Welcome to 2008, my loyal blans! Many apologies for my extended absence from the blogsphere, but I have been orbiting in the holidayosphere for the past two and a half glorious work-free weeks.
Behold, my mom's self-styled Christmas "tree":
I managed to squeeze in a Fearless escapade while visiting the family in Atlanta, and I am thrilled to be back to share it with you.
The occasion at hand was my little brother, Will, coming down to my mom's place for dinner. My mom's friend Joanne was also planning to come. I called Will, ecstatic to be cooking for my beloved little bro, and asked him what he'd like to see on the table. He said, "Do something with, like...stuffed pasta shells...and mushrooms. Something with cheese." Sounded good to me! I concocted a Stuffed Shells-and-Shrooms Bake. Read on to see how it came together....
FEARLESS FACTOR: I'd say about a 6 out of 10. I've made some stuffed shells in my day - my mom made them growing up, and they were a family favorite. They're great because you can tailor them to just about anyone's taste - stuff them with Italian sausage for meat-lovers, or keep them vegetarian (which is what we opted to do) for the more health-minded eaters in your life. I decided to do half stuffed shells and half stuffed mushrooms, which was the more fearless part. I really wasn't entirely sure the flavors would meld nicely. Turns out that wasn't really the issue....
1 package uncooked large pasta shells
12 large stuffer mushrooms, stems removed
1 large container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 bag broccoli florets
1 large jar julienned sun-dried tomatoes in oil
Italian seasoning to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. part-skim Italian blend shredded cheese (or more if you want)
1 jar any kind marinara sauce (I used mushroom with Merlot)
1 T. garlic (or more if you like)
1-2 T. olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375. Boil the pasta shells until they're not quite tender - about one notch below perfectly al dente. They'll soften up in the oven. To make them cool enough to handle, I drain the hot water out, and then refill the pot with cool water and a bunch of ice. That way the shells stop cooking and you'll be able to reach for them one by one without them sticking together.
Chop the broccoli into small pieces. Drain most of the oil from the tomatoes, and chop those too.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, and ricotta. Add the Italian seasoning and salt and pepper. In a small saute pan, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic for 1-2 minutes. Add this to the cheese and veggie mixture.
Using a tablespoon, fill the shells and the mushroom caps, one by one, with the ricotta mixture, and arrange them randomly in a 9 X 12 casserole dish, fitting them in tightly.
Cover the entire dish with the marinara sauce, then sprinkle some cheese over the top (I would've used a lot more cheese, but I was cooking for some LDL-conscious folks).
Bake at 375 for about 30-40 minutes, until everything is hot and bubbly. Serve it up with a fresh salad and some French bread. We drank a light and fruity Beaujolais in my mom's chic stemless wineglasses - which I must have!
THE JUDGES' VERDICTS:
MOM: I think this is really good. If I were to make it, I would use fat-free ricotta cheese, and I would use fresh tomatoes, because I'm not crazy about sun-dried tomatoes. I would also have cooked the broccoli first, because it could stand to be a little more tender.
JOANNE: I agree with the broccoli comment. I might also consider cooking the mushrooms somehow first, although everything tastes good.
MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it a 6 out of 10. I lost points not only for the undercooked veggies, but for the general lack of creativity, in my opinion. I wish I would have gone out on a limb more and done something totally crazy. Although it tasted good and the flavors worked, Mom and Jo were right about the veggies - next time, I'd probably boil the broccoli for just a few minutes first, and I'd also saute the mushrooms in the garlic and olive oil. And - for once - I think I underseasoned the whole dish. I am the Sodium Queen, but I was trying to be careful not to oversalt it for my guests.
NOTES: You may have noticed that Will, for whom the entire meal was intended and created, has not commented. That's because he NEVER SHOWED UP. He flaked. Bailed. He JetBlued us. Being the older, wiser, more magnanimous older sister I am, I wasn't mad, and chalked it up to the long drive he would've had to make. But he missed out on a free hot meal, something I would never have considered back when I was a poor, starving college student.
BONUS: Stuffed Olive Appetizer!!!
My mom and I just couldn't stop stuffing things - including our faces. She had some black olives, so we chopped some parsley, put it in a plastic Ziploc bag with some cream cheese (she only had fat-free, which is a culinary abomination and tasted like pure sugar - please only use regular cream cheese if you do this, or, better yet, goat or feta cheese), snipped off one of the corners of the bag, and piped the filling into the olives to make a nice little hors d'oevre.
We had a wonderful time chatting - and it was good to be back in Atlanta, my homeland. Special thanks to my mom for being such a helpful kitchen elf and to both Mom and Joanne for being such gracious judges. Look for some great new posts in the new year!
Thanks for reading!