Homemade Lasagna Can Make Any Bad Day Good Again #MABDGA

That’s all there is to it. When you’re feeling low, surround yourself with family and friends and sit down in front of a bowl heaping with oozy, melty lasagna and red sauce, and your day will do a 180 right there and then.  It’s impossible to feel defeated when you’re eating lasagna made with, and surrounded by, love.  There is a secret in every layer of my lasagna, and I’m going to share them all with you, right here.



January is for Soup



Split Pea Soup, anyone?  So far this month, we have made Italian Wedding Soup, Mushroom Beef Barley Soup, and now Split Pea.  I think there is still time for Minestrone, Avgolemono and Sixteen Bean, don’t you??  When the grill is covered in snow and the ducks have fled the pond, it’s time for dishes that warm your kitchen and your belly: lasagna, red sauce, short ribs, roasted chicken, pulled pork and SOUP. (Spoiler alert: short ribs and lasagna are coming here later this week.)  Soup is such a wonderful mother-of-all-foods.  It can be hot, cold, sweet, sour, savory, starchy, clear, creamy, hearty, vegan, meaty, fishy, tomato-y, fruity… anything!  Soup can be anything and is often everything you need, right in one bowl.  I keep a couple loaves of roasted garlic ciabatta in the freezer, so I can pull one out and pop it into the oven whenever my soup calls for a crusty heel in hand to mop up, or “dienge” the last drops from the bowl.

This word, “dienge” (deenj).  It’s not really a “word,” but more of a “Calvano-ism,” which is the dialect that my Italian-American family created when there was nothing in either language (Italian or English) that would do the job.  So, the next time you are mopping or sopping (you can see how those words don’t feel good in this context) the last half inch of sauce or soup from your bowl with a bit of bread, you can know that in my house, you are dienging, and you are doing it just right.

Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies

Who doesn’t love Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies?!?  They are nutty and sweet and “eat like a snack,” especially when paired with a few granny smith slices and/or a cup of chai tea.  I don’t associate Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies with any particular holiday or season, so these babies show up in my kitchen all year round!  I’m sharing with you the basic, classic recipe, with two special twists:  instead of vanilla, we use almond extract, and we add a teaspoon of salt to punch up the flavor.  Enjoy baking these with your favorite baking buddy; last night, I had the pleasure of the company of my two teenaged step kids, who did all the rolling!  A small price to pay for a few warm, oozy cookies straight from the oven.  A lot of people call these “Peanut Butter Blossoms,” but I like to call them “Kiss Cookies” because they will earn you kisses.  XO!

Roasted Chicken

Perhaps the most basic, most economical, and most versatile dish, roasted chicken is satisfying in many, many ways.  It’s difficult to get this wrong: the bird and the oven do all the work.  Here are my tips for a winner winner chicken dinner!

Beef Stroganoff

Beef stroganoff…who knew!

“The commonly accepted history of Beef Stroganoff is that a French chef who worked for a wealthy St. Petersburg family created the dish for a cooking contest in 1891. Following the Russian custom of the day, he named the prize-winning dish for his employer, Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov. A convincing detail sometimes offered is that the thin slices of meat called for were to accommodate the elderly Count’s failing teeth.”  http://forknplate.com/2014/12/01/as-russian-as-it-gets-the-history-of-beef-stroganoff/

Here is what Bon Appetit says about it: “According to the cookbook A Taste of Russia, the original beef Stroganoff recipe derived from a basic French mustard for seasoning beef, combined with a dollop of Russian sour cream, which Stroganoff’s chef named after his benefactor. The count himself died of tuberculosis at the age of 43, somewhere near Copenhagen.”

Given that, what could be more comforting, or more delicious!?  Better yet, this dish is easy to make and wows the crowd, even if you aren’t making your own egg noodles to go with it.  Although ancient and Russian, beef stroganoff has become an American staple.  From Betty Crocker to Better Homes and Gardens, I think every cookbook that was ever referenced at any time between 1940 and 1980 contains this dish.  It has three main components: sliced sirloin (this is a good use for sirloin tips), sliced mushrooms, onions and garlic sautéed in butter, and a heavenly, aromatic sauce made of beef stock (or boullion), worcestershire and sour cream.  That’s it.  Easy-peasy lemon squeezy.  Ladle over a bed of egg noodles or any type of starch (smashed potatoes are a delight with stroganoff) and you have yourself a timeless, classic dinner that will warm bellies and put smiles on faces.

Egg Noodles

If you have some flour, a few eggs, an afternoon and a pasta machine, you can make these silky, decadent egg noodles.  The thing I like best about making any kind of pasta/noodles is that noodles have been made this very same way, in every culture under the sun, since the beginning of time.  Or since the first person ground grain into flour.  The act of beating eggs into a well of flour with a fork makes me feel connected to my mother, and my grandmothers, and my great grandmothers back in Sicily.  But it also makes me feel connected to every woman who has ever made any noodle from scratch: lo mein, ramen,  pad thai, udon, etc.  It makes me feel connected to something ancient and pure and good, and then I feel good about bringing it into today and keeping something so good alive.  And now I feel good about sharing it with all of you.  Pasta making is some good, cheap therapy, my friends.

These egg noodles are just the thing to support your beef stroganoff.  The uses for egg noodles are endless, but when they are homemade, they will disappear before before you have a chance to re-envision them under your next dish.

Herb Crusted Roast Beef

You (and your roast) will be the star of your next holiday/special occasion meal, and it couldn’t be easier.  In fact, isn’t tomorrow night starting to feel like a very special occasion…?  Here’s how.

Spaghetti Squash

It’s so totally YUM.  It’s painfully easy to make.  It’s inexpensive.  It has a pleasing texture, a neutral flavor that pairs with just about anything else, and it’s super trendy these days.  So the next time you are at the grocery store, do yourself this favor: buy two spaghetti squash and roast them up.  You can use it in place of pasta, rice, bread… or just as squash!  So far this week, we’ve had it under chicken and pulled pork, and next was going to be next to fish, but it’s gone.

Just slice the squash in half, scoop out the seeds and guts (I give the seeds and guts to the birds and squirrels), drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, and turn cut sides down onto a large baking sheet.

Place into preheated 425 degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until the squash is tender and easily releases with a fork, like the first picture, above.  When cool enough to touch, scoop out all of your squash and serve it with whatever protein you’re having for dinner and/or pack it into the fridge for meals all week.

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

The weekend is over and you’re thinking: five more dinners until the weekend…  Don’t worry: slow cooker pulled pork is here!  And it’s so easy.  And so delish.  And does so well in lunches and as leftovers.  Tonight, we had it two different ways: some of us had it over roasted spaghetti squash and others had it on bread.  Tomorrow, I will heat some over a bed of barley leftover from my mushroom beef barley soup.  And maybe later in the week, if there is any left, I’ll put the rest on a pizza.  No matter which way you go with this incredibly flavorful, tangy, spicy, savory dish, you can’t go wrong.

Cooking Straight out of Your Pantry/Fridge/Freezer

Keeping a well stocked pantry/fridge/freezer is an art, a talent, and a huge time and money saver: when your pantry is well stocked, you can make almost anything, almost any time, without dashing out to the grocery store (god forbid).  Is there any one out there who has so much time on their hands, that going grocery shopping is a welcome diversion any time of any day of the week?  I didn’t think so.  Buy what you need ahead of time, keep your pantry, fridge and freezer stocked with essentials, and then even when you don’t have a plan for dinner, and you don’t have a minute to spare, you have no problem.

A well stocked pantry/freezer/fridge doesn’t need to be pretty or spacious.  It just needs to work for you.  I went online to find some photos of well stocked pantries because I knew that my own pantry was no beauty, but they all looked phony and lame to me.  Little matching containers of spices and labeled canisters filled with flour and sugar are NOT welcome in my pantry.  My pantry may not be photo-ready, but it’s ready to bang out a few dozen delicious meals without flinching.  My “pantry” is in at least three different spots in my house.  I have two double-layer turntables that are pictured above, plus a free-standing pantry that contains the big stuff: 10 pound bags of flour, sugar, gallons of olive oil, vinegar, and paper/foil/plastic goods.  And then there are the countertops and fruit bowls all over the kitchen.  This is what my kitchen looks like right now:



Don’t get all tangled up in thinking that you score points for a pretty pantry, and that if you don’t have chalkboard labels on your herbs, you must be doing it wrong. If you could feed a football team without going to the store tonight, I am confident that your pantry is in better shape than the prettiest picture on the internet.

A well-stocked pantry/fridge and freezer are always a work in progress.  Here’s the trick: keep a running list, at all times, of things you are close to running out of, so that you can re-purchase before you run out.  Plan to shop once per week, at a time that is convenient for you (I like to go really early on Saturday morning or late on Monday night, to avoid the crowds and also to get the best and freshest produce).  This way, when you shop, you’ll replenish your pantry and buy any fresh produce/meats/dairy/bread that you anticipate needing that week.  Add to your list all of the things that are in all of your favorite dishes, so that if the mood strikes and you must have that go-to flavor, you can whip it up without worrying about shopping for ingredients.

This means, if you like to cook the things that I like to cook, your “pantry” should contain at least (and not be limited to!) the following:

5 pounds all purpose flour, 5 pounds sugar (powdered, granulated and brown), salt (kosher and table), whole black peppercorns, corn starch, capers, chicken stock, beef stock, soy sauce, worcestershire, sriracha, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla, molasses (yes: if you love gingerbread like I love gingerbread, molasses is a staple), chocolate chips (are you telling me this is not a necessity? pshaw), light corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, rolled oats, seasoned bread crumbs, garlic powder, ground ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, oregano, basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil, red wine vinegar, cider vinegar, dijon mustard, sundried tomatoes, dehydrated mushrooms, canned tomatoes (the more variety, the better), tomato paste, fresh onions, lemons, carrots, celery, parsley, garlic and ginger root, milk, heavy cream, butter (5 pounds), eggs, grated pecorino or parmesan, shredded mozzarella and cheddar (I keep huge bags in the freezer), sour cream, greek yogurt, cream cheese, dried pasta (long and short and tiny for soup), rice (brown and white) pearled barley, lentils, garbanzo beans, chopped walnuts, slivered almonds, polenta and yeast.

In the freezer, you’ll want to keep your favorites: a few chicken cutlets/breasts/thighs, a couple of pork loin, maybe some steak tips, bacon, a couple of pounds of ground beef, coffee, vodka, a couple dozen ravioli and I like to have two or three loaves of crusty bread.  I’ll keep adding to this post as I think of things I have left off this list.  But that will cover a lot of ground.  With these things, you are pretty much in business for any meal or recipe that exists, in my repertoire, anyway.  What you don’t have can be substituted for or done without.  Now let’s get cooking!