Who doesn’t love Italian food? From familiar main dishes like spaghetti and lasagna to decadent desserts such as cheesecake and cannoli, it’s hard to even talk about this category of cuisine without our mouths starting to water.

Italian stuffed shells is one of Jamie’s favorite meals, but Jerry isn’t too fond of the “traditional” recipe for this dish, which includes mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, because he doesn’t like the taste or texture of ricotta. So he developed his own version using muenster cheese instead of ricotta, and Jamie liked it even better than the shells she grew up with (sorry Mom!).

A few notes on this recipe: We really feel that fresh herbs are essential here. It will make this dish cost a little more, but it’s well worth it. Also, the omission of eggs is intentional. While most traditional stuffed shell recipes use eggs as a binder, we find that the fat in the Italian sausage, coupled with a few tablespoons of olive oil, works just as well.

Italian sausage-stuffed shells

3/4 pound mild Italian sausage, casings removed

1/3 cup oregano leaves, chopped

1/3 cup Italian parsley, chopped

1/3 cup basil, chopped

2 tablespoons thyme leaves

1 bulb garlic, peeled and minced

8 ounces muenster cheese, shredded

16 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded and divided

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

20-24 jumbo pasta shells, prepared according to package directions and cooled

Your favorite pasta sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium saute pan over medium-high heat, crumble Italian sausage and cook until no longer pink. Remove from pan. Drain and cool.

In a large mixing bowl, combine oregano, Italian parsley, basil, thyme, garlic, muenster cheese, half of the mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese and salt. Mix (it might get messy, but your hands will work best here) until ingredients are well combined. Add sausage and 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and mix again. Add more olive oil as needed until the mixture sticks together when squeezed in the palm of your hand.

Spread 1/ 2 to 1 cup of pasta sauce on the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish (this will prevent the shells from sticking). Stuff shells with the Italian sausage and cheese mixture, and place seam side down in the baking dish. When all the shells have been filled, pour pasta sauce over them, and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella cheese.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling.

Serves 6 to 8 people.

Chicken Kara

July 23, 2008

Jerry has a problem turning over his kitchen.

In fact, he often assumes control of friends’ and family members’ kitchens when we visit, whipping up lunch and dinner for us, as well as our hosts. And on our annual beach trip each summer, when everyone is supposed to prepare just one dinner, he ends up heading the meal preparation on a near-nightly basis.

So when Jerry’s younger sister, Kara, volunteered to cook for the family on a recent visit, she knew it was a long shot. Kara had hoped to prepare a pork loin dish that she had come up with, and she shared the recipe with her brother. His culinary instincts immediately kicked in, and Jerry asked if he could make the meal himself, substituting thinly sliced chicken breasts for the pork. Even Kara had to admit that the result was delicious.

Though she didn’t get to try out her version of the recipe on us, Kara was still was the inspiration for Jerry’s latest dish, so, in tribute, he named it after her.

Chicken Kara

2 pounds thinly sliced boneless chicken breasts, flattened and cut into 8 to 10 even pieces

Salt

Pepper

Pesto (store bought or homemade, for which a recipe follows)

1 bunch fresh spinach

1 cup Parmesan cheese

8 to 10 slices bacon

1 1/ 2 cups chicken stock

On stove top, preheat large skillet to medium-high heat. Also, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly salt and pepper one side of each piece of chicken and spread each evenly with 1 tablespoon of pesto. Layer evenly with a small handful (approximately 1/ 4 cup) of spinach, followed by approximately 1 teaspoon of Parmesan cheese. Beginning from the narrower end, tightly roll each piece of chicken, keeping the pesto/spinach mixture on the inside. Wrap a slice of bacon around each piece of chicken and secure with a toothpick at each end.

Cook the chicken in the skillet for approximately 2 minutes per side, long enough for the bacon to begin to render and turn crisp.

Place the chicken in a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Add the chicken stock, and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes.

Pesto

4 to 5 cloves garlic

1 cup roasted pecans

1 cup Italian parsley

2 cups fresh basil

1/ 2 cup Parmesan cheese

1/ 2 cup olive oil

Salt

Place garlic and pecans in food processor and process until fine. Add parsley, basil and Parmesan cheese. As food processor continues to churn, gradually add olive oil until pesto becomes smooth. Add salt to taste.

Years ago, Jerry’s hamburgers were affectionately dubbed “Jerry burgers” by Jamie’s brother’s friends, who frequently mooched meals from us during their college years. We like them best topped with crispy bacon, muenster cheese, pickles and mustard, but feel free to fix them any way you choose.

Jerry burgers

2 pounds ground beef

3 jalapeños, minced

6-8 cloves garlic, minced

1 ½ tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Preheat grill to medium-high.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients by hand. Form into six patties.

Grill approximately 5 minutes per side, or until sides are well browned.

We must admit that we started making turkey burgers not because they are healthier than hamburgers (which is, of course, an added bonus), but because ground turkey is frequently cheaper than ground beef. We’ve found, however, that we like turkey burgers equally well.

Turkey burgers

2 pounds ground turkey

1 bunch green onions, chopped

3 jalapeños, minced

6-8 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup bread crumbs

1 tablespoon olive oil

Suggested toppings: Pepper jack cheese and salsa

Preheat grill to medium.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients by hand. Form into six patties.

Grill approximately 8 minutes per side.

Apea cake

July 8, 2008

Over Fourth of July weekend, Jamie’s grandmother, aunt and cousin from Pennsylvania visited and brought with them several tastes of home, including shoofly pie, whoopie pies and apea cake. We spent the holiday stuffing ourself with these sweet treats, as we don’t get them very often this far from Amish country.

This recipe for apea cake, a Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast treat, comes from “Uncle Duddy,” the brother of Jamie’s great-grandmother, and was shared with us by Jamie’s grandmother, who lives in Jamie’s hometown of Pottstown, Pa. Apea cake is great with a cup of morning coffee or tea, and it has a wonderful sweetness without being overly sugary.

Perhaps the best thing about this cake is how well it freezes. Jamie’s grandmother recommends baking the cakes in disposable foil pans, cooling them and covering first with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil before freezing. As for how long they can be frozen, Jamie’s grandmother says, “They last for a very, very long time. I always have an apea cake in the freezer.”

Apea cake

4 cups flour

2 cups brown sugar (light or dark; Jamie’s grandmother prefers light brown sugar, her aunt prefers dark)

2 sticks margarine, melted

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon baking soda

Granulated sugar and cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the first five ingredients. Mix well. Divide the batter evenly between two 8-inch pie pans. Sprinkle the top of each cake with granulated sugar and cinnamon.

Bake for 45 minutes, then test with a toothpick to make sure the cakes are done. If not, return to the oven, testing often until the toothpick comes out clean.

There are some times when we walk into the grocery store with absolutely no shopping agenda. There are no good sales, and there’s nothing in particular that we’re craving. So we head straight to the meat department and browse the selection until we find something that makes our mouths water. Last week, it was a beautiful eye of round roast.

Normally, we simply season our eye of round and slow cook it over very low heat, then thinly slice and serve it. But on this particular night, Jerry was feeling a little more creative, so he decided to stuff the roast with spinach, ham and cheese. The result was so delicious that we decided to share the recipe. We hope you enjoy.

Eye of round roast stuffed with spinach, ham and cheese

2-pound eye of round roast

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, shredded

1 cup spinach, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

4 to 5 pieces thinly sliced smoked ham

4 to 5 slices provolone cheese

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

With the “round” part of the roast facing you, begin cutting from left to right, making a 1-inch thick slice. Continue cutting in one continuous piece until you have a flat piece of roast approximately 1 inch in thickness.

Salt and pepper the side of the roast that is facing upward, and then spread evenly with Parmesan cheese. Spread the spinach on top of the Parmesan, and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Layer with slices of ham and cheese. Beginning at one end, roll the roast into a spiral shape, and tie securely with two pieces of butcher’s twine. Sprinkle the outside of the roast with Italian seasoning and garlic powder.

Place the roast on a wire rack over a roasting pan. Cook at 500 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 250 degrees and cook for an additional 50 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Cut into ½-inch thick slices, removing butcher’s twine, and serve.

Pizza and stromboli

July 2, 2008

There are few things in this world more delicious than a steaming hot pizza, fresh from the oven and topped with – well, whatever it is you like on your pizza (we prefer pepperoni and mushrooms). Like many families, we have our favorite pizza place, and, while we wouldn’t say that we frequent it, it’s the first place we go when we want a little slice of heaven.

Oftentimes, however, we make our own pizza at home – because it’s fairly easy and fun, especially if you’re cooking with kids. From rolling out the dough to spreading the mozzarella cheese (and usually eating quite a bit of it in the process), our 5- and 2-year-olds happily pull up chairs to the counter to lend a helping hand.

When we create pizza at home, we don’t go for the conventional – there’s no tomato-based pizza sauce to be found in our kitchen. Instead, we usually opt for the following pies smothered with pesto or garlic. We’ve also included a recipe for stromboli.

First, though, you have to make the dough.

Pizza dough

1 packet active yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup warm water

3 cups flour

Combine yeast, sugar, salt, olive oil and water in a small bowl. Mix well. Allow yeast to proof for approximately 5 minutes.

Pour 2 cups flour into a food processor fitted with a plastic blade. Add yeast mixture, and process for approximately 1 minute or until smooth. Add additional flour 1/3 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. After final 1/3 cup is added, continue processing for approximately 2 minutes (the dough should ball up).

Remove dough from food processor to a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Roll dough into a ball and place in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover the dough with a damp towel. Allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, approximately 1 hour.

Remove the dough from the bowl and divide into desired number of equal-sized pieces (we recommend two pieces to make two 12- to 14-inch pizzas or four pieces for four strombolis). Place on floured surface, re-cover with towel, and let rest for an additional 15 minutes.

Now you’re ready to make your pizza or stromboli.

Pesto pizza

Pesto:

4 to 5 cloves garlic

1 cup roasted pecans

1 cup Italian parsley

2 cups fresh basil

½ cup Parmesan cheese

½ cup olive oil

Salt to taste

Pizza dough

1 ½ cups mozzarella cheese

To make pesto, place garlic and pecans in food processor and process until finely minced. Add parsley, basil and Parmesan cheese. As food processor continues to churn, gradually add olive oil until pesto becomes smooth. Add salt to taste.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Roll pizza dough into a large circle (approximately 12 to 14 inches in diameter) until approximately 1/8-inch thick. Leave approximately ½ inch for the crust, and use a spoon to evenly spread approximately 5 to 6 tablespoons of pesto onto the dough. (You should have pesto left over. Refrigerate the remainder, and toss it with some pasta for a quick side dish later in the week.) Spread mozzarella cheese evenly on top of the pesto.

Bake on a pizza stone for approximately 8 to 10 minutes or until cheese just starts to bubble and turn brown.

Blanco pizza

Pizza dough

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh or dried oregano

1 head garlic, minced

1 ½ cups mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Roll pizza dough into a large circle (approximately 12 to 14 inches in diameter) until approximately 1/8-inch thick. Leave approximately ½ inch for the crust, and lightly drizzle olive oil over the dough. Spread garlic and oregano evenly over olive oil. Spread mozzarella cheese evenly on top of garlic.

Bake on a pizza stone for approximately 8 to 10 minutes or until cheese just starts to bubble and turn brown.

Stromboli

½ tablespoon olive oil

½ large onion, diced

8 -ounce package button mushrooms, sliced

Balsamic vinegar

¾ pound mild Italian sausage, cut into ½-inch chunks

½ head garlic, minced

4 1/2 ounces pepperoni

2 teaspoons Italian spice mix, divided

2 cups muenster cheese, shredded

2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded

Pizza dough, divided into four pieces

Heat olive oil in large saute pan over medium heat. Saute onions and mushrooms for approximately 3 minutes. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Remove to a plate covered with a paper towel to drain and set aside.

In the same pan, cook Italian sausage until no longer pink. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out one of four pieces of dough into a circle (approximately 8 to 10 inches in diameter) until 1/8-inch thick. Place ¼ of onion and mushroom mixture in the center of the dough, then sprinkle with ¼ of the garlic and ¼ of the Italian seasoning. Add ¼ of the Italian sausage and ¼ of the pepperoni, followed by ¼ of each of the cheeses. Fold over to make a half moon shape, pressing down the sides to seal. Starting at one end of the stromboli, crimp the dough along the outer edge until firmly sealed. Cut 4 to 5 slits in the top of the stromboli. Repeat this process with the remaining ingredients.

Cook on pizza stone for 12 to 15 minutes until cheese is melted and top is golden brown.