Vegetable Lasagna with Blush Sauce + How-to Video

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One of the most obvious signs of growing up is when your holidays start to change. For as long as I can remember, my family has celebrated Easter morning together with multicolor baskets brimming over with chocolates and other goodies. Then, in the glow of the post-basket-opening high, we’d have a spirited egg hunt, the memories I have of which are tainted by visions of my too-competitive older sister hurling me out of the way to snatch an egg from me. Finally, we’d capped off the day with a multi-course dinner and dessert. However, this year was the first year that all of that drastically changed (and yes, I received baskets through age 18; I’m not ashamed).DSC_4301

This year, there were no bountiful baskets, my sister was in another state, my father was stuck at work until midnight, and instead of serving an elaborate meal, we made a one-dish Vegetable Lasagna with Blush Sauce. I have to say, even though the whole day was different, it was still enjoyable. I spent it with Mother Cookie, which is always a pleasure, and at the end of the day, we had a completely delicious meal to devour.DSC_4481

My Vegetable Lasagna with Blush sauce is a refreshing change from the typical veggie lasagna. Normally, they’re made with a white sauce. But mine features a velvety, creamy blush sauce that gives you the best of marinara and béchamel sauces in one. This robust, sweet yet savory sauce is good enough to drink, and it pairs perfectly with hearty helpings of eggplant, broccoli, and spinach. And to really take things over the top, we employ a generous amount of three kinds of cheese: gooey fresh mozzarella, tangy provolone, and salty parmesan. The whole dish is indulgent, filling, and irresistible.

This is a meal that will wow whoever eats it. I guarantee you’ve never had vegetable lasagna like this before. It’s made from scratch, but it’s less labor-intensive than you might think. For me, it was a wonderful meal to enjoy on Easter with my wonderful mother, and it would be just as delicious any other night of the year.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Be sure to join me in my video to whip up this delicious lasagna.
  2. Switch out the vegetables I used for whatever ones you prefer.
  3. You must use fresh herbs. Dried just can’t compare. If you use dried, don’t expect this  to have the same wow factor.
  4. The same goes for good-quality cheeses. The better the cheese you buy, the better the lasagna will be.
  5. You can assemble this ahead of time then bake later in the day.
  6. If you don’t have a shallot, sub in one yellow onion.

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Blush Vegetable Lasagna
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. lasagna noodles, cooked al dente & drained
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 28-oz. cans San Marzano tomatoes & their juices
  • 1 6-oz. can tomato paste
  • ½ tsp. Salt
  • 1 tsp. Red pepper flakes
  • 3 tbsp. fresh chopped basil
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chopped oregano
  • 1 ¾ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 whole eggplant, diced
  • 2 heads fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 4 cups fresh spinach
  • 1 1/2 lbs. fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • 2/3 lb. provolone cheese, grated
  • 2 cups shredded parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13 baking sheet with nonstick spray. Set aside.
  2. Place broccoli in a medium microwave-safe dish and fill halfway with water. Cover and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir and microwave another 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  3. In a large saucepan, bring the olive oil to medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot and sauté until translucent and fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the San Marzano tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, salt, red pepper flakes, ¾ of the basil, and ¾ of the oregano and stir until well-combined. Let simmer for 5 minutes.
  5. Stir in the cream and grated parmesan until cheese is melted. Remove from heat. Use a ladle to pour a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the prepared dish. Lay out a single layer of noodles so it completely covers the sauce. Add another layer of sauce, using about half of it. Then sprinkle half of the veggies on top, followed by half of the mozzarella, provolone, and shredded parmesan. Repeat: noodles, sauce, veggies, cheese. Press down to compact it. If you have room, finish with another layer of noodles, sauce, and cheese (no veggies this time).
  6. Bake for 30 minutes uncovered then cover and bake another 15 minutes or until bubbling and hot in the center. Sprinkle with remaining herbs then let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.

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Baked Pepper Jack Sticks

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My feeling towards most savory foods is that, if it doesn’t have cheese, it ain’t good. Of course, this isn’t always true. But you would be hard-pressed to find something that isn’t better with a little bit of cheesy goodness.

In fact, the more cheese, the merrier. I always order extra cheese on my pizza, and yet it never seems to be enough. And my favorite meal ever is my Eggplant Parmigiana because it is loaded, stuffed, and oozing with mounds of endless melty cheese. It’s like a dream come true.

Naturally, for any cheese lover, fried cheese is the bomb. There is perhaps no greater way to experience cheese then breaded in a crispy suit of golden armor and fried until it reaches molten perfection. The standard fried cheese is mozzarella, chosen for its impeccable stringiness and mild flavor. But why not kick things up a notch with some hot and spicy pepper jack?

These Baked Pepper Jack Sticks were born from two things: my love for cheese and my need to use up a block of zesty pepper jack just waiting to come out of the fridge and party. But instead of frying it, I opted for oven-baking which provided the same golden brown crust and gooey interior as frying does, but without all the fatty oil and hassle.  Some of the sticks do bust open while baking, but that’s all part of the fun. In fact I most enjoyed the ones with cheese streaming out the edges; they were extra delicious.DSC_2557

The Panko breading is delightfully crunchy while the pepper jack is creamy and molten with that great spicy kick. If you like a little heat, this is a great change from the traditional mozzarella stick. I’m giving you a one-way ticket to ooey-gooeyville to enjoy an all-expense paid stay at melty resort. Only a fool would pass up a cheese-tastic opportunity like that. So close your eyes and take a deep bite through crispy, golden breading and straight to a sea of spicy pepper jack cheese; let it take you away to cheese heaven.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. These might explode a little while baking, but they’ll still taste fantastic, so don’t sweat it.
  2. Serve with marinara sauce or ranch.
  3. Check out my favorite twist on fried cheese: Fried Eggplant Parmesan Sticks.
  4. You can use regular breadcrumbs too. In fact, they’ll probably hold together a little better.
  5. If you don’t like spice, sub Monterey jack.
  6. You must double coat these or they will not hold together.

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Baked Pepper Jack Sticks
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. pepper jack cheese
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil.
  2. Cut the cheese into strips, about 1 inch wide and 3-4 inches long. Place the flour in a medium bowl, the milk and eggs in another, and the breadcrumbs and salt in a third. Whisk together the milk and eggs. Stir together the breadcrumbs and salt.
  3. Dip each cheese stick into the flour, followed by the milk mixture, and ending with the breadcrumbs. Make sure to entirely coat the cheese in each step. Repeat once more a second coat: flour, milk, breadcrumbs. Place on the baking sheet.
  4. Bake sticks 5 minutes then turn the oven up to broil and cook for another 3-5 minutes, or until golden brown. Enjoy!

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Fried Eggplant Parmesan Sticks

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“Got any more of those?”

That was the first Mother Cookie said after finishing the freshly fried Eggplant Parmesan Stick I gave to her to taste-test.

And for the rest of the night, as I finished frying the sticks, she incessantly inquired, “Got any more of those?”

That’s how good these babies are; once you try one, you can’t get it off your mind. I lost count of how many I ate throughout the night, which is probably for the better. They were just so heavenly, I couldn’t stay away. I can say without hesitation that these Eggplant Parmesan Sticks are one of the best recipes I have made to-date.

These are essentially darn good mozzarella sticks with eggplant inside. The concept makes perfect sense. Traditional Eggplant Parm is comprised of fried eggplant, marinara, sauce, and mozzarella cheese. So, classic mozzarella sticks are just missing the eggplant. Add that in, and you’ve got handheld eggplant parm. Mind blown.DSC_2503

What results is the most perfectly golden brown, crispy, crunchy breading encasing ooey, gooey fresh mozzarella cheese and tender eggplant that melts in your mouth after frying. Using fresh mozzarella makes a big difference here; it’s the gooiest stuff on the planet, creating the ideal stream of cheese that stretches from the stick when you take that first bite. Send the deep-fried dream for a dunk in some marinara sauce to bring the eggplant parm experience full-circle.

This is life-changing.

Forget what you know about mozzarella sticks; forget what you know about Eggplant Parm. This combines the best of both worlds, creating one of the most delicious finger foods you’ll ever enjoy. I can promise you that you will never eat a mozzarella stick this delicious from a restaurant, and I’ve tried a lot of mozzarella sticks in my day. The flavorful breading with just the right texture, the cooked-to-perfection eggplant, and that slightly sweet, amazing fresh mozzarella cheese are incomparable.

Best of all, don’t worry about battling with the deep fryer. We pan-fry these stove-top!DSC_2528

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Some of these will leak cheese when frying, but don’t worry. There will still be plenty of cheese left in there.
  2. You must use fresh mozzarella to get the full experience. This is not the same as regular mozzarella. The fresh stuff can be bought in the specialty cheese section of your grocery store.
  3. Want the best Eggplant Parmigiana recipe ever? I’ve got it right here.
  4. Leave out the eggplant for the perfect classic mozzarella stick recipe.
  5. This is a great way to get kids to try eggplant. Just tell them they’re eating cheese sticks, and they won’t care.DSC_2463

Eggplant Parmesan Sticks
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 fresh eggplant, skins removed
  • 20 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs
  • Canola or vegetable oil, for frying
  • Marinara sauce, for dipping

Special equipment: toothpicks

Directions

  1. Slice the eggplant and mozzarella cheese into about 1-inch wide, 3-inch long sticks, about ½-inch in thickness (you don’t need to be precise; whatever looks like standard cheese stick size to you). Try to keep the cheese and eggplant the same size so they’ll hold together better when frying. Skewer each slice of eggplant together with a slice of cheese using a toothpick (you will remove this after frying).DSC_2466-3DSC_2466DSC_2465-5
  2. Put the flour in one large bowl, the milk and egg in another large bowl, and the breadcrumbs in a third large bowl. Whisk together the milk and egg.
  3. Use the toothpick to help you dip each stick into the flour and coat entirely. Then dunk and coat in the milk/egg mixture, and finally dunk and coat in the breadcrumbs. Repeat once more so that each stick is double coated. I don’t recommend doing a single coat because the cheese will leak through when frying.
  4. Place a large deep skillet over medium-high heat and fill about 1 1/2-inches deep with oil. Let it get good and hot, about 5-10 minutes.
  5. While the oil heats, line a baking sheet with paper towels and preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
  6. Gently place one breaded stick into the oil to test if it’s ready. If it sizzles, you’re good to go. If not, wait a few minutes more. Put about 6 sticks in at once, but no more. If you crowd the pan, the oil’s temperature will drop. If you can, place the sticks cheese side-down first. This will prevent the cheese from leaking later.
  7. Let each stick fry until golden brown then flip and fry the other side until golden brown. Once flipped, you should be able to gently and carefully remove the toothpick to make for easier frying, or you can wait until after it’s completely fried. Be careful not to burn yourself, and watch the pan because each stick will fry at a different rate.
  8. When a stick is good and golden brown on both sides, use tongs or a fork to remove it from the oil and transfer to the prepared baking sheet so the paper towels can soak up the extra oil. If you haven’t already done so, remove the toothpicks. Place finished sticks in the oven to keep warm while you fry the rest of the sticks. Serve with marinara sauce for dipping.DSC_2479

Super-Sized Sausage & Pepper Calzone

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Alright. Let’s address the elephant in the room.

Yes, there is meat in this calzone. Yes, I am a vegetarian. No, I did not eat it.

But darn, I wanted to. That’s how good it smelled and looked when I pulled it out of the oven. I made it the same night I made the Spinach Artichoke Calzone from yesterday’s post. As you might’ve guessed, the Spinach Artichoke Calzone was my dinner, and this Super-Sized Sausage and Pepper Calzone was for my parents.

It’s a calzone party this week, and this recipe is your invitation to join in. I’ve got a special place in my heart for calzones that developed from buying fresh calzones from Wegmans when I was younger. Those babies were good, but I knew I could make one even better.

I am willing to bet this Super-Sized Sausage & Pepper Calzone is ten times better than anything you could get at a Wegmans or local pizza joint. Not to mention, putting it together is practically just as easy as picking up the phone and ordering delivery, so why not choose the tastier option?

Just look at the size of that thing!DSC_1206-2

This golden brown beauty is oozing with marvelous mounds of creamy 3-cheese filling then stuffed with meaty sausage and sweet, robust peppers. Fresh herbs and garlic give it those beautiful Italian flavors you’d get from any Italian restaurant, but the sheer size of this behemoth and its generous amount of filling make it even better. You won’t believe how flavorful, cheesy, and filling this baby is. It’s a meal made for the hungriest calzone lovers.

Think you know calzones? Not until you try this superhero-sized pocket of goodness. There’s so much good stuff packed into that shell that you’ll be overwhelmed with excitement. Just take it one bite at a time.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Don’t like sausage and/or peppers? This is a very versatile recipe, so switch them out with whatever you like: pepperoni, broccoli, bacon, you name it. Or leave out the sausage and pepper and enjoy a three-cheese calzone.
  2. Watch this baby when it’s baking. The crust goes from done to burnt quickly.
  3. Fresh ingredients are a must. Don’t expect this to compare to restaurant-quality if you use dried herbs.
  4. This giant calzone easily feeds two, but double the recipe to make two behemoths and feed more mouths, if you like.DSC_1267

Super-Sized Sausage & Pepper Calzones
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • Store-bought pizza dough or your favorite recipe
  • 5 tbsp. butter
  • Marinara sauce, for dipping

For the filling

  • 1 lb. sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large red pepper, sliced into thin strips
  • ½ a yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 32-oz. container whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ½ cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp. fresh chopped oregano
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with nonstick spray OR place a pizza stone in the oven to preheat.
  2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, cook the sausage until browned. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to soak up excess grease. Meanwhile, in a small pan, bring olive oil to medium heat and cook peppers until tender and slightly browned.
  3. Place all the filling ingredients, including the sausage and peppers, in a large mixing bowl and stir together until thoroughly combined. Make sure all ingredients are evenly distributed.
  4. Flour a working surface and roll out dough into a circle as thin as you can make it without it tearing. Carefully transfer to baking sheet or preheated pizza stone and spread filling out on the top, leaving about 1 -2 inches around the edges plain. Use more or less filling depending on your preference, but you will want more than you think you do; it’s deceiving.
  5. Wrap the edges in aluminum foil, leaving only the center uncovered, and bake 20 – 30 minutes, or until set and starting to brown. Remove foil and bake for another 5 minutes, or until golden brown all around.
  6. Slice and enjoy. Serve with marinara sauce for dipping.

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Spinach-Artichoke Calzone

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It’s no secret that spinach artichoke dip is one of the most delicious dippable delicacies ever created. Why do you think almost every restaurant has it on their appetizer menus? We Americans gobble the gooey stuff up like it’s our job.

Side note: Another word that needs to be added to the dictionary – dippable.

I’ve got a sublime recipe for Spinach Artichoke Dip that I turn to time and time again. There is just no beating it; I haven’t even found a restaurant that can top it. However, as much as I love me some spinach artichoke dip, I would get sick of it if I ate dip day after day. Luckily, there’s a lot more one can do with the deliciousness of spinach-artichoke dip than serve it in a bowl with chips.

Take this giant, super-stuffed Spinach Artichoke Calzone for example. I get all the flavors and components I adore from my favorite dip in the form of a big, fat, hearty calzone. This baby looks innocent enough on the outside with its golden brown crust, but break in, and oodles of gooey, creamy cheesy filling flow out like lava from an overstuffed volcano. It’s a beautiful site.DSC_1108

The filling is good enough to eat on its own with three kinds of cheese, garlic, onion, spinach, tangy artichokes, and fresh herbs. It tastes just like heavenly spinach artichoke dip, but that ricotta gives it the signature calzone-filling taste and feel. Encased in a crisp crust, it’s like you get your favorite appetizer turned into a full-blown meal. And holy crow, this recipe yields one big, honkin’ calzone, enough for at least two people to stuff their tummies with. But you know what I say, go big or go home!

If you love spinach artichoke dip then you have simply got to try this calzone, no if, ands, or buts about it. Even if you don’t do much cooking, you still don’t have an excuse not to try this because all you have to do is mix some ingredients together in a bowl and stuff it inside store-bought dough. It doesn’t get much easier than that!

Don’t call the pizzeria tonight; this calzone is even better than anything you could get from a restaurant, I guarantee it!DSC_1170-2

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. If you want to use homemade dough, go for it!
  2. Fresh is key: fresh spinach, fresh garlic, fresh herbs. Using those good quality ingredients is what makes this calzone a step-up from what you’d get at a sub-par pizzeria, and it takes the calzone from good to amazing.
  3. If you want more spinach artichoke heaven, try my dip recipe, my Spinach Artichoke Veggie Burgers, or my Spinach Artichoke Nachos.
  4. You have GOT to watch this while cooking. Covering it in aluminum foil will keep it from burning, but once you remove the foil, it browns very quickly. DSC_1080

Spinach Artichoke Calzones
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • Store-bought pizza dough or your favorite recipe
  • Flour, for dusting
  • 5 tbsp. butter, melted
  • marinara sauce, for dipping

For the filling

  • 1 32-oz. container whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ½ cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup chopped yellow onion or 1 chopped shallot
  • 3 generous cups fresh spinach, stems removed
  • 1 can artichoke hearts, drained, rinsed and chopped into small chunks
  • 1 tbsp. fresh chopped oregano
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and brush with 2 tbsp. of the melted butter OR place a pizza stone in the oven to preheat.
  2. Place all the filling ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir together until thoroughly combined. Make sure all ingredients are evenly distributed.
  3. Flour a working surface and roll out dough into a circle as thin as you can make it without it tearing. Carefully transfer to baking sheet or preheated pizza stone and spread filling out on the top of half the calzone, leaving about 1 -2 inches at the edge plain. Use more or less filling depending on your preference, but you will want more than you think you do; it’s deceiving.
  4. Fold half the dough over top the filling like you’re making a pierogie or taco and pinch the edges together well. Brush remaining melted butter over top.
  5. Wrap the edges in aluminum foil, leaving only the center uncovered, and bake 20 – 30 minutes, or until set and starting to brown. A knife inserted in the center should feel hot when you pull it out. Remove foil and bake for another 5 minutes, or until golden brown all around.
  6. Slice and enjoy. Serve with marinara sauce for dipping.DSC_1141