Sausage, Spinach, Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells….say that five times fast!


You had me at jumbo pasta shells. I don’t recall ever making stuffed shells. Shameful. What’s a Sunday without a confession or two. I always thought that it would be more complicated. I made these on a weeknight with little effort. It was a rare night where I didn’t have to make 2 train station runs. If you want to do it in steps, prepare the stuffing the night before and refrigerate it. I love doing things in steps. Here’s my dirty little secret. I used Ragu spaghetti sauce. Yup. Another confession on this rainy Sunday. When the kids were little I used to make my own, but they fussed at the sight of onions in it. I waved the white flag and started buying it. Sometimes on the weekends, when feeling my inner Italian calling, I make it. But, I.AM.BUSY.

This is a public service announcement. Use good quality ingredients. When you invest time and effort into cooking, use the best ingredients you can find, especially if there are only a few ingredients in the recipe. (Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Ragu!) I implore you to use a good ricotta. What’s a good ricotta you ask? It should taste sweet and creamy. It should not be rubbery.  Google it. I really like Calabro ricotta. You can taste and see the difference between this and most grocery store brands. Also, use real Parmesan. Try to find Parmesan that looks like it was chiseled out a big Parmesan wheel. Don’t buy the pre-grated Parmesan. You want to use real Parmesan Reggiano. Cut off a piece and taste it. It’s a hard, dry cheese with a rich sharp flavor. It’s made in Italy and has a superior taste to grocery store Parmesan. It’s expensive, but it makes such a difference. I freeze the rinds and pull them out to help flavor soups.

So, as usual, read through all recipes before attempting to bake. Because I didn’t, you should!

1 12-ounce package jumbo pasta shells

1 tbsp olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 large egg

16-ounces ricotta cheese

10-ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, and chopped further

1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided

1 tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp dried basil

1/4 cup breadcrumbs, seasoned or unseasoned

8 ounces fresh mozzarella pearls or 2 cups of shredded/grated mozzarella

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

28 ounces of tomato sauce, or so

*2*   9 X 13 baking dishes

First, cook your shells according to the package directions. When they are done, drain them in a colander and run cold water over them. Shake, shake, shake the water off. Put them aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened. I may or may not have used more than one onion. How could it hurt? Add the sausage to the pan, breaking up the sausage into smaller bits. You can use chicken or turkey sausage if you prefer. Make sure there is no pink in the center of the sausage. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Dropped food on the floor has a 5 second rule, cooking garlic has a 30 second rule. Remove the pan from the heat.

Beat the egg slightly in a large bowl. Mix in the ricotta, chopped spinach, 1/2 cup Parmesan, basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, sausage mixture and the pearls. I cannot tell you the sheer joy mixing in the pearls brought me. They are so cute. Shredded mozzarella does the trick, but these are just pearls of joy! Fill each cooked pasta shell with some of the mixture. Don’t forget to taste test it!


Spread about 1/2 cup of tomato sauce over the bottom of both pans. Full disclosure, I did not pay attention to this detail, and crammed “most” of the stuffed shells into one pan. I would suggest using two. Use an aluminum foil pan and freeze it for another dinner. Also, I did not heat up the sauce. I just poured it from the jar. A big no-no, but it worked.  Sorry Nonni. Just eye-ball it and use a little less, knowing as it heats up, it thins out. If you are a stickler for rules, heat it up in another pan. It.was.a.week.night. Yes, this is my third cooking confession. (Maybe four) Arrange the stuffed shells in the dishes (sigh). Spread some sauce over the top of the pasta shells. Again, guesstimate it. You don’t want them swimming, or, too dry.

Place foil covered pans in a 375 degree oven, and bake for 30 minutes, until hot and bubbling. Remove foil and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over the shells and bake uncovered for 10 more minutes. I may have grated more Parmesan “by accident” (ahem).

Let it set for about 10 minutes. Serve with a salad to make yourself feel better.



Here is the original recipe. It uses canned tomatoes instead of tomato sauce. It also did not include mozzarella, which is madness. Sheer madness.



Chick-a-chick-a-boom-boom-you’ll-need-some-more-room…..for Chickpea and Pasta Soup!

Yes! Another soup. This soup is tasty, economical and quick.  It is perfect for a cold winter night. I rarely make a soup that does not have diced tomatoes.  I resisted adding  my little cherubs to this dish. Hubs said it’s a “do-again”. Glad I bought two cans of chickpeas.  I did, however, add sausage.  I love sausage. Italian sausage, chicken sausage, or even turkey sausage will work. I throw it on a parchment lined cookie sheet and roast (bake) it.  I slice the cooled sausage and spoon into the pan. Let’s call it protein. Just humor me.

The ingredients are simple. There is no technique you are required to master. Can you roughly chop vegetables? Then you can make this soup. The original recipe suggests you sort out some chickpeas from the soup and puree them, to add back to the soup. I did not have a magnifying glass or tweezers handy to separate the cooked onion, celery and carrots from the chickpeas, so I ladled some into a metal mixing cup, like you would use to make an ice cream soda, and used my immersion blender. Yeah. Don’t do that. I forgot about science. Metal conducts heat, and when you go to pour the puree back in, your hand will melt. Use a non-metal container, or just put the immersion blender in the pot and give it a quick blend. But not too much. Or not at all.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned about using a garlic press. Do not peel the  garlic clove. The press self-cleans (almost) if you have the garlic skin to pull. Rinse and repeat. I am all about easy cleanup.

Let’s make some soup


1 pound sausage (optional….insert sad face)

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 stalks celery, roughly chopped

2 carrots, roughly chopped

2 onions, roughly chopped

3 sprigs of rosemary, minced

2 cloves, garlic (optional)

4 cups of vegetable stock

1 15-ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

8 ounces of small pasta, like mini shells or cavatelli

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

Parmesan cheese, for serving.

If you are serving this with sausage, heat your oven to 350 degrees before you start the soup. By the time the sausage is cooked, your soup will be ready.  Bake the sausage for about 30 minutes, turning halfway, so all sides evenly brown. Let cool and slice into mouth-size bits.

Heat oil in a 4 quart saucepan or Dutch oven over a medium-high heat. Add rosemary, celery, carrot and onion and cook until soft. The original recipe calls for one small onion. Two makes it so much better. Let the veggies slowly soften. Don’t let it brown. Pull the pan off the heat and add a little more olive oil, if it starts to brown.  Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the stock and chickpeas and simmer for about 5 or 10 minutes.  I reduced the vegetable broth from 6 to 4 cups, You can always add more later. If you have an immersion blender, puree the mixture a little. You can ladle out the veggies into a blender and puree. Pour the puree back into the pan. This will help thicken the soup. Add the pasta and cook for about 10-12 minutes. As the pasta cooks it will absorb lots of the liquid. The soup will thicken into a stew-like mixture. Season with salt and pepper. I slice up the cooked sausage and add it at the end. I like to let all the flavors meld together by simmering the soup for about 5 minutes. You can thin it out with some water or more vegetable stock. Let it stand for a few minutes to thicken, before you thin it out. Kapeesh?

To serve this soup, add some shavings of Parmesan. Fancy! Use a vegetable peeler to shave slices. You can also top it with grated Parmesan. Dinner in a bowl. Such a filling and flavorful soup. Enjoy!

Pasta e Fagioli Soup


I have yet another tomato based soup for you. They all begin to look alike, but each has its own characteristics. This soup will ward off vampires and warm your soul on a cold fall evening. I don’t know if the traditional pasta e fagioli soup included bacon, but bacon makes anything better. If you don’t normally consume bacon (WHAT?), you can buy it and divide into three or four sections, and freeze in plastic bags. I do this all the time. With the kids gone, leisurely Sunday brunches including one pound of bacon is just a mere memory. If you divide it, you can cook a few pieces for a weekend breakfast or use it in a recipe.  To make chopping bacon a little less messy, chop it while it’s slightly frozen. Really! I’ve cooked with store brand canellini beans so you don’t have to. I strongly suggest using a name brand, like Goya, when you cook.  I have found store brand canned beans can still be hard, even after cooking. When a recipe calls for a few ingredients, they should be the best you can get. I have had good luck with store brand diced tomatoes. My favorite part is the mini bowtie pasta. Adorable and delicious.  You can add more or less liquids. This is a great soup to bring for a work lunch. The pasta absorbs some liquid and, as most pasta dishes, tastes better the next day. Of course the garlic and work……oops.


4 slices (or more) or bacon, chopped rough

1 large onion

4-6 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1  28 ounce can of diced tomatoes (I like petite diced tomatoes)

2  15.5 ounce cans of canellini beans, rinsed

4 cups chicken broth

1 cup of water

1 3/4 cups of dried small pasta like mini bowtie (perhaps a few more for extra luck)

1/4 cup mince parsley or 2 tbsp dried parsley

pepper to taste

1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese (freshly grated is best)

Cook the bacon in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until crisp. Don’t walk away. Bacon can burn, so stir the bacon, to keep eyes on it. Stir in the onion, garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes. I add a healthy pinch of salt to sautéing onions. Cook until the onion is softened. Stir in the tomatoes with their juice, beans, broth, water and 1 tsp. salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. If you have a Parmesan rind, you can absolutely add it to the simmering soup.

Stir in the pasta and cook until slightly underdone. Off the heat, stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste. I like to add the Parmesan now. The original recipe adds it the bowls. I like to put the lid on the pan and let the soup sit for about 20 minutes, with the heat off. It gives the soup time to have all the flavors meld together and the pasta to cook a little more.



Helpful Hint: You should always have all your ingredients ready. This means, onions are chopped and placed in a bowl, garlic pressed and put in a bowl, pasta measured, Parmesan grated into a bowl, cans of tomatoes opened and beans rinsed, drained and placed in a bowl. Having your ingredients ready will make cooking less stressful. It’s easier to be successful when can focus on cooking when you don’t have to rush, and potentially misread your recipe. As the French say, mis en place!




Crispy Smashed Roasted Red Potatoes…get ’em while they’re hot!


Simple, elegant and flavorsome. Bundles of yumminess. These potatoes require only three ingredients: small red potatoes, salt and olive oil. The best part is the potatoes are boiled ahead of time.  I am a fan of things done in steps. The potatoes are boiled for about 30 minutes, smashed and left to dry out for as long as 8 hours or as soon as 1 hour. I love to make them when I am not using the oven. Last night I made them to accompany Mark Bittman’s twice cooked pork.  They are fantastic with a roasted chicken too. I’ve cooked them ahead, let them sit on the counter, and reheated them while the meat rested. Still fantastic. You do your best with one oven, right? You can fancy them up with flavorings like parmesan, onion powder or garlic powder. Try them plain first. The simplicity is what makes them heavenly. There is a little prep work for the pan, but it makes clean up effortless.

Let’s get cooking!

12 to 15 small red potatoes

about 3 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place the potatoes in a pan. Fill with water to one inch above the potatoes and add 2 teaspoons of salt. You want the potatoes covered so they cook evenly. Cover the pan. Turn heat on high and bring water to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until the are tender. I test them with a sharp knife. To test for readiness, the knife should go in with little effort. This should take about 30 minutes.

While the potatoes are boiling, prepare the pan. I like to use a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Then I place parchment paper on top of the foil. Then I place a clean kitchen towel on top of the parchment. Stay with me! When the potatoes are done, place them on top of the kitchen towel. Let them drain for a minute.

Now comes the fun part. Smashing them! I fold another dishtowel into quarters, and place it over a potato. Push down with the heel of your palm. Flatten the potatoes to about 1/2 inch thickness. I love the popping noise they make as you push. Just me? Don’t worry if they break. You can still use them. Leave the potatoes to cool. If you aren’t using them in more than an hour or two, put them in the fridge.

Life the towel off the parchment. You can roll it back row by row also. Drizzle some olive oil on the parchment. Place the potatoes on top of olive oil. If they break, still put them on the parchment. They will still taste delicious! Sprinkle some olive oil on top of the potatoes and sprinkle with salt. The olive oil is what roasts them crisp and golden. The original directions say to heat oven to 450 degrees. If I do that, all the smoke detectors sing me a little ditty. So, I cook them at 400 degrees for a little bit longer, 45 minutes or so. If you are roasting a chicken at 350 degrees, plan on the potatoes taking about an hour. This recipe is very adaptable to temperature. They still crisp up, and the fire department doesn’t have to visit me. Win. Win. You can flip them half way through their cooking, using tongs or a spatula. They can still be fragile and break. I don’t flip them. Call me lazy,  but they still cook through and crisp up. You want them to get a golden color. Serve them hot. I guarantee you, none will be left.



Zucchini chini bo bini…….

‘Tis the season of zucchini. It you grow it, you know it! If you have an abundance of this veggie you are looking for ways to cook it. I suggest baking it. It’s still zucchini, right? I like this recipe because you don’t need a lot of it. I’m not growing anything this season and it’s rather liberating. When I make my tortellini soup, year round, I buy my zucchini. I’m ok with that. This recipe calls for 1 medium zucchini. I use a Pyrex one-cup measuring cup. Sometimes it’s more than one zucchini. It just depends. Snack on what you don’t need.  I opted to make muffins for portion control. If I cut a slice from a loaf, it’s usually several inches thick. My eye-hand coordination sometimes is off. Oops! You can even put in chocolate chips. I’m a purist and only use raisins. Soak them in warm water to plump them up. (insert Arnold Schwarzenegger voice) You need to soak up some of the moisture from the zucchini. After I grate it with a box grater, I place several layers of paper towels in a shallow bowl and place the zucchini on top, while I get the other ingredients ready. The original recipe says to blot at the zucchini. I don’t blot.

Let’s preheat our ovens!

1 and 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

OPTIONAL – once cup of semi-sweet chocolate, raisins or nuts

1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil

1/2 cup of light or dark brown sugar packed

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg, room temperature

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup of grated zucchini (about one medium)

To make one loaf of bread, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 X 5 loaf pan. Instructions for muffins will follow.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and raisins together is a large bowl. I suggest replacing your baking powder and soda every few months. They are inexpensive enough to replace. You need them fresh, and in the summer they can absorb moisture. Set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk the oil, brown  and granulated sugars, egg, vanilla and zucchini.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Gently stir until combined. Do not overmix. Batter will be semi-thick.

Spread the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 45-55 minutes. Baking times vary so check on it. Remove bread from oven and place on a wire rack. Let cool completely before removing from pan and slicing. I like to put a piece of parchment paper on the bottom of the pan. I cut it so it comes a little over the top of the pan and is the narrow width of the pan. If it’s too long, it could brown and have a not-so-fresh-smell. This prevents leaving half of the loaf in the pan. Cooling is still required. This bread can be stored at room temperature, covered, for up to 5 days. Who are we kidding? Really.

For muffins, grease a 12-count muffin pan or line with liners. Prepare batter. Spoon batter into each liner, filling each all the way to top (sometimes). Bake the muffins for 5 minutes at 425 degrees. Keeping the muffins in the oven, lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 13-16 minutes. Test with a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin.  It should come out clean. Allow the muffins to cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then transfer to wire rack to continue cooling. Or, if you’re like me, leave in pan until completely cooled, give yourself a headslap because you forgot about the muffins, and place them in a container. Slip them inconspicuously into the freezer. Pull out for a work snack!

You should have at least one serving of vegetables a day! The original recipe is here if you need pictures. I forgot to take pictures even after the headslap but I did a quick sample. Squeeze your eyes closed and picture a muffin. Enjoy!




Cinnamon Rolls


Kaboom! That’s the magical sound when my favorite things, cinnamon and rolls, collide and become one. Warm, gooey, sweet cinnamon rolls are my favorite things. It’s a treat to have a cinnamon roll and a cup of tea. Enjoying the quiet, thinking deep thoughts, and inhaling the frosted cinnamon rolls starts the day with a bit of magic. Why, yes, I lick the frosting off my fingers. If you are thinking they are complex creatures, you are wrong. Cinnamon rolls are easy. They can be made partially ahead and refrigerated. Start on Saturday night, bake Sunday morning. If you’re thinking, “I don’t need 30 rolls” (You’re wrong, by the way), then you will be happy to know that the recipe can be halved. Unlike my “friend”, make sure to half ALL the ingredients. Ahem. Easter weekend I made these rolls three times. Let’s get baking. As usual, please read the directions through first, so  you have all the ingredients, and understand the steps and time involved.

Cinnamon Rolls

2 packages yeast ( 4 1/2 teaspoons) dissolved in 1 cup lukewarm water or instant yeast (read directions!)

6 tablespoons shortening (Crisco)

1 cup granulated sugar

8 cups all-purpose flour ( you may need another cup or so if dough is sticky)

2 cups of hot water (from the tap)

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon salt

softened butter

brown sugar

raisins (optional)



4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 cups powdered sugar

4 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. If you are using regular yeast, add the yeast to a cup of lukewarm water (less than 110 degrees) and sprinkle in a little sugar. Set aside for about 5 minutes. This is called proofing. If you’re not sure about the temperature, cooler is better. Yeast is a live organism. Hot water will kill it and your rolls won’t rise. If the water is cool, it will still rise, but may take a little longer to do so. See, you learned something.
  2.  In a bowl, of a stand mixer, add shortening, sugar, and salt to the hot water and beat for 30 seconds, using the beater blade. There will be splashing. Let cool to lukewarm temperature. Stir in 2 cups of flour and mix until smooth. If you are using instant yeast, add the yeast now, as well as the 1 cup of lukewarm water and mix until well combined. There is no need for proofing instant yeast. Mix in beaten eggs.
  3. Gradually stir in the remaining flour and mix with the dough hook for about 2 minutes. Remove dough from the bowl and place on a lightly floured surface. Knead by hand, add a little flour if the dough is still sticky. Knead until dough feels satiny and smooth.
  4. Cover and let rise in a bowl for 30 minutes or so. After the dough has doubled in size, remove it from the bowl and divide it in half. With a rolling pin, roll one half of the dough into a rectangle. Spread dough evenly with softened butter (About 2 tablespoons for each half. Be generous) Sprinkle dough with brown sugar, raisins (if you wish), and cinnamon. Make sure you use LOTS of brown sugar (About 1/2 cup for each half. Again be generous.)  Sprinkle on a lot of cinnamon. I like to use a good cinnamon from Penzeys. If you are using raisins, soak them in warm water first, to plump them up. You will not be dissappointed.
  5. Roll up dough into one long roll. Cut into rolls, using a piece of dental floss or thread, about two inches thick. Yes, you can use a knife if you don’t want to go upstairs for the floss. Place rolls in greased 9 X 13 baking pan. Rinse and repeat for the second  half.
  6. If you are making these the night before, cover the pans with plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator. The next day, let them rise about an hour or so, until they are doubled. If you making them for the same day consumption, let the rolls rise until doubled. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake until brown-only about 5-7 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the rolls cool to room temperature.
  7. While the rolls are cooling, make the frosting. In a medium bowl, whisk, together butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla. Frost the cooled cinnamon rolls generously.

See, that wasn’t so bad. Relax. Pat yourself on your back. You made cinnamon rolls! Now go eat ’em. As you can see from the photo, I eyeballed the two inches. Oh well! They were still delicious! I brought a batch to an Easter brunch and there were none left. Just sayin’.

Here’s the original recipe.


Creamy Orzo with Pancetta


I buried this fantastic recipe along with another fantastic recipe (Gobble Gobble Turkey Meatballs) some time ago.  Creamy Orzo with Pancetta should stand alone as a recipe. I made this last night with breaded chicken tenders and fell in love again. As usual, when I find a new recipe, I make it a lot, and then not at all.  It’s been a while but I think it will make the rounds again. My son is excited to have those leftovers tonight. It’s a simple recipe that you can play with. If you love pancetta, add more. If you love onions, use two! It also doubles really well. To give the orzo some color and a toasty flavor, you brown the uncooked orzo. I had never done this before and it is a game changer. The pancetta is sold already diced. It’s usually near the deli counter.

¼ cup (or so) diced pancetta

2 tbsp. butter or olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1 ½ cups of orzo (uncooked)

2 ½ cups chicken broth

½ frozen  petite peas

½ grated Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper to taste

In a braiser or a shallow pot, melt the butter or heat the olive oil, under a medium heat.  Add your onion and sprinkle it with a teaspoon of kosher salt. Sauté the onions until they soften. Add the pancetta and stir. I like to cook the onions and pancetta for about 5 minutes. It may take longer. You want everything to soften.

Add uncooked orzo to pan with onions and pancetta. Stir the mixture. The orzo will “toast”. Keep stirring. It will only take about a minute for the orzo to get some color. If it starts to stick, add a little more olive oil.

Add the garlic. Stir and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock. Stir to combine. Let it come to a boil. Put the lid on and lower the heat. Stir occasionally. You want it to simmer for 20 minutes. The orzo will absorb most of the liquid and fluff up.

Take pan off  the heat and add the parmesan. Stir. The dish gets creamy with the parmesan. The orzo may stick to the pan, but don’t worry. Add the frozen peas, and put the lid back on. Let it sit for about 10 minutes.

Take the lid off and stir. The orzo should not be sticking to the pan. Season to taste. Stir and serve! I like to serve this with a variety of chicken dishes. It makes a great lunch with some chopped cooked chicken. It heats up in the microwave like a champ!

This is simple, delicious and just a tad different from anything you’ve probably ever made. Try it. You’ll like it! Serves 4 (maybe!!)