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.

Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese

Pumpkin Mac and Cheese

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: easy-medium
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Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsps butter
  • 2 Tbsps flour
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-4 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup broth (vegetable, chicken, or beef)
  • 1 1/4 cup pumpkin purée (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 115g/4oz cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup parmesan, grated
  • 2 cups dry macaroni
  • salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 cup roasted hazelnuts, chopped loosely

Directions


Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add the flour, and whisk to fully mix. Add the garlic, and continue to whisk until the garlic has turned fragrant and the flour as just started to turn golden brown. Add the milk in 1/2 cup portions at a time, whisking completely before adding the next amount. Add the milk until a cream sauce has formed, but not too thin. Cook until the sauce is thick enough to stick to the back of a wooden spoon. Whisk in the pumpkin, nutmeg and cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cream cheese and parmesan and stir until cheeses are completely melted and mixed into the sauce. Set a pot of heavily salted water to boiling. Cook the macaroni according to instructions. Drain the macaroni, then add to the pan with the sauce and mix well. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with hazelnuts. Serve.

And now for the details…

This dish could almost be viewed as an adult take on classic Mac and Cheese. Or, if you’re trying to hide fruits/veggies from your kids (or other members of your household… I do know some adults who aren’t fans of veg lol), you could tell them this is Mac and Cheese and not tell them about the pumpkin 😛 Although, if you are going to try and pull one over on your kids, be aware that the texture is a little less smooth than a typical Mac and Cheese because of the addition of the pumpkin, not to mention the addition of spices!

I came up with this recipe after I’d opened a large tin of pumpkin purée to bake muffins for my in-laws, then had a bunch of extra purée on my hands. I didn’t want to do more baking, so I figured, why not do a savoury take on pumpkin, and use it for a pasta sauce instead?

The cinnamon and nutmeg are subdued and delicate in the sauce, just a small addition to bring a teaser of pumpkin spice flavours. Then the addition of the cheeses brings this dish well into the savoury realm. The hazelnuts add a nice texture contrast, and I love their flavour up against the pumpkin cheesiness.

We are going to start out by making a béchamel, or white sauce. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat. As soon as the butter has melted, whisk the flour into the butter, and add the garlic. We are going to cook this, whisking constantly, until the garlic has become fragrant and the flour/butter has just started to turn a golden brown.

Next we will be adding the milk. We add the milk in small spurts, about 1/2 cup at a time, and whisking the milk in. The whisk is very important here! This will be hard if you try to using a different stirring utensil. The first couple of additions might worry you a bit. It will be very thick at first, almost paste-like. Fret not! Keep adding the milk a little bit at a time, whisking to fully mix each time, and soon you will have a nice, creamy sauce. Stop at about 2 cups, and see if you need to add any more. If the sauce is quite thick (think yogurt consistency), then you need to add some more milk. If it is closer to about syrup consistency, you’ve got it about right. We are going to cook the sauce for a bit longer after we’ve added all the milk, about 3-5 minutes, or until the sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon. A good way to test it? Drop your wooden spoon in the sauce, then pull it out and run a finger along the back of the spoon. If the line you’ve drawn with your finger stays in place without the sauce running back through it, your white sauce is done cooking. Turn the temperature down to medium-low.

Now is about a good time to get your macaroni a-cookin’. Boil some heavily-salted water, add the macaroni, turn down the heat on the pot to medium, and cook according to the pasta package instructions.

As the pasta cooks, let’s get our sauce finished up. Add the pumpkin purée, nutmeg, cinnamon, cheeses, and broth. When adding cream cheese to a sauce, it’s fastest to break it up into small-dish pieces so that it with melt a little easier. Allow the sauce to heat up until the cream cheese is fully melted and the sauce just starts to bubble. By now, your macaroni should be almost done cooking. Steal 1/4 cup of pasta water and add it to the sauce before draining the pasta, mixing the water in. This is going to help the sauce stick a bit easier to the pasta.

Drain your pasta, then add it right into the pan with the sauce. Stir well until every piece of macaroni is fully coated. Do one final taste test here and add salt and pepper to taste. We waited until the last minute for this, since the pasta water, broth, and cheese will have added salty elements, and it’s best to wait until all those are melded before adding any more salt.

Pour everything into your serving dish of choice, and then sprinkle the pasta with the toasted hazelnuts, and serve.

Happy eating.

Rich and Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

  • Servings: 6-8 servings
  • Difficulty: easy-medium
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Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2-3 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 c. aged cheddar (3yr+), shredded
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • 320g (~3 cups) old cheddar, shredded
  • 1 medium shallot, sliced
  • 10-14 small-medium yellow potatoes

Directions

Melt butter in pot over medium heat and brown. Add flour and stir until nutty smelling. Whisk in milk, ~1/2 cup at a time until sauce forms. Cook until sauce starts to simmer and thickens slightly, adding salt and pepper to taste and dash of nutmeg. Remove from heat and stir in aged cheddar until melted into sauce. Slice potatoes and shallots. Layer in 8″X11″ oven-ready pan: sauce, potatoes, sauce, shredded cheese, shallots, potatoes, sauce, shredded cheese, shallots, potatoes, sauce, shredded cheese. Bake in oven at 177ºC/350ºF for 40-50 minutes until the cheese is browned and the potatoes are cooked through. Serve.

And now for the details…

Scalloped potatoes are, in my mind, one of the quintessential comfort foods. There is something about digging into a mass of hot, cheesy, creamy, perfectly cooked potatoey goodness that has a hard time being beat by any other comfort food.

I’ve encountered a number of different recipes for these over the years. Some call for just sprinkling flour between the layers of potatoes, then pouring milk over top. Some call for a béchamel sauce, but no cheese. Some call for cheese, but no kinds of white sauce at all. After some trial and error to find my preference, I am inclined to all the things. Béchamel with some added cheese (would I truly be able to call it a Mornay if I’m not adding gruyère?), then more cheese on its own, and a thin layer of shallots to add additional flavour. And lo! This recipe was born.

Let’s get to cooking.

We are going to start with our sauce. Melt the butter in a pot at medium to medium-high heat. Continue to cook until the butter has just browned, then add you flour. Reduce the heat to medium. Mix the two together well (I find that a whisk is particularly good at this task) and continue to stir over the heat for another several minutes. We are cooking the flour to remove the “raw” taste of the flour, but at the same time, we do not want to cook it too long, as toasted flour starts to lose its ability to thicken the toastier is gets. It’s one of the reasons we browned the butter first, to get that very nutty and toasted flavour, but not needing to compromise the thickening super power of the flour (the Power of Flour! A potential new comic book or graphic novel? Maybe if I could draw…)

Once we have cooked the flour, we are going to whisk the milk in about 1/2 cup at a time. We’re not adding it all at once, since that would like result in lumpy sauce, but you will also need to whisk constantly as you add, since this will thicken up FAST as you add the milk. I’ve given a pretty big range of milk to add here. A lot will depend on where you are, to be honest. Elevation seems to make a huge difference. Since moving to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and finding myself over 1000m (3280ft) above sea level, I have needed to add more more liquid to my recipes than I did when at the near-sea level of the Canadian Prairies. Add your milk until the sauce has reached the thickness of syrup (think pancake or maple syrup). Next, we are going to bring the sauce to a simmer, stirring regularly, and cooking it until it thickens. When is thick enough? Stick a wooden spoon in the sauce. If the sauce does not coat the spoon, you’re not done yet. If it does coat the spoon, run your finger down the middle of the spoon. If a line forms without the sauce running back into where you drew your line, your sauce is done. While the sauce is cooking, you can season it with salt and pepper to taste, and I also like to add a tiny dash of nutmeg.

As soon as you remove the sauce from the heat, add the shredded aged cheddar, and stir it into the sauce to melt. It may not seem like much cheese, but since we are adding even more cheese later, and using the aged (i.e. super flavourful) cheddar here, a little will go a fairly long way.

Next we start assembly. The shallots can be sliced right away and set to the side. I would recommend slicing the potatoes as you go for a couple reasons. One being that potatoes like to start turning brown fairly quickly after they have been cut. But also because it’s hard to estimate how many potatoes will be enough. Cutting as you go will allow you to stop at just the right point and avoid needing to try and cram a bunch of taters in at the last row, or worse, needing to throw them out.

We start the assembly with a thin spread of the sauce on the bottom of our 8″x11″ baking dish. The thin spread of sauce will avoid the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Because let’s be honest, between the sauce and the cheese we are adding here, there is enough fat that greasing the pan is completely unnecessary.

Next we place a layer of the potatoes. Lay them out so they overlap, and try to avoid leaving too many gaps. The layer after the potatoes will be more sauce, a little more generous than what was on the base, about a third of the sauce you have left. Spread the sauce as evenly as you can across the potatoes, and then lay a thin layer of the shallots, using about half of the shallots you have cut.

And then? NO AND THEN! Just kidding. And then: CHEESE!!! Spread out just enough cheese to evenly cover the layer. We want to keep the bulk of the cheese for the last layer.

We are going to rinse and repeat and the layers from here: potatoes, sauce, shallots, cheese, potatoes, sauce… and we use the bulk of the cheese for this top layer, really laying it on thick. This is what will form that gooey crust at the top of our potatoes. Y’know… the part that people “accidentally” scoop too much of when they are serving themselves, and “don’t realize” they left the rest of the potatoes underneath?

We are baking this monster at 177ºC/350ºF for 40-50 minutes. Our end goal: a bubbling dish of cheesy potatoes that are cooked through and a slightly browned crust on top. If you find your cheese is browning too much, cover the dish with tin foil while it cooks.

When its done, let it cool for about 5 minutes, then scoop in and serve.

Happy eating.