Zoodle (Zucchini Noodle) Lasagna Stuffed Peppers

Zoodle (Zucchini Noodle) Lasagna Stuffed Peppers

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


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
  • Print


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.

Grilled Eggplant (Aubergine) Bruschetta

Eggplant Bruschetta

  • Servings: 2-4 (as appetizer)
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print


Ingredients

  • 1 medium sized eggplant/aubergine
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, shredded
  • 10 cherry tomatoes, cut in 1/8’s
  • 1/4 cup basil, chopped
  • 2 Tbsps olive oil
  • 1/8 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
  • Baguettes or crostini, to serve

Directions

Preheat the grill to medium-high heat (~400ºF/205ºC). Poke holes in eggplant skin, using a toothpick or skewer. Place eggplant on grill, and cook for 15-20 minutes, turning every few minutes, until eggplant skin has been blackened and eggplant is soft. Remove eggplant to a strainer and allow to cool and any liquid to drain out while cooling. Add the shredded garlic, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and paprika to a bowl and stir. Once the eggplant has cooled, remove and discard the skin. Cut the eggplant in quarters and place back int the strainer to drain for 5 more minutes. Slice the eggplant into small pieces, and add to the bowl with the tomato mixture. Stir, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with pieces of baguette or crostini.

And now for the details…

Oh the eggplant. Also know as aubergine and brinjal in different parts of the globe, this piece of produce is used in a variety of ways, all over the world. Some of us know this “vegetable” (it is actually technically a berry) as the emoji symbol that represents… not… culinary activities… But despite its phallic representation in more recent media, I have a more romantic view of this produce. Not that kind of romance…

Eggplants have such a variety of possibilities when it comes to cooking. Because they are fairly flavourless, but absorb flavours so well, they have an ability to be incorporated into so many different dishes in many different ways. The can be the star of a dish and be served up, lightly dressed, all on their own, or they can be added into sauces, curries, dips, soups, stir fries, and the list goes on…

The fruit itself has such an unusual look and texture. The skin is such a deep, vibrant, shiny purple, and then by contrast, the flesh is a bright, stark, and matte white. Add in the bright green foliage, and the fruit presents its own, unique colour palette.

While it is beautiful to look at, raw eggplant is a bit unpleasant to consume. It’s astringent, and has a weird, spongy texture. However, once cooked, eggplant loses a lot of the tannin-like taste, and the texture instead becomes soft and silken. We are going to use that to add a different textural “bite” to the bruschetta topping in this recipe.

Let’s get to cooking.

Start by preheating your grill. Set it to medium-high heat, so that the temperature will sit around 400ºF/205ºC.

Before we place the eggplant on the grill, we are going to poke holes through the skin all over the eggplant. This will allow the heat to get into the eggplant a bit more thoroughly, and provide a means for the water trapped inside to escape while the eggplant is cooking. You can use a skewer, toothpick, or even a fork to do this. Try to get a fairly consistent pattern of holes all the way around the eggplant, and they can be spaced about 2cm apart.

We are going to place the eggplant on the grill, and cook it for 15-20 minutes, turning every couple minutes to get the char and cook consistent around the whole fruit. Timing will depend on your grill (and its temperature consistency) and the size of eggplant you are cooking. The goal is for the skin to partially char the entire way around, and for the flesh to have cooked all the way through. How do you tell if it is cooked all the way through? You can make a good assumption that once it has gone from being plump skin and is springy to the touch to shrivelled skin and feels squishy that you have reached your end point. The photo below shows the eggplant when it has first started cooking versus the halfway cooking point. While the skin is shrivelled in the photo on the right, the flesh was still a bit springy when pushed, and so the eggplant was not quite done cooking yet.

Once the eggplant is done, remove from the grill, and place in a wire mesh strainer and allow the liquid to drain from the eggplant as it cools. We are allowing this drainage to happen for a couple reasons, one being that we do not want to bruschetta to have all that liquid… it will turn our bread into a soggy mess. And the second reason is that the liquid has a lot of that astringent/bitter taste, and we want to to drain that off. Now, admittedly, from what I understand, eggplant nowadays are not nearly as bitter as they used to be, and the draining is not as necessary as it once was, but there’s still reason number 1, so just let that sucker drain.

And now you have an… *ahem* flaccid… eggplant… Our next step will be to remove the skin and cut the flesh into little pieces. Thanks to all that cooking, the skin should peel off very easily. Cut the top off, and then peel and discard the skin. Cut the eggplant flesh into four pieces, and place back into the strainer to drain for a few more minutes while you prepare the rest of the bruschetta.

Cut the tomatoes into small pieces. Roma or beefsteak tomatoes can be used instead of cherry tomatoes; I used the cherry tomatoes because they were what I had available. Regardless of what kind of tomato you used, it should be about 1/2-3/4 cup of tomato pieces once they’re all cut up. Place the tomatoes, basil, shredded garlic, smoked paprika, and olive oil into a bowl, and mix well.

Finally, bring the eggplant back to the cutting board, and cut it into small pieces, about 1cm in size. Mix the eggplant in with the other ingredients, and add salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, you can either split the topping between the bread or crostini and serve, or you can bring the bowl to the table and allow folks to scoop their preferred amount of topping onto their own bread or crostini. Technically, to be a true bruschetta, the bread should be toasted or grilled in some way, but I got super lazy with this one, and instead I just tore a few pieces of fresh, crispy baguette and in half, and scooped the bruschetta topping right onto the bread pieces and sprinkled with a little Maldon salt. It was delicious.

Happy eating.