Saturday, October 27, 2012

Baked Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells

The first and only time I've ever had stuffed shells was when I was about 12. I spent one week of that summer with a friend at her grandparent's cottage on a lake in northern MI. We goofed around swimming (her like a fish, me like an old arthritic dog with a density problem), attempted skiing, rode a tandem bike, played cards, canoed, and swam some more. And between all that fun, we ate. Girlfriend's g-ma could make some mean stuffed shells!

The original recipe suggested tossing the cooked shells in oil, likely to prevent them from sticking to each other. I figured out a work-around for that. The quantity of spinach was increased by a couple of ounces simply because it came in a 10-oz package. The marinara was replaced with the Basic Tomato Sauce. Finally, I skipped the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese altogether.

Baked Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells
adapted from Whole Foods Market recipes
click to print

16-18 jumbo pasta shells, about 6 oz.
10 oz baby spinach
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 oz part-skim ricotta cheese
8 oz part-skim mozzarella cheese, grated, divided
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp chopped basil
1 1/2 c Basic Tomato Sauce

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta shells and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain well then place them on a baking sheet or dish such that they don't touch each other; set aside.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Put spinach into a large skillet. Cover and cook over medium low heat, tossing occasionally, until just wilted; drain well. When cool enough to handle, squeeze to remove any excess water.

If your spinach leaves are dry, add a teaspoon or two of water so they steam and wilt.

Place garlic, ricotta, 6 ounces mozzarella, egg and basil in medium bowl. Chop spinach and combine with ricotta mixture to make the filling.

Spread a few spoonfuls of marinara sauce in the bottom of a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the shells in a single layer.

I used a 7x11" baking dish.

Fill each shell with spinach mixture and arrange in the dish.

Cup a shell in your palm and pinch the narrow ends toward each other. This will cause the shell the "open" giving you ample room to spoon or scoop filling into the pocket. When you release your pinch grip, the shell will naturally try to close over the filling. The original recipe figured you'd stuff 16 shells. I cooked a couple extra in case they broke or tore. I wound up stuffing 17; the last shell was torn.

Pour remaining sauce over and around the stuffed shells and top with remaining 2 ounces of mozzarella.

Cover with foil and bake until hot throughout, 20 to 30 minutes, then uncover and continue baking about 10 minutes more or until golden brown.

Hmm. My cheese didn't brown.

While not as good as those I remember from when I was a kid (but really, none will ever be that good), these were still great - enough to cause me to ask myself why I never tried making them before. They are sort of like lasagna pockets. And food like this makes me totally forget there's no meat in it.

The Basic Tomato Sauce worked very well in this dish. It had a little bit of a tart tomato kick but didn't overwhelm the other flavors. The cheese really stood out and made the dish seem really decadent. You definitely don't want to forget to chop the spinach like I did. Wilted baby spinach, when whole, will try to choke you.

  • jumbo pasta shells: $1.30
  • baby spinach: $1.49
  • garlic: $0.08
  • ricotta cheese: $1.75
  • mozzarella cheese: $2
  • egg: $0.35
  • basil: MINE
  • Basic Tomato Sauce: $1.50
Total: $8.47 or about $2.13 for each of four servings.

Barilla Jumbo Shells

I thought jumbo shells would be in a much bigger box.

I can't believe there are 35 shells in this box.

But I guess they aren't really that big. Just big enough to fit in my cupped palm.

The cooking directions are built into the recipe for Barilla Jumbo Shells Stuffed with Cheese.

They are supposed to be cooked for 9 minutes in boiling water, but I only did 8 minutes in salted boiling water.

They are really firm, but should soften a little more during baking.

Barilla Jumbo Shells, available in the pasta/Italian/ethnic aisle of Ralph's for $2.59 a 12-oz box.

Mario Batali's Basic Tomato Sauce

Do you ever pick up a jar of sauce at the store, look at the ingredients, and wonder, "why am I buying this?" I did just that the last time I bought a sauce and decided that next time I'd make my own. That time is now. Before leaving for the store, a quick search on Epicurious found this very simple recipe by Mario Batali.

The recipe called for a Spanish onion and canned whole tomatoes. Rather than driving to a store for those items, I used what I had in the pantry, a plain ol' brown or yellow onion and cans of diced tomatoes.

Basic Tomato Sauce
adapted from Epicurious
click to print

1/4 c extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
4 14.5-oz cans diced tomatoes

In a 3.5-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the thyme and carrot and cook until the carrot is quite soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, with their juice, and bring to a boil, stirring often.

Lower the heat and simmer until as thick as hot cereal, about 30-70 minutes. Season with salt.

This took more than double the recipe's suggested time, but that might've been my turning the heat down too low or because I used 14.5-oz cans of tomatoes rather than 28 and there was extra juice.

The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for 6 months.

And voila! A sauce without added sugar and limited salt. It was very simple and clean tasting. Unexpectedly, I couldn't even tell there were carrots in it. Likely they are added as a natural sweetener, offsetting the acidic tomatoes. In that case, a little more carrot would've suited me. And that makes me wonder if Spanish onions are sweet. I bet they are.

I could do with a little more seasoning, maybe adding in a little pile of basil at the end. I am partial to basil. Here's a thought, I wonder if the simplicity is intended so you can taste whatever the sauce is added to. You know, like tasting the pasta instead of burying it.

Either way, it's a cinch to make and calls for just a few ingredients. I'll definitely be making this again, possibly as originally written, Spanish onion and all.

Oh yeah, and I felt sort of like Paul Sorvino as Paul Cicero slicing my garlic. The Shun paring knife did a very good job of getting razor thin slices.

  • extra-virgin olive oil: $0.47 
  • onion: $0.26
  • garlic: $0.15 
  • fresh thyme: $0.50 
  • carrot: $0.07 
  • diced tomatoes: $2.56 
Total: $4.01 or about $1 per cup.

Food Plan and Grocery List, 102712

This week I'm just going to make the stuffed shells I thought I was going to make last week. Everything but the carrots are still good.

Produce and Meat Market
  • carrots: $0.69/lb

Total: $0.69
Total for the year: $1671.22

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cost of Take-Out Lunch, Week Ending 102612

Monday: Sushi Plantation on the boss
Tuesday: Jack in the Box SW Chix Salad: $6.02
Wednesday: Bravo Burger's on a coworker
Thursday: Jack in the Box SW Chix Salad: $6.02
Friday: Deemer's for two: $21.87

Total: $33.91
Total for the year: $1274.23

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Apple Pie Bread

Here's another recipe Yonetta has pinned. Apple pie bread sounds like something good for breakfast or dessert.

No buttermilk on hand, I opted to sour some milk, an option offered as a tip in the source. Rather than bother with finding an apple pie spice recipe, or worse, buying some, I simply substituted with cinnamon. For me that's about as apple pie as you can get.

Not only did I yield a loaf of bread, but I learned something, well, two things, along the way. One, I tend not to learn from the things I've read, and two, baking temperature when using metal and glass does make a difference. I used glass this time as always and tried the lower temperature with astounding results.

Apple Pie Bread
adapted from Mommy's Kitchen
click to print

3/4 tsp distilled white vinegar
1/3 c (scant) milk
1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c granulated sugar
1/2 c packed brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 c all purpose flour, divided
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2 c peeled apples, diced
3/4 c walnuts, chopped

1/4 c packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter, softened
1/3 c walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Dilute vinegar with milk to yield 1/3 cup. Let stand at least five minutes or until ready to use.

Cream the butter in a large bowl.

Beat in the granulated and brown sugars until combined.

Add the soured milk and baking powder; beat until combined.

The soured milk after beating into the creamed sugars looks exactly like it should had buttermilk been used.

Add eggs and vanilla; beat until combined.

Add 2 cups flour, cinnamon and salt; beat until combined.

Toss the apples and nuts in remaining flour.

Stir apples and nuts into batter.

Grease the bottom and sides of a 9x5x3 inch loaf dish. Spoon batter into prepared dish and spread evenly.

Prepare the streusel topping by combine the brown sugar, cinnamon and flour in a small bowl; cut in the butter until it resembles coarse crumbs.

If the butter is hard, you'll want to use a pastry blender. If the butter is really soft, a fork works just fine.

Stir in walnuts and sprinkle over the batter.

You'll have to trust I stirred the nuts in.

Bake for 60 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Cool bread in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely.

Wrap and store overnight before slicing if you can stand to wait.

This bread is so freakishly similar to apple pie in flavor it's almost weird. The topping is nice and crumbly crunchy while the bread itself is incredibly moist. Absolute flavor explosion in a sliceable package, a total winner.

And now I'm a believer that the baking temperature when using a glass dish should be 25°F lower than when baking in a metal pan. My whole life I've been using too high a temperature and didn't even know. I honestly thought the dark, tough "crust" was normal. This bread turned out marvelously; no part of it was too dark and the texture of the crust was excellent. Picture me kicking myself for not having tried that little experiment before. Going forward I will always keep this in mind.

  • milk: $0.17
  • butter: $0.60
  • sugar: $0.11
  • brown sugar: $0.39
  • eggs: $0.70
  • vanilla extract: $0.08
  • all purpose flour: $0.30
  • apples: $1.03
  • walnuts: $1.45
Total: $4.83 or about $5 (to include spices). That makes each of 12 slices about $0.42.