lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

Baked Mac and Cheese

Is there anyone who doesn’t love mac and cheese? It’s a rare indulgence for me but when I succumb to the craving I admit that I can eat quite a bit of it in just one sitting. Butter, cheese, and pasta don’t exactly make for a low-calorie dish but it’s oh, so worth it once in a while. Since our weather here in Northern Illinois has been on the cool side for August, I took advantage and baked up a big dish of it this weekend.

I’ve played with a lot of variations over the years and have found I really love it with a combination of different cheeses. I’ve also found that adding a beaten egg adds a richness to it, as well as helping bind it together. I started adding the bay leaf after I saw Alton Brown use it and I really like the subtle flavor it adds. I add garlic and onion mostly because I love garlic and onion and again, they really help amp up the flavor. Totally optional.

I don’t usually put a topping on mine but you can top it with a mix of panko bread crumbs and melted butter if you prefer. You can also sprinkle it with or mix in some bacon or, heck, throw in some sliced hot dogs like you did when you were a kid. Browned ground beef, tomatoes, peppers, roasted chicken or pork…you can really add just about anything to it that your heart desires.

Like I always tell you, don’t be afraid to play with your food!

Mine is not a super creamy mac and cheese; it’s a little bolder with a little more flavor than some. Always use the best-quality cheese you can, as that’s how you’ll get the biggest flavor. Also, layering some shredded cheese on the top before baking yields soft chunks of melted cheese that become part of each serving. Yum.

lola rugula macaroni and cheese recipe

baked macaroni and cheese recipe

  • 1 lb. elbow macaroni (I prefer De Cecco, because their noodles seem to hold up better with the combo of boiling and baking)
  • 4 tablespoons butter (plus a little extra for buttering the baking dish)
  • 4 tablespoons flour (I use white whole wheat flour)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup finely chopped white onion
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon ground mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 egg, beaten in a small ramekin or bowl and set aside
  • 16 oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 6 oz.  shredded Gruyere cheese
  • 2 oz. aged white cheddar cheese
  • (Reserve 1 cup of the mixed cheeses for topping)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

Lightly butter a 9 x 13 baking dish and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350°

In a large stock pot, cook pasta just about 1-2 minutes shy of al dente, according to the package directions (De Cecco is only 5 minutes and I cook it for 4) and drain in a colander. Use a large spoon and toss it around to let some of the steam out.

In the same pot you cooked the pasta in, heat butter over medium heat until melted. Add flour and, using a whisk or fork, whisk together until well blended and smooth. Continue to stir occasionally for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and onion and whisk together well. Let cook about 5 more minutes, stirring often. I know it just looks like a clumpy mess right now, but you’re toasting out the “flour” flavor and starting to cook the garlic and onion in the meantime. You don’t want anything to burn or stick to the bottom of the pan, so stay vigilant.

Add the milk all at once and stir well, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as you do, incorporating everything together. Stir until there are no flour lumps.

Add the mustard, paprika and bay leaf and stir again.

Bring your entire mixture to a slow simmer and then stir every minute or two, being careful not to scald the mixture. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan often, to assure there’s nothing sticking to it. Continue doing so for about 15 minutes. By this point, you should be able to smell the garlic and onion cooking…perfect. You’ll also notice the sauce thickening up just a tad, which it should. It won’t be thick by any means but you’ll notice it gains a bit of “body” to it.

Now, take a tablespoon of your hot mixture and add it to the beaten egg that you’ve set aside in a dish. Stir well. Add another tablespoon and stir well again. Again. Again.

Add your tempered egg to the pot and stir well.

Add all EXCEPT 1 cup of cheese and the salt and pepper.

Continue to stir over a low heat until all the cheese has completely melted and your mixture is nice and creamy. Be careful not to get the mixture too hot.

When all the cheese has melted, stir in your cooked pasta.

Ladle the mac and cheese into the lightly buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cup of cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes.

Voila! Homemade mac and cheese is simply the best. You can also make this ahead if you want and refrigerate it for a day or two. Obviously, it will need to bake longer if you do so.

Here’s a shot prior to going in the oven. I like the extra shredded cheese on top because, as I mentioned earlier. then you get small chunks of cheese as you scoop it out and serve it.

lola rugula easy mac and cheese recipe

Also, I cook my pasta ahead instead of while I’m making the cheese sauce for 2 reasons:

  1. I don’t need to worry about the pasta cooking and having to drain it while I’m stirring my sauce
  2. I really hate making more dirty pans than is necessary. Who’s with me on this one?

Finally, if you are making this ahead and refrigerating it,  don’t add a panko and butter topping, until right before you bake the mac and cheese.

Do you have any other additions you love in your mac and cheese?

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

green garlic meatballs

One of my favorite spring garden treats is young, tender green garlic. I always pull up some of it to enjoy – I add it to rubs, sauces, salads and more. Green garlic has a more mild taste than mature garlic and can be used just like scallions in most dishes.

This past weekend I made a large batch of meatballs; some for dinner and the rest for the freezer. I love having meatballs in the freezer – they make a weeknight dinner of pasta or subs a much easier endeavor. And since there’s nothing I love more than garlicky meatballs, my homegrown green garlic make these meatballs extra delicious. I also added a couple of garlic cloves, for a super intense garlic flavor. Vampires, you’ve been warned.

So, if you grow garlic or see green garlic at the market and have wondered what to do with it, here’s a delicious idea.

lola rugula how to use green garlic

green garlic meatballs

  • 3 lbs. ground beef
  • 2 lbs. ground pork
  • 1 cup finely chopped green garlic
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs

In a large bowl, mix everything together well, but not over mixing or smashing everything together too much. I use my fingertips more than my whole hands to blend it all together because I find that over-mixing and mashing it all together makes a denser meatball than I prefer.

Preheat oven to 350

Brush a baking sheet with olive oil.

Begin rolling the meatballs and placing them on the prepared baking sheet. This recipe made about 80 golf ball sized meatballs, 40 meatballs per sheet. If you want them larger, increase the cooking time; smaller, decrease the time.

Bake meatballs for about 20 minutes, turn, and then bake another 20 or just until they start to brown.

lola rugula green garlic meatballs recipe

See that beautiful green garlic in those meatballs? It really adds a fresh garlic flavor to these and I think you’ll agree.

Don’t know what to do with green garlic? Now you do! Never be afraid to play with your food – the results are delicious. Enjoy!

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

linguine with shrimp, fresh tomatoes and basil

Hallelujah, spring is upon us!  Even though it’s hardly been a brutal winter here in Northern Illinois, I’m still excited for longer and warmer days. This weekend was a much-needed stay at home treat for me, as there’ve been many personal issues that have had me more stressed than usual. lately. I’m a big believer in taking time for yourself. Physical and mental rejuvenation is vital, not only for your own sense of well-being but for also having the strength and peace-of-mind to take care of those you love. Today was that day for me. My feel-good dish of the day was fresh pasta with garlicky shrimp and fresh tomatoes and basil.

lola rugula pasta with shrimp recipe

This recipe was mostly just inspired by 3 things:

  1. I was really craving shrimp
  2. I was really craving something healthy and fresh-tasting
  3. I had some Roma tomatoes that I really needed to use

Looking for a quick and easy weeknight (or even weekend, in my case) dinner with pasta and shrimp? This definitely fits the bill.

lola rugula linguine with shrimp and tomatoes

pasta with shrimp, garlic, fresh tomatoes and basil recipe

  • 9 oz. fresh linguine (I keep Buitoni pasta in the freezer when I don’t have homemade on hand)
  • 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (divided – you’ll use 2 Tbsp. for the shrimp and 2 Tbsp. for the sauce)
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped (divided – you’ll use half for the shrimp and half for the sauce)
  • 1 lb. raw jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 4 small sweet yellow sweet peppers, cut in half lengthwise, then thinly sliced
  • 5 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 4 scallions, sliced
  • 1 generous cup loosely-packed fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced. Retain a few fresh slices for serving, if desired.
  • Salt and pepper

Cook pasta according to package directions and drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water for sauce.

In the meantime, in a large skillet, over medium-high heat, heat half (2 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil. Add half of your chopped garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add shrimp and cook, stirring often, for about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and heat. Add remaining garlic and yellow peppers and cook about 3 minutes, stirring often. Add scallions and cook, continuing to stir, about 2 minutes. Add diced tomatoes and their juices, and stir well. Cook for about 7 minutes, until tomatoes start to release all of their juices. Pour over reserved shrimp.

Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to sauce pan and scrape well, loosening bits from the pan. Continue to cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 3-4 minutes.

Add drained pasta to pan and stir.

Add plate of shrimp and tomato sauce to pasta and toss well.

Add fresh basil, stir and remove from heat.

Serve immediately, with reserved basil.

Easy, right? This dish satisfied me today on many levels, with the fresh tomatoes and basil bringing in thoughts of spring when I needed it most.

Pasta is so versatile – you can toss it with a bit of olive oil and so many, many things. Carbs get a bad rap sometimes but when you pack your pasta dish full of veggies and protein, you really can’t lose. Toss in some fresh herbs and you really do have a beautiful, flavorful dish that everyone will love.

Happy spring everyone!

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

homemade gnocchi

I have a lot of fun making homemade pasta. It may not always look perfect but it’s always more delicious than the boxed, refrigerated or frozen stuff. That’s not to say I don’t ever cook with dried or refrigerated pasta, but it’s fun to play with making it fresh. Oh, and did I mention it’s always delicious?

I’ve been on a homemade gnocchi kick recently and my recipe creates fluffy pillows that have flavor all on their own. One of the keys to great homemade gnocchi is to not overwork the ingredients or dough. If you spend a lot of time smashing or kneading everything, you’ll take away the lightness that creates a light, fluffy gnocchi.

lola rugula easy homemade gnocchi recipe

Do you see how beautifully imperfect they are? Please don’t sweat the small stuff. The reason for the ridges in gnocchi are to help hold onto the sauce you put on them.  They don’t have to be perfect ridges or equal ridges…just make some ridges, pour some sauce over them and sit back and enjoy your talent at making homemade gnocchi.

This recipe makes 4-6 healthy servings – for me it makes enough for a dinner for 2 and an extra portion for freezing. How to freeze gnocchi? Easy! When you’re done rolling them, just lay them on a single layer on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and freeze for about 2 hours. Then toss them into a freezer-safe container or bag and freeze. To cook frozen gnocchi, just add to boiling water and let them all come to a slow boil for 3 minutes or so. No need to thaw or anything…it’s a beautiful thing!

A potato ricer, at least for me, is the key to making terrific gnocchi. It’s also good to rice the potatoes while they’re still hot, as this helps keep your gnocchi fluffy.

homemade gnocchi recipe

  • 3 lbs russet potatoes (about 6 medium)
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Scrub potatoes and place them in a large pan. Cover with cold water by a couple of inches and bring to a low boil. Cook, uncovered, for about 35-40 minutes, until the skins begin to split. Drain potatoes and let them cool just 5 minutes or so. Using a towel or paper towel to hold them, quickly but carefully peel them. One by one, place the potatoes (cut them in half if needed) into a potato ricer and rice onto a clean, dry surface. Let the riced potatoes cool completely, at least 1/2 hour.

In the meantime, beat the egg, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a small bowl. Set aside.

When the potatoes are cool, sprinkle them with the parmesan. Bring everything together to form a “mountain” of potatoes and cheese. Form a well in the middle and add the egg mixture. Using your fingers to lift everything up from the bottom, gently mix everything together. 1 3/4 cups of the flour and gently mix

Sprinkle the mixture with 1 3/4 cups of the flour and gently mix it all together and form into a ball. Gently roll the ball into a long tube and slice into  8 equal sections.

lola rugula how to make homemade gnocchi recipe

Dust your work surface with some of the remaining flour and, using your hands, roll a section into about a 1/2 rope of pasta. Using a knife or pastry cutter, slice the rope into 1 inch pieces.

Laying a 1 inch piece of dough in one hand and holding a fork in the other, use the fork to gently roll indentions into the piece of dough. You may find it easier to dip the fork in flour first. Don’t make yourself crazy making perfect indentions…as you can see by the first photo, I don’t get too worked up about it and they still come out pretty good. My husband, who has Sicilian roots, is naturally a pro at gnocchi rolling, so I enlist him whenever I can. You can also buy gnocchi rolling boards to make this process even easier.

Repeat these steps with each section and piece, until done.

lola rugula homemade gnocchi recipe

To cook your gnocchi, bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, add the gnocchi and let them float to the surface. Continue to boil for about 2 minutes. Drain the gnocchi and serve immediately with your choice of toppings.

We have 2 favorite ways of enjoying our gnocchi – with my homemade fresh tomato sauce or with just butter, freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.

lola rugula how to make homemade gnocchi

My gnocchi may never be perfect but it’s perfectly light and delicious. If you do freeze some of it, it’s best to use it within a month or so – I find that freezing fresh pasta for any longer than that can significantly deteriorate the quality of it.

Well, are you ready to roll some fresh gnocchi? I hope so! If you have any questions or comments, be sure and let me know. Remember to never, ever be afraid to play with your food. Happy pasta making, everyone!

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

orecchiette with pancetta and asparagus

Oh, pasta how I love thee. When I followed a vegetarian diet for a few years, I really learned how to have fun with pasta and man, I ate a lot of it. These days, I’m back to eating meat but my love for the versatility of pasta has carried through. I learned you can really toss pasta with almost anything – especially vegetables – and make a healthy, satisfying meal. Of course, adding a bit of sausage, pancetta or bacon never hurts but none of them are necessary to make a delicious pasta dish.

That being said, this recipe contains pancetta. Just sayin’.

orecchiette pasta with pancetta and asparagus recipe

orecchiette with pancetta and asparagus

  • 1 lb. dried orecchiette pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 oz. pancetta
  • 1/2 medium onion, cut through the root end and sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 1/2 lbs. asparagus, trimmed of tough root ends and sliced into 1-2 inch pieces
  • 8 sweet mini peppers, sliced
  • 6-8 leaves fresh basil, chopped
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup reserved pasta water
  • Parmigiano Reggiano

Cook pasta al dente, according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

While the pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook for at least 5 minutes or until fat begins to melt and brown. Add onions and garlic and continue cooking for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. Be careful to not burn the garlic.

Add asparagus and peppers and continue cooking, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Veggies should still be brightly colored and still have a touch of bite to them.

Add reserved pasta water and stir well. Toss immediately with hot pasta and serve with chopped basil, a bit of freshly ground black pepper and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

easy orecchiette with pancetta and asparagus recipe

If you like your veggies softer, you can cook a bit longer or blanch them first in the pasta water, before adding them to the pan.

orecchiette with pancetta and asparagus recipe

Of course, a lot of veggies will work with this, so take your pick.

If you enjoy pasta like I do, you should also try my pasta with cooked fresh tomato sauce, my fresh no-cook tomato sauce, my lemon pasta with asparagus and sea scallops, or my lemon spaghetti with broccolini and shrimp, to name just a few!

Mangia!

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

Drunken Round Steak

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m on a real comfort food kick lately and this weekend was no exception. We’re getting bombarded with snow right now, so what better way to spend time inside than cooking up a warm and comforting dish of round steak and noodles?

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with round steak but since it was part of the side of beef we recently purchased, I have a few of them on hand that I need to get creative with.  Braising is perfect for it, but I wanted to change it up and make something I could serve with noodles or rice. I trimmed the beef and sliced it, and then tossed it in some flour before browning it. Then I threw in some garlic, onion, mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers and then some beer (hence the “drunken” part of this recipe) to make a gravy. After about an hour-long simmer, the results were delicious. This is an amped-up recipe version of beef tips with noodles and it’s packed with heartiness and flavor.

It may not make for the prettiest of photos, but sometimes flavor trumps food porn.

lola rugula beef tips and noodles recipe

round steak with peppers, mushrooms and onions over noodles recipe

  • 1 1/2 – 2 lbs. round steak, trimmed of bone and fat and cut into 1-2 inch strips (save those extra parts for beef broth!)
  • salt and pepper for seasoning steak, plus extra if needed
  • 1 1/2 cups flour (I used unbleached whole wheat)
  • 1/4 cup oil (I used a non-GMO sunflower oil but most types of oil will work here)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped (don’t mince it – you want it chunky so it doesn’t burn)
  • 1 medium onion, cut in half at the root end and sliced
  • 1-2 bell peppers, preferably red, orange or yellow, sliced
  • 8 large mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 bottle of beer or 1 /1/2 cups stock
  • 1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 lb. cooked pasta or egg noodles (I used Buitoni fresh linguine)
  • 2 tablespoons butter (optional)

Season beef strips with about a teaspoon each of kosher salt and black pepper. Toss in flour to coat.

Cook pasta and drain. Return to pan and add butter. Toss well and cover until ready to use.

Heat oil n a large, deep-sided skillet. Add beef strips in 2 portions and brown well. Set beef aside and add the garlic, onion, peppers, and mushrooms to the pan. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Add half of the beer or stock and stir well, scraping up all of the crispy bits on the bottom of the pan. Return the beef to the pan, add the red pepper flakes (if adding) and  the remaining beer or stock. Stir well. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour or until the beef is incredibly tender, stirring a couple of times during cooking time. Taste and season with more salt and/or pepper, if needed. Pour beef mixture over buttered noodles and serve immediately.

lola rugula round steak recipe with onions and peppers

Notes: As mentioned, you do not have to use beer here – stock will work just as well. You could use chicken stock for a lighter flavor or beef stock for a beefier flavor; even vegetable stock would work. Also, the butter adds a beautiful richness to this but can certainly be omitted.  When I make comfort food, I go all in, but you can modify as needed.

I will warn you that after initially cooking the beef, it will look like one big hot mess in your pan, but don’t despair…once you add the beer or stock and scrape and stir it all together, your gravy will form. If you prefer more gravy, you can add more beer or stock accordingly.

Noodles or rice? Totally your preference. I happen to prefer noodles but it’s your call.

Also, don’t be afraid to try other veggies in this – broccoli, leeks and greens would all be great substitutions or additions, depending on your taste.

Happy snow days everyone!