Ham and Asparagus Lasagna

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There an adorable young Italian woman whose blog I follow. Her name is Alida, she was born in Friuli in North Eastern Italy, and her blog is My Little Italian Kitchen.

I follow her on Facebook as well, because her daily food photos make me happy. Like these. So colorful and enticing!

Although now living in London, Alida travels often throughout Italy, visiting artisanal bakers and cheese makers, and has also won cooking competitions. Let’s just say she knows what she’s doing, and is passionate about Italian food.

To quote Alida, “Cooking is an expression of who you are and your personality. You have to put your whole self into it: your passion, feeling and experiences all go into the food and you become part of the recipe.”

In the spring of 2017, Alida posted a recipe for Asparagus Ham Lasagna that I couldn’t ignore. “Traditional” lasagna is so wonderful, but I love other varieties as well, even meatless varieties. It’s my idea of comfort food.

Fresh pasta sheets, bechamel, a purée of asparagus, ham, asparagus pieces, and Parmesan, all layered and baked to perfect deliciousness! I can’t believe I’ve waited a year to make it. Plus, it was an excuse to finally use my Kitchen Aid pasta rolling attachment.

Ham and Asparagus Lasagna

Ingredients
fresh lasagne sheets – 400 g – about 15 sheets
fresh asparagus – 700 g – 6 cups
grated parmesan cheese – to sprinkle
ham – 240 g – 1 + 2/3 cup
olive oil
salt
butter – knob

For the bechamel sauce:
milk – 1,5 Liters – 1.58 qt
butter – 100 g – 1/2 cup
plain flour – 80 g – 3/4 cup
grated nutmeg – pinch
salt and pepper

The pasta dough I started with included 3 eggs plus 2 yolks, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

Whisk the eggs and olive oil together and gradually add flour until a dough forms. Turn out onto a slightly floured board, knead a minute, then wrap up in plastic wrap and let sit at least 30 minutes to rest.

Roll out the lasagna sheets to the desired thickness. They can be a little thicker than sheets you would use for making ravioli. I used #6 on my attachment.

Cut to 13″ lengths and set aside.

Clean and peel the asparagus if they are large. Remove the thicker ends and cut the tips off. Cut the asparagus in small pieces and cook them in salty water. I cooked the tips first just to keep it simple.

Whiz the stems into a purée and set aside.

Make the bechamel and set aside; I’ve included a link to my own in case you’ve never made it before.

Have the grated Parmesan and ham handy.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease a 13″ x 9″ baking dish.

When you’re ready to prepare the lasagna, add some bechamel to the bottom of the baking dish and cover with a few lasagna sheets.

Add some asparagus purée, ham, cheese, and more sauce. Cover again with lasagna sheets.

Continue layering. On the top, make sure there is bechamel, ham, cheese, and the remaining asparagus.

Bake, covered, for 35 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 20 minutes.


Let the lasagna sit for about 30 minutes before cutting up the servings.

The lasagna actually sliced very well while it was still warm.

You can see the lovely layers on white sauce, ham, asparagus puree, and asparagus tips.

I sliced the asparagus tips lengthwise after they had cooked and cooled, because I felt they were quite thick.

I love traditional lasagna, but this is definitely second best! And in spite of the bechamel, this lasagna doesn’t seem as heavy as traditional, probably because the only meat is thinly shaved ham. I’ll definitely be making this again!

Easy Peasy Pasta

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There are some specific criteria to being a successful home cook. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to have food in the house! That may not sound very profound, but no one, not even Gordon Ramsay, can prepare food without basics in the pantry and refrigerator. It’s just impossible.

It’s not only necessary to have ingredients available, it’s so much less expensive to cook with those ingredients, instead of going out for restaurant food or contacting a delivery service.

Some staples I must have in my pantry include pasta, grains, and legumes.

Canned products are essential, especially canned tomatoes. I also love canned beans because I feel they’re a quality ingredient, and I always have canned tuna on hand.


I like to keep milk products like canned coconut milk, evaporated milk, and goat milk on hand as well.

Besides canned products, it’s necessary to have staples such as oils and vinegars, or at least one of each! Plus sweeteners and unique pastes.

Refrigerated items that are important to me are sauces and condiments. If I want to make any kind of dish with Asian ingredients, like a quick noodle soup, I can simply reach for hoisin sauce, smoked sesame oil, fish sauce, soy sauce, and Gochujang. But if you only want mayo and mustard, that’s fine too!

The refrigerator is also where I keep my nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. Butter, eggs, and cheese are definite refrigerator staples for me, as are demi glaces. But cream, yogurt, and even ricotta can help in a pinch, whether you’re cooking an Italian dish such as a pasta, or an Indian curry.

The freezer comes in handy, also, for storing frozen vegetables and stock.

Which brings me to this pasta dish. It’s a perfect example of preparing a quick and easy meal with just a few basic ingredients. It’s a dish that can be made on a weeknight after work, or after a vacation when you’re too tired to put much effort in to whipping up a meal, and have no fresh produce.

Easy Peasy Pasta
printable recipe below

12-16 ounces pasta, a pretty shape or color
1 – 15 ounce carton whole-milk ricotta, at room temperature
12 ounce package of frozen peas
Parmesan, optional

Boil a large pot of salted water, and cook the pasta according to the package directions. Meanwhile, scoop the ricotta cheese into a large, heatproof bowl; set aside.

Gently heat the frozen peas in the microwave. I place a little folded paper towel in the bottom of the bowl for excess liquid, but drain them if there’s a significant amount of water.

Drain the pasta when it’s cooked, then add it hot to the bowl with the ricotta. Stir gently.

If necessary, thin with a little milk or cream, or even a little butter. (All staples!) Or, use a little pasta water.

Add the peas and incorporate. Taste for salt and pepper.

Place the pasta in individual bowls or a serving bowl. Sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired.

I used a few toasted pine nuts on top of the pasta for some texture. And that’s it! (Also another staple of mine.)

This recipes shows how good a very simple and basic cooking can be, using what you have in your kitchen.

Now, for a heartier meal, you can add some garbanzo beans from a can… from your pantry! I love the heartiness of pasta and beans in the same dish.

Also, rotisserie chicken or even smoked salmon would be wonderful added to the pasta. Or, canned tuna.

Cooking truly isn’t difficult, and it definitely doesn’t have to be time consuming.

Keep your pantry and refrigerator stocked with basics. That way, you’re naturally creative in the kitchen, not wasteful, and can cook in a pinch!

 

Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham

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A while ago I pulled out all of my Italian cookbooks to locate a specific pasta recipe, which I never found. But perusing these cookbooks gave me an opportunity to bookmark recipes and remind me of some I’d already bookmarked.

One cookbook was Molto Italiano by Mario Batali.

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Mario Batali is one of those chefs who really marketed himself into TV stardom, with many restaurants, cookbooks, plus Eataly that followed, all thanks to this stardom.

I remember his cooking show on PBS that I really enjoyed. There was no band, no audience clapping, just him cooking in a little kitchen.

At the beginning of every show he would pull down a wall map of Italy and give you some history on the provenance of the dish he was about to prepare – something I really appreciated. I didn’t feel “dumbed down” by Batali, in fact, it was more educational than entertainment.

There were always 2-3 odd people sitting off to the side, not saying anything terribly profound, which always made me wonder how I could get this gig because I’d be so much better at it!!! (Not really because I freeze even when someone pulls out an iPhone.)

In spite of Mario Batali being a household name, and easy to spot with his red hair and orange crocs, I do have a lot of respect for his knowledge and passion for Italian cuisine.

While perusing Molto Italiano I spotted a dish that really spoke to me.

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It’s baked pasta with ricotta and ham. Simple, like most all Italian recipes, but it sounded nice and comforting for this time of year. Plus my husband loves ham and I don’t make enough ham recipes.

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I’d recently mentioned that I don’t make casseroles. I don’t want to insult casserole lovers, it’s just that I wasn’t raised on them. And most of them look like regurgitated food, which is my biggest issue with them. I still remember my first experience with a casserole (tuna?) when my neighbor made one for us after my first baby was born. All I will say is that there were potato chips on top. I’m still traumatized by that.

So although casserole-like, this pasta bake is actually somewhat layered. It Is a delightful meal, served with a green salad, or with anything green for that matter. Here is the recipe:

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note: There is a glitch in the recipe that I will resolve below. I had to study the recipe for 30 minutes to figure out what was wrong!

Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Ham
Pasticcio di Maccheroni*

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound Italian cooked ham, preferably parmacotto, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 rib celery, thinly sliced
1 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 cups basic tomato sauce
1 1/2 pounds ziti
1 pound fresh ricotta
8 ounces hard provolone, cut into small dice
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

In a Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over high heat until smoking. Add the ham cubes and brown for 5 to 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the carrot, onion, and celery and cook until the vegetables are golden brown, about 10 minutes. (I used onion, mushrooms and carrot.)

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Add the wine, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook until the meat is just about falling apart, about 50 minutes. Transfer the meat to a large bowl. Keep the sauce warm.

This is the beginning of my misunderstanding of this recipe. One is to actually separate the ham from the sauce and place the ham in a large bowl. I found this impossible to do.

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Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.

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Cook the ziti in the boiling water for 1 minute less than the package directions, until still very al denote. While the pasta is cooking, place the ricotta in a small bowl and stir in a ladle of the pasta cooking water to “melt” it.

Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the meat. Add the ricotta, provolone, and tomato sauce and stir to combine.

It’s the above paragraph that really makes this recipe confusing. The pasta is supposed to be with the ham that has been removed from the red sauce, and the ricotta, provolone and remaining red sauce are supposed to be mixed together in a separate bowl.

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Grease a round and deep 12-inch pie dish or casserole with olive oil. Place a ladle of the cheese and sauce mixture in the bottom of the dish, followed by a layer of the pasta and meat mixture.

Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the Parmigiano over, then repeat with another layer of the cheese and sauce mixture, then pasta and meat, and Parmigiano. Continue until all the ingredients are used up.
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Bake for 25 minutes, until bubbling and heated through. Serve in warmed pasta bowls.
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You could always offer more Parmigiano, but I felt this pasta bake was cheesy enough.
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* Pasticcio, similar to its Greek sister pastitsio, also made with ziti, is commonly served at Easter.

Note: Because I couldn’t separate the ham from the sauce, I left it all together. To compensate, I added extra red sauce to the ricotta and cheese mixture. The whole pasta bake benefitted from having probably about 50% more red sauce in it, I think, than what’s listed in the ingredients.

Cheese Blintzes

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With every season change, I go through recipes that I have saved since I was very young. It started when I would cut up recipes from McCall’s magazine and glue them on large index cards for my mother. Then I started doing it for myself.
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As I just turned 60 years old, you can only guess at how old many of these recipes are!

Recently I came across this old McCall’s recipe for blintzes. It gave me the idea to make blintzes for when I have overnight company soon.
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Blintzes can be made the day before and re-heated gently the next morning. Plus, the little blintz packages are so pretty – much prettier than some breakfast casserole.

You need three parts to make blintzes. You need the crêpes, filling and sauce.

Cheese Blintzes with Strawberry Coulis

Sauce:
12 ounces fresh strawberries
1/3 cup sugar or to taste
2 tablespoons orange liqueur or orange juice

Filling:
1 1/2 cups cottage cheese
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
Few drops of orange oil or 1 teaspoon orange zest, optional
1/4 cup white sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Melted butter, optional
Cinnamon sugar, optional

Crêpes; make a quadruple recipe.

To make the sauce, place the three ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Continue to cook until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 30 minutes.

Let cool slightly, then blend with an immersion blender. Cover and refrigerate if not using right away.
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To make the filling, place the cottage cheese in a food processor jar and process until smooth.

Scrape down the sides, then add the remaining ingredients and process until all combined.

Taste the filling. Personally, I prefer the sauce sweeter than the filling; you don’t want a sweet filling and a sweet sauce because this is not dessert. Also, the cinnamon should be fairly strong because it pairs so nicely with the fruit. If you can’t taste it, add some more. There are different grades and potencies of cinnamon.

Cover and refrigerate the filling if you’re not using it right away.

When you are ready to prepare the blintzes, have the crêpes at your work station either just cooked and still slightly warm, or at room temperature, if you made them the day before. If they are too chilled they will break instead of fold. Also have the filling on your work station.

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter two baking pans to hold the blintzes in one layer.

Place about one heaping tablespoon of filling in the middle of a crêpe.

First fold over the front of the crêpe over the filling, then the left and right sides over the filling, then roll the whole thing over the remaining flap.

Gently pick up the blintz and place in the pan with the folded sides down. Continue with the remaining crêpes and filling.
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If you like, brush the tops of the crêpes with melted butter, and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Bake in the oven for 15 – 20 minutes, or just until golden. They will be puffy, but unfortunately they will unpuff within minutes. That’s ok – they’re still really good.
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Serve with the warm or room temperature strawberry coulis.

If you like, serve with a few fresh berries.

note: Some blintzes are sautéed in butter in a pan instead of baked. Those are also fabulous!
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Lasagna Soup

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I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t love lasagna. It’s hard not to love, with the luscious layers of red sauce, pasta, and multiple cheesiness. But what’s odd for me, is that I rarely make it. In fact, if I do make it, it’s for a post-funeral family get-together or such. I make it for other people. I can’t remember the last time I made it for my own family.

Sure, making lasagna is a bit tedious, but there’s nothing difficult about it. But unless there’s another funeral to cook for, I may never make lasagna again, thanks to my girlfriend. Years ago she showed me a recipe from a cooking magazine, and since then I’ve been hooked on making lasagna soup!

It’s got all of the elements of lasagna – pasta, red sauce, a few cheeses, plus a few extras. It’s hearty and delicious, and a big pot of this soup goes a long way. It’s great for company.

I don’t have the original recipe, but here’s what I did today. As with most of my recipes, you can put your own stamp on it by substituting ingredients. Just as you keep the soup tasting like lasagna, it will be delicious!
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Lasagna Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 – 1 pound packages bulk Italian sausage
19.2 ounces of ground turkey
2 onions, finely chopped
1 pound sliced fresh mushrooms
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
2 – 32 ounce cartons beef broth
10 ounces baby spinach
1 – 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried basil*
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Cheese(s) – you can use ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan, or any combination thereof

For the lasagna soup, I chose a combination of Italian sausage and ground white-meat turkey, but you could use beef and pork if you prefer.


Begin by adding the oil to a large stockpot. Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the meats, and spend about 10 minutes slightly browning and cooking them.
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I have a wonderful tool that this same girlfriend gave me last Christmas that helps cut up ground meat into smaller pieces. Grab one of these if you spot one.

Lower the heat to medium and add the onions. Stirring occasionally, cook the onions for about 5 minutes, then add the mushrooms.


Cook the mushrooms for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and give it a stir. Then add the broth.

Break up the lasagna noodles and place them in the broth.
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Submerge the noodles as best you can, cover the pot, and lightly simmer the noodles for about 30 minutes. I used whole-wheat noodles. If you’re using white noodles, be careful not to overcook them.

Add the spinach, and carefully stir it into the broth until it wilts. Pour in the crushed tomatoes and add the seasoning.


Give everything a good stir. Spinach and mushrooms aren’t necessarily traditional in lasagna, but in this soup the vegetables are a great addition, making the soup a little healthier by stretching the meat.
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Heat the soup, taste for seasoning,and serve hot.
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In the past, when I have made this soup for a crowd, I offered cheese choices so everyone can customize his/her lasagna soup. You can place a little blob of fresh ricotta in the bottom of your bowl, add the hot soup, then add a few fresh mozzarella pearls and freshly grated Parmesan. Or simply offer grated mozzarella. It’s all good. But some cheese is absolutely necessary or it won’t be lasagna soup.

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Today I placed grated fresh mozzarella in the bottom of the bowl, and topped the soup with finely grated Parmesan. When you stir the melted cheese with the soup, you’re tasting lasagna. And it’s fabulous!

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* Which herb or herbs to use in a red sauce that would be used in a traditional lasagna are widely debated. Some people only use oregano, some a mixture of basil and oregano. I just love the flavor of dried basil, when no fresh basil is available. Make this soup your own.

note: It’s important to add all of the broth to this soup. For one thing, it’s important for cooking the noodles. But secondly, you don’t want the soup so tomatoey thick that you’re eating spaghetti sauce instead of a soup. Keep a good balance between the crushed tomatoes and broth.

Sweet Potato Pasta

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A while back I mentioned that I have a lot of respect for dried pasta, and always try to pick up a few different shapes and flavors when I’m shopping at a gourmet food store. That’s how I ended up with olive pasta recently for dinner, and also mentioned I’d purchased sweet potato pasta.

Here’s a photo of the box. The brand is Viviana, and it contains 8 ounces of fettucine. Cooking time 11 – 14 minutes.
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I didn’t want to smother the pasta in a red sauce, because I wanted to enhance the sweet potato flavor. So I decided on a simple ricotta cream sauce, with the addition of Italian sausage, plus peas to make it an all-in-one meal. Easy, and easily made within 20 minutes. Here’s what I did:

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Sweet Potato Pasta with Italian Sausage in a Ricotta Cream Sauce

8 ounces sweet potato fettucine
1 cup ricotta whole-milk ricotta
1/3-1/2 cup heavy cream
12 or 16 ounces Italian sausage
4 cloves garlic, minced
Frozen peas, optional
Grated Parmesan

Cook the pasta according to package directions. I cooked the pasta more al dente, because I wanted it to absorb the lovely cream sauce. Drain the pasta.
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Meanwhile, whisk together the ricotta and cream in a large bowl, large enough to hold the finished pasta dish. Add more cream if you want the sauce less “stiff.”
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Add the hot pasta to the cream and toss gently but enough to coat the strands of pasta with the ricotta cream sauce.


Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the sausage. Slowly begin cooking the sausage. If you start slowly, no other oil is required. Once the sausage renders some fat, you can turn up the heat to get the sausage browning.
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At least once while you’re cooking the sausage, give the pasta a gentle stir. Add a little more cream if necessary.

Then add the garlic, give the sausage a stir, and remove the skillet from the stove.
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Add it to the pasta, as well as peas, if you’re using them.



Serve with grated Parmesan.

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The sweet potato pasta really shined served in this way. I’m going to buy some more because it’s so pretty and tasty.

Gnudi with Meat Sauce

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The first time I heard about gnudi, I was ecstatic. And I was also shocked that I hadn’t come across them before, in spite of the many Italian cookbooks I own. It was maybe only five years ago I saw them being made on television, and I knew one day I’d make them. I just sadly forgot about them, until today.

Gnudi, simply stated, are the filling of ravioli. Or any filled pasta. No pasta involved. So they’re like the lazy man’s ravioli!

Today, mine are simple, utilizing the richness and unique texture of ricotta. But any ingredients can be included with the ricotta, just as you would to make a spinach-ricotta filling, or a pumpkin-ricotta filling.

They’re similar to gnocchi and spazele, except that there’s much less flour, which makes sense, since they are the filling and not the pasta. Here’s the recipe.
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Gnudi with Meat Sauce

Gnudi:
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
20 ounces whole-milk ricotta, well drained*
3/4 cup loosely-packed, finely grated Parmesan
3/4 cup flour, plus extra

Begin by whisking the eggs, yolks, and salt together in a large bowl.

Add the ricotta and whisk well.

Then add the Parmesan and whisk until smooth.

Add the flour and fold into the ricotta mixture gently. If you feel more flour is needed – add more – but just a little at a time. The gnudi must end up tender.

Sprinkle a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan with a light dusting of flour.
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Typically, gnudi are shaped into quenelles, which are beautiful ovoids. Unfortunately, even if I could make these forms, which requires two spoons, I wouldn’t be fast enough to get through the gnudi batter before the water completely evaporated. So I opted for a little cookie scoop.

Dip the scoop in water, tap, then scoop up the gnudi.

Place them on the floured sheet, and then sprinkle a little more flour over the top of the gnudi, using a fine sieve.

Once you have finished with all the batter, let the gnudi sit for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, get a large pot of water boiling on the stove.

As I do with spazele, I always test one to get the timing right. In this case, my little 1″ round gnudi took 5 minutes to cook. You don’t want them raw in the middle, but you don’t want them to be like rubber.

As with spazele, the gnudi will drop to the bottom of the pot, and about halfway through cooking they will come to the surface. When they’re cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon, and place them on a paper towel-lined platter.

Once you know the timing of the gnudi, make them in batches until the batter is no more.

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I served these with a meat sauce (recipe below), but because I didn’t want the meat sauce to smother the delicate gnudi, I placed the sauce on the bottom of the bowl, topped it with the warm gnudi, and sprinkled on a little Parmesan.

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These ricotta-based gnudi are like soft little pillows of goodness.

I would normally not pair the gnudi with such a heavy sauce, but my husband isn’t fond of meatless red sauce. Just like with gnocchi and spazele, the gnudi could be simply tossed in browned butter.

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* I only buy whole-milk ricotta, and I always let it drain on paper towels overnight or at least for 12 hours. It just makes the ricotta thicker and creamier. It’s amazing how much water comes out.
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Meat Sauce:
Olive oil
Finely chopped onion or shallots
Minced garlic
Ground Italian sausage
Canned tomato puree or crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon oregano leaves

Ricotta and Smoked Salmon

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Smoked salmon is one of my top favorite indulgences, along with steak tartare and foie gras.

I love smoked salmon served in the traditional manner, alongside cream cheese with a generous amount of capers and diced purple onions. Warm, toasted bagels are the best, but for me, just about any bread or toast will do, because it’s mostly about the salmon itself.

To serve smoked salmon this way, you need to have a trustworthy source, because there is smoked salmon that is inferior in quality. If I’m having a party or get-together of sorts and want to put out a traditional smoked salmon spread, I buy mine from a company called Mackenzie. I prefer their Scottish salmon.
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What bothers me the most about buying smoked salmon is that it is typically sold in 4 ounce packages. Who needs just 4 ounces of salmon? I most often need somewhere between 4 ounces and a whole 2 pound side of smoked salmon, but no one seems to care about my opinion.

Well speaking of little packages of smoked salmon, I happened to have a couple of them leftover from the holidays. They seem to keep forever if you freeze them. My plan is to dice the smoked salmon and use it in a spread, mixed with the fresh ricotta I made recently.

I’ve made many different kinds of spreads using smoked salmon – my most favorite is a warm dip that utilizes both cooked and smoked salmon. It’s absolutely divine. But today I’m just making a rustic spread that highlights the ricotta and the salmon.

This wasn’t the best smoked salmon in the first place, but I had to buy it locally for some purpose back in December, without time to place an online order. Thus my leftover 4 ounce packages.

But I tested it out and even after freezing and thawing, is tastes exactly the same as it did originally, which isn’t great, but it will do for this spread. You could also add some of this diced salmon in a quiche or pasta, but I’d never use this variety for bagels and lox presentation. It’s just doesn’t compare to the real stuff.

So here’s what I did to make this ricotta and smoked salmon spread. It’s more of a guide than a recipe, because it depends how much you want to make. The way I make it, without diced onions included, it will store in the refrigerator until you want to serve it again. I don’t personally feel that chopped onions keep well, but you could sprinkle the spread with freshly chopped onions or chives if you wish.

If you make this spread and have some left over, add it to hot, cooked pasta. Then there would be no waste!

Ricotta and Smoked Salmon Spread

Home-made ricotta or store-bought, at room temperature
Whipped cream cheese or regular, at room temperature
Smoked salmon, diced
Capers, well drained
Diced purple onion, optional
Chopped chives, optional

Place about equal amounts of the ricotta and whipped cream cheese in a medium bowl.
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Beat it together with a spoon until combined.

Dice the salmon and add it to the cheeses. I used this salmon.
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Then add the capers.

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Gently mix everything together until evenly distributed.

Then you have a choice. You could fill up a pretty crock or bowl with this mixture, or mold it in a bowl lined with plastic wrap for a prettier presentation (although I usually add a little butter to these mixtures so they mold better). In this case, I simply grabbed the whole mixture with my (clean) hands and formed a ball with it. I placed the ball on a wooden board.

Then I sprinkled chopped chives over the top.
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Today I served torn up pieces of naan with the spread.
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I also included a few garlic-stuffed olives for fun.

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I served a sauvignon blanc along with the spread and bread, nice and chilled.

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Any kind of bread or toasts, or even good crackers could be substituted for the naan.

An important thing to note is that this spread must be served at room temperature. If the spread needs to be refrigerated, allow it to come to room temperature prior to serving. Flavors are just enhanced at room temperature, plus it makes the spread smoother for spreading on the bread.

note: This post is not a tutorial on smoked salmon. There are so many different varieties of hot- and cold-smoked salmon, and their resulting textures are very different. Then there’s lox and gravlax, which are also different. Just taste them all and figure out which ones suit different purposes, because they all have a place.

Fresh Ricotta

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Last Christmas I received some wonderful food-related gifts from my lovely daughters, who know me so well. One was a Williams-Sonoma “kit” for making ricotta cheese at home.

I know it’s really straight forward to make your own ricotta. It’s the same process as making paneer for Indian food, if you’ve ever done that.

But having a ricotta-making kit makes it more fun. It’s like having a chemistry set. Having been a nerd growing up, I loved my chemistry set and I obviously still love that sort of thing.

Here what came in the box:

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The rennet tablets is for using the kit to make mozzarella, which I didn’t do today. The directions are simple. Add 1 teaspoon of citric acid to 1/2 cup of water and dissolve.
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Use the enclosed cheesecloth to line a colander.
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Boil the pot you’re going to put your gallon of milk in, along with a slotted spoon, for 5 minutes to sterilize. You’re not supposed to use a metal pot.

Empty the pot of the boiling water, then pour in the gallon of whole milk. Add the dissolved citric acid, as well as 1 teaspoon of cheese salt.

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Slowly heat the milk, without allowing it to boil, till it reaches 180 – 185 degrees Farenheit.
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Turn off the stove at that point and let the pot sit for 10 minutes. Then pour the contents of the pot into the waiting colander.
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After just a few minutes, I lifted the corners of the cheesecloth, and you can already see that the ricotta is thickening and forming.
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I don’t want a watery ricotta, so I tied up the “bag” of ricotta and hung it from my kitchen sink faucet for about 1 hour. I think this is allowed.

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Then I stored the fresh ricotta in a plastic bowl lined with a couple of paper towels.

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Asparagus Pesto Pasta

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So yesterday I shared that I’d dreamed up an asparagus version of pesto, and the recipe I came up with is quite remarkable, if I say so myself. There were so many choices with the pesto ingredients, but I decided on almonds for the nuts, and to keep the pesto herb-free. I thought about a little fresh mint at first, but I decided to just let the fresh asparagus shine.

And shine it did. It’s not a super strong pesto, especially compared to a basil variety, but it full of flavor from the almonds and garlic as well. I’m very happy with the recipe. I could just spread it on warm bread and eat it like that.

But it’s probably not surprising that I chose to toss this pesto with pasta. But I did something a little different. I’d just made some fresh ricotta the day before (yes, it will be in a future post), and I decided to mix the pesto with the fresh ricotta. It turned out perfectly. The pasta would have been delicious simply tossed with the ricotta-less pesto, with lots of grated Parmesan, but I just wanted to treat this pesto differently.

So here’s what I did:

Asparagus Pesto-Ricotta Pasta

1 – 12 ounce package of your choice of pasta

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Approximately 10 ounces of asparagus pesto
An equal amount of fresh ricotta or farmers’ cheese
Grated Parmesan

Cook your pasta according to package directions. Have you ever used one of these gadgets? It’s a rubbery thing that you place on top of your pot and it keeps the water from overflowing. Since I invariably boil over water when I cook pasta, I’ve gotten pretty good at always using this thing.

Here’s a link for a similar one to mine. Mine was a gift, so I don’t know the source specifically.

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Drain the pasta and set aside.

In a large bowl, add the asparagus pesto and the ricotta cheese.
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Mix them together with a spoon. I didn’t try to blend them together too much; I like the texture of the ricotta.
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Add the warm pasta and toss to coat the pasta completely.
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I served the pasta sprinkled with grated Parmesan, alongside a pan-fried salmon steak.
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The combination was really good.
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I think I could have also chopped the mint leaves and sprinkled them on top as well, but I didn’t.
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verdict: I will make asparagus pesto again, and again. The only difference is that the pesto by itself could taste a little more like asparagus. So I might add a little more asparagus next time, but keep the other ingredients the same. Mixed with the ricotta, the pesto is just a creamy, flavorful mixture with a hint of asparagus. It’s quite delicious, and would be a wonderful side dish to any protein, or simply served as is, with a tomato salad.
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