Quick Pastitsio

You know how a craving starts out as something that just sounds good, quickly moves into an itch you can’t seem to scratch, and then makes its way to a tick causing your eye to twitch or walk with a limp?  Even though it’s still warm here in Cali, I just had to prepare some comfort food.   I had been really craving it lately and the craving was moving into the tick phase.  As soon as I saw this recipe in my binder, I knew it would put that tick to rest and my eye would finally stop twitching.  Let me tell you, it did not disappoint!  The only thing I’ll do different next time is add some fresh basil.  By the time the pasta came out of the oven the kids were starving and begging to eat, asking, “Oh Mommy, what is that smell?  It smells SO good in here.  Can we eat right now?  I can’t wait any more!”  I completely forgot to run outside and snip some basil.  This dish could easily be made vegetarian by subbing the meat for mushrooms, mushrooms and Japanese eggplant, mushrooms and artichoke hearts.  So many veggie options!  PS – Yum!  Reheat for lunch is just as good as dinner!


8 oz uncooked penne (or any tube-shaped pasta)
Cooking spray
1 lb lean ground sirloin
1 Tbs olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
5 cloves minced garlic
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbs all-purpose flour
2 cups milk (recipe called for fat-free, I used 2%)
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes, drained
7 oz Neufchâtel cream cheese
3/4 cup shredded parmesan or mozzarella
2 Tbs chopped fresh basil


Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting fat and salt.  Drain.

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat.  Add beef to pan; saute 5 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble.  Remove beef from pan; drain.  Wipe pan clean with paper towels.  Add oil to pan; swirling to coat.  Add onion; saute 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add garlic; saute 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Add beef; sprinkle with salt.  Add flour; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently.  Stir in milk, tomatoes, and Neufchâtel, stirring until smooth; bring to a simmer.  Cook 2 minutes or until heated through.  Stir in pasta.

Preheat broiler.  Coat a 13×9 inch broiler-safe baking dish with cooking spray.  Spoon pasta mixture into dish, sprinkle with parmesan or mozzarella.  Broil 4 minutes or until golden.  Sprinkle with fresh chopped basil.

Serves 6 large helpings

Hands on time: 17 minutes; Total time: 40 minutes

Pastitsio 3

*Derived from Cooking Light

Quick and Easy Pasta Sauce

I don’t know about you, but pasta is a staple in our house. That means I’m always on the lookout for new recipes. What I like about this one: it WAS quick and easy; the sauce was not heavy, but was flavorful; and, I liked that my kids used the little slices of bread to make spaghetti sandwiches 🙂 You can easily make this vegetarian by leaving out the sausage. Want it meaty, but still vegetarian? Add some mushrooms. Or, use whatever meat you have on hand, such as chicken or ground meat. What I would do different next time: this recipe called for the sausage to be cooked in advance (or if you are not completely paying attention because you keep hearing, “Mommy can I . . .,” like me, you’ll need to grab a separate skillet for the sausage at the end). I would cook the sausage at the beginning, drain the grease, remove the sausage to a plate and then cook the onion, etc, in that skillet. Also, while it had nice flavor, it seemed rather one-dimensional. Next time I’ll run out to my basil plant to snip a few leaves to hit the sauce with at the very end. All in all a tasty and satisfying recipe that leaves you feeling comfortably full, but not weighted down.


2 mild Italian sausages, casings removed
1/4 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups canned tomatoes (whole, diced, puree, etc)
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp chopped fresh rosemary (or a pinch of dried)
1/4 – 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt


In large saucepan preheated to medium high heat, add sausage and crumble as cooking.  When sausage is browned, remove to a plate lined with paper towels to drain grease.  Remove all but 1 Tbs of oil from pan.  Add onion and saute until translucent, 2 – 3 minutes.  Add garlic and saute another minute.

If using whole tomatoes, chop them (easiest is to just cut them with scissors right in the can), add tomatoes and juice to pan.  If using diced or puree, just add directly to pan.  Stir in sugar, rosemary, and salt.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until sauce hs thickened, about 20 minutes, stirring often.  Return sausage to pan and simmer for an additional 5 minutes, until heated through.

Serves 6

Prep time: 10 minutes; Total time: 45 minutes


*Derived from KitchenDaily

Easy Peasy Linguine

Tonight was the first night, as my family snuffled quietly in their beds and I retreated downstairs to make sure all of the windows were closed (or to pour another glass of wine, maybe?) that I smelled fall. I leaned over the kids’ tub to close the window and stopped short. That unmistakable smell, even here in Cali, was fall. How can that be? It seems like just yesterday I was filled with the excitement of all summer had to offer. Finally one drop off as Berto heads into the first grade and D into kindergarten. A summer filled with swimming; catching our first lizard; saying goodbye to my sweet, sweet German shepherd Lobo; growing tomatoes and basil in our first attempts at a garden; surfing for the first time; losing 2 bottom teeth (resulting in feeling oh so big now); day trips; a vacation; and, the return of summer hours at my office. But all of that is coming to a close, with a shiver in the early evening air. Makes me glad there is always comfort food. And, what is better comfort food than pasta?


The wonderful thing about this dish is all of the possible meat options. Feeling healthier than extra lean ground beef? Sub ground turkey or chicken. For something different try pork or sausage (be sure to removed the casings first!). How about going even meatier? Use ground sirloin. Or, you can make it vegetarian like I did tonight by subbing the meat with mushrooms.

1 (9 oz) pkg fresh linguine
1/2 lb extra lean ground beef / or the item you are subbing
1/2 cup pre chopped onion (I use prepared veggies as often as possible, such a time saver)
1 Tbs minced garlic
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tbs tomato paste
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes, undrained
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (whatever you have on hand; shaved, grated, shredded)
Handful of basil leaves, sliced thinly (nothing like walking into the backyard and picking your own basil!)


Cook pasta according to package directions. Omit oil and salt. Drain and return pasta to pot.

While pasta cooks, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef, onion, garlic, oregano, and salt; cook 5 minutes, or until beef is browned, stirring to crumble. Stir in tomato paste; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Add tomatoes. Bring to a boil; cook 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 3 minutes or until thickened. Serve over pasta and top with cheese and basil.

Serves 4

Total time: 30 minutes

photo (1)

*Derived from Cooking Light

Italian Pasta Cooking Guide

Pasta all'uovo (egg pasta)

Pasta all’uovo (egg pasta) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We spent the last week soaking up the sun in beautiful (and HOT!) Cabo San Lucas. But, knowing that I owed everyone a post, took my info along for the cooking pasta installment. Unfortunately the resort did not offer free wifi (can we please get with the times Sheraton??), though each room was allotted 30 minutes a day. Oh, did I mention you had to haul your sunscreened “cookies” to the lobby for that? To the lobby. Who wants to do that? Especially when we’ve got mid morning margaritas poolside!

This is a very basic Italian pasta cooking guide. I can tell you that there are so many opinions out there about cooking pasta, I was confused and didn’t know what to believe. This being so basic made it very clear for me and corrected some of the mistakes I had been making. I hope it clears up any confusion anyone else has, too!

Oil:  The first tip is something I’ve always done, added olive oil to the water to prevent the pasta from sticking.  Which doesn’t actually work, and if you use enough water, it won’t be an issue anyway.  Instead, use that olive oil for drizzling over the sauced pasta for a final hit of flavor (unless using a butter- or cream-based sauce).

Pasta:  1 lb of dried pasta can generally serve 4 to 6 people as a main course, depending on whether the sauce is light (such as a simple tomato sauce), rich (creamy Alfredo), or bulked up with other ingredients such as vegetables, meat, or seafood.  Also, sauces that are smooth or have very small bits, such as garlic and oil, are best with long strands of pasta.  Chunkier sauces are best matched with short tubular or shaped pastas.

Water and Pot:  For 1 lb of dry pasta you’ll need 4 quarts of water.  Less water can result in the noodles sticking together in one big clumpy mess (yes, this has happened to me).  You want to use a pot that is at least 6 quarts, which helps you avoid boilovers.  Dont forget the salt!  Adding salt to the water is important for good flavor.  I have always underseasoned the water, not knowing that you need 1 Tbs table salt (or 2 Tbs kosher salt) for 4 quarts of water.  If you are worried you are going to forget the salt, add it directly to the box of pasta as you take it out of the pantry.  Finally, don’t add the pasta to the water until the sauce is almost ready.

Draining Pasta:  Don’t forget to reserve some pasta water to thin the sauce.  A tip to remember this is to place the measuring cup in the colander at the start of cooking.  That way, when you go to drain the pasta, there is no way you’ll forget!  Also, since pasta has a tendency to cool quickly, it’s a good idea to warm the serving bowl.  Here is a great trick: if you’re using a large serving bowl, put it under the colander while draining the pasta.  The hot water will heat up the bowl which will keep the pasta warm longer.  Once the pasta is drained, shake the colander a couple of times, but not to the point that the pasta is bone-dry.  The little bit of cooking water that clings to the pasta will help the sauce coat it.

Sauce:  I’ve always just dumped the sauce on top of the mound of pasta and proceeded to fight the pasta to get the sauce mixed.  This always left me frustrated and pasta that wasn’t very well mixed.  The best way to handle all of this is to transfer the drained pasta back to the hot pot and add just enough sauce to coat the pasta evenly, along with enough reserved pasta cooking water to thin the sauce slightly, if needed. 

Pasta Fork:  It’s finally time to eat!  Grab your plastic or stainless steel pasta fork and start serving!

 *Derived from Cook’s Illustrated

File:Pasta 2006 3.jpg

Pasta Buying Guide – Italian Pasta

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you just seem to be off your cooking mojo?  Well, this is my week!  I tried a new recipe the other night and it just didn’t turn out like I had hoped. While it highlighted our wonderful summer vegetables; heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, lemon, and green beans the fettuccine was left tasting flat, as if it were an afterthought. I can picture a room full of chefs standing around the island in the test kitchen, enjoying the amazing bounty the summer garden has to offer. One chef realizes that, basically, they have a summer salad or side dish, but are supposed to be coming up with the main meal. They exchange glances, “What are we going to do?” It’s finally decided, just add pasta! Except, just adding pasta did not work in this scenario. So, I’m going to tweak it a little and see if I can come up with something that will meet my Serves4 expectations. This flop, however, motivated me to do a little research on pasta and cooking it. This is a breakdown of buying the right type of pasta. The next installment will be about cooking it. Salud!

When doing your weekly shopping at the local market, you will notice two basic pasta choices: dried (such as Barilla) or fresh (such as Buitoni). As these two type of pasta are made differently, they also handle sauces differently. Dried is made from high-protein durum wheat flour. This allows it to cook up springy and firm. Dried pasta is best suited for thick tomato and meat sauces and concentrated oil based sauces. Fresh pasta is generally made from a softer all-purpose flour and is more delicate than dried. Fresh pasta is well suited with dairy-based sauces.

Pasta has come a long way in the last several years. You will find that dried pasta is no longer gummy and bland. Cooking to al dente allows dried pasta to retain some chew, but is not gummy or hard at the center.

Fresh pasta is made from pasteurized egg and can be found packaged to avoid spoilage in the refrigerator section. It’s very easy to over cook fresh pasta, so be sure to keep an eye on it. Drain the pasta a few minutes before al dente and return it to the pot with sauce for a few minutes to continue cooking. Fresh pasta being slightly underdone allows it to absorb the flavor from the sauce and the pastas starchiness will help sauce thicken.

Whole wheat and and grain pastas have not come as far. Generally, wheat pasta cooks up gummy, grainy, or lacking the rich wheat flavor you’d expect. While pasta made from spelt has a pleasant earthy flavor, pastas made from corn, rice, and quinoa tends to have a shaggy, mushy texture and strange flavors. If you are brave enough to still try one of these pastas, cook as you would dried pasta.

I always thought cooking pasta was one of the easiest tasks in the kitchen. Just boil water, dump it in, and wait. Perfect pasta, though, takes a little more attention than that. Stay tuned, we’re going to go over finessing pasta next.

PS – This is the recipe that didn’t turn out.  Looks good.  Tastes kind of bland.


*Derived from Cook’s Illustrated

Healthy Carbonara

Bacon and pasta. Need I say more? Oh, and (tiny, whisper voice) peas.


1 pkg (9 oz) refrigerated fettuccine
1 cup frozen green peas
3 slices center cut bacon (1 used 4 to use up what I had on hand)
1 small onion, chopped
3 minced cloves of garlic
1/2 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese


Cook pasta according to package directions, but do not add salt. Add peas to the pot in the last 3 minutes of cooking time. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup of liquid.

While pasta cooks, fry bacon in large pan on medium-high heat until crispy, about 8 minutes.  Remove bacon to drain on paper towels, discard all except 2 teaspoons of drippings.  Add onion and saute for 3 minutes, add garlic and thyme; cook 1 minute.  Stir in pasta and peas, reserved pasta water, and half-and-half.  Cook for 2 minutes.  Transfer to serving bowl and crumble bacon on top of pasta and toss with cheese.

Serves 4

Prep time: 5 minutes; Cooking time 14 minutes


*From Parents