Every grill has its day: Chopped barbecue chicken salad

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When we lived in Missouri, Jared and I had a beast of a grill that took up about a third of the deck space at the back of our small apartment. It sat largely unused for a good five months of the year, but once the weather warmed up enough for Jared to remove his snow gear, we put the grill to use at least three or four times a week (though I do recall a few winter grilling sessions that required the use of gloves). When we moved to North Carolina though, our new place had one of those “no grilling within 10 feet of the premises” rules, so there was no sense in moving a behemoth hunk of stainless steel 920 miles across the country just to let it sit. We left it behind, the poor thing. I guess every grill has its day.

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Summer is certainly the season for grilling, but we’re now living in our second no-grills-allowed apartment and have had to get a little creative to satisfy summer cravings without becoming wild tong-wielding rule-breakers. We finally bought a cast-iron skillet last weekend to try our hands at cooking steak inside, and I’d say it gave our memories of grilled steaks a run for their money (minus the three fire alarms and frantic fanning of lingering smoke, of course). For this barbecue chicken salad though, we fired up the ol’ panini press as a grilling substitute. And you know what? Not only does it taste pretty great, but it’s also amazingly fast. It’s not quite like the real deal, but it gets the job done with the bonus of adding those dandy grill marks.

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The rest of this salad comes together super easily, and it’s one of those great recipes that’s really more of a loose guideline than a hard blueprint. Add what you love, skip what you don’t love, throw it all in a bowl, and you’re done. Aside from grilling (see also: panini-ing) the chicken, it’s low maintenance and cooking free. Now go forth, and chop!

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Chopped Barbecue Chicken Salad
Serves 4 

• 6 to 8 cups chopped Romaine lettuce
• 12 ounces to 1 pound grilled chicken, cut into small bite-sized pieces
• 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 ½ cups corn (cooked, straight from the cob or however you like it)
• 1 pint cherry tomatoes, diced
• ¼ to ½ cup diced red onion
• grated cheese for sprinkling (cheddar always goes well with barbecue)
• ranch dressing (here’s a homemade version we like)
• barbecue sauce
* Other fun additions: hard-boiled eggs, avocados, crumbled bacon, olives, tortilla strips

Put all of the ingredients except the cheese, dressing and barbecue sauce into a large bowl, and give the salad a good toss. Top individual salads with a bit of grated cheese and an even drizzle of ranch and barbecue sauce. Enjoy!

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I’m a big fan of making things that we can get two meals out of, and this salad keeps really well for a few days in the refrigerator as long as you leave the dressing and barbecue sauce off until the day you eat it. And when it says it serves four, that’s a healthy dose of salad, like for a whole meal, so it could definitely be stretched further if you serve it alongside some good bread or something else to help fill the tummies. It’s a new favorite for us and definitely in the weekly rotation for these warm-weather days.

What’s your favorite throw-it-together meal? Any other creative non-grill-owning grillers out there? What’s on the menu now that the weather is getting warm?

XO,
Katrina

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For diners big and small: Tomato mac & cheese

Tomato Mac & Cheese

By the time Beany turned 1, with a mouth full of teeth and a newfound interest in whatever sat on the plate of the person next to her, she’d pretty much lost all interest in the purees and baby foods we’d come to rely on as quick fixes for a hungry girl. Gradually, she started eating more and more big-people food, and we started feeling pretty proud of ourselves for the refined palate our toddler was developing. Now nearly 19 months old, she has a liking for sharp cheeses, spinach risotto and garlic and onion on anything. Of course, lest we get too proud in the matter, our tiny gastronome keeps us in check. Just last week, I caught her nibbling crayons (blue and yellow. Does that make it better?). So, yeah. The palate is a work in progress.

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Refined palate and/or crayon-eating aside, Beany is a very much a toddler, and, like most little kids, she loves a good mac and cheese. She doesn’t get it often, but when she does, she devours it, and I’m happy to report that this version is her favorite to date. Maybe it’s the “Tigger tail” noodles instead of elbow macaroni (a switch made at Jared’s insistence), or maybe it’s the Gruyere and extra-sharp cheddar. Whatever the reason, she thinks it’s grand. We do, too.

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Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that most grownups love mac and cheese nearly as much as kids do, even though we’re programmed to think of it as kid food or a side for barbecue. The breadcrumbs and tomatoes really dress this guy up, and I’d happily serve it as a meal for company. You know, if Beany doesn’t get to it first. She’s a growing girl after all.

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Tomato Mac & Cheese
Adapted slightly from the Barefoot Contessa

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 pound cavatappi (or elbow macaroni)
• 4 cups milk (I use skim.)
• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
• ½ cup all-purpose flour
• 8 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
• 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated
• 4 ounces Monterey Jack, grated
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 3 to 4 fresh tomatoes
• 1 ½ cups bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and drizzle in the olive oil. Add the pasta, and cook according to package instructions. Drain well, and set aside.

In the meantime, heat the milk in a small saucepan (but don’t let it boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large pot. Add the flour and cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for another few minutes, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, stir in the three cheeses along with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the cooked pasta, and stir until well combined. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish (or divide between two smaller baking dishes).

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and mix it into the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the pasta. Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the breadcrumbs. (I also like to add a bit more freshly ground black pepper on top, just because it looks pretty.) Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the pasta is browned on top.

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Do you make any kid-friendly fare that’s fit for an adult crowd? Any fun additions to mac and cheese? Do tell!

XO,
Katrina

Cinco de Mayo: Vegetarian enchiladas

Vegetarian Enchiladas3

Happy Cinco de Mayo! Not that anyone ever needs an excuse to eat Mexican food (it’s a mega favorite among the people in this house, Beany included), but today’s an especially great day for it, don’t you think? We’ve been traveling a bit lately and are happy to have landed back in North Carolina, so instead of heading out to eat, we’re whipping up some festive eats at home.

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Enchiladas are always a crowd-pleaser, and these are especially great because they can be made ahead of time and refrigerated until you’re ready to bake (or frozen if you make them days in advance). I love that they’re vegetarian, but to tell you the truth, they’re so packed with flavor, I bet even the most carnivorous eaters won’t miss the meat.

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And like lots of the best Mexican fare, the recipe has plenty of wiggle room. Add more of this and a little of that to suit your tastes. It all gets wrapped up in a delicious corn tortilla and topped with cheese, so it really is hard to go wrong. ¡Buen provecho!

Vegetarian Enchiladas

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Vegetarian Enchiladas
Adapted from Martha Stewart

• 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for baking dishes
• 2 rounded teaspoons ground cumin
• 2 rounded teaspoons chili powder
• ¼ cup all-purpose flour
• ¼ cup tomato paste
• 14 ½ ounces low-sodium vegetable broth
• coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 ½ cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
• 1 ½ cups grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
• 1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
• 3-4 ounces (about half a bag) fresh baby spinach, chopped
• 1 ½ cups frozen corn
• 1 bunch of scallions, white and green parts separated
• 14-16 corn tortillas

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add 1 rounded teaspoon cumin, 1 rounded teaspoon chili powder, flour and tomato paste, and cook while whisking for 1 minute. Whisk in the broth and ¾ cup water, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

To make the filling, combine 1 cup of Monterey Jack, 1 cup of cheddar, the beans, spinach, corn, scallion whites, ¼ cup scallion greens and the remaining cumin and chili powder in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, and lightly oil two 8-inch square baking dishes. Set aside. Stack the tortillas in aluminum foil, wrap them up and heat them in the oven or 5 to 10 minutes.

Top each warmed tortilla with 1/3 heaping cup of filling. Roll the tortillas tightly, and arrange them, seam side down, in the oiled baking dishes. [Note: If you’re baking the enchiladas later the same day, make them up to this point, cover the enchiladas in foil and the sauce with a lid, and place them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to move on to the next step. You can also make them up to this point, cover the baking dishes with plastic wrap and aluminum foil and the sauce with a tight-fitting lid and freeze them both for up to 2 months. To bake frozen enchiladas, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, remove the foil and plastic wrap, pour the sauce over the enchiladas, top with the sauce and sprinkle on the remaining 1 cup of cheese. Cover with the foil again, and bake for 30 minutes. Then remove the foil, and bake for an additional 15 minutes, until the enchiladas are hot and bubbly.]

Top the enchiladas with the sauce, and sprinkle on the remaining ½ cup of each kind of cheese, divided evenly between the baking dishes. Bake, uncovered, until the enchiladas are hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, and then serve garnished with the remaining scallion greens.

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XO,
Katrina

The missing zing: Balsamic-glazed penne with roasted asparagus

Balsamic Penne

I love balsamic vinegar. Like, really love it. I add it to pasta, salad, rice, almost any savory dish that seems a little lacking in flavor. And I add it in quantities that would probably make most people shudder. Jared certainly likes it well enough, too, but any time I’m cooking and he sees me reaching for the balsamic vinegar bottle, I can tell he’s getting nervous. A little goes a long way, he likes to remind me.

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So yes, I have a reputation for excessive balsamic vinegar usage, which is probably why Jared reacted the way he did as he watched me measure out a full two-thirds cup of it into a saucepan while putting together this recipe. Whether you use a lot or a little, balsamic vinegar likes to show you that it’s there. The second it hits the heat, it lets out a wonderful sizzle and a swoosh of steam that fills your nose if you’re standing too close. I lean in a smidge. Jared jumps back.

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In most cases, two-thirds of a cup is definitely a lot of vinegar, and you might feel as if you’re basting yourself in it when you first begin this recipe. But by the end, once it’s simmered down into a beautiful, syrupy sauce, and it’s tossed in with the pasta, butter and roasted asparagus, that pungent zing is replaced by a smooth, rich glaze that coats the penne perfectly and makes you happy with every bite.

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Jared was skeptical, but now he’s a believer. Balsamic vinegar knows no limits.

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Balsamic-Glazed Penne with Roasted Asparagus
Adapted slightly from Food and Wine

• 1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and then cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
• ½ teaspoon brown sugar
• 1 pound whole-wheat penne
• 6 tablespoons salted butter, cut into ¼-inch cubes
• ½ cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the cut asparagus on a large, rimmed baking sheet (lined with foil for easy cleanup). Drizzle the olive oil over top, and sprinkle on ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Toss until the asparagus is evenly coated, then spread it back out in an even layer. Roast until the asparagus is tender and its ends begin to get slightly brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes, tossing partway through.

In the meantime, put the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan and simmer until 3 tablespoons remain (you’ll know it’s reduced enough when the vinegar coats the back of a spoon). Stir in the brown sugar and remaining ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Remove from the heat.

While the vinegar is reducing, cook the penne according to package instructions. Drain the pasta, and toss it with the butter and vinegar until it’s well coated. Add the asparagus, Parmesan and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and toss gently to combine. Serve with the extra Parmesan.

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Funnily enough, this was actually the very first recipe I pinned on Pinterest at least two years ago, and I finally got around to making it last week. We all love it, and I can’t believe it was just sitting on that board for so long, waiting to be tried. Now, it’s officially added to the rotation. Woot!

Have you tried any great new recipes lately? Are there any fellow balsamic vinegar lovers out there with delicious dishes to share? What are your favorite flavors that you could eat by the cupful (even if you know you shouldn’t)? Do tell!

XO,
Katrina

Out of the rut: Barley risotto with spinach and sweet potatoes

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New baked goods are a regular occurrence in our house, but when it comes to dinner, I get stuck in a rut so fast. Try as I might, I just don’t get as excited about savory dishes as I do about sugar. Or butter. Or whipped cream. You get the idea.

I know, I know. A family cannot subsist on dessert alone, and I promise we’re fairly moderated in our consumption even when the oven triumphantly produces four new cookies in a week. Despite my fallback habits for the evening meal, we still eat fun things. We just tend to eat the same fun things over and over again, assuming that they’re relatively quick and easy. Weeknights are bananas sometimes.

Which brings us to this meal. Risotto is a favorite across the board for us (this spinach and mushroom risotto is our favorite among favorites!), but it takes so long. And it’s not just that it takes so long; it takes a lot of hands-on time — hands that are in high demand for puppy feeding and baby chasing and other miscellaneous hullaballoo come 6 p.m.

But this one is so easy! With barley instead of Arborio rice, this dish is not only handily finished off in the oven (woo hoo!), but it’s also healthy. I dare say it’s pretty foolproof, too, and tastes just as creamy and satisfying as the stuff that takes an hour over the stovetop to prepare. Now just think of all the cookie dough you can whip up with your hands free for those 40 minutes of baking! 

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Barley Risotto with Spinach and Sweet Potatoes
Adapted from Real Simple

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
• 1 onion, chopped
• kosher salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• 1 cup pearl barley
• ½ cup dry white wine
• 3 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth (I used vegetable broth, but either works.)
• ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 6 ounces fresh baby spinach

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a Dutch oven or large oven-proof saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, sweet potatoes, salt and pepper, and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Stir often to keep things from burning.

Add the barley, and cook for another minute, this time stirring constantly. Add the wine, and continue cooking until the liquid has evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the broth, and bring it to a boil. Cover the pot, and transfer it to the oven to bake until the barley is tender, about 35 to 40 minutes (Note: The first time I made this, I used quick-cooking barley instead of pearl barley. It was good but definitely already a little past done after only 25 minutes. If you’d prefer to use quick-cooking barley for a faster meal, make sure you give your sweet potatoes a little more time in the sautéing stage so they’ll be tender after about 10 to 15 minutes in the oven.)

Stir in the butter and Parmesan, then stir in the spinach. Serve with an extra happy sprinkling of Parmesan.

Barley Risotto

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I’m planning to try out a spinach and mushroom version of the barley risotto over the weekend to see how it compares to our beloved favorite. I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Happy weekend to you!

XO,
Katrina

Worth a second chance: The meatball sandwich

Meatball Sandwich

While surfing Pinterest on Saturday afternoon, I came across a DIY tutorial for turning a men’s collared shirt into a super cute women’s top, complete with an adorable bow around the neck. Like many pins, it came with the overly enthusiastic sell, something like: “SO TOTES EASY! Turn your man’s shirt into a cute weekend look for you. This is AMAZING! Pin now, read later.” Apparently, I’m an easy sell. That, or I was simply wooed by the promise of a chambray polka dot blouse. Either way, I showed the pin to Jared, who was sitting on the couch next to me. “Um, OK,” he said, less than enthusiastically. “But where are you supposed to find a guy’s shirt like that?” Alas, albeit for a few spotted ties, the man does not dress in polka dots.

I’m a sucker for second chances, and though I probably wouldn’t have actually broken out the scissors even if Jared did have a polka dot chambray shirt hidden away in the back of the closet, I do love the idea of putting a new spin on an old favorite. My mom spent most of my childhood transforming secondhand furniture into amazing new pieces with little more than paint. And my little sister could probably wear the same outfit five days in row with no one the wiser simply by wielding her accessorizing super power. If paint and necklaces have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes it doesn’t take much to make you feel — and look — brand new.

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With neither shirts to deconstruct nor furniture to paint this weekend, I turned my attention toward the kitchen, which, suffice it to say, is always looking rather hollow by the end of week. There were a few handfuls of spinach, provolone cheese and meatballs leftover from Friday night’s spaghetti. “Make it work,” Tim Gunn said. No, wait, that wasn’t Tim Gunn. That was low blood sugar. The characters of my hunger-induced delirium are always rather bossy.

Real or not, I think Mr. Gunn would be proud. Jared ran out and picked up a few rolls from our favorite Durham bakery, Guglhupf. Then from the confines of our humble supplies, the meatball sandwich was born.

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The Meatball Sandwich

• meatballs (see recipe here)
• marinara sauce
• provolone cheese
• a handful of fresh baby spinach
• freshly ground black pepper
• good bread

Heat the meatballs until they’re warm enough to serve. Layer a bed of spinach, three or four meatballs, a bit of marinara sauce and a thin slice of provolone on a piece of good bread. Pop both halves of the bread (the layered piece and the empty topper) under the broiler until the edges begin to brown and the cheese melts. Add some freshly ground black pepper, put the sandwich together, and enjoy!

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What’s your take on new spins? Do you reinvent recipes? Outfits? Décor? I’d love to hear about it!

XO,
Katrina

Chilly weather means chili weather

I had originally planned to begin this post with the line, “Fall has arrived in North Carolina!” And it had when I made this chili last week. It was a cool morning, the air was crisp and the leaves were blowing. I think the high that day was 58 degrees. It was beautiful. But you know how fall is, that silly, fickle season. He comes to town with promises of scarves, jackets and mugs of hot chocolate, but just when you get nice and cozy in your favorite oversized sweater and furry socks, he forgets what he’s doing and wanders off, probably somewhere north. The thermometer creeps back up near 80, and your neck is angry and irritable from all that extra fabric you’re determined to keep wrapped around it. “Come back, fall,” you say repeatedly. “ I promise you a warm cup of tea and the best spot on the couch if you’d just hunker down and stay a while.”

Well, our trusty(ish) local weatherman assures us that the cooler weather will return this weekend (followed by another bout of near-80s temperature, but let’s not borrow trouble), so I plan to make another round of this tastes-like-autumn chili to celebrate the season. This recipe is beautifully hodge-podgety in that you really can add or subtract as you wish. For more heat, add more spices; for more flavor, try some smoked peppers or chipotle Tabasco. The version below is a Jared-and-Katrina compromise that has some kick but isn’t too spicy and uses some of our favorite ingredients. Oh, and the brown sugar is a yummy touch if you like that bit of sweet. When mixed with the sweet potato, it actually comes off tasting a bit honey-ish. Crazy, right? Crazy delicious you mean. Zing!

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Slow Cooker Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili

 • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large sweet onion, diced
• ½ teaspoon kosher salt
• 2 cloves of garlic, minced
• 2-3 medium-sized sweet potatoes, diced
• 2 15-ounces cans of black beans, drained
• 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
• 1-2 tablespoons chili powder (depending on your heat preference)
• 2 teaspoons cumin
• ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• ¼-½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (again, depending on how spicy you like it)
• 1-2 tablespoons light brown sugar (depending on your sweet preference)
• 2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth, plus more if desired
• ½ to 1 pound short pasta, such as macaroni, rotini or rigati

In a large pan, sauté the onion in the olive oil until it becomes soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the salt and garlic during the last 30 seconds to 1 minute, just so the garlic gets golden and fragrant. Remove from heat.

In the slow cooker, add the sautéed onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, black beans, diced tomatoes, spices and sugar. Give it a good stir so all the ingredients and spices are evenly dispersed. Add the two cups of chicken or vegetable broth, and give it another good stir.

Cover the slow cooker, and set it on high for about 4-5 hours. (I haven’t tried the recipe in the slow cooker on low, but I would expect that 8-10 hours would do the trick. For the stove top, I’d bring everything to a boil and then let it simmer for about an hour, until the potatoes are soft.)

During the last 15 or so minutes of cooking, bring a pot of water to a boil, and cook the pasta according to the package instructions. Use more or less as you see fit, depending on how smooth you like your chili. Add the cooked pasta to the chili, and mix to combine. Remember, you can always add a bit more chicken broth to reach your desired consistency. Enjoy!

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Has fall arrived where you live? Have you brought out the slow cooker and jumped aboard the soup/chili/recipes-that-cook-all-day train? What’s cooking in your house this weekend?

XO,
Katrina

On top of spaghetti: Fast and easy meatballs

While making a grocery list yesterday, I took a minute to peruse the recipe index on the blog for a few meal ideas for the upcoming week. During said search, two facts become abundantly clear: No. 1, we eat a lot of cookies. And No. 2, if our lives took place in Land Before Time, we’d be on Team Tree Stars.

Let this post be a break from the norm! (And proof to our respective parents that we do, in fact, consume protein on occasion.) Jared and I first saw this recipe for classic beef meatballs on an episode of The Martha Stewart Show last year. It’s another one from The Meatball Shop Cookbook — actually, it was this recipe that spurred us to buy the cookbook — and it’s an awesome, easy way to make homemade meatballs that taste like they took a lot of time and effort. There’s no browning. No frying. These guys are made entirely in the oven. They’re great on pasta, great on polenta and great in a meatball sandwich (says Jared).

Yep, these meatballs can make magic and move mountains. Now if only they could bring back my Martha show. Humph.

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Classic Beef Meatballs
From The Meatball Shop Cookbook (Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow, p. 4)

[Note: I usually half this recipe, and it makes plenty of meatballs for the two of us, with lots leftover.]

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 pounds ground beef (80 percent lean is ideal.)
• 1 cup ricotta cheese
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup breadcrumbs (I usually use panko.)
• ¼ cup chopped parsley
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
• ½ teaspoon ground fennel* (I’ve actually never added the fennel to ours, but I bet it’s good.)
• 4 cups of your favorite tomato sauce, either jarred or homemade

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Drizzle the olive oil evenly in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, eggs, breadcrumbs, parsley, oregano, salt, red pepper flakes and fennel (if using) until well blended. Add the beef, and mix until it’s fully incorporated.

Roll the mixture into golf ball-sized balls, and place them in the prepared pan. Make sure they’re in there snuggly and in even rows, both vertically and horizontally.

Roast the meatballs for 20 minutes, until they’re firm and cooked through (internal temperature should read 165 degrees F). Remove the pan from the oven, and drain the excess fat. Pour the tomato sauce over the top of the meatballs, and return the pan to the oven for another 15 minutes.

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Does anyone else have a favorite meatball recipe? Maybe something from your family that’s been passed down for generations? Or maybe another savory dish is more your style. What’s your favorite food to round out your weekly menu?

XO,
Katrina

Cooking off the Cuff: A Makeshift Pasta Fresca

This probably sounds silly coming from a food blogger, but the more I write about food, the more I realize that recipes are not the be all and end all of cooking. In fact, some of my most successful kitchen moments as of late were born from my pantry rather than a cookbook. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to follow flavors instead of just directions, and I can say with confidence that the process has made me feel a touch more chef-y. Still, I know I have a long way to go. I’d love to be one of those cooks who can rebel against my need for order and dance between ingredients and gadgets like a carefree kid on a bicycle, but it’s hard. And slow. And sometimes I burn things.

While working late nights at Vox magazine during college, I discovered a love for the pasta fresca at Noodles and Co. a block away from the office, and it’s one of the few fast food-ish dishes that I still regularly crave (that and those gigantic Chipotle burritos. Mmm. And ooph). I decided to try my own version based on the flavors and ingredients I remembered — red onion, spinach and balsamic vinegar — and after a bit of trial and error, I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s the perfect pasta for a weeknight meal because it’s quick to throw together, takes relatively little prep work, and you can easily bend the recipe to match your tastes or whatever you have in the kitchen. Or if you’re feeling really adventurous, toss the recipe altogether and take to it Chopped style. The secret ingredients are — red onion, spinach and balsamic vinegar. Go!

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Pasta Fresca

• 13.5 ounces of whole-wheat spaghetti
• 1 sweet red onion, cut into ½-inch slices
• ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 8 ounces fresh baby spinach
• 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• ¼ to ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
• ¼ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
• freshly grated Parmesan

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat; when the oil is hot, add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt, and sauté until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes.

In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a few healthy pinches of salt and the pasta, and then cook to al dente according to package instructions. Drain pasta, and return it to the pot. (Ideally, the recipe should be timed so the pasta finishes cooking just as the spinach is added to the onions.)

Now back to the onions: Once the onions have started softening and becoming translucent, add the garlic, crushed red pepper and black pepper. Sauté for another minute, until the garlic turns golden. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Give everything a good toss so the onions get coated with the olive oil/vinegar mixture. Turn off the heat, and begin adding the spinach little by little, and toss with the onions. Continue tossing until the spinach just begins to cook down, about 1 minute.

Add the spinach, onions and dressing to the pasta, and gently mix everything together. Top with freshly grated Parmesan.

Serves 4 (3 if you’re super hungry)

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Have you ever tried recreating restaurant favorites at home? What did you make? And how did it go? I’d love to hear about it!

XO,
Katrina

Food for a fairy tale: Wheatberry salad

Don’t you just love when an ingredient sounds like it was invented in a fairy tale?

Beneath the leaves of an unassuming bramble bush, in a wooded field not far from your backyard, the wild wheatberries lie. They’re the tiniest of berries, no larger than a flea, and none too impressive in appearance, but please don’t be fooled: Sometimes, within the smallest packages, there lives the greatest power.

Yes, yes, my mind is wandering. But even if you’re one who’s skeptical of our tiny protagonist’s humble beginnings, I think it’s safe to say that wheatberries do add an undeniably magical contribution to the culinary stage. They’re nutty little grains that are packed with nutrients, and they never seem to mush up, no matter how long you cook them. That’s a good thing! Although they definitely soften through the boiling process, they retain a nice bite to the bitter end, which makes them perfect for a salad tossed with all sorts of other goodies.

This wheatberry salad from Ina Garten is perfect for a noontime meal or an evening side. Pretty, fresh, crisp and good for you. Hooray for the wheatberry! Hooray!

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Wheatberry Salad
Adapted slightly from Barefoot Contessa Family Style (Ina Garten, p. 67)

 • 1 cup hard winter wheatberries
• kosher salt
• 1 red onion, finely diced
• 5 tablespoons olive oil
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• 4 scallions, minced
• ½ red bell pepper, diced
• 1 carrot, diced
• ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium or large saucepan, bring 3 cups of salted water to a boil. Stir in the wheatberries and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an hour, until the wheatberries are soft. Drain.

While the wheatberries are finishing up cooking, sauté the red onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, until the onions are translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove pan from the heat, and add balsamic vinegar and remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil.

In a large bowl, mix together the warm wheatberries, sautéed onions and all of your fresh ingredients: scallions, bell pepper and carrot. Add the black pepper and a touch more salt if needed. Let the salad sit for about 30 minutes before serving. Serve at room temperature.

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Do you have any delicious salad recipes up your sleeve? How about a great recipe for wheatberries? My cupboards now floweth over with wheatberry goodness. They must be put to good use!

XO,
Katrina

Wheatberries can be a little tricky to track down. We found ours at Whole Foods in the bulk food section. I hear that health food stores are also a great place to look. Or maybe in the bushes behind your house. :) Happy hunting!

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