Spicing up Italian-American Comfort Food

Spicing up comfort food with flavor is easy if you work a little magic in the kitchen. Knowing how to layer flavors using very basic ingredients to Italian cooking will have your food bursting with flavors and your family asking for seconds…

You can read the rest of this post here on the Key Ingredient companion blog, The Back Burner where I am guest posting for Sophia on her Tips and Tricks Friday edition. I am incredibly honored to be asked and happy to share some of my basic tips and tricks along with some of my favorite recipes.

Spaghetti & Meatballs

Hope to see you there!

White Pizza with Tomatoes and Onions

White Pizza

We eat pizza at least once a week in my house. A few weeks ago we stepped away from our usual pizza and tried a new type of pizza at a new pizzeria. It was white pizza. While I’m not debating that it was delicious, I knew I could recreate one just as good if not better using my own two hands. A white pizza has ricotta cheese in place of the sauce.The pizzeria pizza had garlic and paper-thin sliced tomatoes sparsely dotting the top. I wanted more of the topping so when the pizza craving hit again I made my own.

The Ricotta melts lovingly into a soft, creamy, mess with the perfect amount of stringy Mozzarella over the top. The tomato is just enough that I didn’t miss the sauce and gives it a little pop of acidity that livens the flavors up. And garlic is a must. As for the new pizzeria? My pizza standards are so high that I’m sticking with the old standby. When I want something different I’ll make it at home.

Pizza Fixin's

White Pizza with Tomatoes and Onions
(by Reeni)

Olive Oil
Cornmeal
1 recipe Pizza dough
1 and 1/2 cups Ricotta Cheese
12 ounces Mozzarella, sliced*
3 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced thin
1 small red onion, sliced thin
5 cloves garlic, minced
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Oil and sprinkle cornmeal over a 15″ pizza pan.

Use your hands/fist to stretch the dough to fit your pizza pan or a rolling pin.

Spread the Ricotta in an even layer across the top. Sprinkle the minced garlic
over top.

Cover with mozzarella slices, then onion rings. Drizzle a tablespoon of Olive Oil over the top and season with salt and pepper.

Cook for 12 minutes on 500 degrees. Lower temperature to 450 degrees and
continue cooking for 7-10 more minutes. Keeping a close eye on it the last few minutes.

Remove and let sit for five minutes before cutting.

*Slicing it instead of shredding allows the top to cook slower and gives the crust more time to cook.

Raw White Pizza

Pizza Dough

2 and ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 and ½ teaspoons active dry yeast or one package
1 cup warm water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoons sugar

Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup water and then add sugar. Place in a warm spot for a few minutes then check to make sure the yeast is active. It should have bubbled up. If it is bubbling leave it until it has doubled in size about ten minutes.

In a large bowl add the flour and make a well in the middle for the yeast
mixture and water. Add the other ½ cup of warm water, the yeast mixture and the salt. Stir until everything is incorporated and then start working the dough using your hands. Knead the dough on a floured board until smooth and elastic about three minutes.

Place the dough in a floured bowl and cover with saran wrap or a thin kitchen towel.

Set in a warm place to rise about 1 and ½ hours or until dough is doubled in size.

Punch down and knead the dough again for a few minutes on a floured board.

Use your hands/fist to stretch the dough to fit your pizza pan or use a rolling pin.

Printable Recipe

White Pizza

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Spaghetti & Meatballs

On Top of Spaghetti
All covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball
When somebody sneezed.
It rolled off the table
And onto the floor,
And then my poor meatball
Rolled right out the door!


I always use a lot of Parmesan cheese on my spaghetti and meatballs, a habit I picked up when I was just a little girl. When I ate at my Grandparents I would use up all the Parmesan in their tiny glass shaker. Grandpa didn’t mind. He would always get me more. Sometimes it would take a long time. I used to wonder if he went all the way to Italy to get it for me. But what I didn’t know then I know now. He was freshly grating it and that takes time. Even if we were in the middle of eating he would get up and take the time and the trouble to get it for me. Grandpa serenaded me with the “On top of spaghetti song” all the time. It still plays in my head occasionally and as corny as it is I don’t mind, cause my Grandpa was the best.

Meatballs

Spaghetti and meatballs is another one of those all-time favorite classics. I can’t think of anything more joyful then sitting down to a plate piled high with twirly spaghetti and tender meatballs! When your in the moment nothing else matters but getting those elusive spaghetti strings to stay wrapped around your fork with just the perfect size bite of herb and garlic infused meatball. Only to pop said forkful into your mouth and forget about everything else while you savor the pure bliss that has found its way to your tongue. Pure and delicious comfort food.

Spaghetti & Meatballs

Spaghetti & Meatballs
(by Reeni)

Meatballs:
1 cup crustless white bread/Italian bread, preferably stale, diced
Whole Milk
1 and 1/2 pounds beef/pork/veal mixture or an 80-85% Ground Beef
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
1/3 cup onion, diced small
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh Parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon Basil
1 teaspoon Oregano
1 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
Vegetable or Canola Oil, if frying

Place the diced bread crumbs in a small bowl and add enough milk to soak them thoroughly.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large bowl add all of the ingredients except the vegetable oil including the bread crumbs and milk. Use a fork or your hands to combine thoroughly without over mixing.

Use your hands to form 2-inch (golfball) sized meatballs. Place on a baking sheet or large baking pan and bake for 15 minutes. If you prefer to fry them heat about 1/4 inch Canola oil in a large, deep, skillet over medium heat. Brown them on all sides in two or three batches being sure not to overcrowd the pan. Drain on paper towels.

While the meatballs are baking/frying get your sauce started.

Sauce:
1 large onion, diced
1 green pepper, julienned
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 can tomato paste
2 28 oz. can Crushed Tomatoes (like Tuttarosa)
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons dried Italian Seasonings (We use a mix that has basil, oregano, thyme, marjoram and rosemary in it)
1 teaspoon dried sage
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt (to start and more to taste)
¼ teaspoon black pepper (to start and more to taste)
1 teaspoon Sugar

In an extra-large stock pot sauté the onion and green pepper in Olive Oil until soft;
add garlic and sauté for two or three more minutes.

Add tomato paste. Stir it into the onion mixture and let it heat through. Add tomatoes, water, seasonings including bay leaves, salt, pepper and sugar.

Add the meatballs and simmer for at least 35-40 minutes(the longer, the better),
stirring occasionally and tasting to check the seasoning. Add salt/pepper and more
dried herbs if needed. You can also add a little more water if sauce seems too thick.
Remove bay leaves before serving.

Serve over spaghetti cooked to al dente sprinkled with fresh shredded Parmesan cheese.

Printable Recipe

Spaghetti & Meatballs

So if you like spaghetti
All covered with cheese
Hold on to your meatballs
And DON’T EVER SNEEZE!
A-A-A-CHOO !!

Lemon-Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad

Lemon-Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad

This pasta recipe has a wholesome balance of chickpeas, meaty black olives, sweet red onions, and tangy tomatoes. The lemon-arugula pesto is refreshing, nutty, and salty tasting from the Parmesan cheese. The lemon and arugula complement each other in a perfect meld of flavors. The spirals catch all the tasty bits of pesto and the olives do their job by trapping it inside. Biting into them you get a pleasant burst of sunshine from the lemon. This is a quick and easy side-dish that can even sub as the star. It has all the required elements. The leftovers are perfect for lunch and taste better with age. The pesto can be used on its own; hot or cold; with chicken, seafood, fish, veggies, and as a spread for sandwiches.

Lemon-Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad

Lemon-Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad
(by Reeni)

8 oz. Celentani (Spiral) Pasta
1 can Black Olives, medium-size, pitted
1 can(15.5 oz.) Chickpeas/Garbanzo beans
1 cup diced tomatoes
1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon peel
Lemon-Arugula Pesto Sauce(recipe to follow)
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper

Cook your pasta to al dente according to package directions. Drain and
run cold water over the pasta. Add to a large bowl.

Add your olives, chickpeas, tomatoes, red onion and lemon peel. Toss
together. Then toss again with Pesto beginning with half of your pesto and
adding as needed until evenly coated.

Season with salt and pepper.

If refrigerated for serving later, remove from fridge about 15 minutes before
to allow the pesto to loosen up a bit. Toss before serving.

Lemon-Arugula Pesto Sauce
(by Reeni)

1/2 cup walnuts
2 cloves garlic
1 and 1/2 cups Baby Arugula leaves
2 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup fresh grated Parmesan or Romano
1/2 cup Extra-Virgin Olive oil
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Toast the walnuts in a skillet on low for 5-7 minutes. Set aside to cool.

To the bowl of your food processor add the walnuts, garlic, arugula, and parsley. Pulse to chop.

Stream in the oil and lemon juice. Pulse constantly until nice and smooth.

Add cheese and pulse briefly to combine.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Print Entire Recipe

Print Pesto Sauce Recipe

Lemon-Arugula Pesto Pasta Salad

Lemon Garlic Shrimp with Parmesan Polenta and Grilled Romaine

Lemon-Garlic Shrimp w/ Parmesan Polenta & Grilled Romaine

Gremolata was my inspiration for this dish. A gremolata is an uncooked condiment made up of finely minced garlic, parsley and lemon zest. Traditionally it is served over Ossobucco alla Milanese, an Italian dish of braised veal shank. The mission of the gremolata is to wake up and brighten the flavors in a dish. It livens up heavy meat dishes and works wonderful as a garnish for seafood, fish and vegetables.

This recipe comes together quickly and everything goes well together. Grilling the romaine gave it a unique, earthy taste. The shrimp are tender, succulent, and vibrantly fresh-tasting with the gremolata. The velvety Polenta was wildly fragrant from the fresh rosemary and had a little bite from the Parmesan that complimented the shrimp and romaine. It melted in my mouth. The shrimp and romaine would make a great meal on their own. The shrimp served over rice or pasta would be equally delicious. The shrimp is the real star of the show here. If you’re a shrimp lover than this one’s for you!

Lemon-Garlic Shrimp w/ Parmesan Polenta & Grilled Romaine

Lemon Garlic Shrimp and Parmesan Polenta with Grilled Romaine
(by Reeni)

2 Romaine heart bunches, each heart cut into thirds or quarters, lengthwise
1 cup Polenta(long-cooking) or cornmeal*
2 tablespoons fresh Rosemary, rough chopped
2 tablespoons Butter
1 cup fresh shredded Parmesan or Romano
1 yellow onion, diced
olive oil for sauteing
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine(optional)**
1/4 cup fresh parsley, rough-chopped
lemon peel, fresh grated from 2 lemons
1 and 1/2 pounds Shrimp, medium or large, cleaned
Parmesan, for serving

Cook the Polenta according to package directions. Turn off heat and stir in the rosemary, butter and Parmesan.

For the shrimp:

To a large skillet or saute pan add the oil and onion. Cook over low heat until translucent.

Add garlic and saute for two to three more minutes. **If using wine add it now and bring to a simmer. If not using wine add a tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the parsley, lemon peel and shrimp all at once. Saute until shrimp turn pink and curl up.

For the Romaine:

Grill the Romaine bunches briefly in a grill pan, on your outside grill or on a George Foreman grill. Sear each side. You don’t want to cook it through until it is limp.

To assemble:

Place a few spoons of Polenta on a plate, a Romaine bunch on top and then the shrimp. Serve with extra Parmesan.

*A regular grind cornmeal can be substituted.

Cornmeal Polenta

1 cup cornmeal
8 cups water
1/2 teaspoon Sea salt

In a large, deep pan over high heat bring water and Sea salt to a boil. Gradually stir in cornmeal.

Reduce heat and simmer very gently, stirring frequently, use a long handled spoon, mixture may bubble, for about 35 minutes.

Printable Recipe

Lemon-Garlic Shrimp w/ Parmesan Polenta & Grilled Romaine

Butternut Squash Ziti

Butternut Squash Ziti

I know your asking yourself why I’m posting a recipe using winter squash when the first day of Spring just smacked me in the butt. I bought this squash a week or two ago when Spring was still a long-away wish in my heart and the market’s bins were overflowing with newly stocked squash and cheap prices. And because it’s one of my favorite veggies no matter what season were in and I want to gorge myself on it while I still can. So here it is in all it’s decadent glory and you can thank me for it later. Like next fall. Unless you still have one laying around…just hiding out in the back of your fridge because you’ve had enough squash to last you until next season and your trying to pretend it isn’t there. In that case you can thank me now.

This was a dreamy, creamy, cheesy comfort meal with lovely little hints of nutmeg and garlic. The star of the show shined through in every sweet, nutty, bite. This is my farewell to winter and all of my favorite seasonal vegetables like squash, especially the pumpkin-like Butternut.

Butternut Squash Ziti

Butternut Squash Baked Ziti
(by Reeni)

8 ounces Penne or Rigatoni Pasta
1 medium Butternut Squash (about 3 cups, mashed)
Sea Salt and fresh cracked Pepper
Olive oil
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced into rings
3 cloves garlic, minced
15 ounces Ricotta Cheese
8 ounces Mozzarella, shredded
1 egg
¼ cup milk

For béchamel:
2 tablespoons Butter
2 tablespoon Flour
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon Nutmeg
1 teaspoon dried Thyme
1 teaspoon fresh Sage, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon fresh Basil, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut squash in two and clean out the seeds. Sprinkle with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast about 45 minutes cut side down until a fork pokes in easily.

In the meantime you can caramelize the onions. In a large sauté pan or iron skillet place two tablespoons olive oil and the onion rings. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over low-medium heat for about 40 minutes. Mix often and add more oil as needed, a little bit at a time. Onions are done when they turn a dark brown; at this point add in minced garlic and sauté for two – three minutes on low. Remove from heat and set aside.

Remove squash from oven and let cool until you can handle it.

Cook Rigatoni until al dente according to package directions. Drain and place in a large bowl, coat with a tablespoon or two of olive oil or butter. Set aside.

Prepare an 8×8 casserole pan with a thin coating of butter or baking spray. Set aside.

Make béchamel sauce. Melt two tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan whisk in flour, and cook for two – three minutes over low heat, until it turns a light golden brown. Whisk in milk slowly and simmer for a few minutes, whisking frequently until sauce begins to thicken. Whisk in nutmeg, thyme, sage, and basil, pour into bowl with pasta and toss to coat.

Remove the skin from the squash and using a food processor pulse until smooth. Add the ricotta, season with salt and pepper and pulse until well mixed. You can use a fork or potato smasher if you don’t have a food processor; first mash the squash, then add the ricotta and mash together until well mixed. Add this to the bowl of pasta. Add the caramelized onions and ½ of the Mozzarella cheese.

Beat the egg and ¼ cup milk together, add to pasta. Stir everything together until evenly mixed. Put into your prepared pan. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella over top.

Cook at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes until top turns golden brown. Let set for five minutes before serving.

Serve with fresh grated Parmesan or Romano.

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Butternut Squash Ziti

Fiery Hot Shrimp Alfredo

Fiery Shrimp Alfredo

This is a fiery hot recipe for Shrimp Alfredo that uses Emeril’s home made Creole Seasoning mix paired with a light Alfredo Sauce. The fiery spice mix pushes a simple, creamy Alfredo to its limit. My taste buds not only sat up, they took notice.

This is a light version of Alfredo that replaces most of the cream with whole milk (a lower fat milk would separate/curdle) but doesn’t skimp on any of the creaminess. Italian sausage would be excellent in it too.

Have you heard of that silly old rule that says you should never use cheese on seafood? I don’t like it! Who made that one up anyway? Which reminds me: don’t ever try to take the Parmesan shaker away from an Italian girl. Someone may get hurt. Seriously.

Fiery Shrimp Alfredo

Fiery Shrimp Alfredo
(by Reeni)
1 pound shrimp*, deveined, tails off
Seasoning mix (recipe to follow, or use Emeril’s Essence Creole/Bayou Blast seasoning)
8 ounces angel hair(like Barilla)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Olive oil
1 and ½ cups whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving
2 tablespoons Butter
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
Marinate the shrimp in half of the seasoning mix or 2 tablespoons of Emeril’s Creole seasoning in the fridge for 45 minutes.
Cook pasta to al dente according to package directions. If pasta is done before sauce is ready toss drained pasta with a tablespoon of butter or olive oil to prevent sticking.
In the meantime, prepare sauce. Sauté the garlic in the olive oil on low heat in a deep sauté pan for two-three minutes. Add milk and heavy cream, turn heat up to medium and bring just to a simmer. Add shrimp and the rest of the seasoning mix, simmer until the shrimp curl up and turn pink. Sprinkle in cheese and add butter. Stir until butter melts, turn off heat.
Add cooked pasta to the sauce and toss, sauce will be thin but will thicken up as it cools. Sprinkle parsley over the top. Serve with extra Parmigiano
*Italian sausage would be delicious too. Slice up a few and sauté them until cooked in the saute pan your going to make the sauce in. Then proceed with the sauce-making instructions. You could leave them in the pan or remove to a plate. Add back in with the shrimp.
Creole Seasoning Mix
(adapted from Emeril)
1 tablespoon Paprika
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Garlic powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 and ½ teaspoon onion powder
1 and ½ teaspoon cayenne or 1 teaspoon Peperoncino
1 and ½ teaspoon oregano
1 and ½ teaspoon thyme
Mix well in a small bowl. Use half to marinade the shrimp and the rest gets added to the sauce.

Fiery Shrimp Alfredo