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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Stovetop 3-Cheese Brussels Sprout Mac & Cheese

When your kitchen is plagued with what Mother Cookie has coined “The Baby Barbie Oven,” cooking big meals can be a tricky task. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas in particular, we battle with how to cook the myriad of side dishes we decided would be a good idea to make. Even though we know we’ll never have enough room, there’s just too much good food we want to try to let our oven size limit our menu.

This past Thanksgiving, my mother and I planned ahead to try and avoid the annual oven fiasco. I decided what absolutely needed to be baked, and what could be done stovetop. I have always, always baked my mac & cheeses in the past, but I thought, why not just do it stovetop? Too often I’ve made what seems like the perfect saucy mac & cheese over the stove, only to transfer it to the oven to bake up golden brown and find that it has dried out too much inside.  But if I serve it straight from the pot, there’s no fear of a dry mac.

Stovetop cooking was the perfect method for my 3-Cheese Brussels Sprout Mac & Cheese. I made my creamiest mac ever with three decadent cheeses: Fontina, the queen of meltiness, sharp white cheddar, strong and robust, and my secret weapon: mascarpone, for one seriously indulgent and smooth sauce. The three in combination are the ultimate trio of cheeses, yielding a crazy creamy and cheesy sauce to submerge adorable bow tie pasta and fresh brussels sprouts in.

You’ve never had a sauce quite so creamy and rich. It’s divine, pure pasta heaven. Because we don’t bake it, there’s no fear it’ll dry up, or that there won’t be a good pasta-to-sauce ratio. There’s plenty of molten cheese to go around! And if you don’t like brussels sprouts, then don’t fear. I guarantee any sprout hater will change their tune when the sprouts are drowned in a decadent, garlicky 3-cheese sauce.

Even though this 5-star mac tastes fancy and supreme, you can have it to the table in under 30 minutes, whereas a baked mac and cheese could take over an hour. But you won’t know the difference; in fact, this is creamier than and just as flavorful as a baked mac.

You have no excuse not to make this cheese-covered dream. It’s quick, easy, and so very decadent.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. If you’re really completely 100% against brussels sprouts, just leave them out.
  2. Bacon would be a fantastic addition to this dish.
  3. Whole wheat or whole grain pasta is the way to go!
  4. Never made a roux? It’s just a fancy word for a stupidly simple step. Check out my how-to video if you don’t believe me!
  5. For a more Italian flavor, replace the white cheddar with parmesan cheese.
  6. Make sure you don’t over cook your brussels sprouts. Nobody likes soggy sprouts!

Stovetop 3-Cheese Brussels Sprout Mac & Cheese
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. farfalle (bow tie) pasta, or another short-cut pasta like shells or cavatappi
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup shredded white cheddar cheese
  • 8 oz. (1 cup) shredded fontina cheese
  • 4 oz. (1/2 cup) mascarpone cheese, room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 2 cups fresh brussels sprouts, cooked & drained

Directions:

  1. In a large pot of salted boiling water over high heat, cook the pasta according to box directions until al dente. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add shallots and garlic and saute until translucent and aromatic, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the flour and let cook for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in milk until free of lumps then cover and let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
  3. Whisk in all the cheeses, salt, and pepper until smooth and melted. Taste test to decide if you’d like more cheese. If sauce is too thick for your liking, add more milk 1/4 cup at a time. Fold in brussel sprouts followed by pasta until well-coated. Serve immediately.

David’s Ultimate Mac & Cheese

Thanks to Mother Cookie, I recently discovered the wonderfully delicious world of “In the Kitchen with David,” a segment that airs on QVC on Sundays at 12pm and Wednesdays at 8pm. It features an assortment of kitchen appliances, culinary gadgets, and everything else food-related you can imagine. It’s a foodie’s fun house, one that never fails to enchant me with all the culinary wonders. And then there’s the host, David Venable.

David is the definition of a foodie. Look up “foodie” in the dictionary, and there he’ll be, with his contagious grin spreading ear to ear as he dangles a forkful of his Ultimate Mac & Cheese just out of your reach. David towers at a staggering six-feet-tall, but he’s really just a big goofy teddy bear. He’ll have you smiling in no time with his famous happy dance and one-of-a-kind lines (ex: “It’ll make your tongue fly out of your mouth and hit you in the back of your head!”).

But David’s not just a jolly TV show host; That man loves food, and he knows a thing or two about it. If you don’t believe me, check out his cookbook In the Kitchen with David: Comfort Food that Takes You Home. It’s overflowing with delicious down-home recipes, all of which are perfect for the at-home cook. David himself is a home cook; he’s not pretentious or fancy-shmancy. He just likes to make food that tastes good.

There was no doubt in my mind that the first thing I had to try from of David’s cookbook was his Ultimate Mac & Cheese. Sweet baby Jesus, if you had just seen the photo next to the recipe, that was reason enough alone. But I was also enticed by the five kinds of cheeses. The more, the merrier! That’s the golden rule of mac & cheese.

By now, I must’ve tried at least a hundred mac & cheese recipes. To stand out, David was going to have to bring something spectacular to the dinner table. As expected from a fellow food-loving fool, David definitely did just that. His Ultimate Mac & Cheese is easily the creamiest and cheesiest of them all. It didn’t dry out while baking or suffer a critically uneven sauce-to-pasta ratio like most baked mac & cheeses do. On the contrary, this was overloaded with so much ooey, gooey, creamy cheesy sauce that my mind exploded from cheese-induced euphoria. Alas, my need for cheese has been satisfied!

Step aside, pasta. There’s a new star in town, and its name is 5-Cheese.

David’s Mac, besides being the product of my golden brown, cheese covered dreams, is also wonderfully flavorful. There’s no gimmick like brown butter or truffle oil made by unicorns; this is down-home, rich and gooey mac & cheese made with all the right ingredients. It’s the epitome of comfort food. Not to mention, it would make a perfect addition to your Thanksgiving table.

David, I’m definitely doing a happy dance.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Over-baking is the easiest way to dry out a mac, so make sure you pull it as soon as it’s warm in the middle.
  2. Don’t like David’s cheese choices? Sub in one of your own instead.
  3. Breadcrumbs are optional. They weren’t in David’s original recipe; I just felt the need for a golden brown bed of crunchtasticness (sometimes, I make up words).
  4. For those of you intimidated by roux-making, this is the mac for you. No roux required!
  5. This is a very rich mac & cheese. Don’t complain, just enjoy. Indulging every once and a while is okay!

David’s Ultimate Mac & Cheese
Adapted from “In the Kitchen with David: Comfort Foods That Take You Home”

Yield – 6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 3/4 lb. cavatappi or penne
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 1/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack
  • 8 oz. Velveeta, cubed
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
  • 3 tbsp. butter, melted

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 4-quart casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt and the pasta and cook until al dente (tender but still firm). Drain and set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, heat half-and-half in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Just before it starts to boil, remove from heat.
  4. Whisk the eggs in a bowl, then whisk in 2 cups of the half-and-half (this will keep the eggs from scrambling). Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan and whisk to combine.
  5. Whisk in 1 1/2 cups cheddar, all the mozzarella, 1 cup of Monterey Jack, Velveeta, and parmesan. Add the milk. Put back over medium-low heat and whisk gently until completely smooth. Whisk in garlic powder, onion powder, and remaining 1 tsp. salt and pepper. Do not let boil.
  6. Fold in pasta then pour into baking dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top. Stir together breadcrumbs and melted butter then sprinkle over pasta. Let bake for 20 – 30 minutes or until golden brown, bubbling, and hot in the center. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.


Pumpkin Alfredo Tortellini

Dinners as a kid were simple. I didn’t spend the entire day pondering what I was going to make, nor did I have to cook it. I merely sauntered into the kitchen, settled down at the table, and Mother Cookie laid out a hot meal made with love. There was no decision-making to be done, no arguing over what would be served; whatever my mom made, we ate.

I have to confess, I wasn’t any less of an obnoxiously picky eater as a child than I am now, so I wasn’t always thrilled with what was put in front of me (my distaste for meat had already begun as a kid). Looking back, I was just damn lucky to have a home-cooked meal on the table every single night, a blessing that was as reliable for me as the sun rising in the morning. Not many people can say the same about their childhood. If I could tell my younger-self one thing, it’d be: Shut up and eat what your mother made. Not everyone gets a homecooked dinner, or dinner at all for that matter. Plus, in 10 years or so, you’ll have to watch what you put in your mouth and work out every day. Enjoy your metabolism, lil’ me.

One of Mother Cookie’s meals that I’d never complain about was her fettuccine Alfredo. It was a simple meal, good old fettucine doused in a 3-ingredient parmesan sauce. To me, it was the most delicious thing on the planet. On rare occasions, if weren’t having an actual sit-down dinner, I’d bashfully request she make a special serving of her Alfredo just for me. And when she said yes, I’d be as gleeful as a kid on Christmas morning. I believe that has a lot to do with why I still to this day love fettuccine Alfredo. It will always hold a spot in my top five favorite foods.

As I’ve found my own way in the kitchen, I’ve played around with original Fettuccine Alfredo recipes, learning from that 3-ingredient recipe my mother made. I’ve made Classic Fettuccine Alfredo, Roasted Garlic Fettucine Alfredo, and even a Copycat Olive Garden Fettuccine Alfredo. I’m always welcome to a new way to enjoy one of my favorite dishes. And when I came across a recipe for Pumpkin Alfredo Tortellini in Food Network Magazine, I lost my marbles, yelped with excitement, then kicked myself for not thinking of it first.

This is my two favorite things ever in one meal: Alfredo plus pumpkin! Are you as ecstatic as I am? Please say you are. This is arecipe for heaven. They must have the angel-chefs in the sky writing for Food Network. Now, I did had to make some alterations. The original sauce didn’t yield enough sauce, wasn’t very pumpkiny, and barely had any cheese. Don’t worry; I fixed all of that!

This sauce is good enough to eat like soup. It has the absolute perfect not-too-thick, not-too-thin consistency. It’s like liquid velvet. You get the familiar cheesy tanginess of a classic Alfredo, plus that flavorful pumpkin boost which makes it taste just like fall. Shallots add an extra little kick of flavor, and tender cheese-filled tortellini make for an indulgent and filling meal.

This is definitely going on top of my favorite fall foods list. If you love pumpkin, alfredo, or both, then you need this Pumpkin Alfredo Tortellini in your life asap!

I served this meal to Mother Cookie. It’s the least I can do after all the bowls of fettuccine Alfredo she made me.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Got kids who don’t like pumpkin? They may change their minds after trying this cheesy and rich pasta dish!
  2. You don’t have to use tortellini; any pasta will do.
  3. If you really want to get fancy, try homemade tortellini.
  4. Garnish with fresh sage for an extra kiss of fall flavor.
  5. Whole-grain/whole-wheat pasta is always the way to go.

Pumpkin Alfredo Tortellini
Inspired by Food Network Magazine

Ingredients:

  • 2 10-oz. packaged cheese tortellini
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 small shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup canned pure pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • chopped fresh sage, for garnish

Directions:

  1. In a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, cook the tortellini according to package directions. They should be al dente, meaning they still have just a bit of bite. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, make the sauce. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook until translucent and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the pumpkin and saute for one minute. Whisk in the heavy cream and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Whisk in the cheese and pepper, continuing to whisk until completely melted. Remove from heat. Plate tortellini and pour sauce over top. Serve immediately.

Nacho Mac & Cheese


Mac & cheese is one of what I consider to be my “ultimate weaknesses,” along with french fries, pizza, and basically any dessert. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t resist a good mac. It’s not one of those situations where I can just be like, “Oh, I’ll just eat a little bit.” No, if I’m going to eat mac and cheese, then you can bet your sticky buns that I’ll eat enough of it to feed an entire fleet of hungry vikings.

Achieving what is deemed as “good” mac and cheese, one that’s worth filling all six of my stomachs with, is easier said than done. Actually, scratch that. I’ve made a multitude of magnificent macs, none of which were that complicated. However, it seems other people really struggle with the concept. Finding a good mac an cheese at a restaurant, for example, can be downright impossible. Some are watery and flavorless, others dry as a bone. A good mac should be just the opposite.

This Nacho Mac & Cheese is exemplary of everything good macs represent. I tweaked my go-to mac & cheese base to be extra saucy and beyond creamy, every noodle crevice coated in cheesy, flavorful heaven. It’s mac & cheese perfection, taken to the next level with a nacho twist.

This mac has every component and every flavor characteristic of nachos, fused into its creamy pasta goodness. The sauce is made with sharp cheddar & Monterey Jack, two ideal nacho cheeses. Then, we crank up the heat with Rotel, chunky diced tomatoes and spicy chiles, giving the sauce a queso-like flavor. It really tastes like nacho sauce, only much better because it’s homemade and there’s no gross artificial ingredients. The icing on the cake is an extra blanket of gooey cheese and a layer of crispy-crunchy tortilla chips. The chips take the place of a traditional breadcrumb topping, making this really feel like a mac-nacho hybrid. It’s almost freaky how well both foods are represented. Freaky…but unbelievably delicious and comforting.

This Nacho Mac & Cheese has no shortage of rich, cheesy sauce, and it sure as sugar ain’t lacking in the flavor department. If you’re ready to spice up a world of blah mac and cheeses, this is the dish that will do it. It may be my favorite mac & cheese I’ve made to date!

Who said you can’t make a meal out of nachos?

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. If you want extra kick, switch out the Monterey Jack for pepper jack.
  2. Use whole-grain or whole-wheat noodles. They’re heartier & better for you!
  3. Make sure you only boil the pasta until al dente, meaning it still has a bit of bite left in it, because it will continue to cook when you bake it.
  4. Don’t over-bake! You’ll dry your mac right out.
  5. This makes a big pan of mac & cheese, so you can serve a lot of cheese lovers!

Nacho Mac & Cheese
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. rotini or shell pasta, preferably whole wheat or whole grain
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 a medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup cheesy taco seasoning, or 3 tbsp. regular taco seasoning
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, plus 1 cup more for topping
  • 1 cup shredded sharp Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 cans Rotel Original Diced Tomatoes & Green Chiles, drained
  • 2 cups chopped tortilla chips

Directions:

  1. In a large pot of boiling salted water over medium heat, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray set aside.
  3. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter. Add the onions and saute until fragrant and translucent, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the flour and taco seasoning until free of lumps. Let cook, continuing to whisk, for another minute. Whisk in the milk and cream until completely free of lumps. Cover and let simmer until thickened, 10-15 minutes. Whisk in the cheeses until completely melted. Remove from heat and turn off stove. Stir in the salt and Rotel until well-combined.
  4. Transfer cooked pasta back to large pot. If you want your pasta extra saucy, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta. Pour the sauce into the pot with the pasta and stir until well-coated. Pour into baking dish and top with remaining 1 cup cheddar and tortilla chips. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until hot, golden brown, and bubbly. If chips brown too much, cover with aluminum foil until finished. Make sure you pull the mac as soon as a knife inserted in the center comes out hot to the touch. If you over-bake it, it will dry out.
  5. Let sit for 2 minutes then enjoy!