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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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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Italian Bean (& Bacon) Soup

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My father is a diehard carnivore. If there’s no meat, he ain’t interested. That’s all fine and dandy, but being a vegetarian, I run into issues when I’m the one making dinner. My mother’s perfectly okay with not having meat in the meal, but my dad…not so much. So I often wind up working my cooking nights around when I know he’ll be out for dinner, or I just cook as I please and my mother might make some form of meat to go with what I cook.

Sometimes though, I can figure out a way to make a dish so that it suits me and my meat-eating father. Take this Italian Bean and Bacon Soup for example. I know; you’re thinking that soup can’t be suitable for me when it’s got bacon. But lucky for me, the bacon is a completely optional addition. So, my dad can have his meat-tastic soup, and I can have mine meat-free. Everyone’s happy!

We can even please my healthy-eating mother because this hearty soup is good for you too. Enjoy a whole heaping cup for about 100 calories! I know; this soup is blowing your mind today. But can something that light in calories be heavy in flavor and heartiness too? You bet your bacon, it can!

How’s that possible? We use filling, nutritious ingredients that are rich in flavor like carrots, celery, and Swiss chard. Then, we really bulk things up with beans, the king of protein, and a little bit of barely too. Plus, if you’re a meat freak like my dad, you can have that crispy bacon for even more protein power. I know you meat eaters like your bacon, and understandably so. It’s a great addition to a great soup.

With or without the bacon, you can get cozy with a bowl of this savory steaming soup. It’s comforting, filling, and crowd-pleasing. When a meal is something both me and my father will eat, you know you’ve got something good.DSC_0308

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. I had trouble finding Swiss chard, but you can switch it out for kale instead.
  2. My father accidentally discovered that brown rice is a great addition to the soup when he mistakenly ate the rice I made for veggie burgers, thinking it was for the soup.
  3. A little bit of grated parmesan would be lovely on top.
  4. Soup is a great weeknight meal because it’s easy and feeds an army.
  5. If you don’t use fresh herbs, you’re a darn fool. Your foods will constantly be mediocre if you only use dried stuff.
  6. If you’re making this with the Great Northern beans, you must soak the beans overnight so PLAN AHEAD.

Italian Bean (and Bacon) Soup
Slightly adapted from Eat More of What You Love

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¼ cups cannellini beans, drained & rinsed
  • Optional: 2 slices centercut bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 large garlic cloves, peeled & finely chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled & sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 2 medium celery stalks, sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 4 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • ½ cup pearl barley
  • 4 sprigs fresh rosemary, plus 1 tsp. chopped rosemary, divided
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • 8 cups stemmed Swiss chard leaves or kale

Directions:

  1. If using bacon: In a small skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat, stirring often until brown and crisp, about 6 minutes.
  2. Pour everything but the bacon plus 2 1/2 cups water into a large pot over medium-low heat.  Cover and let simmer until beans are tender and greens are wilted, about 1 hour.
  3. Remove rosemary sprigs. Add bacon and enjoy.

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General Tso’s Chickpea Patties

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Ironically, you probably think it’s unamerican that I don’t like Chinese take-out or Asian food in general. I’m not talking authentic stuff; I’ve never had that. I’m talking chain restaurants and sushi joints that churn out the Americanized versions of Asian cuisine.

It seems like everybody I know loves some good sushi or Chinese in a little white take-out box. But as for me, if I’m getting take-out, I’d much prefer pizza or a big fat pile of cheese fries.

So imagine my surprise when my mother made a lightened version of General Tso’s Chicken last week from the cookbook Eat More of What You Love, and it smelled intoxicatingly good to my nostrils. I couldn’t believe a dish I would normally turn my nose up at was now enticing me, but I could not ignore the urges. Unfortunately, I couldn’t try any actual chicken, being vegetarian and all, but I did sample some of the broccoli coated in flavorful sauce.

Dang, was that stuff good! It didn’t taste light at all; in fact, it tasted and smelled like it was straight out of a restaurant.

Immediately, I felt compelled to develop a vegetarian-friendly version, but when I suggested the idea to Mother Cookie, she replied, “How do you make a vegetarian version of General Tso’s CHICKEN?” Okay, so that was a roadblock, but a small one indeed. I played around with protein-replacements for the chicken, and then it hit me: little protein-packed patties made with chickpeas, brown rice, scallions, water chestnuts, and more good stuff.

I never thought I’d find a Chinese take-out-inspired meal so delicious, but General Tso’s Chickpea Patties proved me wrong. It is so flavorful and filling, plus the tantalizing smell while it’s cooking will convince you that you’re sitting and waiting for dinner at your favorite Chinese restaurant. The best part is that it’s light, low-calorie, and good for you, something you will not believe when you taste it. Don’t tell whoever you’re feeding this to that it’s healthy. I swear to ganache they’ll never know.

Loaded with tender, fresh broccoli and covered in a complex, sweet and savory sauce, this meal will make you slap somebody out of excitement. And those chickpea burgers are even better than chicken. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m a vegetarian. They’re hearty, golden brown, and delectable, plus they’re perfectly complimented by the sauce.

This is a meal you can’t miss. Put down the take-out menu, put away your fat pants, and get in the kitchen.DSC_0030

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. If you’ve just got to have this dish with chicken, you can find the original recipe in Eat More of What You Love.
  2. This dish comfortably serves 2 or 3, so if you’re looking to feed more, you can easily double it.
  3. The chickpea patties in this are versatile. You can make them on their own, add some cheese, and gobble ‘em up!
  4. There’s a lot of directions here, but this is actually an easy recipe you can make quickly.

General Tso’s Chickpea Patties
Adapted from Eat More of What You Love

Yield – 2-3 servings
Ingredients:

For the Patties

  • 1 15.5-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 8-oz. can water chestnuts, drained and rinsed
  • ¼ cup Egg Beaters
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. onion powder
  • 3 tbsp. chopped fresh scallions

For the sauce and broccoli

  • 3 cups broccoli small florets
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 6 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 6 packets no-calorie Sweetener (I used Splenda)
  • 1 ½ tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 ½ tsp. ketchup
  • ½ tsp. red pepper flakes
  • ½ cup sliced onion

Directions:

  1. Place the broccoli in a microwave safe bowl. Add ¼ cup water then cover and cook in microwave on high for 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  2. Place chickpeas and water chestnuts in a food processor. Pulse until they are finely chopped, but still textured.
  3. Pour chickpea mixture into a large mixing bowl. Add all the other patty ingredients and mix well until everything is evenly distributed and well-combined. It will be pretty wet and goopy, but if you think it’s too much so, add a tablespoon more of flour.
  4. Bring a large skillet to medium-low heat and spray with nonstick spray. Use an ice cream scoop to scoop out a ball of the chickpea patty mixture (it should be about a ¼ cup’s worth) and drop it only the skillet. It should sizzle (if not, wait a few minutes before adding more). Push the ball down slightly with the back of a spatula so it flattens out to the size and thickness of a slider.
  5. Let cook on each side until golden brown, about 4 patties at a time, flipping in between. Transfer to a plate and cover with tinfoil to keep them warm.
  6. While the patties cook, start on the sauce. Bring a large skillet or wok to medium heat and spray with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk together all sauce ingredients (minus the broccoli) in a medium bowl. Pour the sauce into skillet and let cook until thickened and clear, whisking every now and then. Ladle about a quarter of the sauce out and into a separate bowl.
  7.  Fold in the broccoli until evenly coated then let cook until broccoli is hot and tender, another two minutes. Place the chickpea patties on top and drizzle with remaining sauce. Serve immediately.

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Extra Creamy 4-Cheese Stovetop Mac & Cheese

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There’s nothing more disappointing than a dry mac and cheese. On the list of Life’s Most Devastating Disappointments, dry mac is right up there with when the pizza you ordered doesn’t have enough cheese or getting a half-filled container of fries from the drive-thru. It’s like you were robbed of what you longed for and deserved.

In theory, pasta and cheese should always be a winning combination, but it’s not that simple. If the sauce is dry and crumbly, then all you’ve got is a flavorless pile of clumpy mush, and that ain’t appetizing.

I learned a long time ago that the best way to avoid Chronic Dry Mac & Cheese Disappointment Syndrome (CDMCD Syndrome) is to stop trusting restaurants’ macs or other people’s recipes. Occasionally, I find a good mac, but it’s not worth the 9 out of 10 times I don’t.

I specifically designed this Extra Creamy 4-Cheese Stovetop Mac & Cheese to be have a high sauce-to-pasta ratio, yielding a sea of super creamy, rich cheese sauce. I guarantee you’ve never had a mac this luscious in your life.DSC_9633

Here are the secrets to super sauciness: Firstly, I used an epic quantity of four kinds of cheese, each one specifically selected for its creamy meltibility (with the exception of the parmesan, which I chose for its strong flavor). Sharp cheddar is a must-have in a classic mac. Then we’ve got super smooth and soft Muenster and slightly tangy, crazy melty Monterey Jack. The complimentary quartet of cheese is then complimented by a secret ingredient: hot sauce. It doesn’t make it spicy; just a tiny touch adds a hint of something special to each bite.

My second secret to sauciness is making a slightly larger quantity of sauce than most mac and cheese recipes yield, so you get more creamy cheesiness for every noodle. I also used just a bit less than the whole box of noodles, unlike most recipes, so you again get more sauce per noodle.

The final secret is making the mac and cheese stovetop. Oven-baking is a common offender in drying out sauces or making them curdle, so we keep our sauce nice and velvety smooth on the stove. Best of all, this is a MAJOR time-saver, so you can have this indulgent, heavenly mac on the table in 30 minutes or less.

End result? Crazy creamy and gooey mac and cheese like you’ve only dreamed of, loaded with cheese and bursting with the perfect medley of flavors.

Dry mac and cheese? Psh. Yeah right. DSC_9705

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Never made mac and cheese from scratch before? This recipe’s a great place to start.
  2. Get a visual on building the roux for the sauce with this quick video.
  3. You can switch out cheeses, but try to pick ones with good meltibility.
  4. Choose whatever pasta shape you like, but I highly recommend sticking to multigrain and whole wheat pastas. They have a more al dente texture, more protein and fiber, and personally, I think they taste better.
  5. Still want the breadcrumb topping you get with a baked mac and cheese? Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a small skillet. Stir in 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs and cook until toasted and brown. Sprinkle over the top of the mac!
  6. Need more awesome mac and cheeses? Try these:
  7. You’ll be surprised how much more delicious mac and cheese is when you don’t overcook pasta. People think you can boil it forever, but limp, mushy pasta is no good. Stop cooking when it has just a teeny bit of bite left in it; this is called al dente.DSC_9614

Extra Creamy 4-Cheese Stovetop Mac & Cheese
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • About 12 oz. cavatappi or elbow pasta (use ¾ of a 16-oz. box, it doesn’t have to be exact)
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 4 tsp. all-purpose flour
  • 3 – 4 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
  • 2 cups shredded Muenster cheese
  • 1 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. hot sauce

Directions:

  1. In a large pot of salted boiling water over high heat, cook the pasta according to box directions. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until translucent and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the flour so that it’s free of lumps and let cook for one minute, continuing to whisk.
  3. Whisk in 3 cups cream and all the milk until free of lumps. Cover and let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Do not boil.
  4. Once sauce is thickened, whisk in all the cheeses, salt, and hot sauce until cheese is melted and sauce is smooth. Test taste to decide if you’d like any more cheese. If sauce is too thick for your liking, whisk in more cream, ¼ cup at a time.
  5. Turn off heat and immediately fold in pasta until well-coated. Serve immediately.DSC_9638