Just Another Manicotti March Monday

It was a quiet weekend over at the Middleton and Turner residence. Cameron spent time woodworking in the garage, and I caught up on some reading and writing while Waffles’s meowing interludes reminded me who really runs the house. Yesterday Charlotte and I endured slushy sidewalks for a long walk around our snow-socked neighborhood. Adulthood.

Wintry Reaching. Image by author.

Wintry Reaching. Image by author.

Below you’ll find another in my long string of recipes meant to dull the unrelenting Colorado cold. While the rest of ya’ll are relishing spring’s first buds, I’m bundling up for the worst month of the year in Colorado. More than any other place I’ve lived, the warning to beware the ides of March rings truest here.

Even if you manage to avoid snow drifts and icy waves of street slush knocked up by folks tucked warmly in their cars and trucks, manicotti is certainly no stranger to more pleasant climes. My mother allowed me to help her make manicotti when I was a kid in Alabama, and it reminds me of the filling meals she plied us with before she took her long hiatus from cooking. Stuffed with three cheeses and plenty of spinach, you won’t need more than two of these rascals before you’re sated. Cameron and I sidled up to a plate of manicotti and an ample balsamic vinaigrette-tossed salad, both of which helped blot out thoughts of slippery sidewalks and killer icicles dangling from our house gutters.

Vegetarian Manicotti

Image by author.

Spinach and Cheese Manicotti
(adapted from a Food Network recipe)
Serves 6

Ingredients
– 1 lb fresh spinach, stems trimmed and well washed or a 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed (I used frozen spinach since it was more cost-effective during the “dead” winter season that is Colorado.)

– Kosher salt, plus 1/2 teaspoon

– 12 manicotti shells

– 3 cups marinara sauce, (I used jarred organic sauce to save time, but if you’re hankering for a homemade sauce, click the link to the original recipe for an additional recipe for marinara sauce.)

– 1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese (about 1 pound)

– 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (about 4 ounces)

– 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese or a mixture of half Pecorino and Parmesan (Use Pecorino or Asiago if you want a comparable cheese that is more cost-effective.)

– 2 large eggs, lightly beaten

– Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

– Freshly ground pepper

– 2 tsp unsalted butter, diced

Directions
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat, and season generously with salt. Fill a medium bowl with ice water and season with salt, as well. Boil the spinach, uncovered, until tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, (do not drain), and immediately plunge the spinach into the ice water. Drain and squeeze the excess water from the spinach, and finely chop. Alternatively, if using thawed spinach, simply squeeze, and finely chop. (My frozen spinach was already chopped, so that saves even more time.)

2. In the same large pot of boiling water (if you’re going the fresh spinach route), cook the pasta shells until al dente, tender but still slightly firm. Drain and pat dry.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Cover the bottom of a 9- x 13-inch ovenproof baking dish with 1 cup of the marinara sauce. In a medium mixing bowl, evenly combine the ricotta, mozzarella, and 1/3 cup of the Parmesan, the eggs, and the spinach. Season with the 1/2 tsp salt, nutmeg, and pepper to taste.

5. Spoon the cheese mixture into each manicotti shell and line them up in the baking dish. Cover with the remaining sauce. Scatter the remaining cheese on top and dot with the butter. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

‘Comfort at The End of the World’ Potato, Squash, and Goat Cheese Gratin

Yesterday was not a particularly stellar one in the life and times of this Crafty Cook Nook blogger, but after I made it home from work and took my pal Charlotte for her evening walk, I broke out my Fuchsia Dunlop cookbook and set to making her quick and easy Emergency Noodles recipe. Folks, even if you’re not having an “emergency” kind of day, I highly recommend this recipe and her cookbook Every Grain of Rice. She’s a trained Sichuanese cook, and the recipes in this book are spot on when it comes to Chinese home cooking. Plus, if you follow a vegetarian diet, she offers plenty of non-meat options alongside seafood-, beef-, chicken-, and pork-infused recipes.

With Emergency Noodles piled high in my bowl and chopsticks in hand, I spent the evening watching Expedition to the End of the World, a Danish documentary about a 21st-century crew of scientists and artists who navigate a three-mast schooner along North-east Greenland’s melting massifs. It’s an “epic journey where the brave sailors on board encounter polar bear nightmares, Stone Age playgrounds and entirely new species,” and where “curiosity, grand pathos, and a liberating dose of humour come together in a superbly orchestrated film where one iconic image after the other seduces us far beyond the historical footnote that is humanity.” Fortunately, the humor saves it from being an overly earnest treatise about climate change. Not that I’ve ever doubted climate change (Science!), but in my years of studying environmental writing and rhetoric, it’s become clear that the jeremiad usually only reaches folks who are already on board with whatever is being yelled into the wilderness that is environmental policy.

Expedition to the End of the World. Image retrieved from Film School Rejects.

Expedition to the End of the World. Image retrieved from Film School Rejects.

Needless to say, watching a documentary that reminds me just how inconsequential I am in the whole scheme of life was a nice way to put into perspective the worries I find myself obsessing over. It’s something worth taking comfort in.

And while I’m on the topic of “comfort,” (see what I did there? Eh?), today’s recipe features one of my favorite winter comfort food ingredients, the ubiquitous potato. Below you’ll find my last entry for the Kitchn Cookbook’s Kitchen Basics Instagram contest they’ve been running with Le Creuset. Thinly sliced potatoes and squash baked to melty perfection with cheese? Check. This recipe made enough to feed eight people, so if you’re looking for a smaller batch, just half the recipe and use a smaller baking dish. I’ve had a good time trying out recipes from the Kitchn’s debut cookbook, and while I wasn’t among the contest winners, I did learn how to make a few new recipes (the no-knead bread recipe is going to be a monthly experiment), always a win for a home cook.

Image by author.

Image by author.

Potato, Squash, and Goat Cheese Gratin
(a Kitchn Cookbook recipe)
Serves 8

Ingredients
– 1 lb yellow squash (about 4 medium), cut into 1/8-inch slices

– 2 lb medium red potatoes, cut into 1/8-inch slices

– 1/3 cup olive oil

– 6 oz soft goat cheese, crumbled

– Salt and freshly ground black pepper

– 1/2 cup whole milk

– 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

– 1/4 cup thinly sliced basil or thyme leaves

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with a drizzle of olive oil.

2. Use a mandoline or chef’s knife to slice the squash and potatoes into very, very thin slices, 1/8-inch or less. (I used a chef’s knife, and while it does take longer than with a mandoline, you can still get very thin slices.) Toss the sliced vegetables with the 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large bowl.

3. Place 1/3 of the squash and potato slices in the bottom of the dish — no need to layer them squash-potato-squash; just spread evenly — then season with salt and pepper. Top with half of the goat cheese, scattered evenly in large chunks. Repeat with another 1/3 of the vegetables, seasoning again with salt and pepper and topping with the other 1/2 of the goat cheese. Finish by layering on the final 1/3 of the vegetables and seasoning with salt and pepper.

4. Pour the milk over the entire dish. Top with the parmesan cheese. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes, and then uncover, and bake 15 more minutes, until the top browns. Scatter on the fresh basil, if using.

‘Settling In For Snow’ Chocolate Chip and Almond Butter Cookies

All my droopy-spirited Colorado friends downtrodden over the unseasonably warm weather this month, take heart. February is aiming to go out with a roar along the Front Range with snow forecast on and off for the next week. I’m a fan of fewer wildfires this summer, so I’ll lace up my snow boots in solidarity with all those snow fiends who have been jonesing for white-dressed foothills and fresh powder on the backcountry ski trails.

Skiing of any variety freaks me out after a misspent day of “learning” to snowboard on Mount Hood in the early 2000s. Acquiring a mild concussion while being underemployed and uninsured put the brakes on downhill snow sports for this flatlander. So, while folks travel from all over the country and the world to hit Rocky Mountain slopes, you’ll more likely find me traipsing along flat trails in snowshoes this winter and spring, more platypus than sprightly snow owl.

And if last weekend’s snowy weather is any indication, I’ll also be staying close to the oven, fortifying myself against the cold with comfort food. Below you’ll find a masterful cookie recipe from the plant-based folks who published The Thug Kitchen Cookbook. I made a batch of these cookies on Sunday to share with co-workers this week, and they had no idea these were vegan. That’s right, not an egg or pat of butter in sight. Almond butter is truly a wonder ingredient when paired with chocolate, offering decadence without excessive cholesterol. If you want to do these right, don’t skimp on the chocolate chips, though. Use chips that are 60% cocoa for depth of flavor.

vegan Chocolate Chip Almond Butter Cookies

Image by author.

Chocolate Chip and Almond Butter Cookies
(adapted from a Thug Kitchen Cookbook recipe)
Makes 24 to 28 cookies

Ingredients
– 1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

– 1/2 tsp baking powder

– 1/2 tsp baking soda

– 1/2 tsp salt

– 2/3 cup chilled almond butter (The colder the better since this dough is very sticky to handle.)

– 1/3 cup brown sugar

– 1/3 cup granulated (white) sugar

– 2 TBS ground flaxseed

– 3/4 cup almond milk

– 1 1/2 tsp tsp vanilla extract

– 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions
1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

2. In the large bowl of a stand mixer (or large bowl), mix the almond butter and sugars until it looks creamy and fluffy. Slowly add the ground flaxseed, almond mix, and vanilla until a loose batter forms.

3. Now, slowly add the sifted dry ingredients from step 1 into the loose batter. Mix until there are no dry spots. Fold in the chocolate chips, cover, and place in the fridge for at least 1 hour. (Dough will stay fresh for up to 2 days in the fridge.)

4. Before removing dough from fridge, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

5. Scoop spoonfuls of dough onto a cookie sheet (I lined my sheet with a Silpat baking mat. A sheet of parchment paper works great, too.) Flatten the dough until you have a 2-inch-wide cookie. Bake until bottoms are golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove from cookie sheet, and let cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before serving.

‘Snow Day!’ West African Peanut Soup

When I was a high school senior daydreaming about going to college in a state where winter meant snow, my southern town fell under the spell of a rare snow shower. A half inch accumulated, and the county closed down the schools, citing dangerous road conditions. Snow day! My best friend Marci and I hopped in her hatchback and headed to her house where we proceeded to gather as much as snow as possible from her yard for a snowball fight. Now that she lives in Minnesota and I’ve settled in Colorado, snow days are a rarity even when our neighborhoods get pounded with storms and the roads turn to ice rinks. So it is with mild disbelief that I’m hanging out at my house on a workday, relishing an official snow day. Thanks, snow storm that hung over the Front Range for two days.

Once the snow started on Saturday, I stuck close to home, trying out comfort food recipes that would use ingredients in my pantry. Below you’ll find a simple West African-inspired soup that comes together in a half hour and is vegan-friendly. I stuck to the basic recipe (though if you eat meat, shredded chicken would be a nice addition): a hearty mixture of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and peanut butter that kept us full without breaking the bank.

West African Peanut Soup

Image by author.

West African Peanut Soup
(a Better Bean Cookbook recipe)
Serves 4 as a main dish

Ingredients
– 2 TBS vegetable oil (I used canola.)

– 1 onion, roughly diced

– 2 large garlic cloves, chopped

– 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, finely diced

– Large pinch of chili flakes or 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (I used chili flakes.)

– 1 tsp ground cumin

– Large pinch of ground cinnamon

– 2 orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

– 14 oz. can of chopped/diced tomatoes

– 3 TBS organic natural smooth peanut butter

– Salt and pepper

– Juice of 1/2 lime

– A few leaves of fresh cilantro, for garnish

Directions
1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, and fry onion until soft. Add the garlic, ginger, chili, cumin, and cinnamon, and stir until they smell fragrant.

2. Add the sweet potatoes, and stir to coat in the spices, taking care not to let the garlic burn. Tip in the tomatoes and stock, and simmer gently for about 10 minutes, until the sweet potato is soft.

3. Spoon the peanut butter into a small bowl, stir in enough of the soup broth to make a smooth cream, and then add to the soup.

4. Using a hand-held blender or potato masher, purée some of the potato. (I blended half the soup in a blender and mixed it in with chunky soup. Season with salt, black pepper, and lime juice. Top with cilantro leaves, and serve.

‘The Weekend Baking Warrior’ Whole Wheat No-Knead Bread

The weekend’s almost here, just in time to tie on the boots and start shoveling snow off the driveway once the newest winter storm moves through. Even if you don’t have your weekend all mapped out for maximum snow angel-making, you likely have plenty to keep you busy when you’re away from work. But life doesn’t need to get in the way of home-cooked meals, and it certainly doesn’t need to keep you from making delicious made-from-scratch whole wheat bread.

Below you’ll find another “I can’t believe something this good is so easy” recipe. Though I’ve been scrambling to try recipes from The Kitchn Cookbook this month in a half-serious attempt to score Le Creuset prizes, I’m always on the lookout for recipes that maximize tasty and minimize work. The cookbook writers at The Kitchn snagged this no-knead bread recipe from Mark Bittman’s NY Times food section. The ingredients are simple, the actual “in the kitchen” time is next to none, and the result is a loaf of crusty whole-wheat bread with a nice crumb that, if stored in a sealed container, will last for up to a week.

The one catch? You’ll want to start the dough the night before you plan to bake the bread. While you won’t need to spend time kneading the dough to activate the gluten in the flour, the overnight resting period gives the yeast a chance to work its magic so that the dough will rise properly. I was so pleased with the results that I’ll be making this bread again this month, fiddling with different add-ins like nuts and dried fruit.

No Knead Bread

Image by author.

Whole Wheat No-Knead Bread
(a Kitchn Cookbook recipe)
Makes 1 round loaf

Ingredients
– 1 1/2 cup warm water

– 1/4 tsp active dry or instant yeast

– 2 cups all-purpose flour

– 1 cup whole-wheat flour

– 1 1/4 tsp salt

Directions
1. Mix the water and yeast in a large bowl and allow to stand until the yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and salt. Stir to form a very wet, shaggy dough. Make sure all the flour has been incorporated; the dough should feel sticky to the touch.

2. Cover the bowl and set it somewhere warm and away from kitchen traffic for 12 to 18 hours. After rising, the dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days if you don’t have time to bake it right away.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Dust your hands with flour. Starting with the edge nearest you, lift up the dough and fold it over on itself. Next, pick up the edge furthest from you and fold it over the dough as well. Repeat with the edges to the left and right. The dough should hold together in a neat package. Sprinkle the top generously with flour and cover with a clean cotton dishtowel. Let the dough rise until doubled, about 2 hours (slightly longer if chilled from the fridge).

4. When you see that the dough has almost finish rising, place a 3 1/2-quart (or larger) Dutch oven or heavy pot with oven-safe lid in the oven and heat the oven to 475°F.

5. To bake the bread, very carefully remove the pot from the oven with oven mitts and remove the lid. Dust your hands with flour and scoop the dough from the counter. It’s ok if it sticks; a bench scraper can help transfer the dough. Drop the dough seams down into the Dutch oven. Be careful to avoid touching the hot sides of the pot with your hands.

6. Cover the pot and return it to the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue baking for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the loaf turns a deep golden brown. Don’t be afraid to let it get really deep brown in spots. If you’re unsure if it has finished baking, you can also check that the internal temperature is 200°F on an instant-read thermometer.

7. Remove the loaf from the Dutch oven with heat-proof spatulas and potholders. Transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Wait to slice until the loaf has cooled to room temperature.

No Knead Bread

Image by author.

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