Culinary Quest #17 – Bacon & tomato pasta salad

DSC_0261-002

Recently I visited Fresh Market, a high-end grocery store. They are known for their fresh products, including a delicious deli.

I purchased a small cup of their bacon & tomato pasta salad and liked it. However, I found it needed a few tweaks, so below is my version of their pasta salad.

The tweaks: Store-bought salads are mostly pasta (because it’s cheaper and goes farther). I prefer to increase the other ingredients to reduce bad carbs, increase good cards and increase protein. I also added a couple of ingredients that bring natural sweetness (peas) and a warm, nutty flavor (pine nuts) to this light dish. I also substituted white wine vinegar for balsamic vinegar because it gives just an extra spark of fruity bite that regular wine vinegar doesn’t offer.

We rarely use mayonnaise in our home and most times the jar expires before we can finish it. But, inching closer to summer, sometimes mayo adds a creamy texture to pasta salads that oils simply can’t do.

This dish is served up just in time for Easter brunch, a lazy Saturday (as in our family’s case today :)), lunchboxes for work or school, parties, or a savory snack. Enjoy!

Bacon & Tomato Pasta Salad

Ingredients:

1# boxed pasta; cooked al dente, drained (any kind will work, we had rigatoni on hand)

2 pkgs thick-cut bacon; cooked & chopped

2c green onions; chopped (1 bunch)

1 1/2c celery (approx 4 stalks); chopped

2 pints grape tomatoes; cut in halves

1c pine nuts

2c frozen peas (use them straight out of the freezer)

1t salt

1/2t pepper

1T + 1t white balsamic vinegar

3/4c – 1c mayo (for this recipe I used Duke’s regular mayo); measure to preference

Directions:

Bake bacon in oven at 375 for about 30-45 minutes until done.

While bacon is baking, boil pasta (add salt to pot) for 12-14 minutes.

While both of those are rockin’ & rollin’ prepare remaining ingredients and put them in a large bowl.

Add cooked bacon.

While pasta is still slightly warm, mix into bowl.

Store in fridge. That’s it! 🙂

 

Culinary Quest #15 – Savory Pasta Meat Sauce

I typically post recipes on Saturday’s, but there’s not much typical about life right now in our house.  Ha!  So here ya go on a Monday…

With temperatures cooling down, we’re heating things up in the kitchen!  There is little food I enjoy more than a simple dinner of pasta and sauce.  It’s like the ultimate comfort food.  We tackled marinara sauce in Culinary Quest #6 Pasta Marinara with Parmesan Panko Chicken, but sometimes a hearty, meaty sauce is just the thing for a cool evening’s dinner.

My entire life I only knew hamburger meat, or perhaps a mixture of hamburger and sausage, for a meat sauce.  However, hamburger (in my opinion) is bland and spongy and just blah.  This time, I broke out of my box and used mild Italian sausage – taking the risk that only using sausage may prove too dominant against the backdrop of the other flavors.

The risk was totally worth it!  Goodbye hamburger – hello sausage!  It has the perfect amount of fennel and other spices to make this sauce nicely robust.  But, there is a trick.  I ground the sausage so finely, it is perfectly blended in the sauce.  Rather than this being a pasta sauce with sausage chunks, the sauce is a smooth blend that can be used over noodles and in any recipe calling for sauce (lasagna, manicotti, stuffed shells, ravioli, etc.).

This is hands-down our family’s new favorite!  Bonus…when making this from scratch, you get to pick exactly which meat goes in your sauce – unlike jarred meat sauce.  I like knowing exactly what is in my food. 🙂  And, the whole house smells so good while simmering that everyone is chomping at the bit by dinnertime.  Double bonus!

I would have included a picture, but we ate it all! :O  The next time I make it, I will come back and post a photo.  Whoops!

Buona appetito!

Savory Pasta Meat Sauce (yields a full-sized slow cooker)

2 pounds mild Italian sausage

1c diced, fresh basil (measured after dicing) – Fresh is important!  I do not recommend dried basil for this sauce.

1/3c olive oil

2 tablespoons dried oregano

3/4c pureed onion (I use sweet onions)

28oz  crushed tomatoes

28oz tomato puree

28oz tomato sauce

2 cans tomato paste

14.5oz diced tomatoes; drained

6 cloves garlic

* Using a large skillet on the stove top, thoroughly cook the Italian sausage.  Remove from heat and let cool.

* Once cooled, place sausage in a food processor and blend until uniform.

* Puree onions in food processor until almost liquid – keeping a little texture to them.

* Add all remaining ingredients, plus sausage and onions, in a slow cooker and cook on low for 9 hours or high for 6 hours – stirring occasionally.

***TIP*** To make things easier when putting this together in the morning for dinner, cook the sausage and process it and the onions the night before.  Store them in a container in the fridge and in the morning just add all ingredients in the slow cooker and you’re done!

Culinary Quest #14 – Company’s Coming! Pasta Salad

Pasta salad is as flexible as whatever we have in the kitchen at the moment.  However, sometimes we want to kick it up a notch – especially if entertaining.  I needed a recipe that didn’t include average ingredients, so off to the store I went with an open mind!  The ingredients below are simple to make, but together they offer a sophisticated flare that makes this dish not only savory, but it tastes like it was more work than it was by far.

By adding a couple of less typical veggies like heart of palm and roasted red peppers, this pasta salad does not taste like the kitchen sink salads I usually make.  They are good, but this one is one fit for company.  It’s quick and easy and with the main players being jarred, it can be easily made year-round.  The vinaigrette is really simple because the flavors in this dish stand on their own.  Enjoy!

Serves about 8

16oz                       Farfalle (bow tie) pasta

1 pint                     cherry tomatoes; halved

1/2c                       onion; chopped (white, red, or sweet onions or scallions)

9 stalks                  heart of palm (jarred); sliced

2 ½ c                      artichoke hearts; quartered (preferably jarred in marinated oil)

1c                            roasted red peppers; chopped

1 bunch                  fresh basil; chopped

¼ c                          Kalamata or black olives; sliced (optional)

Balsamic Vinaigrette – see below

****************************************

Balsamic Vinaigrette:

4T                           canola or olive oil

4T                           white balsamic vinegar

1/8t                        black pepper

***************************************

Directions:

Boil pasta in salted water al dente (approx. 10 minutes). Drain.

While pasta is boiling, prepare vinaigrette.

Toss warm, drained pasta in a large bowl with vinaigrette.

Once pasta has cooled to room temperature, add remaining ingredients as prepared above.

Chill for several hours.  Toss before serving.

Culinary Quest #6 – Pasta Marinara with Parmesan Panko Chicken

Chow!  It’s time for our weekly culinary quest!  Last week we cooked up cool couscous salad.  This week we travel to Italy for food so good all you’ll need to go with it is a nap, seriously.

One of my favorite things in the whole wide world of food is quality marinara.  However, I cannot stomach paying exorbitant restaurant prices for simple noodles and sauce.  On the other hand, I find store-bought, jarred sauce to be mass-produced tasting with undesirable ingredients lurking on the label.  So I set out on a quest to make it myself.

My husband says the same thing every time after this meal, I need a nap.  My teen son calls it a tranquilizer dart dinner for the same reason. 🙂

Two things to mentions about this recipe:  #1 – The sauce is thick.  That’s because, when serving a breaded meat like chicken with a runny sauce, the breading gets soggy.  Eww.  This thick sauce leaves the chicken alone and makes for a nice crunch of chicken with every bite.

#2 – Speaking of crunch, the reason why I cut the chicken into strips is the crunch to chicken ratio.  I could’ve left the chicken breast whole, but for one, that’s a lot of chicken!, and two, there isn’t much crunch.  Cutting it into strips makes the chicken go farther (yeah! economical!) and there is more panko to enjoy.  All this talk is making me hungry, so let’s get to it!

This recipe isn’t difficult to make.  Just know you’ll have 3 things cooking at the same time. 🙂

Pasta Marinara with Parmesan Panko Chicken

Serves 6-8

1#                           box thin spaghetti

4                              boneless/skinless chicken breasts

1/2c                       flour

2                            eggs

1box                      Italian Panko bread crumbs

1/4t                        black pepper

1t                            garlic powder (not garlic salt)

1/2c                       parmesan cheese; grated (or Romano)

2 x 28oz cans        petite diced tomatoes; slightly drained

12oz                       tomato paste

6                            fresh garlic cloves; crushed

1 bunch                  fresh basil; chopped

2t                            dried oregano

1/4t                        salt  (plus more for the pasta water)

4T                           olive oil (plus more for frying)

Sauce:

In a large skillet, empty both cans of tomatoes (slightly drained) & tomato paste.  Add 2T olive oil, crushed garlic, salt, oregano & basil.  Stir until blended.

Cook on medium, stirring to prevent scorching, until water from tomatoes cooks off and sauce thickens.  Let this simmer covered on low, stirring occasionally, while chicken and noodles are being prepared.

Chicken:

Pour flour into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.

Crack eggs in gallon Ziploc bag, mush the bag until mixed.

Pour box of Panko, parmesan cheese, pepper and garlic powder into another gallon Ziploc bag.  Shake together.

Rinse chicken under water.  Trim any fat.  Cut each chicken breast into 4 strips.

Coat the chicken fillets, one at a time: first in the flour, then the egg, then shake egg-coated chicken in Panko bag.

Place chicken on a lightly greased, foil covered 9×13 dish.

Bake @ 350 20 minutes until done.

Remove chicken and place in hot skillet (4-6 at a time) with olive oil.  Fry all sides using a Diavola press.  If you do not have a Diavola press, try using the bottom of a clean, weighty sauce pan.  The frying only takes a couple of minutes because the chicken is already cooked.

Pasta:

Cook box of spaghetti noodles al dente (10 min in boiling, salted water).  Drain, mix with 2T olive oil to keep noodles from sticking together.

On plate- layer noodles, then sauce, then Panko chicken on top.

Buon Appetito!

Here, the chicken is raw.  I put the chicken strips in a slightly greased 9×13 dish so they are close together and won’t dry out in the oven.

Just enough hot olive oil to fry

Almost done!

Time to enjoy!

Culinary Quest #3 – Lemon Orzo Salad

Dean & Deluca is one of my all-time favorite eateries.  They have incredible food – good food that’s good for you.  I love to treat my family, friends and myself there, however, I don’t always have the time nor the budget that comes with shopping and eating at this upscale joint (as much as I wish I could!). So, in order to enjoy the same great tastes at home, I began creating my own version of their dishes.

Once I nailed the lemon vinaigrette, I found it is a wonderful base for many dishes.  Sometimes we want a savory dressing without too many herbs because they can easily overpower the salad ingredients. This vinaigrette is light and flavorful, not too strong, and with just the right amount of zest.

Today we’re serving up…

Lemon Orzo Salad

(Serves 8)

16oz        orzo pasta – cooked al dente in salted water; drained

½             red pepper; finely diced

½c           medium red onion; finely diced

1c            spinach leaves; finely chopped (measured after chopped)

1c            feta cheese; cubed

½ c         Kalamata olives; pitted & finely diced

Lemon vinaigrette (see below)

Directions:

Toss the orzo with the vinaigrette so the pasta soaks up the flavor while it cools. (It also avoids the vinaigrette pooling at the bottom of the bowl.)

Once the pasta has cooled to room temperature, toss remaining ingredients and refrigerate until well chilled.

Lemon Vinaigrette

5T rice vinegar

5T fresh squeezed lemon juice

5T canola oil

2T granular sugar

¼t salt

Enjoy it as an entree or side dish.  It’s a great way to beat the summer heat! ~ Kristi