Friday, April 22

One Victory, One Attempt

As I was going through the vegetarian cookbooks I checked out from the library, I came across this recipe which I thought sounded amazing. There was a brief story featured regarding the recipe. It comes from a restaurant (Green), that’s owned by a mom and son in San Antonio, Texas. This happens to be a well known meal at the restaurant. Reading the ingredients which consist of sweet potatoes, cinnamon, and nutmeg, I thought this would be a perfect Fall recipe. Since we live in Michigan and it’s cold even in April, I decided now would be as good of a time as any to try this dish.

I have never made gnocchi. I never even tried gnocchi until this past year when Ryan and I were vacationing in the U.P. and ate at a small family owned Italian restaurant. I ordered the gnocchi as I’ve always wanted to try it. It was very tasty. I had traditional gnocchi, which is why when I saw this recipe for sweet potato gnocchi I thought it sounded pretty interesting. If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen gnocchi served and thought that would be very hard to make. Technically it’s not that hard. 

By technically I mean that if you read the full recipe, the steps really aren’t hard to follow and there aren’t many ingredients. I thought I’d be golden in reproducing this dish. WRONG. I started the day before I cooked the gnocchi by preparing the dough and making the homemade marinara sauce. I have to say the original recipe does not include a lot of detail. I didn’t realize this until I started cooking. Lesson learned. With the lack of detail I had to look a few things up online as I was cooking. How long should I boil the sweet potatoes for before they’re cooked? How long should the marinara sauce simmer for? I know you’re thinking well you just simmer the sauce until it’s warm, however I’ve made sauces in the past where you assemble the sauce at least a day ahead of time so that the flavors really have time to be fully absorbed.

While searching online I learned that the potatoes should boil for about 30 minutes. I was not expecting this to take that long. That’s why when you make gnocchi, it’s wise to start the day before and save yourself some time on the actual cooking day. After the potatoes were cooked I followed the instructions and mashed them with the spices. Pretty easy. Then I added ‘about 11 ounces of flour’ as the recipe states. I’ve made plenty of dough to know that this dough was too sticky to roll with a rolling pin. I then added another cup of flour. I thought it was working as the dough seemed to gain a little bit of consistency, but after it was fully mixed the dough was still too sticky. After reading reviews online I learned that the dough is generally sticky, but you should still be able to roll it. Many reviewers caution against adding too much flower as the gnocchi will become chewy and won’t fully cook. I didn’t want to add too much flour so I followed another reviewers advice; put the dough in the fridge for a few hours. I had high hopes that if I left the dough in the fridge over night it would be more solid by the next day and I could easily roll it out. 

As I was making the gnocchi I decided to make the marinara sauce as well. Like I said in the past I’ve prepared sauces the day before, allowing the flavors to reach their full potential. I’ve had good with this method and decided to follow it even though the recipe didn’t suggest it. I’ve never made marinara sauce from scratch and after reading the simple list of ingredients I wasn’t sure if it would taste good. But I put everything together, let it simmer for a half hour, and cooled it down before storing in the fridge.

The next day I began simmering the sauce on the stovetop while I prepped the dough before boiling it. I plopped the dough onto the counter and was surprised that it was still sticky! There was no way I was going to be able to roll it. As an alternative I floured up my hands and pulled bits of dough forming them into balls. This was not an easy process and I had to re-apply flour as my hands became more gooey. I became frustrated as I pretty much knew these weren’t going to turn out right. I was ready to call it quits as I was starving (Ryan too) and the option of eating out sounded VERY appealing. Ryan convinced me to keep going and see what would happen. When gnocchi is fully cooked, the dough balls float to the top of the boiling water. I decided to try 1 piece to see if it worked before adding all the dough balls to the pot. It floated to the top so I added the rest. As I pulled them out and added them to the strainer, they didn’t look appetizing at all. But I know they’re dumplings and the marinara sauce typically hides their imperfections.

I served the gnocchi in shallow bowls like a restaurant typically does and covered them with the marinara sauce. It had been so long since I had gnocchi that I didn’t remember what the texture should feel like. Ryan and I ate them, but I wasn’t overly impressed with how they tasted. What we absolutely loved though was the marinara sauce! It tasted amazing. Who knew as I didn’t have high hopes for the sauce. Making it was really easy, so now I think we’ll be making our own sauce a lot more.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi 
Adapted from The Best of Vegan Cooking, by Priscilla Feral (Amazon Affiliate link)
Serves: 4 to 6
Prep time: 40 mins.
Cook time: 20 mins.

  • 2 pounds sweet potatoes
  • About 11 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

  1. Cut sweet potatoes in half and boil in salted water.
  2. Once potatoes are cooked, peel, mash and add: nutmeg, brown sugar, and cinnamon.
  3. Add flour to potato mixture and knead until dough is smooth (but don’t overwork the dough).
  4. On a floured table roll the dough out to a 1/4 inch thick. With a knife cut into 1 inch squares and drop into boiling water.
  5. Remove the gnocchi with a strainer when they begin to float. Add sauce and serve.

Marinara Sauce
Adapted from The Best of Vegan Cooking, by Priscilla Feral (Amazon Affiliate link)
Serves: 4 to 6
Prep time: 5 mins.
Cook time: 20 mins.

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic (minced)
  • 4 tablespoons fresh basil (chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 cups crushed canned tomatoes

  1. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat.
  2. Add ingredients in this order: olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs.
  3. Simmer for 20 minutes.*
     *Recommendation: Make sauce the day before it’s needed. Simmer for 30 minutes and refrigerate once cooled.

Saturday, April 16

A Much Healthier Version

My husband has been eating healthier lately and watching his portion size, so while I was at the library I thought it would be a good idea to look at the vegetarian cookbooks. I figured even if I didn’t find any main dishes I like I’m sure I’d discover some side dishes worth trying. As I went through the books page by page at home, I actually found myself bookmarking a lot of recipes for the future. This recipe for Stuffed Veggie Shells had an amazing picture accompanying it and the recipe looked similar to another recipe I’ve made a few times, except this one is much healthier. The recipe which I’ve made before, that I’m referencing, is for Spinach & Four-Cheese Manicotti (but stuffed in pasta shells) by Kittencalskitchen on The recipe is truly amazing. Both my husband and I love it. It’s definitely a dish you can cook for a fancy dinner and people will be impressed. When I’ve made it before I’ve kind of wondered how unhealthy it was for us. I guess I never really realized it until comparing the recipe against the Stuffed Veggie Shells recipe. Stuffed Veggie Shells calls for fresh broccoli and carrots in addition to the spinach. It also uses much less ricotta and mozzarella cheese, plus no cream cheese. I decided to make this meal knowing if we liked it, it would be a great alternative to our favorite dish.

As you can see from reading the ingredients and instructions, the majority of the filling for these shells are vegetables, with some ricotta cheese. The chopped spinach is the only vegetable that’s frozen, however you could definitely buy fresh spinach instead. Chopping the vegetables takes awhile so if you have time the day before I would suggest doing it then. That’s what I did and the night I cooked this dish it easily saved me 20 minutes. When it was time to prepare the carrots I chose to use my vegetable peeler and go down the length of the carrot until it diminished. This gave me nice thin slices, which I then cut in half, instead of trying to cut the carrot into thin matchsticks. After the vegetables are cut it’s really just a matter of cooking them and following the rest of the instructions to make the stuffing mixture. 

From previously making stuffed shells there’s a tip I’ve learned along the way that I’d like to share. Trust me, it will help you. When you’re boiling the pasta shells, make sure to stir them frequently. If you don’t they tend to stick together and will be harder to separate after you’ve drained them. Also, make sure to use a large enough pot. The water will take much longer to heat, but it’s much better than having water boil over the top because the pot is too full.

When the vegetable mixture is ready and the shells are done, use a large spoon to stuff the shells. You’ll find that you may need to pry open the shells with your fingers before you can begin stuffing them. You’ll also find that some shells may be ripped. If they’re ripped slightly, that’s okay, you can still use them as there’s a thin layer of sauce and cheese that cover the top hiding any imperfections. After each shell is stuffed, give it a gentle squeeze to hold the mixture together and make it more compact. 

Ricotta cheese added into the vegetable mixture

Ready to pop in the oven

In the end, when I pulled the shells out of the oven they looked amazing. I felt very proud, especially if they tasted as good as they looked. Ryan and I took our first bite and thoroughly enjoyed them. We both agreed that the Spinach & Four-Cheese Manicotti dish is amazing, but what this dish being so similar and much healthier, we vowed to make this meal from now on as its replacement. 

Veggie-Stuffed Shells
Adapted from Woman's Day Wednesday Night is Vegetarian: The Eat Well Cookbook of Meals in a Hurry, by Editors of Woman's Day (Amazon Affiliate link)
Serves: 6
Prep time: 30 mins.
Cook time: 35 mins.

  • 1 box (12 oz.) jumbo pasta shells
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 ½ cups chopped broccoli
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 package (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 cup part skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 jar (approx. 24 oz.) marinara sauce
  • 1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
  1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚F. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta shells and cook according to directions on package. Drain and cool (for a few minutes) before stuffing.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté broccoli, onion, carrots, and garlic for 3 minutes or until just tender.
  3. Add spinach and a 1/2 cup of water. Cover with lid and cook 2 minutes.
  4. Remove lid; cook until liquid is mostly evaporated. Remove from heat and add basil, ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, salt & pepper. Stir to combine well.
  5. Spread approximately 3/4 (of the jar) marinara sauce on the bottom of a 13 x 9 in. baking dish.
  6. Use a large spoon to fill each shell with the vegetable mixture. Arrange shells in rows inside baking dish. Spoon remaining marinara sauce over the tops of stuffed shells (they will not be fully covered). Sprinkle with mozzarella. Cover dish tightly with foil and bake for 35 minutes.

Saturday, April 9

Lavender & Honey. Can it get any better?

Wow when I came across this recipe in a cookbook I didn’t really see much else past ‘Lavender Honey Sauce’.  I’m a sucker for honey and can you believe I already had lavender honey in my kitchen?!  How perfect!  Ryan and I went to a really tasty restaurant in Novi called Toasted Oak Grill & Market.  We had an amazing appetizer with all different kinds of cheeses, game meat, nuts, pickled grapes and incredible sauces to compliment everything.  One of the sauces was a bacon caramel sauce (yes, it was great), but the one I really enjoyed was lavender honey.  I suppose you can find lavender honey at a farmers market but I’ve never looked as I hadn’t thought beyond the realm of traditional honey.  I was in luck, though, as the restaurant had a store inside where they sold their wines, meats, cheeses, and sauces!  I purchased a small mason jar of lavender honey for only $7.  I thought that was a pretty good deal.  I hadn’t opened the honey yet as I didn’t want to waste it on just any recipe.   Then I stumbled upon this dish and I knew I had to make it.

The fish recipes that I recently cooked have mostly been salmon so I was open to trying a new variety of fish.  The original recipe for this dish calls for Grouper however I’ve changed it to Tilapia.  I didn’t know what type of fish Grouper was, but I figured Meijer would have it in their fresh fish section.  I was wrong.  The attendant at the seafood counter wasn’t very familiar with Grouper and said it might be more of a seasonal fish.  I decided the next best white fish to use would be Tilapia.   While you’re buying fish and the remaining ingredients at the store, look for shelled pistachios.  Buying pistachios that are shelled is a huge time saver.   I don’t mind de-shelling pistachios, but the recipe calls for 5 tablespoons and I remembered that I had seen shelled pistachios at Costco not too long ago.    Costco carries a very large bag of shelled pistachios that costs around $20.  I didn’t want to have pistachios in our household forever so I decided to see if Meijer carried them but in a smaller quantity.  As I went down the nut aisle I searched high and low but did not find any.  I was bummed and finally decided to put the bag of regular pistachios in my cart.  As I was leaving the aisle, and passing the bulk section, right across from the bulk nuts were shelled pistachios!  Meijer’s had a bag that was about the half size of Costco’s for $10.  

As you read the ingredient list, you’ll notice that bread crumbs are incorporated into this recipe.  One of the tips I would offer is to make your own bread crumbs.  It’s easy and I think they taste much better than buying a can of bread crumbs. Bread crumbs from the store are very condensed and have a good amount of seasoning added to them. When you make your own bread crumbs they tend to have a lighter and fluffier texture.  I made mine awhile ago when I baked a large loaf of bread that we weren’t going  to finish.  After the bread sat for a few days I used my food processor to grind the bread pieces to crumbs while adding my own seasonings.  You can freeze bread crumbs as well so that they don’t spoil.  I put mine in a large Ziploc bag and froze them.  Now whenever a recipe calls for bread crumbs I pull them out of the freezer, pour what I need, and put them back.  Keep in mind you can make bread crumbs from any loaf of bread, not just homemade bread.  In addition to using my own bread crumbs I also combined them with Panko bread crumbs.  Panko is a variety of flakey bread crumbs that are used in Japanese cuisine.  The traditional recipe does not call for both types of crumbs, however I was very pleased with the results, so if you’d like to try this modification I’ve made a note in the recipe below.

As I was preparing the fish I had an accident in the kitchen that I thought might ruin this dish.  I was practically out of pepper and as I was pouring it out of the container I held it over the fish.  I didn’t think I’d have enough pepper so this would ensure any extra would fall onto the fish and not be wasted.  Well it turns out I had plenty.  As I tipped the pepper over (practically vertical) to try and squeeze out a ¼ teaspoon, my measuring spoon overflowed with pepper as it dumped all over the fish.  I’m not talking a little dusting, I mean a lot.  I kind of panicked and then decided to either wipe it off OR run the fillet under water.  I chose to use a paper towel to wipe it off and luckily it worked!  The only downfall was that breathing in all that pepper made me sneeze quite a few times.  So if this ever happens to you, don’t worry, your dish can be salvaged.

In addition to having fish, I thought it would be nice to make a vegetable for the side dish.  My husband loves broccoli and has been wanting to add it as a side with our meals.  I on the other hand do not care for broccoli that much but decided to find a recipe that could please us both.  The recipe below is for pan roasted broccoli. From reading the directions you’ll see that it’s actually quite simple and fast.  The original recipe does not call for garlic or red pepper flakes, however after reading others reviews of additions they added, I felt we would enjoy these too.

When we began eating dinner, Ryan started with the broccoli and said that it had a nice flavor.  I didn’t have high hopes for the broccoli, but I actually really liked it.  The additional spices gave it a nice subtle kick.  I have to say I was totally geeked to try the fish recipe, so when I took my first bite of Tilapia I was a little let down.  I thought it’s good but it’s not AS good as the other salmon recipes.  I’m not quite sure how to describe what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I had pictured.  The lavender honey sauce had a nice flavor, however I thought the sauce would be a little bit thicker.  I spooned the sauce right from the stove onto the fish, without letting it sit, which could be why it wasn’t as thick as I had imagined.  I figured Ryan would feel the same about the fish, but as we continued to eat he said he really enjoyed the fish and it had a nice nutty flavor.  I told him how the breading was made with pistachios and as he continued to eat he said “This fish is awesome.” He felt the sauce had a great flavor and was a nice touch with the fish.  Then as we were clearing the table he said that he would really like it if I made this dish again for us.  So in the end I’d say this meal was a winner.  

Pistachio-Crusted Tilapia with Lavender Honey Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light Fresh Food Fast: Over 280 Incredibly Flavorful 5-Ingredient 15-Minute Recipesby Editors of Cooking Light Magazine (Amazon affiliate link)
Serves: 2
Prep Time: 12 mins.
Cook Time: 12 mins.

  • 5 tablespoons dry bread crumbs*
*(Or if preferred: 3 tablespoons bread crumbs & 2 tablespoons Panko bread crumbs)
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted shelled dry-roasted pistachios, finely chopped
  • 2 Tilapia fillets
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
  1. Preheat oven to 450˚F.
  2. In a small bowl mix bread crumbs and pistachios together.  Pour crumbs onto a large plate. 
  3. Sprinkle Tilapia fillets evenly with salt and pepper.  Dip fillets in egg whites.  Place fillets on top of bread crumb mixture.  Scoop bread crumb mixture on top of fillets and gently press into the fish.  Turn fillets over repeating scoop and pat process. 
  4. Line a jelly-roll pan or baking sheet with parchment paper.  Place fillets on pan and bake for 12 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.  Drizzle fillets evenly with Lavender Honey Sauce (recipe listed below). 

Lavender Honey Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light Fresh Food Fast: Over 280 Incredibly Flavorful 5-Ingredient 15-Minute Recipesby Editors of Cooking Light Magazine (Amazon affiliate link)
Serves: 2
Prep Time: 2 mins.
Cook Time: 2 mins.

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons lavender honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  1. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Add honey and lemon juice, stirring to combine well. 

Pan Roasted Broccoli
Serves:  4
Prep Time: 10 mins.
Cook Time: 5 mins.

  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 1/4 lbs chopped broccoli
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
  1. Stir water, salt, and pepper together in a small bowl.
  2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat. Add chopped broccoli; spread out into an even layer.
  3. Do not stir for about 2 minutes until broccoli starts to lightly brown.
  4. Mix broccoli well and let rest in an even layer for another 2 minutes.
  5. Add the water/spice mixture. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for 2 minutes.
  6. Uncover and cook until desired doneness.

Saturday, April 2

Stuffed Peppers

Don’t let this recipe intimidate you. I always thought making any type of stuffed vegetable was very elaborate and complicated. Stuffed peppers are actually quite easy to assemble and they taste amazing. I found this recipe online and have since altered it to suit our tastes. For instance the original recipe calls for ground beef. I’ve made the dish many times using ground beef and it’s wonderful, however my husband wondered if we could substitute ground turkey and still get the same satisfying results. I thought it would work but I didn’t think the taste would be as delightful. This past week, I used turkey and was proved wrong. We actually preferred the taste of ground turkey. Who would have thought!


Another ingredient that I changed was the rice. The original recipe calls for uncooked rice, however I’ve modified it to include cooked rice (Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice). I made the recipe once or twice using uncooked rice and then I became wise and figured out how to save time. The rice is traditionally combined with the meat/tomato mixture and cooks this way. The brown rice I purchased took 35-45 minutes to fully cook. That’s a long time! The beginning of the recipe whipped together easily but to wait for the rice to cook, followed by another 30 minutes of baking was too long for me. Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice cooks for 90 seconds in the microwave and can be directly added to the meat mixture. This allows you to jump right into stuffing the peppers and putting them in the oven. I’m very happy to have discovered this large time saver. 

One of my favorite things about this recipe is that it makes 6 peppers. That’s a large amount of food for only 2 people. Previously I made all 6 peppers and we’d eat the leftovers throughout the week. However after coming across articles on how to freeze meals I decided to try it with this one. I made the meat mixture, cooked only 3 stuffed peppers, and froze the rest of the meat mixture for a later time (buying the peppers at that time). If you’re interested in doing this, simply divide the cooked meat mixture in half, reserving one portion for freezing. Let the meat fully cool before placing it in a large Ziploc bag. I like using Ziploc bags as this will allow you to flatten the leftovers (think of a thick sheet of paper) vs. using a storage container that takes up much more room in the freezer. Use a permanent maker to write on the outside of the bag what’s inside of it. Let’s face it, freezers get full, so this will serve as a nice reminder when you discover the bag. I also add a note on the bag stating 3 peppers are needed. This will remind you when thawing the mixture to buy the peppers. When you plan to make this meal remove the meat mixture from the freezer the day before so that it can properly thaw.

As I’ve said this is a meal we’ve made many times. This was the first time we used ground turkey instead of beef and we really enjoyed it. The mixture inside the pepper has a nice texture and the peppers cut so easily when they come out of the oven. They don’t look like they would be that satisfying but surprisingly they’re more filling than they look. We usually pair garlic bread with these as they go together nicely. Enjoy! 

Stuffed Peppers
Adapted from Recipe #1356 by Cindy Hartlin,
Serves: 6
Prep Time: 25 mins.
Cook Time: 30 mins.

  • 6 large bell peppers (any color)
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 (16 ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup cooked grain rice (Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice: Long Grain & Wild)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded 

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350˚F.
  2. Cut tops from bell peppers; discard seeds and membranes.
  3. Chop enough of the tops to make 1/2 cup, set aside.
  4. Cook whole peppers, uncovered, in large pot of boiling water for 5 minutes.  Use tongs to remove from pot.  Invert peppers over dish towel or plate to drain well.
  5. Sprinkle the inside of peppers lightly with salt. In a skillet cook ground turkey, onion and 1/2 cup chopped pepper until meat is browned and vegetables are tender.
  6. Drain off excess fat. Add undrained tomatoes, rice, salt, Worcestershire, and a dash of pepper.  Stir to combine well.
  7. Add in cheese. Stir meat mixture until cheese is melted.  Using a large spoon to stuff peppers with the meat mixture.
  8. Place in a large oven proof baking dish that has a lid.
  9. Bake, covered for 30 minutes.
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