Sunday, February 28, 2010

Meal Plan and Grocery List 3/1-3/7

Monday March 1st

Slow Cooker Savory Pulled Pork Sandwiches

make the leftovers into these Shredded Pork Tacos!

Tuesday March 2nd

Ghost Chili and Cornbread

Wednesday March 3rd

Bacon, Spinach, and Tomato Salsa Wraps

Thursday March 4th

Italian Chopped Salad

Friday March 5th

Leftover Spicy Clam Chowder from the freezer

Saturday March 6th

Thai Beef Meatballs with Peanut Dipping Sauce (Appetizer for game night with friends)

Sunday March 7th


Grocery List


4 tomatoes
red onion
2 cups baby spinach
6 cups romaine lettuce
green pepper
fresh mint


3 lb. boneless shoulder blade pork roast
2 lb. chicken breast
turkey bacon
1 lb. lean ground beef


sour cream
half and half
flour tortillas
Italian cheese crumbles
grated Parmesan
1 egg

Canned Goods

beef broth
vegetable oil
2 cans Great Northern beans
14.5 oz can chicken broth
2 cans chopped green chilies
light mayo
Italian dressing
fish sauce
red curry paste
coconut milk
crunch peanut butter

Dry Goods

onion powder
black pepper
cayenne pepper
garlic powder
brown sugar
bread crumbs
rotini pasta
hamburger buns or kaiser rolls

Have a wonderful first week of March!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Beer Battered Tilapia

It's fish fry season! Now that we have a deep fryer, I wanted to try my own at home. The corner store had Tilapia on sale for just $2.99/lb., so it was an easy choice which variety of fish to fry. I also wanted a quick dinner tonight. We arrived home sometime after 6 pm tonight from my daughter's swim lessons. After a long day of being holed up in the house away from the snow storm(with the exception of a 30 minute swim lesson), I was shootin' for a 7:30 bedtime for the kiddos. I was ready for a quiet house this snowy Friday night.

This came together super fast. I just mixed together some oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper for the wash and some flour, baking powder, egg yolk, and beer for the batter.

Then I fired up the fryer and 15 minutes later...dinner was ready.

I was very pleased with my first attempt at frying fish. It was crispy, flavorful, and delicious.

I found this recipe when I Googled "Fried Tilapia" It comes from

Serves/Makes: 4 - 6

•4-6 tilapia fillets (about 6 ounces each)
•Juice of 1/2 lemon
•2 tablespoons chopped parsley
•2 tablespoons cooking oil
•Salt and freshly ground pepper
•Oil for deep frying

Beer Batter
•2 large egg yolks
•1/2 cup beer
•1/2 cup flour
•1/2 tablespoon salt
•1/2 tablespoon baking powder
How to cook Tilapia in Beer Batter:
1.Cut fillets into 2 inches pieces.
2.Put in a bowl with lemon juice, parsley, 2 tablespoons cooking oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
3.Heat oil for deep frying.
4.Dip pieces of fish individually into batter, and then into hot oil.
5.Cook, turning and submerging pieces in the oil until golden brown all over.
6.Drain on paper towels.

This recipe for Tilapia in Beer Batter serves/makes: 4 - 6

Note: I fried the fish at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes per batch.

Hope you all have a wonderful weekend!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Steak and Shake...At Home!

While I'm posting this on a Thursday night, it was actually our Saturday dinner. This is a little too involved for a Thursday night. Not so much on the preparation end, but the clean-up was time consuming! We ate this for our family night meal. When I was growing up, family night was a fun tradition. A board game, a Disney movie, possibly an outing. I have to admit that into my teenage years, I didn't look forward to this time-honored tradition as much. It started interfering with my precious social life, darn it. With three busy teen-aged girls in the house, I have to hand it to my parents for upholding the tradition and moving family night around to accomodate our schedules. We may have approached those family nights in our adolescent years with feet dragging and eyes rolling, but once we were in the moment, we couldn't deny that we were having fun. It's one of the things that made us a family, built unity, even. I look back on those "family fun nights" fondly and I am grateful that my parents wanted us to know how important we were and invested the time.

Now that I'm all grown up and have daughters of my own, family night has been re-instated! With two young children, I could argue that every night is family night here. Evenings are consumed with the dinner routine, baths, bed-time stories, etc. However, are we really being present? My husband and I are doing these things at the same time we're taking and returning calls, checking e-mail in a spare moment, picking up toys, washing dishes, paying bills, making household repairs, and lately...shovelling the walk (go away snow!). Of course, there are fun moments mixed in, but sometimes, I hate to admit, it's just the day to day "drudgery".

On family fun night, the phones go off, the lap top stays shut, the dishes stay in the sink, and we focus on being a family. My oldest usually dictates the agenda. (Ahh. A chip off the ol' block.) Days before the anticipated night, she begins planning "a schedule of events", which I am required to write and post on the refrigerator. Examples include: Watch a movie, play games (duck duck goose...we're all good at that one), make up stories and act them out, dance, snuggle, stay up late.... you get the idea. I also let her plan the menu. It's pretty predictable (Pizza!). However, last week when I asked her, she beckoned me closer then whispered in my ear, "Steak and Shake". Sure, we could have gone to Steak and Shake, but it was way more fun to turn our kitchen into Steak and Shake.

I'd like to take a moment here to mention the FISH! Philosophy. Years ago, the school that I was teaching at studied the FISH! Philosophy as did many businesses across good ol' Corporate America. Books were purchased, meetings were held, banners were hung. Initially, I approached the FISH! Philosophy in much the same way I regarded family night as a teenager...feet dragging and eyes rolling. Then I realized the benefits. Eventually I swallowed this philosophy...hook, line, and sinker. Ha ha. Here are the principles of the FISH! Philosophy.
The FISH! Philosophy includes four simple, interconnected practices:

Be There is being emotionally present for people. It’s a powerful message of respect that improves communication and strengthens relationships.

Play taps into your natural way of being creative, enthusiastic and having fun. Play is the spirit that drives the curious mind, as in “Let’s play with that idea!” It’s a mindset you can bring to everything you do.

Make Their Day is finding simple ways to serve or delight people in a meaningful, memorable way. It’s about contributing to someone else’s life, not because you want something out of it, but because that’s the person you want to be.

Choose Your Attitude means taking responsibility for how you respond to what life throws at you. Once you are aware that your choice impacts everyone around you, you can ask yourself, “Is my attitude helping my team or my customers? Is it helping me to be the person I want to be?”

Consequently, the FISH! Philosophy is also effective when applied to family life. Hence, the re-instatement of family night.

Now on to the food!

Steak and Shake has distinctly thin fries. In my attempt to re-create their fries, I attached the coarse shredder to my new KitchenAid mixer and ran a few potatoes through. They were finer than the Steak and Shake fries, but I didn't have an option for a larger cut short of doing it by hand.

Then I fired up my griddled and slapped down some "steak burgers". Okay, so they were really just hamburger patties. They came from my freezer. I promise that no one complained. Well, almost. As dinner was just about ready, my husband inquired, "Aren't these supposed to be steak burgers." I just gave him "the look". No further discussion.

Here's my small scale Steak and Shake work station. Burgers on the griddle, fries in the hot tub.

Um, the fries look more like hash browns. I assure you that it didn't effect the taste.

Especially when smothered in cheese sauce. My husband picked up some Cheesy Ragu Double Cheddar sauce from the corner store. It tastes just like the stuff they serve at Steak and Shake. Lucky pick!

With the burgers off of the griddle...

the buns could "get their toast on".

Time to make the milk shakes. My daughter chose the ice cream flavor, her favorite: Chocolate chip mint. She really is a mini me, this was my favorite when I was her age too. This was super easy with my Cuisinart CSB-76 Smart Stick Hand Blender Still lovin' it!

I threw a summer patio tablecloth over our little kitchen table because honestly, we're all ready for a little sunshine around here. Then I hauled out some leftover paper plates from an Elmo-themed birthday party. We all gathered 'round the table for our Steak and Shake feast.

My burger got "the works". Ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle...calories don't count on family night.

Oh.My.Goodness. Those hashbrowns....umm....I mean fries!

And dessert. Don't forget the whipped cream and cherry!

There you have it, a completely healthy meal for your family. Okay, maybe not. But my oldest did say, "Mommy, this is THE bestest meal that we've had since I can remember!"

Ahhh. Family night.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Swiss Steak in the Crock Pot

Here's another "fix it and forget it" kind of meal. This is my first go at Swiss steak. I've seen lots of recipes over the years, but it wasn't until I saw this Swiss Steak on Coleen's Recipes that I knew I had to try. Here's what she had to say about her recipe, "Super easy, super flavorful, super leftovers...what more can I say? This is comfort food at its best." If that wasn't enough to make me want Swiss Steak, her next description, "This recipe will fill your kitchen with nostalgic aromas from your childhood and leftovers make the best panini sandwiches for tomorrow nights dinner." sealed the deal. I had to try it! Plus, I had just picked up a cooler of beef from my grandparent's farm on my last trip home.

Colleen's recipe called for 2 lbs. of round steak. However, there was a large package with a bright yellow sticker labelled "Swiss Steak" in my freezer. I figured if I was making Swiss Steak, I'd better use this. So I thawed it in the fridge overnight and unwrapped it yesterday morning to prepare for the crock pot. I apologize to my more squeamish readers for the bloody meat shot that I'm about to post...but just look at this thing! Now that is a chunk of meat! I weighed it just to see what I was working with. It was over 3 1/2 lbs! You can bet we have leftovers. Thanks to Coleen for recommending a panini for the leftovers. That was my lunch today... and I probably have enough for 30 more paninis : )

The next step is to trim the fat, cut the meat into serving size pieces, and coat with flour.

Heat some vegetable oil in a skillet and add the steak.

Brown on both sides before moving to the crock pot.

Now round up your veggies. I used what I had in the fridge; onion, carrot, celery, and cabbage. I was out of the "big" carrots, so I used baby carrots. The recipe didn't call for cabbage, but I had half a head chillin' in my crisper, so I threw that in too. You can chop up the veggies really fine, but I kinda like em' chunky (and I was in a hurry).

I added a little more oil to the skillet and sauteed the veggies until tender-crisp. Give em' a little sprinkle of salt if you're so inclined.

While the veggies sauteed, I mixed together the sauce ingredients. Because I had almost double the amount of beef as the recipe called for, I doubled the sauce. Combine brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, diced tomatoes (I used a can of whole tomatoes too), basil, salt, and pepper.

I dumped the veggies and sauce into the crock pot, stirred it up a little, put the lid on, and set it to cook on LOW.

6 or 7 hours later when dinner time rolled around, I served it over some hot egg noodles. Coleen was right, "Comfort food at it's best!"

Head on over to Coleen's blog to get the recipe. Just click HERE.

Oh, and those paninis? I spooned the leftover meat and sauce over two pieces of bread, topped with some peperoncinis and provolone and set a weighted hot skillet on top of the sandwich on my griddle. It was perfection.

Happy Tuesday!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Stove Top Mac n' Cheese...However You Please

Anyone can make macaroni and cheese and I don't mean the stuff that comes in a box with a packet of powdered cheese.

I'm not gettin' all high and mighty here, this stuff has it's place in my kitchen. We all grew up on it. My kids eat it. These days I love those Mac in Minutes tubs...just fill to the line and pop em' in the microwave. Can't beat that for a super quick lunch. But if you've got just 10 more minutes, you could have this:

Creamy, delicious, made-from-scratch mac n' cheese. If you don't care for peas or mushrooms, no problem. Mac n' Cheese is so versatile that you can stir in whatever fixings you like. As long as you have pasta (it doesn't even have to be macaroni), butter, flour, milk, and cheese, then you've got the makings for your very own mac n' cheese.

Here's how it comes together:

The first thing I do is bring a pot of water to a boil, then I throw in the pasta. I'm not a traditionalist when it comes to mac n' cheese. As a result my favorite types of pasta for this dish are, but not excluded to: bowtie, cavatappi, gemelli, penne, radiatore, rotelle (look like little wheels), and rotini. I almost never buy plain old macaroni. Today's pasta of choice happened to be radiatore.

Then I melt butter in a skillet. Usually 2 tablespoons.

This time, I added half of a diced onion and sauteed until tender. Then I added some sliced mushrooms and stirred them around for another few minutes.

The next step is to add flour. If veggies aren't your thing, you can skip right to stirring the flour into the melted butter.

Now gradually stir...or better yet, whisk in 2 cups of milk. You don't want any lumps in your sauce. I used skim milk because that's what I had.

Cook and stir over medium to medium high heat. By the time the mixture reaches a boil, it should be noticeably thicker. Turn the heat to low. Right now what I've got here is mushroom and onion gravy.

We're about to transition this gravy to cheese sauce, so stir in some cheese. Not very specific, am I? How much is some? What kind of cheese? If you're one of those detail oriented people, I apologize. I don't have an answer for you. Mac n' Cheese is a perfect way to use up cheese in your fridge that is nearing expiration. In my mac n' cheese this time: a chunk of Velveeta that I found wrapped in plastic wrap at the back of the fridge(I'm guessing it didn't find it's way into our dip at the Super Bowl party?), some shredded Colby Jack cheese at the bottom of a bag (almost a cup?), and finally some grated Romano cheese that was nearing expiration.

Use whatever cheese you like. As long as it melts, you're good to go. I usually use 2cups of cheese or up to 8 oz.

Once the cheese is melted, add your cooked, drained pasta and anything else you want to stir in. I ended up dropping a cup of peas into the water with the pasta during the last few minutes of cooking time. No need to dirty another pan! Toss the noodles and peas with the cheese sauce...

and you've got dinner in 20 minutes or less. I wanted mine a little peppery last time.

Here are some other pairings that work really well when stirred into mac n' cheese:

Crispy bacon and sharp white cheddar

Chicken and broccoli

Taco meat, a can of salsa or diced tomatoes with green chilies, top with green onions

Speaking of mac n' cheese check out this Philly Cheese Mac Recipe! YUM!

Basic Mac n Cheese Recipe take this and build on it!

8 oz. dry pasta such as elbow macaroni, radiatore, cavatappi
2 T butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
8 oz. shredded cheese or Velveeta
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. In a skillet, melt butter. Stir in flour. Gradually whisk in milk until smooth. Cook and stir until the mixture reaches a boil and thickens. Turn heat to low. Stir in cheese until melted. Toss cheese sauce with pasta. Salt and pepper to taste.

Radiatore with Peas (pictured above)

8 oz. Radiatore pasta
1-2 cups frozen peas
2 T. butter
1/2 cup diced onion
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
approximately 4 oz. Velveeta, 1 cup shredded Colby jack, and 1/4 cup grated Romano

Cook pasta according to pkg. directions. Toss in peas for the last 5 minutes of cooking time. Drain. Melt butter in a skillet. Add onions and saute until tender. Add sliced mushrooms and cook for another few minutes, until lightly browned. Add flour and stir until combined. Stir in milk until smooth. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Mixture should be thickened. Turn heat to low. Stir in cheese until melted. Toss with pasta and peas.


To print or download this recipe click here!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Skillet Cincinnati Chili with Spaghetti

I thought that I'd made my mind up about Cincinnati Chili a long time ago. When I was dating my husband, he used to talk about how much he loved Skyline Chili. I'd never heard of the stuff, let alone visited a Skyline Restaurant (sometimes called a chili parlor), though they can be found in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and now Florida. I personally took my first and only taste of Skyline Chili at King's Island, an amusement park North of Cincinnati. I remember thinking, "Huh. Okay. Now I tried it." Clearly I was unimpressed. I remember my husband, back then still my boyfriend, searching my face for a reaction. "It's awesome, right?" he asked. I tried to sound a little enthusiastic...for his sake, "Yeah, it's pretty good." After that I never looked back at Cincinnati Style Chili.

Then while reading through Cook's IllustratedCover & Bake (Best Recipe)Cookbook, I came across their Skillet Cincinnati Chili with Spaghetti Recipe. Here's how Cook's Illustrated described Cincinnati Chili, "Redolent of cinnamon and other warm spices, this chili is very different from it's more familiar Texas brethren. One taste reveals layers of spices you expect from Middle Eastern or North African cuisine, not food from the American heartland."(pg 223 Cover and Bake) Okay, they had my attention.

I must have been missing something that day at King's Island. Then again, it was years ago, maybe my taste buds have changed. Plus, according to Cook's Illustrated and a Google search or recipes, every Cincinnati Chili recipe is different. According to Cook's Illustrated, "some use spices sparingly, while others empty out the entire spice rack."

I decided that I needed to give Cincinnati Chili another chance. Still, I surprised myself by trying this recipe as I have a very strict "No pasta in my chili" rule. I wrote the following in my very first post about chili back in October of 2008: There are many schools of thought when it comes to chili. For some, the spicier the better. Some like it thick. Some love the beans. And there is a whole group of people that love their Chili Mac. I am not from this planet. To me, macaroni is the quickest way to ruin a bowl of chili. If I wanted goulash, I'd have made goulash. I want chili, darn it!

Well, never say never. I devoured the spaghetti cooked into this chili and I savored every last bite. Hey, I can admit when I'm wrong.

I did a little more research on Cincinnati Chili after I made a batch in my kitchen. I wanted to know about it's origin. Who made the first batch of this chili that Cincinnati is famous for? From all accounts that I read, Cincinnati chili seems to have originated with one or more immigrant restaurateurs from Greece who were trying to broaden their customer base by moving beyond ethnic cuisine. Boy am I glad that they did!

One final fact about Cincinnati Chili: It's as much about the garnishes or what the chili is served with as the chili itself. Think Steak and Shake Chili...Chili 3-way, Chili 5-way, Chili Mac, Chili Mac Supreme....

Here's a guide to "The Ways" of Cincinnati Chili:

two-way: spaghetti and chili
three-way: spaghetti, chili, and shredded cheese
four-way: spaghetti, chili, shredded cheese, and either diced onions or beans
five-way: spaghetti, chili, shredded cheese, diced onions, and beans
cheese coney: hot dog topped with chili, shredded cheese, diced onions, and mustard

My chili ended up as 4-way, spaghetti, chili, shredded cheese, and onions. It may not look like much from the picture at the top, but let me tell ya...It was out of this world! I can't wait to make it again. I only had one bowl and my husband took the rest to work to share. Now I'm craving it and it's all gone. I can't get this chili outta my head!

This chili is not difficult to make. It's a whole meal in one skillet. Just brown some lean ground beef in a skillet. Break it up really fine as it cooks. I added a little salt and pepper to mine too. Seems like the basis for most chili, right? Well here's where things start to change. Take that beef out of the skillet. I put mine on a paper towel-lined plate to soak up any extra grease. Set it aside for later.

Now, add a little oil to the skillet and brown some minced onion until the edges start turning nice and brown.

While the meat browns, round up your spices. You'll need garlic, chili powder, cocoa powder, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and allspice.

Stir them into the onion and cook for a minute or two until fragrant. Boy is this ever fragrant. This blend of spices emits the most amazing smell, all warm and comforting!

Now stir in chicken broth.

Return the beef to the skillet and dump in water, tomato sauce, cider vinegar, and brown sugar. Cover and simmer for at least an hour. The chili will take on a deep red color and the beef will get really tender.

Uncover and stir in half a pound of dry spaghetti. You need to stir this really well (and carefully as the skillet is getting pretty full). The strands of spaghetti tend to stick together and not cook through if you don't separate them. Cover and cook for another 20 minutes or so until the pasta is tender.

Serve with cheese and onions.

We ended up eating this for a late supper. I started dinner later then I had hoped and didn't realized that it needed to simmer for over an hour. Ooops. We fed the kiddos grilled cheese and put them to bed then sat down to steaming bowls of chili in a quiet kitchen. Ahhh. Here's the funniest part: I took a bite before my husband. Then I waited for his reaction. (Reminiscent of what he'd done to me, over a decade ago across the picnic table at King's Island with the Skyline Chili) "So, what do you think?" I asked. "It's awesome, right?" He answered, "Oh yeah, babe. Tastes just like Skyline." What?! Well, I don't know about that. I'm tempted to go out and buy a can of Skyline and give it a taste test. Heck, if it's that easy to achieve this wonderful flavor, then I'll be stocking up on cans at the grocery. Still, I took it as a great compliment. He LOVES that stuff, after all.

Here's the recipe:

Skillet Cincinnati Chili with Spaghetti by Cook's Illustrated from Cover and Bake Cookbook adapted slightly by me

1 lb. 90 percent lean ground beef
1 large onion, minced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce
1 cup water
1/2 lb. spaghetti, broken
salt and pepper to taste


1 minced onion
shredded sharp cheddar
Tabasco Sauce

1. Brown beef in a 12 in. skillet, breaking up with the edge of a spoon until finely broken. Drain. Remove from skillet.

2. Add a tablespoon of oil to skillet. Heat over medium to medium-high. Cook onions until browning around the edges. Stir in garlic and spices. Heat 1-2 more minutes until fragrant.

3. Stir in chicken broth, then cider vinegar, brown sugar, tomato sauce, and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or more.

4. Stir in broken spaghetti. Return to low boil. Re-cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until pasta is tender. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.

5.Serve with accompaniments.

To download or print this recipe click here!

Meal Plan and Grocery List 2/22- 2/28

As I typed in the date above I realized that next week, when I type my meal plan, that I'll begin with March 1st. Yay! March!!! Is it possible?! Spring is coming? I sure hope so!

Monday February 22nd

Easy Homemade Mac n' Cheese...made your way!

Tuesday February 23rd

Crock Pot Swiss Steak

Wednesday February 24th

Tuna Cakes

Thursday February 25th

Make Your Own Steak and Shake

Friday February 26th

Fish Fry- Beer Battered Tilapia

Saturday February 27th

Chicken Ole!

Sunday February 28th

Making whole wheat pasta from scratch and turning it into Spicy Tuna Linguine or Spaghetti and Meatballs

Grocery List


2 onions
lettuce,tomato, onion (or hamburger toppings of choice)
potatoes (for fries)
green onions


2 lb. beef round steak
beef patties
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 lbs. Tilapia fillets


cream cheese
cheese for mac n' cheese (I used a mixture, Velveeta, shredded cheddar, grated Romano)
1 cup shredded cheddar
American singles

Canned Goods

diced tomatoes
Worcestershire sauce
2-6 oz. cans tuna
sweet relish
picante sauce
1/2 cup beer

Dry Goods

baking powder
brown sugar
1 pkg Stove Top for chicken
hamburger buns
whole wheat flour


ice cream

Friday, February 19, 2010

Stuffed Shells with Vodka-Tomato Cream Sauce

This was dinner tonight. Last week I checked out Cover & Bake (Best Recipe) by Cook's Illustrated from my local library. Each recipe was scrutinized by America's Test Kitchen. I really enjoyed reading the recipes, and even more, I enjoyed reading the preface to each recipe which gave the history of many traditional meals and described the trial and error process the test kitchen took to come up with the best possible product. I was excited about this meal because last night, I tried another recipe from Cover and Bake. While I was skeptical about the flavors and the methods, last night's Cincinnati Chili (which I'll be posting later this weekend) was phenomenal! I was an instant fan of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen. I have to say that tonight's stuffed shells... missed the mark. Bummer. Not horrible, completely edible....pretty good, even. Just not "out of this world". Disappointing, especially after the effort involved. I will make one excuse for this recipe. I copied the recipes that I wanted to use on my copy machine and then returned all of our books to the library today. When I began dinner tonight, I realized that the last bit of instructions were missing from the recipe I'd copied. Oops. Apparently the recipe had spanned over three pages and in my rush to get it copied and head out the door, I'd missed the last few steps. That said, these baked just fine. I found a similar, interchangeable recipe and followed those baking instructions. But it wasn't the texture that was disappointing here. These just needed more "Umph!", more flare, more intensity, more...something.

I'm still going to walk you through it...because, well, that's what I do.

First I cooked a 12 oz. box of jumbo shells according to the package directions. Do follow the package directions! Overcooked shells are difficult to stuff. Drain them and lay them out on waxed paper or foil so that they don't stick together while they cool. I did this, but I accidentally deleted the picture. Instead, here is a shot of a couple of the shells.

With the shells cooling, I set about the task of making the filling for the shells. The secret ingredient: fresh mint.

Mince the mint and combine with 2 cups ricotta, 1/2 cup mozzarella, a large egg, garlic, salt, and pepper. You're supposed to add peas too, but read on...

With the filling made, I decided to begin the vodka-tomato sauce because it needed to simmer for a bit while I stuffed the shells. Heat some olive oil in a skillet and add a couple of cloves of garlic. You want to heat until fragrant, but not browned. Watch this step closely. Burned garlic is NEVER a good thing.

Next, the recipe called for 2 cans of diced tomatoes, processed until smooth. I used my Cuisinart CSB-76 Smart Stick Hand Blender. Still loving this! No fuss and no mess!

As the name of this recipe implies, you need vodka. Am I alone in the fact that when I buy hard alcohol in the middle of the day with my children in tow that I feel obligated to explain to other shoppers that it's "just for a recipe" so that they don't judge me?

Here's how it went down today:

It was a low-key day in my house. A no make-up, ratty hoodie, catch-up-on-the-laundry, knock items off of the to-do list kind of day. I was short on time when I went to the store for my big shopping trip earlier this week. I missed a few items before I had to rush off to the Pre-K pick up. So today, I loaded the kiddos into the car and drove to the corner store to toss those last few items into the cart. I needed vodka for this recipe. We were outta bananas. You get the picture. We arrived at the store too close to my toddler's naptime. The kids were nuts! Screaming in the cart(garnering plenty of stares and raised eyebrows from passersby) and then when I took em' out, terrorizing the aisles. And that's how I found my forlorn self standing before the small liquor selection, contemplating cheap vodka, in a coat (with a ripped sleeve...stuffing coming out... that I'd torn on the garage door as I exited the house) with my kids acting like complete maniacs. Too bad the aisle wasn't empty. I know how this must've looked. As a couple of ladies sized me up, a clerk walked by. "Excuse me," I got her attention. "This says diluted." Apparently in this state, if it's not a liquor store, they can't sell the hard stuff. "No problem," I assured the clerk, "It's just FOR A RECIPE. Should be fine." To which one of the shoppers audibly said, "Uh-huh. Sure." And another lady flat out addressed me, "Are you sure, honey? Depending on how the rest of this day goes, you might need a screwdriver." Nice. The vodka was diluted. I know this because when I opened it and took a whiff, it didn't trigger my gag reflex the way regular hard alcohol tends to do. Seriously, I don't touch the stuff. I've been there, done my college days. Now the thought of a shot or vodka anything makes me cringe. Also, for proof, (ha ha proof) I poured a little on my finger and tasted it. The burn was minimal. Oh well, this is what I ended up with.

Add the pureed tomatoes, vodka, red pepper flakes, sugar, and cream (I used half and half) to the skillet. It needs to simmer for 10-12 minutes for the flavors to meld and the sauce to thicken.

While the sauce simmered, I stuffed those shells.

The recipe called for peas, so after filling over half of the shells (my husband and daughters REALLY do not care for peas) I stirred some peas into the filling.

You're supposed to place the shells seam side down in a 9 X 13 baking dish. The last time I made stuffed shells, I placed them seam side up. I was a little concerned that the filling would run out. It didn't.

Pour on the sauce, then cover with foil and bake. I went with 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, I pulled the shells from the oven and sprinkled with a little more mozzarella (not in the recipe, but a good move if you ask me) and parmesan.

Then back into the oven for another 10 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Serve topped with fresh, chopped basil.

Here's a cross-sectional view...

Stuffed Shells with Vodka-Tomato Cream Sauce from Cook's Illustrated Cover and Bake re-typed (from partially copied recipe) and slightly adapted by me

- One 1 lb. box of jumbo pasta shells


- One 16 oz. container of ricotta (whole or skim or fat free, whatever your choice)
- 1/2 shredded mozzerella cheese (separated)
- 4 tbsp minced garlic (separated)
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 clove garlic, minced to a paste or pressed
- 3/4 t. salt
- ground black pepper


- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, pureed
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 cup vodka (either the cheap stuff or expensive, it doesn’t effect the taste)
- 1 cup half and half
- salt and pepper to taste


1/2 cup mozzarella
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. Separate each shell (you should have about 30). Cool on waxed paper or foil.

For Filling: In a large bowl mix together ricotta, mozzerella, peas, egg, garlic, and mint. Spray a 9×13 casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray. Fill each pasta shell with about one tbsp of mixture, and place seam-side down into the dish. Cover filled pasta shells with damp paper towels while making the sauce.

For Sauce: In a large skillet or heavy saucepan, sautee garlic in olive oil. Add pureed tomatoes, vodka, red pepper flakes, sugar, and heavy cream. Stir together, and add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 10-12 minutes until flavors have blended and sauce has thickened. Pour sauce over pasta shells and ensure each shell is covered completely.

To Bake: At this point you can refrigerate the dish for up to one day (covered in plastic wrap), if you are making it ahead of time. Simply allow it to sit at room temperature for one hour before putting it in the oven. To cook, cover with foil and bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, remove foil, cover with parmesan and additional mozzerella, and return to oven for 5 or 10 more minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly.

Top with basil and serve.


*I only used a little over one tablespoon of mint. I was concerned that more would be out of my family's "comfort zone" when it came to savory Italian-syle comfort food. As a result, the flavor of the mint was subtle and complementary, yet not over-whelming. I think that more mint might have been off-putting.

* This was a little on the bland side. If I make it again I'm thinking more garlic, more red pepper flakes, more salt and pepper, and (provided it isn't a Friday during Lent) some Italian sausage.

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