Briley’s Fettuccine Alfredo with Broccoli, Peas, Mushrooms, and Sun-dried Tomatoes

What do you do when a 15 year old requests Fettuccine Alfredo for his birthday dinner?  First you cringe a little because this pasta with cream and butter has virtually no nutritional value and is truly bland in flavor.  Then you remember that even the Hungry Athlete loved Alfredo sauce when she was a kid.  With Halloween around the corner, looks like the Hungry Athlete had to use a little witch craft to create a healthier version of a teen’s favorite meal.  To ensure Briley’s birthday dinner would be a big treat, I had a couple tricks up my sleeve.

The first trick was to sneak in vegetables (muhahahaha).  I loaded the pasta with four vegetables which have some of the best sources of vegetable protein: peas, broccoli, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms.  In the version I made on Briley’s birthday, I confess to using a sleight of hand to hide the vegetables.  I simply diced the vegetables into the size of peas.  Now that my secret is out, the final recipe calls for larger bits of broccoli, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes.  This makes the pasta more pleasing, both visually and texturally.

The final trick is to turn the heavy cream into a disappearing act.  Typical American Fettuccine Alfredo is made with 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream, 2 tablespoons of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with a pinch of nutmeg.  I understand that the original and authentic Italian Alfredo sauce is made of only three ingredients: fettuccine, 2 sticks of butter (wow) and Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Either way, that’s a lot of cream or butter.  So instead of all the heavy cream, I threw into the cauldron some magic: Neufchatel.  No I didn’t sneeze and my cauldron was actually a large All-Clad saute pan.

Named after a town in Normandy, Neufchatel is one of the oldest of French cheeses and typically produced in the shape of a heart.  According to cheese folklore, American cream cheese was created when an American dairyman added cream to the recipe for Neufchatel.  Real French Neufchatel is made with raw cow’s milk. American Neufchatel is made with pasteurized cow’s milk and cream.  American Neufchatel has about 33% less fat than cream cheese and is sometimes called farmer’s cheese. Creamy and slightly tangy, it tastes a lot like cream cheese and a lot better than heavy cream.  It is found next to the cream cheese in the grocery store.

Neufchatel and Parmigiano-Reggiano combine with milk into a creamy Alfredo sauce.
Neufchatel and Parmigiano-Reggiano combine with milk into a creamy Alfredo sauce.

Here’s how Neufchatel compares:

  • 2 tablespoons Neufchatel is about 70 calories and 6 g of fat
  • 2 tablespoons butter is about 240 calories and 24 g of fat
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream is about 200 calories and 10 g of fat of which 7 g is unsaturated fat

I was afraid of disappointing a teenager on his birthday and tested a version with a couple tablespoons of cream, a version with whole milk and a third version with low-fat milk. I found the milk versions to be creamy, rich and delicious. Happy birthday Briley! This sauce was created just for you, to keep you healthy and to fuel your workouts.  May you continue to run those trails fast and strong for years to come.

If you prefer a non-vegetarian version, chicken, poached in a pan, adds more protein and accompanies the pasta nicely.  Check out this website for a foolproof, easy and fast way to prepare chicken for pasta and salads:

http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-cook-moist-tender-chicken-breasts-every-time-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-36891

Serving size: 4

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces of your favorite pasta* (I prefer fettuccine or penne)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup chopped white mushrooms
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced (or grated)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons Neufchatel* cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • ¼ cup whole or low-fat milk (I prefer organic whole milk**)
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • pinch of fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup chopped defrosted frozen broccoli
  • ¾ cup frozen peas
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup of chopped sun-dried tomatoes***
  • salt (You probably won’t need this. Any additional salt due to the saltiness of pasta water, the sundried tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.)

*Note: 8 ounces of uncooked long pasta shapes = 1 1/2-inch diameter bunch = 4 cups cooked pasta

**Note: Non-fat or reduced fat milk requires additional processing to remove the fat and then to put the 1% or 2% fat back.  I prefer less processed foods.  Your taste buds can easily be adjusted from non or low fat to whole milk.

***Note:  Sun-dried tomatoes in oil can be used however I prefer to use sun-dried tomatoes not in oil.  These has a longer shelf life however need to be soaked in water for about 30 minutes before chopping and cooking.

Directions:

Timing is everything in this dish.  As soon as the pasta is cooked it should be transferred directly to the pan with the Alfredo sauce.  The ensure good timing, prepare all of the ingredients in advance then start cooking the pasta.

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If you are using dry pasta, allow 5 minutes to prepare the Alfredo sauce.  If you are using fresh pasta, have a pot of water boiling and ready for the pasta and toss in the pasta just before you finish making the Alfredo sauce.

To make the sauce, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat.  Sauté the mushrooms for a couple minutes, then remove from pan and set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in the same pan over medium heat.  Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and lemon zest.  Stir for 1 minute.

Lower the heat and whisk in the Neufchatel, Parmigiano-Regiano and lemon juice until cheese is melted and smooth.  Whisk in milk for 1 minute.  Whisk in fresh nutmeg for another minute.

As soon as the pasta is cooked al dente, place it into the pan and coat the pasta with the Alfredo sauce over medium heat.

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Fettuccine is the traditional pasta used with Alfredo sauce. Here I used penne pasta.

Toss in mushrooms, broccoli, peas, sun dried tomatoes and half the parsley.

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Serve immediately with remaining parsley garnished on top.

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Crispy Salmon and Colcannon (Irish Potatoes with Cabbage, Kale and Leeks)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Hungry Athlete style! Irish comfort food, colcannon, is mashed potatoes made with kale or cabbage. On Halloween, charms are hidden inside the colcannon. If you find a ring, it means you will someday marry; if you find a thimble, you are doomed to be a spinster.  Who knew mashed potatoes could be so exciting? There’s even a song about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCQbksGz67U Colcannon is traditionally served with Irish bacon or boiled ham, however, since my coach is evaluating my diet this week, I decided to pair it with salmon.  I omitted the butter (and the ring and thimble) from the colcannon and saved it to prepare a sauce for the salmon.  And instead of using just kale or cabbage, I combined both and added leeks to pack a variety of nutrient rich vegetables into the colcannon.  The vegetables are typically chopped finely, blanched to soften, then combined with the potatoes.  To create a smoother colcannon, I lightly pulsed the vegetables in a food processor after blanching.  (A blender can be used as well.)  This saved me some chopping time and I liked the texture.  If you prefer a more rustic colcannon, just chop the vegetables up more finely at the beginning and skip the food processor. Colcannon is great for breakfast too!  Try using leftover colcannon for Colcannon with Poached Eggs and Smoked Salmon. Serving size: 4 Crispy Skin Salmon Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces of wild salmon, skin on (3 ounces per person)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Kosher salt and pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
  • 4 tablespoons butter

Colcannon Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut in large even chunks
  • 1 leek, rinsed well and chopped
  • 3 scallions stalks or 2 spring onion stalks, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cabbage, rough chopped (about 4 cups)
  • 4 curly kale leaves, stem removed and rough chopped (about 4 cups)
  • 1/4 cup of milk or 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • Kosher salt and pepper

Directions: Colcannon Place the potatoes in a large pot of water with a little salt. Bring the water to a boil for 5 minutes or until potatoes are fork tender. Drain the water from the pot.

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If you prefer a more rustic colcannon, chop the vegetables up more finely than this and skip using the food processor or blender.

Bring another large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the vegetables. First, add the leeks and cabbage to the boiling water. After 5 minutes, add the kale and continue blanching for another 4 minutes until all the vegetables are bright in color and tender. Then add 2/3 of the scallions or spring onions for 1 more minute. DSC_7001 Reserve about 1/4 cup of the hot greenish water from the pot. The water contains nutrients and can be used to add moisture to the potatoes. Then strain or remove the vegetables from the water and place in a food processor or blender. Season with salt and pepper and pulse until all of the vegetables are combined.

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Pulse it gently for a more rustic texture but definitely do not puree it. Some texture is good.

Add sour cream and milk or Greek yogurt to the potatoes. Mash the potatoes. If it appears dry, add a splash of the reserved vegetable water. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the vegetable mixture until just combined. It’s a rustic dish so I prefer chunks of white mashed potato with the green vegetables speckled throughout. Place a lid on the pot to keep the colcannon warm.

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Traditionally, a well is created in the middle and a Irish butter is added. By adding sour cream or Greek yogurt, I didn’t miss the butter. In addition, that allowed me to allocate the butter to creating a lemon butter sauce for the salmon.

Salmon Rinse the salmon and remove any bones. Pat dry with paper towels then slice the salmon into 4 pieces. Score the skin of the salmon by making a few shallow, diagonal cuts on the skin. This will help the skin crisp up but not curl up when cooked. Coat each piece with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, then season well with salt and pepper. Allow the salmon to sit at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before cooking. In a large nonstick frying pan, heat the remaining olive oil on medium high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, carefully drop the salmon on the pan, skin side down. Depending on the thickness of the salmon, cook for about 5 – 6 minutes watching the color change on the cut side of the flesh. When the color changes for 3/4 of the salmon, flip the salmon over and continue cooking for about 2 more minutes. This is called unilateral (uneven) cooking and ensures a crispy skin.  I usually   flake off a piece of the salmon with a fork to inspect for doneness.  A meat thermometer can also be used.  The salmon is done when the tiniest sliver of flesh is almost cooked or the temperature is 125F – 130F.  Remove the salmon from the pan and let it rest for at least 5 minutes.  The salmon will continue to cook through. After the salmon is removed, heat the pan back up on medium heat.  Add 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest, lemon juice, shallot and a pinch of salt.  Stir and simmer until the lemon reduces almost in half, then slowly add slices of cold butter, swirling the pan around to incorporate the butter. Place the salmon on a bed of colcannon. Spoon over the lemon butter sauce.  Sprinkle some reserved green or spring onion on top for garnish. DSC_7019

Vegetarian Tofu Tacos with Mango Salsa

Crispy, full of flavor and a fun meal to eat, you will not miss the fish in this Vegetarian Tofu Tacos with Mango Salsa.

Coating the tofu with panko bread crumbs then pan frying them in oil yields a crunchy exterior and a tender interior. Layer the tofu with Mango Salsa and Purple Cabbage and Carrot Slaw which can be prepared in advance.

Serving size: 4 (2-3 tacos per person)

Ingredients:

Pan Fried Tofu

  • 1 package firm or extra firm tofu
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup corn starch
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Vegetable oil
  • Flour or corn tortilla

Purple Cabbage and Carrot Slaw

  • 2 cups of finely shredded purple or red cabbage
  • 1 cup of shredded carrots
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar

Directions:

Prepare the Mango Salsa.  This can be prepared the day before.

Prepare the Purple Cabbage and Carrot Slaw by whisking together the lime juice, vegetable oil, salt and sugar. Toss in the cabbage and shredded carrots. Set aside.

Place the tofu in a sieve and pour boiling hot water over it. This will help draw out moisture. Dry out tofu by placing them in between paper towels and sandwiched in between two plates.   Weigh the plate down with a 28 ounce can or something of similar weight for at least 15 minutes.

In a shallow dish, combine the panko bread crumbs with cayenne pepper. Place the corn starch and lightly beaten egg, each in its own separate shallow dish.

After the moisture is drawn out of the tofu, cut the tofu into 4 x 1 inch pieces then season with salt and pepper.

Coat the tofu with the corn starch, then dip it in the egg and then coat it with the panko bread crumbs.

Over medium high heat, heat enough vegetable oil to coat a non-stick frying pan. Test the oil temperature by dropping in a piece of the panko bread crumbs. The oil should bubble around the bread crumbs and start turning it brown. If the oil smokes, the pan is too hot.

Fry the tofu until golden brown on each side. Drain on a paper towel.

Warm the tortilla in a hot pan for a couple minutes on each side until warm. Assemble the taco by placing some slaw in the middle of the tortilla. Next add a couple pieces of the tofu and top with the Mango Salsa. Serve with a couple extra slices of lime, hot sauce and a side of my Sweet Potato, Bean and Corn Hash.

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Cod Baked with Tomatoes, Artichokes and Lemon (Psari Plaki)

Psari Plaki is a traditional Greek style of baking fish with olive oil, tomatoes and vegetables. The Hungry Athlete’s version is cooked in parchment paper and was inspired by one of my father’s best friends and tennis partner, Gene Cohen. Gene owned the Somerville Inn, a New Jersey restaurant and banquet hall, with his wife Barbara. Both had passed away over 20 years ago. Barbara Cohen was a successful children’s book writer. Her first book, The Carp in the Bathtub, is a childhood favorite of mine. I have a fond memory of Barbara reading this book to me. Barbara also introduced me to my first peach. She had a gentle way about her and taught me not to be afraid of the fuzzy fruit. I attempted  to eat three that day. If you are looking for good children’s books, I highly recommend her books. Here’s more about Barbara:

http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cohen-barbara

One summer, my family was invited to the Jersey shore by the Cohens. Mr. Cohen prepared one of the most delicious fish I ever had as a child.  Whenever my father dined with friends at the Somerville Inn, Gene would not allow my father to order from the menu.  Gene insisted on asking my father what he felt like eating and my father always answered” You surprise me”.  My father told me that he “had wonderful meals, not from the menu.”

We must have had insatiable and disappointed eyes after we devoured the fish because Gene immediately ran out to buy more. When he returned with more fresh fish, Gene had my father’s and my undivided attention. Although we studied how Gene created this heavenly dish, all I remember now is that the fish was cooked in a tomato sauce, with possibly ketchup added, and wrapped in aluminum foil. But more than 30 years later, I remember how it tasted,

In my first few attempts to replicate Gene’s recipe, I experimented preparing the fish with canned diced tomatoes and ketchup. It didn’t achieve the flavors I remembered. Ketchup also has too much sugar in it so I substituted it with tomato paste. Next, I exchanged canned tomatoes for fresh tomatoes. The Jersey shore has lots of wonderful fresh tomatoes in the summer so I suspect Gene used fresh tomatoes. I also replaced the aluminum foil with parchment paper. The foil can react to and possibly impact the flavor of acidic ingredients, such as tomatoes, white wine and lemon juice.

Although my tongue cannot confirm for sure if I replicated the flavors from 30 years ago, I think it’s fairly close. With every bite, I am brought back to that evening, at the Jersey shore with Gene and Barbara Cohen, who introduced me to new foods when I was a child and who were great family friends.  No carp in the bathtub here, only cod in parchment.

Serving size: 2 

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound cod or halibut, cut in half
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion (about 1 cup), sliced thin
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 1/2 cups yellow and red grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
  • 1/2 cup of rough chopped parsley
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 2 springs of fresh oregano
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
  • 2 lemons, cut each lemon into 2 thin slices (4 slices in total) and then juice both lemons (about 1/2 cup lemon juice)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 cup canned artichoke hearts, drained and cut in halves

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F.

Inspect the fish for bones. I keep a tweezer in the kitchen specifically for removing small fish bones. After removing any bones, rinse the fish and pat it dry with paper towels. The fish should be dry to absorb all the great flavors you will be adding to it later. Set the fish aside. The fish should be covered and returned to the refrigerator if you have not prepared all the vegetables in advance.

In a fry pan over medium heat, sauté sliced red onion and sliced garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil until tender and fragrant.

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Stir together tomato paste and white wine, then add the mixture to the onion and garlic.

Add the tomatoes and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper, then continue to sauté for 5 minutes or until sauce thickens.  Stir in the fresh parsley, then remove it from the heat and set aside.

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Tear off two generous pieces of parchment paper large enough to wrap the fish with the tomatoes, onion and artichokes. To prepare the parchment packets, place one tablespoon of olive oil in the middle of each piece of parchment paper, then place the fish on top of the olive oil. Spoon another tablespoon of olive oil on top of the fish and pour 1/4 cup lemon juice on top of each fish fillet. Season the fish well with salt and pepper.  Next, place one sprig of thyme and one sprig of oregano on top of each fish fillet.

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Place 1/2 cup of artichokes around each fish. Finally, spoon the tomato mixture on top of the fish and artichokes. Be careful not to cover the thyme and oregano. This ensures you and your dinner guest will be able to see the herbs and put them on the side of the plate. Nobody really wants to eat whole sprig of thyme or oregano.

Wrap the parchment paper around the fish and ensure the edges are enclosed tightly. Here’s a video demonstrating how to wrap the fish the proper French way: http://www.finecooking.com/videos/fish-in-parchment.aspx . This method ensures the steam is trapped inside the packet, however when I’m in a rush, I wrap the fish by turning the fish so it’s longest horizontally.  I then grab the top and bottom ends of the parchment paper and and turn over the edges over a couple of times. Just make sure to fold it tightly together. Next I fold the long ends in, forming a triangle, like wrapping a present.  Lastly, I tuck in the triangle ends under the fish.

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Bake for 15 minutes or more depending on the thickness of the fish. You can serve the fish in the parchment packet. Just cut a slit down the top of the paper to reveal the fish or you can carefully remove it from the parchment paper. Remember to tell your dinner guests to remove the sprigs of thyme and oregano.

Serve with brown rice or a Greek salad.

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Garlicky Roasted Vegetable Pasta with Pesto

Leftover roasted vegetables are great ingredients to have in the refrigerator when you need to cook a fast and healthy weeknight meal. I had extra roasted zucchini and bell peppers left over after making my Vegetable Lasagna. The day after I made the lasagna, I used some of the roasted vegetables as a topping for homemade pizza. A couple days later, I used the remaining roasted vegetables in this Garlicky Roasted Vegetable Pasta with Pesto. The basil pesto used in this recipe can also be made in advance and stored frozen up to 3 months. I am not ashamed to admit that I used store bought basil pesto; in addition, I used store bought garlic paste since I like my pesto garlicky. This healthy and delicious dinner was ready in 20 minutes.

Serving size: 2

Ingredients for Basil Pesto:

  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 3-4 cloves garlic (I like mine garlicky)
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Ingredients for Pasta:

  • 2 cups of cooked pasta (use your favorite pasta; gluten-free if you pefer; I used whole wheat)
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic paste (optional and used only because the store bought pesto was not garlicky enough)
  • pinch of red chili flakes
  • 1/4 cup roasted bell peppers, sliced*
  • 1/2 cup roasted zucchini slices*
  • 1 cup miniature heirloom tomatoes, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons basil pesto
  • 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

* Note: For directions on how to roast bell peppers and zucchini, follow the instructions on the Vegetable Lasagna recipe.

Directions:

In a food processor, pulse basil, garlic and pine nuts a few times until just combined. Then, while the food processor is running, slowly drizzle in olive oil. It’s important to do this slowly to ensure it will emulsify. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. If you are using the pesto immediately, stir in the cheese. Otherwise, store and freeze without the cheese. You can add freshly grated cheese once you are ready to thaw out and use the pesto.

Cook pasta in salted water and drain. Add the pasta back to the same pot. On medium heat, add the garlic paste, red chili pepper flakes, roasted peppers, roasted zucchini and tomatoes. Stir together and heat until vegetables are warmed through. Combine pesto and heat for 2 additional minutes. Just before serving, sprinkle freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Left over roasted zucchini and bell peppers were also used  to make pizza.
Left over roasted zucchini and bell peppers were also used to make pizza.

Vegetable Lasagna

I was challenged this holiday to come up with festive meals that would satisfy both vegetarian and carnivore hungry athletes at the same table. When I developed the menus, I had 3 requirements: 1) Each of the main ingredients’ attributes should stand on it’s own. For example, I’m not a fan of tofurkey, chick’n or any food being doctored up to substitute real meat. If tofu is an ingredient, then it should be prepared in a way that it can be savored; 2) The dish should be worthy of special occasions, requiring a little labor of love and; 3) The dish should be comforting.

Voila. For Christmas eve, the main dish was Vegetable Pot Pie and for Christmas day, the main course was Vegetable Lasagna. Each of these recipes can be modified to include protein, such as meat or tofu.  The lasagna freezes well and is a fast and nutritious meal that heats up quickly after a workout or for a busy weekday dinner.  If you have extra mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, make a little extra tomato sauce and roast a little extra zucchini and roasted peppers.  You can use these ingredients to make a nice pizza the next day.

Here’s how I made the lasagna.

Serving size: 8-10

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 of large onion, diced (about 2 cups)
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 1 28-ounce can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1 28-ounce can tomato puree
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
  • 15 ounces ricotta cheese
  • 16 ounces shredded mozzarella
  • 2 small zucchini, sliced 1/4 inch thick and roasted
  • 1 cup frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 2 roasted red peppers, cut into strips
  • 8 ounce package oven-ready, no boil lasagna noodle

Directions:

Preheat to 375F 

Sauce:

In 3.5 quart French oven, sauté diced onion in olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes more. Add diced tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste, bay leaf, sugar, basil, oregano, thyme and red pepper flakes. Simmer, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes.

Roast red bell peppers:

While the tomato sauce simmers, roast bell peppers. There are several ways to roast peppers. I like to blister the whole peppers over a gas flame.  Allow the peppers to cool and remove the charred skin.  I don’t bother to place them in a paper bag or cover with plastic wrap.  It’s not necessary for this recipe to remove all of the skin.

Core the peppers and cut into quarters. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, place the pepper quarters skin side up and roast in oven at 375F for about 20 minutes or until softened.

Roast zucchini:

Using a mandolin, slice zucchini into 1/4 inch strips. Brush both sides with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on parchment lined baking sheet and roast in over at 375F. Turn over after 10 minutes and continue to toss until softened.

Building first layer of lasagna:

Remove bay leaf from tomato sauce. Coat the bottom of lasagna pan with tomato sauce. I used a 10.5 x 8.75 x 2.5 inch ceramic casserole dish. Place first layer of lasagna noodles over the tomato sauce, overlapping each noodle by ¼ inch. Gently spread ricotta cheese over the noodles being careful not to break noodles. Lay roasted zucchini strips. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and cover with thin layer of tomato sauce making sure to coat the noodles.

Gently spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese over lasagna noodles.
Gently spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese over lasagna noodles.

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Second layer of lasagna:

Place next layer lasagna noodles over the zucchini and tomato sauce. Spread thin layer of ricotta cheese over the noodles, lay roasted peppers, sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and cover with another thin layer of tomato sauce.

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Third layer of lasagna:

Place third layer of lasagna noodles over roasted peppers and tomato sauce. Spread with thin layer of ricotta cheese. Squeeze out all the moisture from spinach and spread evenly over ricotta and noodles. Repeat layering with mozzarella and tomato sauce.

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Last layer of lasagna:

Place forth and last layer of lasagna over the spinach layer. Cover with remaining tomato sauce. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese and Parmesan-Reggiano cheese.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375F for 40 minutes.

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Use the extra mozzarella, parmesan, tomato sauce, roasted zucchini and roasted peppers to make a pizza the next day.  Enjoy it with champagne like I did here.
Use the extra mozzarella, parmesan, tomato sauce, roasted zucchini and roasted peppers to make a pizza the next day. Enjoy it with champagne like I did here.

Acorn squash stuffed with Curry Mustard Quinoa, Butternut Squash, Spinach, Cranberries and Toasted Almonds

Thanksgiving kicks off one of my favorite times of year. As immigrants, my family was slow to embrace the American tradition of Thanksgiving. We really didn’t know much about eating or cooking turkeys. My mother made Peking Duck instead. It is one of my most favorite culinary guilty pleasures. Peking Duck is quite a laborious venture in the kitchen. The chore begins with my mother meticulously rigging a duck on a wire hanger and suspending it from a kitchen cabinet. Then over 2-3 days, the duck is basted and dried before it is roasted. The end result is the crispiest and tastiest skin that covers moist duck meat. However, one year, on day 2 of project Peking Duck, my mother went into labor with my sister. After giving birth, my mother asked my father what he did with the duck. He fried it. The story always makes me smile thinking how my mother went through all that effort to prepare the duck, only to have it deep fried. I suppose it’s no different than frying a turkey.

Fast forward to 2014, and now I’m in a relationship with someone who also has never had a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. He’s a vegetarian athlete and his only request was that I not prepare Tofurky. I wanted to create something nutritious, packed with protein (like a turkey) and Thanksgiving-y.   Like my sister, my Acorn Squash stuffed with Quinoa, Roasted Butternut Squash, Spinach, Cranberry & Toasted Almonds was born on Thanksgiving day. Served with vegetarian side dishes, this main course satisfied my hungry athlete.

Serving size: 6

Ingredients:

  • 3 acorn squashes* (optional)
  • 6 tablespoons of butter (substitute 6 teaspoons of olive oil for vegan)
  • 3 cups of butternut squash* (about 1 ½ pounds), peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup quinoa (rinsed well according to instructions)
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon Coleman’s English mustard powder
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 2/3 cup chopped toasted almonds
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots (about 2 small shallots)
  • 3 full packed cups baby spinach
  • Juice of 1/2 large lemon (about 2 tablespoon)
  • Salt and fresh cracked pepper

Directions:

Preheat over 400F.

Peel the butternut squash with a vegetable peeler. With a very sharp knife, slice off the top and bottom of the butternut squash to create a level surface. Then carefully cut into ½ inch cubes.

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Toss the butternut squash in 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt & pepper.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until tender, tossing once.

Microwave acorn squashes for 1 minute. Cut in half crosswise, dissecting the top and bottom. If necessary, slice a small piece off the top and bottom so that it sits level when served on a plate. Scoop out seeds and stringy parts.  Spread 1 tablespoon of butter (or 1 teaspoon of olive oil) inside of each acorn squash half, then season with salt and pepper. Wrap each half in aluminum foil**.

Noting the amount of time left to bake the butternut squash, bake the acorn squashes for 50-60 minutes or until fork tender.  The butternut squash will finish cooking and will need to be removed from oven while the acorn squash packets remain in the oven for it’s remaining baking time. The timing will ensure the acorn squash is still warm when served. Once the acorn squash are cooked and tender, keep them wrapped in aluminum foil to retain heat until the quinoa is ready to be served.

Bring vegetable broth to a boil then stir in quinoa.  Stir in dry mustard and curry powder.  Simmer covered for 15-20 minutes until water is absorbed or according to the package directions.

While quinoa is simmering, toast the almonds in the oven, on a baking sheet until lightly toasted and fragrant for about 5 minutes.   Allow it to cool, chop coarsely and set aside.

Once quinoa is cooked, remove from heat and toss in cranberries and stir in lemon juice. Taste the quinoa and season with salt if needed. I find that if the quinoa is cooked in vegetable broth, no additional salt is necessary. Cover and let sit for about 5 minutes. Remove lid and fluff quinoa with a fork.

With remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sauté shallots until softened. Add butternut squash, quinoa and spinach.  Sauté spinach until wilted. Toss in toasted chopped toasted almonds just before serving. Spoon quinoa into acorn squash and serve.

Note:  You may prefer not to include both butternut squash and acorn squash in this dish.  I found there wasn’t enough flesh to enjoy inside the acorn squash I picked up.  Butternut squash added nice contrast in color, flavor and texture to each bite of the red quinoa.  Alternatively, this dish can be served without the acorn squash as shown in the photo below.

** Note:  The acorn squash can be baked without wrapping in aluminum foil however, creating individual packets of acorn squash makes it easier to find space for them when other side dishes are competing for oven space on Thanksgiving day. Here are other alternative ways to cook acorn squash:

  • MICROWAVE:  Lay acorn squash cut side down and microwave and cook at 5 minute intervals until fork tender, about 7-10 minutes.
  • BAKING UNWRAPPED:  Place unbuttered and unseasoned acorn squash, cut side down on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.  Add enough water to slightly cover the sides of the squash.  Bake at 350F for about 35-40 minutes.  Flip over, add butter & seasoning.  Continue to bake until fork tender, 5-10 minutes longer.

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