Zoodle (Zucchini Noodle) Lasagna Stuffed Peppers

Zoodle (Zucchini Noodle) Lasagna Stuffed Peppers

  • Servings: 4-6 peppers
  • Difficulty: medium
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Ingredients

  • 1 small zucchini
  • 4-6 medium sized bell peppers (green, yellow, orange, red or purple)
  • 1 cup ricotta
  • 1 cup arugula or spinach, loosely chopped
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 1 egg
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 1-2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 3 mild Italian sausage, uncooked (vegetarian option: 1-2 cups cooked orzo pasta)
  • 2 cups pomodoro sauce
  • salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 350ºF/175ºC. Trim ends from zucchini and slice into long noodles (zoodles) using vegetable peeler or mandolin. Cut top off peppers and scoop out any of the seeds/core. Remove sausage from casings and place in a frying pan and cook on medium heat, breaking the meat apart with a spoon as it cooks. Once cooked, add the Pomodoro sauce to meat, stir well until fully mixed and sauce is heated through, then remove from the heat and bring to prep area (vegetarian option: add sauce and cooked orzo to a pan, heat through, then remove from heat). In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, parmesan, egg, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Fill the pepper in layers: start with a small layer of the meat sauce, layer of zoodles (1-2 thick, cut zoodle to size to fit), small layer ricotta mix, layer zoodles, repeat until pepper is filled. Fill all peppers the same way. Sprinkle top of peppers with mozzarella cheese. Place in oven for 40-45 minutes, or until heated all the way through and cheese has browned. Serve.

And now for the details…

Have you seen the beautiful piles of peppers at your farmers markets recently?? Oodles of peppers of different sizes, shapes and colours. Everything from little globes of crimson cherry peppers, to the long pale chartreuse Hungarian wax peppers, to the little orange lanterns of habanero. Now for the people that know me well, this waxing poetic about peppers is going to come as a bit of a surprise. I don’t like peppers. Or at least I didn’t. But I have managed to expand my horizons.

What I don’t like? Green peppers. They’re like the bitter, obnoxious guest in your meal. From the first whiff of your food, they come barreling in with a distinct aroma and flavour. “HEY!!! I’M HERE! PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” There is very little room for pleasant or quiet conversation when the green pepper is invited to the party. They speak loudly, bowl over any other ingredient that is trying to talk, and they stick around to the very end, sometimes returning after you’ve ended the meal and everyone else has gone home (ever burped after eating something with green pepper? Blech.)

But I have come to appreciate the many other peppers out there that aren’t so boorish or demanding. Where the flavours are a bit more refined, sweeter, and nuanced. The peppers that compliment the other ingredients and make them better. And in the case of this recipe, those are the types of peppers I decided to pair up with the cheesy, tomatoey, unctuous flavours of lasagna.

This recipe comes together surprisingly quick. If you have more mouths to feed, or want to set yourself up for leftovers, you can easily size this recipe up (or down if you don’t want as much!) and since it reheats really well as leftovers the next day or day after, it’s a great weekday option!

First thing’s first: preheat your oven to 350ºF/175ºC.

We start the creation off by getting our fillings ready. The sausage/sauce is first. In this case, for the Pomodoro sauce, I had some homemade in the freezer that I pulled out for this recipe. If you don’t have any in the freezer, you could be extra and make some, as it does come together pretty quick, but a good can or jar of sauce goes over just fine.

Remove the sausages from their casings and place the meat in a frying pan. This might seem inherent to some people, but when I was first learning to cook, I did not realize that removing sausage from casings was something that could be done. The meal-makers of my childhood (predominantly mom, but also grandma’s and aunties) were all fabulous cooks, and we usually ate meats that they had prepared from scratch. The only sausage that I was familiar with was the occasional kubasa (Ukrainian garlic sausage) and hotdogs. I didn’t know that sausages came uncured and raw. For this recipe, when purchasing your sausage, make sure it is of the raw, uncured variety. You’ll be able to tell quite quickly if that’s true with a quick poke through the packaging. Raw sausage feels, well, raw. It’s soft and squishy, much like poking raw ground meat. To get it out of the casing, snip the tip off one end, pinch the other end tightly between your fingers, and then push the filling from the pinched end down, like you’re trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. Alternatively, there are some places (check out your local Italian market) that will sell the sausage loose, without the casings, if you feel a bit squeamish about handling the sausages.

In the pan, fry up that sausage over medium-high heat until slightly browned and fully cooked. In my photo here, I have coarse-ground sausage. Yours might be a bit finer, so don’t fret if is doesn’t look quite like the photo. Break apart the sausage as it cooks, to get smaller pieces of meat that will be easier to fill the pepper with (big chunks of meat will make the layering of the “lasagna” quite a bit more challenging). Once cooked, add that tomato sauce in, and stir well.

For the vegetarians in the crowd: you’re going to complete skip the entire meat-cooking step (okay, so that part is probably obvious). This fabulous idea for a vegetarian alternative came from my friend Zoe: cook some orzo according package directions, drain, return to the pot with the Pomodoro sauce, stirring well and heating until the Pomodoro sauce it heated through.

Next step is the ricotta cheese filling. In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta, arugula, egg, parmesan cheese, a pinch of nutmeg and some salt and pepper. This will seem like a shocking thing for a saltaholic like me to say, but don’t go too heavy on the salt. We are already getting salt in the dish from the sausage, pre-made Pomodoro and parmesan. If you’re worried about it, mix everything but the egg and give it a taste-test, then mix the egg in when you’re happy with the flavour.

The last thing to do before assembly is to make zucchini “noodles”, i.e. zoodles. If you have a fancy mandolin, you could definitely use that, or if you’ve got some serious knife skills and can cut the zucchini thinly, that is also an option. I went cheap and easy and used a vegetable peeler. If you’ve not made zucchini noodles with a peeler before, there are a few videos out there you can use as examples. Basically: trim either ends of the zucchini, and run the peeler down the length of the zucchini, and voila! You’ve made your first zoodle! Repeat the peeler step over and over until the zucchini has been converted to zoodles. A lot of the videos/blog posts will tell you not to use the center, but that’s probably because they are making a dish where they are sautéing the zoodles. In our case, the zoodles are forming the “noodle” layer of our lasagna and won’t be moved around during the cooking process, so the centre bits are a-okay. I like using the zoodles instead of pasta noodles to avoid the extra step of cooking regular lasagna noodles. And extra pot to clean and an extra cooking step? No thank you. Another advantage: any of the zoodles you don’t use can just be chopped up quick, thrown in a sealed container in the fridge and added to a sauce, soup or stew later that week.

Are we ready to assemble? Heck yeah!

Cut and core the peppers (thank you Martha!) and lay them in a baking dish. I did a couple different kinds of peppers here. For the typical bell pepper, just cut around the top (stem side) like you would with a jack-o-lantern and pull out the core. Turn it upside down and tap out any extra seeds, and if there is quite a bit of the white inner pieces, just tear them out with your fingers. I also did a long, sweet red pepper, and since it can’t sit upright, I cut out one of the sides instead of the top (the piece I cut off got chopped and tossed in with the sauce to avoid any wastage ;P).

Your first layer will be the sauce (add around two tablespoons per pepper), smoothing the sauce across the base as evenly as possible. Then place some of the zoodles over the sauce, then the ricotta mixture (again, a couple tablespoons per pepper and smoothed out evenly), more zoodles and back to sauce. To get the zoodles to fit, cut them to approximate lengths and layer them on top of each other so that they somewhat cover the layer underneath. We are working with weird shaped here, not a typical rectangular lasagna pan, so don’t worry about getting the layer perfect. Repeat the sauce, zoodles, ricotta, zoodles order over and over until you fill the pepper.

When you’ve filled the pepper, make sure a zoodle layer is the last, top-most one, then top with the shredded mozzarella. Put the peppers into the pre-heated oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the filling has cooked all the way through and the cheese is golden and bubbly. Serve immediately.

If you’re wanting some for leftover, let the pepper cool completely, then place in a sealed container in the fridge for up to three days. You could go through the effort of reheating in the oven, but to be honest, the microwave worked just fine for us.

Happy eating.

Grilled Italian Meatballs with Pomodoro Sauce

Grilled Italian Meatballs with Pomodoro Sauce

  • Servings: 10-12 balls
  • Difficulty: medium
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Ingredients

    Meatballs
  • 1 lb ground lamb (can substitute with ground pork or regular ground beef)
  • 1 lb lean ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, shredded
  • 1/3 cup whole buttermilk
  • 1 small onion, shredded
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/3 cup panko crumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbsp parmesan, shredded
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • Sauce
  • 14 oz/400g (~1/2 can) canned tomatoes (San Marzano suggested)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tbsps olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Directions

Mix together the lamb, beef, shredded garlic, buttermilk, onion, dried spices, panko crumbs, eggs, parmesan, salt and pepper. Form into large balls, about 2-3″/5-8cm wide. Heat BBQ to medium heat. Place meatballs on the grill (recommended to use a grill mat). Cook for about 10 minutes, turning halfway through, or until the inside of the meatball is fully cooked. For sauce, place all the ingredients in a pot and place on the stove on medium heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce temperature to medium-low. Simmer for 20 minutes. If desired, blend sauce to make smooth. Place meatballs in pot with sauce, turning gently to fully coat and heat through if cooled. Place on plate, pour sauce over meatballs. Serve.

And now for the details…

The weather is turning crisper, the leaves are changing colour and school buses can be seen driving past the windows all morning/afternoon. Not to mention that Pumpkin Spice everything is available again. Fall is here folks. And I am not a fan. I don’t know what it is about fall, but I feel unsettled and uncomfortable. Plus, it means that summer (my favourite season) is officially over. And so, I’m gripping what’s left of summer with all the strength I have and squeezing what’s left out of grilling and sunshine.

And so, grilled meatballs.

Could you do these in the oven instead? Of course you can. But grilling allows that extra bit of charred oomph, and who doesn’t want to tszuj up their dinner a little?

We start out with the meatballs themselves. I have used ground beef and lamb for mine, but if you are not okay with eating lamb (I have quite a few folk in my life who are not), or don’t have it readily accessible, feel free to swap out the lamb for pork or more ground beef. But if you are using ground beef for the whole thing, I would recommend doing a 50/50 mix of lean and regular ground beef, since the lamb does contain a bit more fat than lean ground beef, and we want that fat for an added punch of flavour.

Place the meats in a large bowl, and add in the rest of the meatball ingredients: buttermilk, garlic, onion, spices, panko crumbs, eggs, parmesan, S&P. Options to switch out? Buttermilk can be switched out for regular whole milk. And while I haven’t tried it, if there is a dairy allergy in your household, I would imagine a non-dairy alternative could be used. If you do try that out, let me know how it goes! You can also switch out the panko crumbs for regular bread crumbs. If you end up buying the “Italian Style” breadcrumbs, go a bit lighter on the spices and salt that you add, since those will already be in the bread crumbs.

Next, we mix all that good stuff together. Similar to in my burger recipe, I am going to recommend you do this with your hands, not a spoon or spatula. Because like that recipe, we are going to try and minimize how much we handle the meat. And the reason? Same as with the burgers, the more we mix and push ground meat around, the more we compress it, resulting in a tough or chewy meatball. No thank you. I want my meatballs juicy and tender. Using our hands allows for a gentler touch, and overall helps reduce the likelihood of overmixing. (Holding myself back from adding “that’s what he/she said” was really difficult through this entire paragraph folks, I hope you appreciate my restraint)

Once it’s all mixed together, form them up into relatively even-sized balls, about 2-3″/5-8cm in width. We are going a bit bigger here than say, Swedish-style meatballs, since they are going on the grill and we don’t want them falling through! Again, a light touch here, just enough to have the meatballs hold together, but not squishing them like a vice.

And then we get to the cooking. (Before we really get into grilling, you can always skip to the sauce and have that going on the stove/bbq burner at the same time you’re cooking the meatballs.) Preheat your grill to medium heat (somewhere around 350º-400ºF/175º-205ºC). I would strongly recommend using a grill mat for the cooking of the meatballs. This will help avoid any sticking to the grill (and the resulting breaking apart of the meatballs!) as well as keep the fat from dripping all over your grill, which could cause flare-ups and over-charring of the meatballs (plus the mess of cleanup is contained to the mat). We are going to cook the meatballs for about 10-12 minutes total. Our goal is to get the insides of the meatball fully cooked, which means it will register at about 160ºF/71ºC if you poke the middle with a thermometer. We will also be flipping the meatballs just over halfway through the cooking process to brown both sides. Be extra careful when flipping. This is probably the most likely point for the meatball to fall apart. I used a fork and a set of tongs to carefully flip mine over.

When the meatballs are done, remove them from the grill to a plate and set aside.

The sauce is nice and easy. We are going to put all the ingredients for the sauce (canned tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, S&P) into a pot on medium-high heat and bring it up to to a simmer. Once it starts to simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot and let it bubble away for about 20 minutes, stirring every now and again. If you like a smooth sauce, after the 20 minutes, blend it up (transfer to a blender or use a handheld blender in the pot). Finally, transfer the meatballs into the pot with the sauce. This is another place to be careful. Don’t stir the bejeezus out it, or the meatballs will break apart. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can skip straight to serving, but I like transferring the meatballs with the juices into the sauce to add a bit of extra flavour and to get the meatballs and sauce to the same temperature. Turn the meatballs gently in the sauce to get them nice and fully coated.

Finally, we are ready to eat! Transfer the meatballs to a serving dish, and pour the tomato sauce over top. Serve with your favourite pasta, or with some bread to mop up all that tasty tomato sauce.

Happy eating.

Instant Pot Bò Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew)

Bò Kho (Beef Stew)

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: medium
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A Vietnamese beef stew like Mama makes

Ingredients

  • 500 g (~1 lb) beef shank, cut into 1.5cm piece (~3/5″) thick piece
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 small onions, one for stew, chopped loosely, plus one for serving, sliced thin
  • 2 Tbsps Shaoxing/Shao Hsing cooking wine
  • 10 cm (4″) piece of ginger, peeled and cut into 1 cm (1/5″) pieces
  • 5 Tbsps tomato paste
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 4 star anise pieces
  • 2″ cinnamon stick
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, lightly pounded and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 6 cups beef stock (low sodium or unsalted)
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 2 Tbsps fish sauce
  • Fresh basil, for serving
  • Fresh cilantro, for serving
  • Fresh lime pieces, for serving
  • 4 Bánh mì (Vietnamese baguettes), for serving

Directions

Melt the butter in Instant Pot on “Sauté” setting, add pieces of beef shank in batches, browning the pieces, then setting aside. Add garlic and onion, stirring to cook until browned and onion softens. Add Shaoxing and stir. Make a packet using a piece of cheesecloth, and wrap the bay leaves, star anise, cinnamon stick, and lemongrass pieces, tying tightly. Add packet to the pot with the ginger, tomato paste, and stock. Stir well until tomato paste has mostly dissolved. Add carrots and potatoes. Close Instant Pot, sealed on “Meat/Stew” setting and cook for 50 minutes. Release pressure, add fish sauce, stirring well. Ladle into bowls and serve with sliced onion, basil, cilantro, lime pieces and baguette.

And now for the details…

This post is an ode to my mother in law. Of the many delicious Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that Mama makes for us, Bò Kho is one of my absolute favourites. And because Mama knows it’s my favourite, she makes it for us fairly often. However, during COVID isolation, we were cut off from Mama and Dad, as they are older and we wanted to make sure they were safe. And not only were we cut off from seeing them in person, we were also cut off from Mama’s delicious cooking! Which meant… I needed to figure out Bò Kho at home. I tried to get this recipe as close as I could to Mama’s, and it’s fairly close, but it’s still not a true replacement for the bowls of love she sends home with us 🙂

This stew is perfect for the type of weather we have outside right now. It’s fall here, and it’s cloudy, raining (oh god, it just started to snow) and there’s a distinct chill in the air, perfect for a nice, warming, well-spiced stew that seems to heat you up from the inside.

I have had different styles of Bò Kho at many different Vietnamese restaurants. The broth will range from thin to thick (the thick being similar to what one would expect from a western style stew), the spice combinations are often slightly different at each one, and the cut of beef used varies from shank to chuck to brisket. My favourite, of course, tends toward the style that Mama makes, which is a thinner (but very flavourful) broth and nice pieces of beef shank.

The shank is an extremely sinewy piece of meat. It comes from the leg of the cow, and because it is such a well-used muscle, it has quite a bit of connective tissue (collagen) marbled in with the meat. If you’re used to your beef being primarily for steaks, you might look at this cut and think “yuck, that is going to be one chewy piece of meat.” But stay with me here, because cooking this connective tissue low and slow (and in liquid) allows it to break down so that is becomes this rich, velvety bite. TBH, I like this cut in the stew for that soft, tender bite, even more so than the meat itself.

Finding beef shank in your local grocery store is likely not going to happen. I found ours at our asian supermarket, but in most western grocery stores, this cut is not frequently found. You can ask the butchers behind the desk to see if they can bring it in for you, or find a local butcher or specialty grocery store to get this cut of meat. This if often sold with the bone-in as well, but I prefer the boneless for this stew. Make sure to cut the pieces across the grain, as shown in the photo above to get the right “bite” once the meat is done cooking.

Let’s get into it, shall we? We start by heating up our Instant Pot to “Sauté” and melt the butter. Cook the beef pieces, turning halfway, to get a nice browned piece of meat. We will be cooking the beef pieces in batches so we don’t overcrowd the pot, setting aside the meat onto a plate after it has browned and adding the next batch. The reason we do not want to overcrowd the pot is we want to brown the meat, and get that richness to add to the stew, rather than the steaming that would result from having too many pieces in the pot. Don’t worry about trying to cook the beef pieces all the way through, we just want them to brown. They will be spending a lot of time in heat with the stew, so we do not need to worry about cooking them through just yet.

Once the pieces of meat have all been browned and set aside, add the garlic and one of the onions (that has been loosely chopped) to the pot. Stir until the garlic has just started to brown and the onion have started to soften. Then add the Shaoxing wine, stirring to help stir up some of the browned bits of meat on the bottom of the pot into the liquid, and cook until the wine is almost fully reduced.

Shaoxing wine is a rice wine originating from the city Shaoxing in China. You will be able to find it in most Chinese markets, or possibly in your own grocery store if you have a decent selection of asian cooking products. If you cannot find it, substitute with dry sherry or Marsala instead. If you want to know more, The Woks of Life blog has a great post about it! And to make it easier, here is a link to their post about Shaoxing Wine 🙂

Next, add the meat pieces back into the pot and pour the broth over top, stirring well to bring up any additional browned bits into the liquid. Beef, chicken, pork, or veal broth can all be used in this case. You can turn the pot off for now, because we are going to get our aromatics ready for the stew. In this recipe, we have quite a few aromatics helping to flavour the broth: star anise, lemongrass, cinnamon, bay leaves and ginger. When you are buying the ingredients for this dish, so not confuse star anise with anise seeds. They are actually from two different plants, and while they are very similar in smell/flavour, star anise is a quarter-sized, star-shaped dried fruit that imparts its flavour to the broth over time, and the recipe would not be quite the same with 5 little anise seeds 🙂

I ended up not wanting to use a whole cinnamon stick for this recipe, so I just snapped a cinnamon stick in half to get the appropriate length.

Because the majority of these aromatics are not something you want to chew and eat once you’re done the stew, I chose to wrap them in a little bundle of cheesecloth so I could easily pick it out once the cooking was done. You can also just add them right into the stew as is, and pick all the bits out later. But I am lazy, and while Mama typically picks these ingredients out for us before serving (yes, we are that spoiled), I wanted to make it as easy as possible to remove them before eating. I cut a 15 cm/6″ piece of cheesecloth and wrapped up the bay leaves, anise, lemongrass and cinnamon stick together, then secured the bundle with a piece of cooking twine. I threw the ginger into the stew on its own, outside of the bundle, because I actually enjoy the bites of ginger pieces. But if you are not interested, you can make a larger cheesecloth bundle and add the ginger in with the rest.

Now’s the time to get that stew cooking! Add that tasty little bundle and the ginger into the pot with everything else. At this time, we are also going to add the tomato paste, stirring well to mix it into the broth, and then the carrots and potatoes. If you want to try something a little different, you can use taro root instead of potatoes. It is a root vegetable very similar to potato in texture, and Mama has used this instead on a number of occasions.

Next, close and seal up your Instant Pot, setting it to “Meat/Stew” setting for 50 minutes. Now, you can always do all of this without an Instant Pot. The sautéing bits would be done on medium-high heat, and at this point, we would turn the heat to a low simmer on the stove (pot covered). But you are going to need to increase the cooking time to at least 3 hours in order to get the flavours to fully meld and for that beef shank to become tender instead of chewy.

Once done cooking, release the pressure and open up that glorious pot of deliciousness. One last thing to do before ladling the soup into bowls: add the fish sauce and stir well. You can always add the fish sauce before closing up and cooking, and still get the umami-hit, but you will lose the complexity and added flavour that the uncooked fish sauce provides.

Serve up the bowls with the fresh basil, cilantro, onion and lime wedges on the side. This allows folks to add however much of these fresh aromatics as they would like (especially the cilantro, since we all know someone out there who can’t stand the taste :P). Dig in, dipping torn pieces of the bánh mì into the broth as you slurp away at the stew. For extra authenticity and to match exactly as Mama serves it, mix together fresh squeezed lemon juice, salt and white pepper in a small, shallow dish and dip the beef into the mix as you eat.

Happy eating.