Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Food: baked ziti the easy way

Baked ziti was a staple dish of almost every covered-dish, potluck, or shared-responsibility dinner I went to growing up.  The joke was that it wasn't really a local meal unless there was baked ziti.  But there is good baked ziti and bad baked ziti.  The bad is the kind that has little cheese except a sheet of cardboardy mozzarella from a bag on top and a smidgen of sauce in the "filling."  Not mine.  Mine is a cheesy wonder, which is how it should be.

For basic baked ziti, you need:

  • 1 pound of pasta, cooked until it's almost-cooked (about 2 minutes less than the indicated time on the package)
  • 1 regular-size jar of spaghetti sauce.  I use marinara sauce from Barilla a lot of the time, but Prego got me through it today.
  • 1 to 2 pounds ricotta cheese, depending on your taste.  Today was a 1-pounder day.
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella - not the little balls, but the blob that you can slice
  • Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  • sprinkly Italian seasoning
If you haven't done it already, cook the pasta 2 minutes short of the cooking time on the box in salted water.

Get your 9x13" pan out.  Pour in the spaghetti sauce.  All of it.  Trust me.  Then, pour in the ricotta and mix it around until it looks pink and gross.  (It really is ugly to me.)

Pour your pasta in, and stir it until every single one of those little ziti noodles (or penne noodles) is covered in saucey-cheesy goodness.

Top it with the fresh mozzarella slices.  If you have extra, you can munch on it for a good treat.  Sprinkle the mozzarella with Parmesan and Italian seasoning.

Bake at 350 until it is bubbly, melty, and delicious.  Probably a good half hour to an hour will do.  But don't brown the cheese too much, because you want it to be moist and heavenly and not cardboardy and dry.


- vodka sauce with fresh mozarella balls (not ricotta) and chopped frozen spinach (thawed), topped with fresh mozzarella and parmesan cheese
- sausage and peppers in the sauce with the regular recipe.  A restaurant down in Endicott calls that "ziti rosso."  It's ahhh-mazing.
- alfredo sauce, chicken, and spinach, with tons of garlic and possibly broccoli.  And cheese on top.  Maybe breadcrumbs too.

Be creative.  Baked pasta is an amazing vehicle.  I even saw a variation once for mild sausage and a pumpkin-sage cream sauce that was heavenly... I think it was Paula Deen who came up with it...

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Religion: Why I am confused.

I was raised devoutly Catholic.  Never missed mass.  On blizzardly Sabbaths/Days of Holy Obligation, we had to watch mass on TV and respond out loud to the priest (it happened once or twice tops).  I went to Catholic school for 9 years until their music program no longer offered to me what I wanted and my mom agreed to let me go to public high school.  I was an active music minister in the church until I was 29 or so.

I am glad I went to Catholic school and even gladder I had this upbringing.  It gave me an edge in music school (no joke, especially when studying sacred and early music), gave me cultural depth and beauty of tradition on holidays, and showed me the importance of having spirituality in one's life.

But here's why I'm confused:

  • I believe priests should be allowed to marry.
  • Furthermore, I believe women should be priests.
  • I believe in gay marriage.  Vehemently.  Especially when I see so many beautiful gay couples and so many awful heterosexual ones.  God is love, and whosoever lives in love lives in God.
  • I believe that there should be no law against abortion, even though I personally would never have one.
  • I practice hormonal birth control, and I believe that it is a greater respect to the dignity of life to practice it than for me to have a kid who would have birth defects from the antidepressants I take to keep myself from committing suicide.
  • I entirely dislike the church's stance on multiple political and personal beliefs: birth control, abortion, abstinence before marriage, gay marriage, priests' lifestyles (the vow of chastity), women as priests, etc.  Furthermore, the church telling me who to vote for does not have a place in my life, and I will probably vote opposite whoever they endorse on purpose.
  • I don't believe in transubstantiation.  I believe in Real Presence.  (I.e. God is present in the host, but the host is not God himself.)
  • I don't believe that the sacrament of Confession actually absolves you from your sins.  I believe that can only be done through your own genuine repentance and effort to never commit that sin again.
  • I don't really think there is a place for me to sit in the church if I'm sitting there resenting everything.  If anything, I think my presence is damaging, even though God is supposed to accept us and welcome us at our darkest moments.  This is a very confusing point of contention in my heart.
  • I don't believe that giving up something trivial like chocolate is the best way to make yourself closer to God during Lent.  Do something significant instead, like REAL self-improvement.  God wants you to have the chocolate once in a while.  For realz.  Especially if you thank Him for it.
  • I do not believe in tithing in the 10% of your salary sense.  Offer up a gift to God that is unique, be it through ministry or outreach.  (I was a music minister who, if you add up the time I could have been paid to do that, would equal more than I make per year now.  They never think of that when they never see an envelope from me in the collection basket.)
  • This is trivial, but I don't feel it's quite correct to have people's names on the collection envelopes.
  • I lived with my husband before marriage, on purpose.  So did everyone in my Pre-Cana class, and no one batted an eye.
All in all, I am not a practicing Catholic.  Here are the things that are part of the Catholic church I do believe:
  • If you have a grave sin on your heart, you should not receive communion until you have made peace with that sin.  However, I don't believe the sacrament of Confession does that.  See above.
  • You should always make yourself as ready as possible to receive God (spiritually) before you go to church.  I still don't believe that we "eat Jesus."
  • Full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy is the only way to go.  Sitting there like a deadbeat doesn't do it for me.
  • The reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday has always been beautiful to me.

I still don't know what to think.  But my mom is pushing me to go to church.  She probably thinks it would be good for me, but I feel strongly that if I can find a church/spiritual center that jives more with my beliefs, I'd feel better.  I"m thinking Episcopal.  I've thought Episcopal for a long time, especially since I attended an Episcopal church in Philly that really did it for me, even though I was told they were very "high" and atypical.

I am closing this post to comments because I know it will bring on too many "YOU'RE GOING STRAIGHT TO HELL" dialogue that frankly I can't deal with.  But I had to get this all off my chest.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Food-ish: cookware that makes me go "squee"

After three weeks of walking by the display and drooling, I finally succumbed to the temptation today.

That's right: I bought a Le Creuset Gratin pan.  14" across, Cobalt blue, and nice, heavy stoneware.  Marked down to a reasonable price (I'd pay more than this for this pan in generic form), and I decided it was mineallmine oh sweet Lord I have a Le Creuset gratin pan!!!

I have plans for this pan.  First thing up is fish, baked with white wine, butter, shallots, and lemon.  (I'm trying to eat more of that evil swimmy stuff that we're supposed to eat a lot of.)  Second up is a Julia Child recipe for Gratin Jurassien (cream and cheese and potatoes, oh my!).  I might use it to serve up a monstrous pile of risotto to my friends because it is so pretty.  I might use it to roast a chicken.  Oh, the possibilities are endless!

The other item that made me go "squee" today was in Target, and I bought it on impulse, even though I have wanted one of these particular items since I have known about them: a cow-shaped cream-holder thing for your coffee table place setting.  That's right: a cow creamer!  You know, the one where you hold it by the cow's tail and it looks like the cow is barfing out half-and-half into your coffee?  Yes, I have one of those now too.  I don't have big plans for it other than serving half-and-half (or better yet, real cream) in it.  Though I might use it for gravy just once to see what my mother does.  >insert giggles<

What are the fine items in your kitchen that make you go "squee?"

Note that "going squee" requires the item to be:

  • awesome to a degree that you can hardly stand it
  • cute to a degree that you can hardly stand it
  • incredibly freakishly well made
  • any or all of the above

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Food: Parmesan-Panko Tilapia

Let me be clear: fish is one of my least favorite meals, but I can stand tilapia.  So here is how I fixed it up tonight and made it more tolerable than usual.  I do this "recipe" a lot, so it's in the oven right now and I can assure you it tastes fine.  Which is more than I can say for most fish, unless that fish is fried.  All fried fish is food of the gods, for a reason I cannot fathom except that it's deep-fried.  And deep-fried anything (almost) is tasty.  Including cheesecake.

First, I took 2 frozen tilapia fillets (plain) that I got from ye olde Wegman's.  You can get these at Walmart, too, but I find the Walmart brand tilapia a little more fishy-tasting and less plain-tasting than the Wegman's ones, and like I said earlier, I dislike fish, so the less fishy, the better.

Then I put them in a 9"x9" pan and drizzled a little extra-virgin olive oil over them.  Not a lot, but enough for it to drip down the sides of each fillet and into the pan a bit to prevent them from sticking to the pan.  (It probably would have been good to spray the pan with cooking spray too, but I didn't.  We'll see what happens.)  Next, season with seasoned salt and Fines Herbes (I use Penzey's mix of Fines Herbes).  Probably a total of a teaspoon of each went on both fillets.

Now, get out your can of Parmesan (or, if you like to be fancy and flavorful, your wedge of Parmesan and your microplane grater) and sprinkle that stuff generously over each fillet.  Don't be stingy.

Finally, sprinkle each fillet with some panko bread crumbs to taste.  I use a lot, because the crunch helps me forget that I'm eating (ugh) fish.

Bake at about 400 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the fish flakes with a fork.  I'm not positive on the time, so check it often after about the first 15 minutes.  Usually it's a good 10 minutes after I check it for the first time.

And I do assure you, it's quite tasty.  The fish part is mild, the fines herbes and Parmesan are tasty together, and it has a pleasant crunch and texture.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Food: how to have dessert coffee

Tonight was a birthday celebration at my in-laws' house, and we made special coffee for dessert.  It's pretty easy to make and quite delicious.

You need:

  • coffee
  • Kahlua or Frangelico
  • whipped cream
  • caramel sauce
Brew a pot of coffee.  While it's brewing, pour a shot of your favorite liquor (I used Kahlua) into the bottom of the glass.  Pour enough coffee to cover it.  Top with a generous dollop of whipped cream (I used unsweetened, my family used sweetened from the squirt-can), and then drizzle with caramel sauce.  An attractive, impressive, and delicious cup of Joe!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Food: Chicken Pesto Pizza

In honor of that big football game that was Sunday, I decided to try my hand at making pizza for the first time.  It wasn't fantastic, and it wasn't terrible either, but I had a few limitations going for me:

  • There was no "raw" pizza dough available at the market, only pre-made flaps of bread that were then placed on the pizza stone and then baked... (boo)
  • I had never made pizza before
  • This particular type of pizza-bread-thing said to put it right on the oven rack, but darn it, I wanted to use my pizza stone, so I disobeyed.
So I decided to make one pizza all fancy - chicken pesto pizza - and one pizza with red sauce and cheese and pepperoni.  The pepperoni pizza was fine, but nothing great.  It just needed less sauce, although the sauce that I had bought was quite tasty.

The chicken pesto pizza, though, had potential.

First, I took out that bread-dough-thingie.  Then I slathered the entire thing over with pesto sauce I had made from the basil I grew this past summer that was sitting in my fridge waiting for such a special occasion.  Covered that with diced chicken breast (cooked, of course).  Covered that with mozzarella cheese.  Baked the whole thing for a good 20 minutes at 400 degrees.

The end result?  Very pretty, very flavorful, and very tasty.  But it needed a little more "lubrication" according to my husband, and I have to agree with him.  What the heck can I use for more lube?  I'm almost thinking of mixing in a tiny bit of plain red sauce on top of the pesto so it's tomato-pesto pizza, but I don't want to lose the intensity of basil flavor that I had before.  Help me, foodies everywhere!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dogs: Rescue conclusion

I am thrilled to report that the owner of Southside Kennels has been charged with 49 counts of animal abuse because of what he did to his dogs.  I hope that he gets the maximum penalty.  The news story is here:

Thank you to all of you who have followed the story, and please remember to donate to the Susquehanna SPCA to help them with their new charges.  I hope to resume food-blogging soon, but this story has consumed me to the point of not really cooking much... (I don't find much inspiration when I am distraught or depressed.)