine and sausage were just not a lovely pair.
  • Adding the tomatoes at the start was a stroke of perfect luck!  They add into the flavor, aroma, and color of the dish in the most beautiful way.
  • Mmmmmm, finely diced garlic in pasta broth.  Heaven!

Lightish Stuffed Manicotti

Lightish.  Gotta love that the indecision.  Yes, I want to make a rich pasta dish with Alfredo sauce, but don’t want it to have too many calories.  Typical female.  This was my first go at manicotti.  It is just so different from the standard spaghetti that it put fear in my heart for years.  And while a few lessons were learned, it will take a few more trips around the park to get that pasta stuffing technique perfected.  The stuffing is based on a stuffed shells recipe from Southern Living and the Alfredo sauce is based on a recipe comment that suggested using fat free half and half with a bit of flour instead of the whipping cream.  Like I said, its lightish.

Yes, the sauce in the picture is broken.  Perhaps its time to make an ugly picture category for the blog!  But, there’s a story behind that.  With all of the stress in my vocation and location due to the economy, and following two nights of “informational meetings” I was so stressed that the only way to get out of it was to go on a cooking bender.  Everyone has their own way to handle stress, and an all out “leave me along and let me cook” marathon is a reliable tool in my repertoire.  Naturally, time needed for each dish was completely underestimated.  Typical.  In the end, all of the prep work, including the Alfredo sauce,  was completed in one evening, with the 5 family sized dishes assembled the next day.  Food to share, food to freeze, food to ease burdens.  And in the end, the cooking bender did soothe my frazzled nerves.  Ahhhhhh.

Lightish Stuffed Manicotti

Manicotti ingredients:

1 box manicotti shells

2 packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

2 cups diced chicken (optional)

1 TBS fresh basil, chopped

16 oz low fat cottage cheese

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup Parmesan, grated

1/4 tsp nutmeg

Alfredo Sauce ingredients:

1/2 cup butter

1 1/4 cups fat free half and half

2 TBS flour

3/4 cup Parmesan, grated

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1 clove garlic, finely diced


1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Drain chopped spinach well, pressing between paper towels.

3. Stir together spinach, chicken, basil, and next 4 ingredients.  Set aside.

4.  Prepare Alfredo sauce by melting butter in a sauce pan, add remaining ingredients, and lightly whisk until cheese is melted and sauce is smooth.  Continue stirring over low heat for 5 minutes or until sauce thickens slightly.

5.  Cook manicotti shells according to directions on the box, and remove to a plate.

6.  Spread 1 cup Alfredo sauce on the bottom of a 9 by 13 pan.

7.  Either put spinach filling in a gallon size plastic bag and cut the corner off to use for filling each manicotti shell, or gently fill pasta tubes with a teaspoon.  Lay the manicotti on the alfredo sauce.

8.  Top with remaining sauce.

9.  Bake, covered, at 350° for 40 to 45 minutes or until filling is hot and sauce is bubbly. Remove from oven, and let stand 10 minutes.


  • This can be prepared through step 8, then covered and frozen for 1 month.
  • I made one batch with chicken and one without.  Both were equally yummy.
  • When stuffing the manicotti tubes, I went back and forth between the plastic bag method and the spoon method.  Next time I may need to just find more patience.
  • Slightly under-cooking the pasta helped keep the tubes from splitting open.

Sunday Gravy and Meatballs

MeatballsSunday Gravy, I hardly knew ye. How in the world could a fairly well rounded (albeit non- New Yorker, New Jersian, Rhode Islander) have been so clueless about Sunday Gravy? Just another term for some basic marinara with that “My Grandmother makes the best …” theme? Not on your life! What a grand idea to slowly warm the meats in the tomato sauce then remove them before serving. The layers of flavors in the gravy just have to be experienced first hand to believe. If you’ve never made Sunday Gravy, definitely give this a shot. Don’t let the list of ingredients spook you a bit … they are all available at your local grocery store, after putting it on the stove you still have hours to read other food blogs (grin!), and this recipe will feed your family for several days. Nice.

Ingredients for the sauce:

2 TBS olive oil

1 1/2 pounds pork country ribs

1 1/2 pounds Italian or fennel pork sausages

8 garlic cloves

1/4 cup tomato paste

3 28 to 35 ounce cans Italian peeled tomatoes

1 cup water

1 cup red wine

salt and freshly ground pepper

6 basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Ingredients for the meatballs:Sunday gravy and meatballs

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 cup homemade bread crumbs

2 large eggs

2 tsp garlic, finely minced

1/2 cup Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 TBS flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

1 tsp salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 TBS olive oil

Ingredients for service:

1 lb shells or rigatoni, cooked and still hot

Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano

Sauce directions:

1. Heat oil in large heave opt over medium heat. Pat the pork dry and put the pieces in the pot. Cook, turning occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer pork to a plate. Brown the sausages on all sides in the same way, and transfer to a plate.

2. Drain most of the fat from the pot and add the whole garlic cloves. Cook for about 2 minutes or until golden. Remove and chop finely. Add tomato paste to the pot and cook for 1 minute.

3. With a food mill or food processor, puree the tomatoes with their juice. Add to the pot along with the water, wine, chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Return the pork and sausages to the pot and bring to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 4 hours. If the sauce becomes too thick, add some more water.

4. To serve, remove the meats from the sauce and set aside to serve separately at this or another meal. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce and sprinkle with cheese.

Meatballs directions:

1. Combine all the ingredients except the oil in a large bowl. Mix together thoroughly.

2. Rinse your hands with cool water and lightly shape the mixture into 2 inch balls.

3. Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the meatballs and brown them well on all sides. (They will finish cooking later.) Transfer the meatballs to a plate and refridgerate.

4. 30 minutes before dinner, add the meatballs to the Sunday Gravy.

5. To serve, top pasta with meatballs or serve them separately.


* Yes, the canned tomatoes do need to be Italian. They are different. Just get the Italian ones.

* Splurge on the cheese. Get the really hard hunks of good stuff. You’ll be thankful.

* When digging out the meatballs, Italian sausage, and pork ribs from the pot, realize that a good amount of the pork ribs will simply have disintegrated into the gravy, and most other pieces will fall apart as you lift them from the pot. Mmmmmm.

* This recipe is a combination of those from the Sopranos Family Cookbook and Food Blogga’s recipe on NPR.

* Both recipes actually called for half the garlic, and just cooked it in the oil and discarded. After one try that way, we doubled it (a good call in my book for most anything!) then found that the mild cooked garlic was lovely when added back to the gravy. Without an Italian grandmother to honor, I just followed my heart.

* If you can plan ahead to make homemade bread crumbs, its so worth it!

Sopranos Sunday Dinner

sopranos_family_dinner“Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?” – Paulie Walnuts, Season 2 episode 4 Said while dining in Italy and wishing for some traditional Italian-American fare

macaroni = pasta

gravy = tomato sauce

A quiet night at the Colbertorio Familio house? Fuhgettaboutit! Sopranos Sunday Dinner was the theme of the latest Gourmet Dinner Club meal. At the start, the theme seemed just so classic and obvious to us. We loved The Sopranos and were always amazed how a family with so many years of good times and bad blood (literally!) could come together for a civil meal each week. Carmella always did the table upscale, so we planned to do the same. Silver, china, crystal, candlelight, it was a sight to behold. Now to provide lots and lots of good food, and hey, how tough could that be?

In planning the main course, we so weren’t into doing some lame marinara sauce. Much too pedestrian! Oh, our ignorance showed straight away! We tried some braised rabbit, and it was alright, but other than the uniqueness of the bunny, the dish was really lacking any pop. Second try was a lovely veal scallopini kind of thing with roasted tomato and capers on top. Lovely, but even with what should have been delectable flavors, it was bland, bland, bland. Tony would have tossed these straight out of the window! Both dishes were from the same book, you know the kind, great photos but the food just doesn’t quite measure up. Ditched that book and move on.sopranos-dinner-table1

Other GDC members were also wanting some more direction about the theme, so we lent out selected Sopranos DVDs and got some of the couples hooked on The Family. A quick Google search turned up some wonderful food memories, including one on NPR. Looking at the author, I discovered it was our very own Food Blogga!!! The Food Blogga story on NPR (Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn’t writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.) and a few others were shared via email, and we all got into the groove of it. Note to self: do the research up front when planning a traditional meal that no one at the table has actually experienced in person before.

It became clear that Sunday Gravy is not some little marinara sauce, and that if your grandmother made it, she made the best version. Period. How crazy it was to learn about this dish for the first time, knowing it was a tradition in so many other homes. And that idea of cooking the meat in the sauce for hours then removing it so that the meaty flavors remain in the smooth tomato sauce? Brilliant! We had to really shoot for the stars with this dinner, so we also made our own homemade Italian sausage for the Sunday Gravy.

Outcome of the evening? Priceless!

Main Course Dishes (recipes to follow in the next posts):

Sunday Gravy



Italian sausage, country pork ribs


Stuffed Artichokes

Essential Pantry Items

The Food section in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle highlighted 10 essential pantry items. These are the things you always want on hand so that when you peruse the meats, fruits, and veggies in your kitchen, you always have these essentials on hand to whip up something delicious (although simply satisfying will do on most evenings) with what you have on hand. “The pantry list goes beyond basics like kosher salt and panko breadcrumbs; instead we chose ingredients that are distinctive yet adaptable and add spark to a range of preparations.” Their list, which I imagine was heavily discussed within their department, simply demonstrates to me how differently we each approach cooking. What is essential to them could just as easily be an oddity to me.

Listed below are 2 lists: the SF Chronicle list with my comments in italics, followed by my 10 essentials.  Feel free to post your own pantry essentials list.

San Francisco Chronicle list:

1. Mirin – I have never ever purchased Mirin, but the uses listed sound a bit interesting.

2. Dark chocolate – these people must have the mother of all hiding places because the “mice” in our house always find where I hide mine, hence very few chocolate chip cookies ever get made around here. I am the only family member who sees this as a problem at all.

3. Fish Sauce – my secret ingredient! I love a dash in savory soups and stews, and it is essential in many dipping sauces.

4. Quinoa – never bought this either, although we do usually have bulgur or cous cous which they list as possible substitutes. Never underestimate the power of a grain with a nice texture.

5. Chipolte peppers in adobo – oh yes, this is a must. But, only using a pepper or two at a time, even when I save them properly in the fridge, I tend to toss more than I use. There really is no substitute for this deep flavor.

6. Fancy tuna in olive oil – Nope. Never even purchased any yet. I do try to keep some cheap tuna around for snacks, but it more often goes to the cats when I run out of cat food and don’t want to make an extra trip to the store.

7. Salted capers – they prefer salted to brined. I only know brined capers, but gosh I love ’em!

8. High quality honey – nice to have, but not essential in my cooking. Oh, wait, they mention using it to create a simple syrup for cocktails. Cocktails? Hmmmmm!

9. Garbanzo beans – I’ve tried several times to like these babies, but nope, not yet.

10. Whole grain mustard – I am of the belief that one simply cannot have enough varieties of mustard at hand.

Louise’s List

(Assuming that kosher salt, black pepper, basic herbs and spices, milk, butter, etc are already accounted for.)

1. Rice vinegar – Perfect for salad dressings, marinades, and lightly splashing on grilled veggies.

2. Chicken stock – some years I’m all into making it at home, and others I’m just not. Either way, I’ve always got some on hand.

3. Fish sauce – once you’ve used this a few times, you’ll be hooked.

4. Dried pasta – with some of this around I can always build something as basic as mac and cheese or a main dish with a light sauce, veggies, and a bit of sausage.

5. Chipolte peppers- even though I rarely use the whole tin, nothing can take their place.

6. Coconut milk – when I have this, I always find a use for it in curries, rice, so many things. When it isn’t handy, I always notice.

7. Crystal hot sauce – ’nuff said.

8. Vanilla sugar – For a few years now we’ve kept a jar of white sugar with a few vanilla beans inside. What a treat!

9. Black beans – I use these in appetizers, main dishes, side dishes … a pantry essential for me.

10. Horseradish – on sandwiches or in dips, the head rush from some earth shaking horseradish is the best!