Orzo with Roasted Asparagus, Chickpeas and Eggplant in Smokey Arrabbiata SauceOrzo with Roasted Asparagus, Chickpeas and Eggplant in Smokey Arrabbiata Sauce

What’s for Dinner (and Lunch!): Orzo with Roasted Asparagus, Chickpeas and Eggplant in Smokey Arrabbiata Sauce

Last Sunday as I evaluated the pantry and fridge, deciding I wasn’t in the mood to tackle my weekly trip to the grocery store, I realized I had enough leftover fresh vegetables and pantry staples to pull together a meal for dinner and lunch leftovers. I’ve recently seen recipes substituting chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) for pasta as a healthier, gluten-free alternative. I only had about 1/4 – 1/3 of a box of orzo, so I thought it would be the perfect match to try.

For my gluten-free friends, this meal could be made gluten-free by eliminating the orzo and increasing the amount of chickpeas. Next time, I may even roast a red pepper or two and puree to add to my smokey arrabbiata sauce.

Orzo with Roasted Asparagus, Chickpeas and Eggplant in Smokey Arrabbiata SauceOrzo with Roasted Asparagus, Chickpeas and Eggplant in Smokey Arrabbiata Sauce

Orzo with Roasted Asparagus, Chickpeas and Eggplant in Smokey Arrabbiata Sauce

1/3 box (about 5 ounces) orzo
1-14 ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
1 bunch asparagus, ends tripped and sliced in 2-inch chunks
1 small (1/2 large) eggplant, diced
1 small (or 1/2 large) eggplant
3 tablespoons EVOO
Salt and pepper
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 – 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
1-28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
Fresh basil
Grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a pot of water with salt to a rapid boil and cook orzo until al dente. Drain.

Spread chickpeas, and sliced/diced asparagus and eggplant on a large baking pan. Toss with 1 tablespoon EVOO, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in oven for 20-25 minutes, tossing halfway, until asparagus and eggplant are tender.

In a medium pot, heat 2 tablespoons EVOO with minced garlic and crushed red pepper on medium heat, stirring continuously until garlic begins to become fragrant and yellow in color, being careful not to burn the garlic and crushed red pepper. Add crushed tomatoes, smoked paprika and desired chopped basil to the pot, simmering sauce on low heat for about 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine orzo, roasted chickpeas and vegetables, and desired amount of sauce, mixing to combine. Serve with extra fresh basil for a garnish and grated Parmesan.

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

One of my favorite side dishes at summer barbecues and picnics has always been pasta salad. Heck, I even love eating lunch on Fridays at Whole Foods when their salad bar features every salad imaginable from yellow fin tuna pasta salad and marinated artichokes with tomatoes to southwestern beef and red bliss potato salad.

Time and time again, I fall back on my reliable Maryland Shrimp Pasta Salad. But it’s heavy and creamy, and I wanted a cold (and lighter) salad I could serve with dinner that would pair well with Barbecue Alaskan Salmon.

Orzo is a rice-shaped Italian pasta. The pasta absorbs flavors well so dressing it with olive oil, red wine vinegar and lemon juice goes a long way. This would be a great alternative pasta salad for a picnic and you could experiment with adding different vegetables and cheese based on your preference.

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

1 lb. orzo
Kosher salt
1/2 cup pine nuts
8 tablespoons EVOO
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 cucumber, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
12 pepperoncinis, sliced
1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Bring a pot of water to a rapid boil. Generously salt water and cook orzo until tender, approximately 7-9 minutes. Drain and set aside.

While orzo is cooking, spread pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast lightly in oven on 400 degrees. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat two tablespoons of EVOO on medium heat in a non-stick pan. Saute chopped green onions for approximately 2 minutes. Add parsley, lemon juice, lemon zest, toasted pine nuts and cooked orzo. Saute for 3-4 minutes for flavors to combine and absorb into the orzo. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, combine cucumber, green bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, red onion and pepperoncinis to orzo mixture. Additionally add crumbled feta cheese, red wine vinegar and remaining six tablespoons of EVOO. Mix well. Can be refrigerated or served immediately.

Hearty Bolognese

I made this bolognese back in October when the weather started to have a fall chill. Bolognese is a meat-based sauce originating in Bologna, Italy. Authentic bolognese also has very little tomato base.

I can’t take any credit for this recipe as it comes from the kitchen of a good friend from college’s mom. I cut this recipe in half to serve four, and still have leftovers! My friend’s mom makes the whole recipe and freezes it. Then again, my friend could also probably eat it for an entire week.

It’s best if simmered for several hours, adding the cream at the very end before serving.

Hearty Bolognese

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 oz. pancetta, cut into ¼ inch diced
5 thin slices prosciutto, minced
2 large onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 carrots, peeled and minced
2 ribs celery minced
8 oz. lean ground beef
8 oz. ground veal
8 oz. lean ground pork
2 cups dry white wine
2 cans (35 oz. each) plum tomatoes, chopped and undrained
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and ground pepper to taste
1 cup heavy or whipping cream

Melt butter in large heavy pot over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until lightly browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the prosciutto and cook one minute more. Stir in the onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Sauté, stirring occasionally until softened, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the beef, veal and pork. Cook, crumbling the meat with a wooden spoon, just until the meat begins to lose its pink color. Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until the liquid is almost completely reduced.

Add the coarsely chopped tomatoes and add their liquid to the sauce. Season the sauce with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered on low heat, stirring for at least 1 1/2 hours. Just before serving, stir in the cream. Makes enough for 2 lbs. pasta.

Brasato al Barolo Ragu Sauce

Brasato al Barolo Ragu Sauce

There’s a book called “Like Water for Chocolate.” The main character, Tita, communicates her love and emotions through the food she cooks, flavoring each dish based on her feelings–hopes, expectations and desires. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized I am, in this sense, Tita.

I’ll be honest with you all. I was supposed to have a date Saturday evening. This was the first time in a very long time I was genuinely excited about a date. Cooking for someone I have found is something I guard as very private. It is my greatest passion and I don’t want to share it with just anyone. I invested a lot of thought into what I was going to cook for my date. I knew we both had a love of Italian food, and wanted to pour all my effort into creating not only a casual and romantic meal, but a new dish that wasn’t defined by any recipe I’ve ever read.

The menu: roasted artichoke salad with arugula, fresh mozzarella and olive oil; gnocchi with brasato al barolo ragu sauce; and limoncello panna cotta with blueberries. Let’s not forget a very expensive bottle of wine to top it off.

Much to my disappointment the date was canceled… at the 11th hour. Approximately 20 hours into cooking. The best thing that came out of this was that while I had already made the tomato base of the ragu sauce, I hadn’t cut the brasato al barolo yet. I feel bad for that poor piece of beef sitting on the cutting board with my santoku knife now…

I’m very fortunate to have a great group of girl friends who canceled their own plans for the evening to come and eat my dinner by candlelight, drink wine and go out to the bar.

I will admit, I truly think this is the best dinner I have ever cooked. I felt pressured my cooking wasn’t going to live up to my guest’s expectations. I certainly had nothing to worry about. I don’t know when I’ll ever cook this again. Recipes can become both good and bad memories, just like a photograph. So enjoy this one for me and only share it with someone special (it does take two days to make after all!). In the meantime, I think my future dates are going to have to settle for Ellio’s Pizza slices out of the box (yes, the pizza you’re served in the school cafeteria) until I’m ready to share.

Note: Today’s recipe is Gnocchi with Brasato al Barolo Ragu Sauce. I will post the Limoncello Panna Cotta with Blueberries recipe on Tuesday, and the Roasted Artichoke Salad on Wednesday.

Brasato al Barolo Ragu Sauce

Brasato al Barolo Ragu Sauce

3-4 cloves minced garlic
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1-28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2-12 oz. cans tomato paste + 2 cans water per can of paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
Chopped basil

Brasato al Barolo

2-2 1/2 lb. boneless eye-of-round beef roast or other lean cut
2 cups Barolo wine
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 garlic cloves
1 small fresh rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons EVOO
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 slices prosciutto, chopped
3 plum tomatoes, chopped with their juices

1 package gnocchi
Basil for garnish
Grated Parmesan cheese

The tomato sauce for this recipe comes from my Big Nona’s (great-grandmother’s) kitchen. My mom would say it tastes best if you prepare the tomato sauce at least one day in advance, cool completely and refrigerate before serving.

In a large pot, coat the entire bottom with EVOO. Add the minced garlic, sliced onion and crushed red pepper. Cook on medium heat for approximately 10-15 minutes until onions are completely softened.

Next, add the can of crushed tomatoes, stirring frequently scraping the bottom of the pot to keep the tomatoes from sticking. Cook for approximately 15 minutes until flavors can combine.

Add tomato paste and two cans of water per can of tomato paste to the tomato base. Add salt, pepper, sugar and basil. Stir and cook until contents reach a near boil. Lower temperature to low heat and cover with a tilted lid, allowing steam to escape. This will help thicken the sauce. Simmer stirring frequently to keep from burning for 90 minutes. Cool completely and refrigerate.

Place the beef roast in a large glass bowl. Add wine, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, peppercorns and salt. Cover and refrigerate allowing to marinate for a minimum of 6-7 hours.

Remove beef roast from marinade and dry completely, reserving marinade. Heat EVOO and butter in a large skillet on medium heat and add prosciutto. Once prosciutto has started to sizzle, place the beef roast in the pan. Brown and sear on each side for approximately 3 minutes.

Remove beef roast from the pan and place in a crockpot or slow cooker. Pour reserved marinade into the slow cooker, plus chopped plum tomatoes and their juices, and cook for several hours until beef begins to “pull away.” Note: This took approximately 5-6 hours in my slow cooker.

Begin to reheat the tomato sauce on medium heat. Once beef roast is cooked, slice and pull away the roast into shreds. Add the beef roast, carrots and celery to the tomato sauce. Simmer on medium-low heat for 1-1 1/2 hours. The meat will become more tender and fall apart in the sauce.

Bring a pot of water to boil and cook gnocchi as instructed. Pour brasato al barolo ragu sauce over gnocchi, and garnish with fresh basil and grated Parmesan cheese.

Maryland Shrimp Pasta Salad

I had a very relaxing 4th of July at the beach… minus the really weird tan lines, sleeping in an igloo (not literally, but it felt like it!) and coming home sick. It was filled with sun, friends, drinks and good food. It had me thinking of all the summers spent at the beach throughout high school and what I love most about summer.

Nothing reminds me more of summer growing up in Maryland than steamed crabs and BBQs. When I moved to North Carolina, my piece of summer away from home came to be my mom’s Maryland shrimp pasta salad. It was always a staple side dish at all family BBQs and steamed shrimp was the closest to Maryland seafood I could get my hands on, especially since I kept an economy-sized container of Old Bay in my spice cabinet (yes, I have a spice cabinet… a rack just doesn’t cut it!).

I don’t think this recipe is “famous,” but it’s become famous among friends and at parties I’ve taken it to as a side dish. I’ve passed the recipe on more times than I can count–it’s easy breezy and you only really need to know how to boil pasta. It’s even been eaten alone as seconds and thirds, or as a cold salad for lunch. I’ve also made this recipe vegetarian by eliminating the shrimp and adding additional fresh vegetables. The list of vegetables I use isn’t all-inclusive, so feel free to experiment with what you like!

Maryland Shrimp Pasta Salad

1 lb. shaped pasta (Rotini or Trio Italiano)
2 stalks celery, chopped
2-3 carrots, shredded
1 small Vidalia onion, chopped
1 cucumber, chopped
1 bell green pepper, chopped
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 lb. steamed shrimp, peeled (optional)


1 cup mayo
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Old Bay to taste

Boil and cook pasta. Drain and chill immediately using cold water and ice cubes. Chop the vegetables and peeled shrimp in a large bowl.

Mix and pour the dressing over the pasta and vegetables and mix well. Next, season with Old Bay to taste (Note: As a Marylander, I literally *dump* Old Bay on it when I make it… easily 6-10 tablespoons if not more. It also depends on if you have Old Bay on the steamed shrimp already.)

Refrigerate for 1-2 hours before serving. See, didn’t I say it was super easy?!

Chicken Marsala Stuffed Shells

Although yummy, today’s recipe proves that you can make stuffed shells without the ricotta. Who would have known?

Did you know there are people who do not like the taste and/or texture of ricotta cheese? Ricotta cheese is a staple ingredient to a lot of my family recipes, and Italian food in general. The “American” way is to alternatively use cottage cheese for lasagna and baked pastas. I, on the other hand, will eat spoonfuls of ricotta cheese plopped on top of my spaghetti! So began my quest for recipes that used alternative ingredients to ricotta and cottage cheese (I just can’t get past the lumpy texture of that stuff!).

This recipe originally called for bechamel sauce. Bechamel sauce is a white sauce traditionally used in French and Italian cuisine, and has a heavy cream base. Some variations also call for cheese. Knowing the recipe was already going to be rich between the chicken, Marsala wine and melted Parmesan cheese, I opted to use a tomato cream sauce or vodka sauce instead. If you want to save time (the recipe will already take 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours between prep and baking), I recommend using a jar of Bertolli’s Vodka Sauce or Four Cheese Rosa. If you’re up for the task though of making homemade sauce, I highly recommend this tomato-marscapone sauce. So now, on to what you’ll need…

Chicken Marsala Stuffed Shells

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, finely chopped
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 lb. ground chicken
4 ounces prosciutto, diced
2/3 cup Marsala cooking wine
7 ounces chopped canned tomatoes, and their juices
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper
1/2 box large pasta shells or 10-12 cannelloni tubes
Shredded Parmesan cheese
1 jar tomato cream or vodka sauce

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic, onion and mushrooms, and cook over low heat, stirring frequently for 8 to 10 minutes.

Dice your prosciutto into 1-inch pieces. Add the ground chicken and prosciutto to the vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, for 12 minutes or until browned all over. Stir in the Marsala wine, tomatoes and their can juices, basil, and tomato paste, and cook for 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then simmer on medium heat for about 30 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

When the filling is cooked, it will have absorbed mostly all of the liquid and will have a thickened consistency. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, return to a boil and cook for 10 to 12 minutes until tender, but still firm to bite. Drain and let dry. (You may want to add a few drops of olive oil to keep the shells or cannelloni from sticking)

Using a spoon, fill the shells or cannelloni tubes with the chicken and mushroom mixture. Place in a 9 x 13 glass baking dish sprayed with cooking spray. Pour the tomato cream or vodka sauce over them to cover completely and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.

Bake in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes until sauce is bubbly and cheese is melted. A side salad makes a delicious dinner!

Update: If you can’t find shells or cannolini tubes, or just don’t have time or want the fuss/mess of filling them), you can make this into a ziti pasta bake by mixing the chicken marsala mixture with a 16 ounce box of cooked ziti, pouring into a 9 x 13 glass baking dish sprayed with cooking spray, and topping with sauce and grated cheese.

“I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti”

I’m normally not a fan of memoirs, or most non-fiction. But as some of my closest friends know, about a year ago I was on a crazy dating ride of my own. “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” is Giulia’s Melucci’s memoir of her dating escapades and search for Mr. Right with recipes interwoven in the narrative and relationships. One by one, she found boyfriends, fed them well, and established relationships. After all, the saying is the path to a man’s heart is through his stomach!

The highlight of the book is the food. While most of the recipes are Italian, they’re simple to make with ingredients that aren’t hard to find, but take it one step above the norm making you look like a pro in the cucina. Some of the recipes even boast cute, hilarious and unique names such as “First-Date Butterflies” and “Spaghetti and Meatballs for Cooking Sluts and Those Who Love Them.” If you like food, and you like chick-lit, this is the book for you.

One of my favorite recipes from Melucci is the Simple Tomato Sauce and Pasta for Two. I make this all the time when I’m in the mood for a quick and easy homemade sauce. If you make it with crushed canned tomatoes, you’ll definitely have leftovers, which can also be frozen!

Simple Tomato Sauce and Pasta for Two

Adapted from “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” by Giulia Melucci

1 cup whole plum tomatoes (or 1-28 oz. can crushed tomatoes, I prefer Red Pack brand)
1 tablespoon EVOO
1 clove garlic, minced (I confess, I use 3!), or 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
Pinch of hot red pepper flakes
Basil leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 lb. penne, or pasta of your choice
Freshly grated parmigiano, pecorino, or any grating cheese to sprinkle on top

Run the tomatoes through a food mill or puree them with an immersion blender, chop them, or just break them up with your hands (or just used pre-crushed tomatoes!). Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, then add the garlic (or onions) along with the red pepper flakes and 1 whole basil leaf. Lower heat (you do not want your base to brown) and saute until the garlic is lightly golden (or the onions are translucent), 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and raise the heat back to medium; when the sauce begins to simmer, add the sugar, wine and salt. After about 5 minutes, check to see if it needs more salt; if it tastes acidic, add another pinch or two of sugar. Reduce the heat to low and taste after about 15 minutes. When all the flavors are nicely blended, it’s done.

Place a large, covered pot filled with water over high heat. When the water has reached a rigorous boil, add a generous dose of salt. Add the pasta and let the water return to a boil. Cook until the pasta is firm to the bite. When it is done, drain and divide. Add a ladle-full of the sauce and a few torn basil leaves.