Whatever Punxsutawny Phil predicts today, we can rest assured that there's more cold weather ahead. And, as we all know, cold weather calls for comfort food. Actually, any excuse for comfort food will do, but setting out to prepare tummy-warming fuel for body and soul is particularly satisfying this time of year.
Without getting into what defines comfort food for each person, some kind of pasta, aka noodles, makes the Top 10 list for virtually everyone on the planet – or at least this half of it. And since we welcome the opportunity to heat up the kitchen, some kind of baked pasta dish seems to smack of nirvana.
Our exercise du jour, then, is to remove from the oven the cookie sheets we've been storing in there since Christmas and replace them, at least temporarily, with some kind of pasta dish that'll pay homage to Marco Polo and the Asians who taught him how to use his noodles.
Italian preparations come to mind, of course — lasagna, stuffed shells, manicotti – done up "al forno" (meaning baked in the oven). These are investment cooking projects (providing one or two planover meals during the week). They're worthy of a winter Sunday when you're pretty much happy to be indoors and can keep your fuzzy slippers on all day. For variety, we also employ flavoring ingredients from another ethnic cuisine.
We have a few suggestions, which we proffer here.
We begin with the quasi-familiar, baked lasagna with tomato sauce —adding some veggies for extra nutrition. This sauce "recipe" is a mainstay in our kitchen. But you can use bottled sauce — we like most Barilla varieties — allowing 3 to 4 cups for this job.
P.S. Next time you make the marinara as suggested here, you might decide to turn it into a meat sauce: Brown ground beef and/or mild Italian sausage in a large skillet. Drain well, then add to sauce and simmer about 20 minutes more, before adding herbs.
We like to use mint (instead of sugar) to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.
You probably don't need anything else with this, but a green salad and some chewy Italian bread are nice addenda.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped onion
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
5 (28-ounce) cans diced plum tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine, e.g. Chianti
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried basil
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon dried mint flakes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 cup shredded carrots (salad bar)
2 cups baby spinach, stems trimmed
1 1/2 containers ricotta cheese (we use whole milk ricotta)
3 cups (about 12 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese (we use whole milk mozzarella), divided
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 pound lasagna noodles, cooked, drained, gently tossed with a bit of olive oil
For the sauce, in a large, heavy pot, over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté 5 minutes longer. Add garlic and sauté another 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and wine. Stir well. Bring to a simmer, and simmer about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add oregano and basil. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes. Add black pepper and red pepper flakes. Simmer 10 minutes. Add mint. Simmer 5 minutes. Taste for seasonings, adding more oregano and basil, plus more mint to "mellow" the flavor, especially if sauce seems acidic/salty.
For the rest, heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray-coat a 13- x 9-inch baking dish. In a large, non-stick skillet, over medium, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cook zucchini until tender for 4 minutes. Add carrot shreds and cook 4 minutes longer. Add spinach, stir and cook 1 minute, until wilted. Remove from heat.
In a bowl, combine ricotta cheese, 1 and 1/2 cups mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and beaten egg.
To assemble, spread about 2/3 cup marinara sauce evenly into prepared baking dish. Arrange 4 lasagna noodles over sauce. Spread 1/3 of the mozzarella mixture over noodles, then add 3/4 cup marinara and 1/3 of the vegetables. Top with 4 more noodles. Repeat layers —mozzarella mixture, marinara sauce, vegetables — twice more, then top everything with 4 more noodles. Smooth 1 cup marinara sauce over top layer of noodles. Sprinkle on remaining mozzarella cheese.
Place lasagna on a baking sheet, cover with foil and bake 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake 15 minutes more. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting. Makes 8 or more servings.
Tex-Mex mac 'n cheese
This is the easy one — a main dish vegetarian (ovo-lacto) casserole that goes together a lot more quickly than the above lasagna (assuming you make the sauce yourself). However, it is, like lasagna, not low fat.
The "sauce" for these noodles is simply salsa verde combined with fresh cilantro. You can go red, if you prefer, using regular, tomato-based salsa instead. For this recipe, we like to use bottled salsa, rather than the fresh preparations available at most supermarkets.
We like to offer a fresh, crisp salad with something like this. Try our Tex-Mex standby, using mixed spring greens, a few very thin red onion slices, toasted pine nuts or sliced almonds, sliced strawberries or clementine segments and a light dressing, featuring balsamic vinegar.
2 cups (about 1/2 pound) elbow macaroni (the small ones)
2/3 cup bottled thick and chunky salsa verde (Mild or medium. We like medium. )
1 cup (packed) fresh cilantro leaves
2 cups (packed) coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1 cup (packed) coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese, divided
5 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole milk
2/3 cup half and half
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/4 cups large corn chips
Additional bottled salsa verde or red salsa, garnish
Cook macaroni in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water to al dente (about 6 minutes). Stir occasionally. Drain.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
In a food processor, combine salsa and cilantro. In a bowl, toss together 1 cup of the cheddar and 1/2 cup of the Monterey Jack cheese with the flour to coat.
In a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, stir together milk, half and half and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer, stirring. Add floured cheese mixture and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add cooked, drained macaroni. And some pepper, if you wish.
In a small bowl, combine remaining 1 cup cheddar and 1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheeses.
Spray-coat the bottom of an 11x7-inch baking dish. Spread half the macaroni mixture in dish. Dollop on half the salsa/cilantro mixture. Sprinkle on half the cheddar/Jack cheese. Add remaining macaroni. Dollop on remaining salsa/cilantro. Top with corn chips. Sprinkle with remaining cheddar/Jack cheese mixture. Add just a few dabs of salsa verde or red salsa, for color.
Bake until heated through and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.