Friday, October 15, 2010

Cheese and Vegetable Pasta Bake

Another friend over for dinner, another excuse to get busy in the kitchen!

I was trying to find a way to use up a few ingredients I seem to always have hanging around: cheese, milk and bread crumbs. Strange combination but a true story. This recipe seemed the perfect way to kill 3 ingredients with one dinner.

I think next time I will add more pasta to this dish. It only calls for 1 1/2 cups of rotini, but I do love pasta and it seemed to me that the pasta got overwhelmed by the vegetables in the finished product form.

I was pleased with my choice of meat for this recipe. I waffled for a long time in the deli section before picking up a hunk of summer sausage. My trouble was: not all of the packages say that the meat is cooked so I looked first at the ones labelled so but didn't like any of them particularly. I thought long and hard and finally came to the conclusion that summer sausage is most likely cooked (in the form that I bought it) because I've seen people open it, cut it and eat it straight away. Mind you, I do that with hot dogs which aren't pre-cooked but that's not the point.

As for the creamy sauce, I am very pleased to tell you that I finally made a lump-free version! Turns out the secret ingredient is ridiculous amounts of patience. That, and one heck of a lot of whisking. The arm cramps will be worth it, however, when your masterpiece is nice and smooth. I was particularly happy that mine didn't taste like flour this time. I've done that before...

I didn't substitute anything major in this recipe. I used 1% milk that I already had, marble cheese for the same reason, salted butter, prefab parmesan cheese (too cheap to buy the real stuff often), a non-Italian-specific bag of frozen vegetables (I dislike most of the Italian-specific vegetables) and breadcrumbs with Italian seasoning built into them.

One piece of feedback that I did get from the diners is that I might want to tone down the cayenne pepper a bit next time. My tongue was tingling, yes, so I'll take that advice to heart. I admit it was a "rough" 1/2 tsp that I measured out in a hurry.

I probably wouldn't recommend this dish if you're watching your fat intake or weight in general. I mean, it's not horribly bad for you, but there is a lot of butter and cheese involved. If you're looking for a hot, vegetable-loaded creamy baked pasta dish with a nice crunchy topping, then I fully recommend this one!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hearty Minestrone Soup

Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving! This recipe has zero turkey, stuffing or pumpkin pie in it, but I happen to have made it leading into Thanksgiving weekend. It also serves as my "untraditional" Thanksgiving meal since I'm not able to do the family feast thing back home this year.

Well, they weren't kidding on the website when they billed this soup as "a meal in itself." It's very hearty and filling. I also took their suggestion of serving it with crusty bread and a green salad, all of which was well received by the dinner guests.

For the most part, this recipe is pretty easy to make. You will need to set aside time for chopping endless vegetables, especially if you're still slow at it like me. May I also recommend you don't go swimming without goggles on before you chop the onion. You will not enjoy the resulting pain and blindness. It may be better just to wear goggles for both the swimming and the chopping.

I made a few adjustments to the recipe, mostly for the sake of convenience but also for the sake of flavour in a few cases. I was going to buy a yellow onion as required, but it was recommended to me that a white onion would have more flavour. Since I dislike onion and know virtually nothing about them, I took the advice of my sage co-shopper. I used a mixture of chicken broth that I already had on hand along with the recommended vegetable broth. Out of curiosity, how does a vegetable broth differ from a "vegetarian vegetable" broth? Aren't vegetables the same as vegetables? But I digress....

Ah, yes. The Savoy cabbage. What the heck is a Savoy cabbage? It doesn't seem to exist in these parts; at least, not at the stores I went to to find it. I settled for ordinary green cabbage, buying the smallest one I could find. I've still got nearly all of it left over - free to a good home! As for the parsley and basil, I used my dried herbs at about 1.5 - 2 times the amount called for in fresh herbs. I really should start growing some herbs sometime soon.

I already had baby carrots on hand so I used them to make adult-sized carrot shapes on my cutting board before chopping them up. It seemed like a scientific method of substitution. It was also pretty fun. I happen to have bought the chopped tomatoes with some flavour built into them, and I used my tiny winged pasta (farfalline) on request instead of the fusilli. I completely forgot the salt & pepper!

Now, it does say to drain some of the canned ingredients and not others (which I followed precisely), but in the end, I had to add another approximately 1 cup of vegetable broth to the soup as it was quite thick by that point. Presumably this would not have been the case had I cooked it at a lower temperature, but if you're crunched for time like me and your dinner guests have already arrived, you may be turning up the heat so keep the extra liquids in mind. It turned out well in the end as the guests took second helpings of soup and I didn't have to store a partial box of broth in the fridge for days.

I'm not sure exactly how long I cooked my soup for. I used the microwave for a timer while cooking the first batch of ingredients, but what I had forgotten was that the microwave beeper had been silenced a while back so I've no idea how long past that point it went before I noticed. I did use a bit of extra cooking time to get that cabbage good and soft. This might not be required with Savoy cabbage, but I can't yet say that from experience.

Overall, the soup was well received even by the person who doesn't particularly love soup. This may have been helped by the fact that mine was thickened more like stew. I've just finished the last of the soup leftovers for breakfast so the quantities on the website will last you for a few meals, more if you haven't any more guests to split it with. Enjoy!