Mexican stuffed shells (6-8 servings)

Back in college, my roommate Jess and I had a habit of opening the fridge, taking stock of the unused ingredients inside, and asking, "What could I make with _____, _____, _____, and _____?" (One particularly sketchy combination of random ingredients caused her to shudder and reply, "Danger.") Today's recipe was inspired by a similar situation: Bryan's request for stuffed shells and my need to use up a tub of homemade pineapple salsa from his coworker and some Celebrity Dairy chipotle goat cheese.

I started thinking about what kinds of molto loco Italian-Mexican fusion recipes I could create. Which ingredients are well loved in both Italy and Mexico? Why, cheese, tomatoes, and oregano, of course! And thus, Mexican stuffed shells were born. The cheese inside the shells is flavored with some traditional Mexican flavors, and chunky, colorful salsa takes the place of marinara sauce on top. Colorful, creamy, and comforting, this dish is satisfying on any continent.

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 18-20 dry jumbo pasta shells
  • 15-oz tub part-skim ricotta cheese
  • Approx. 1/2 cup soft goat cheese (chipotle flavored, if you can find it)
  • Dash chipotle powder (if you're using plain goat cheese)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 cups salsa, with a few spoonfuls set aside for garnish
  • 8-oz can plain tomato sauce or enchilada sauce

Steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 2-quart baking dish with non-stick foil or spritz it with cooking spray and set aside.
  2. Cook pasta shells according to package directions. Once they're cooked, gently fish them out with a slotted spoon and place them on a tray lined with foil to cool.
  3. While shells are cooking, mix the cheeses, egg, herbs, and spices in a medium bowl, adding in a dash of salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, stir the salsa (minus the garnish portion) and tomato sauce /enchilada sauce together.
  4. Spread a few tablespoons of the salsa mixture across the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Once shells are cool enough to handle, fill each with a heaping tablespoon of the cheese mixture. Fill shells one at a time, lining them up across the baking dish. Pour the remaining salsa mixture over the shells. Cover the baking dish with foil. (If needed, you can pause here and keep the prepared shells in the fridge overnight and bake them the next day.)
  5. Bake the stuffed shells for 15 minutes, then remove the top foil and bake, uncovered, for another 15-20 minutes, until bubbly and warmed through. Serve immediately.

I think you'll enjoy this cheesy, zesty comfort food. Salute!/Salud!

Vegan baked lentils and brown rice (4-5 servings)

I have an old, brown blanket that I love to snuggle under to read or watch TV. It's seen better days; the fluffy, plush surface on one side is starting to wear a little thin, and the stuffing on the other side is beginning to pop out. The blanket isn't much to look at. You'd never see it in a West Elm catalog or at Crate and Barrel. But I love that blanket. It's warm and soft, and I know it's going to make me feel good whenever I drape it over myself on a chilly evening, no matter how stressful the previous hours have been.

This dish is the food equivalent of that blanket. It's not particularly pretty or trendy or stylish, but it's filled with the predictable sort of comfort I crave at the end of a long day. Its rich, earthy colors and simple flavors fill me up and let me know I'm home.

Plus, it's so simple to make. I love "dump-and-bake" recipes, as unattractive as that name sounds. It's basically just a veganized version of this Food.com recipe. I hesitate to call it a casserole, because to me, casseroles involve more layers and textures, but I suppose it's a very simple sort of casserole. Whatever you call it, it's an easy, soothing, healthful meal, and I think you're going to love it.

You will need:

  • 3/4 cup green lentils, dry

  • 1/2 cup long-grain brown rice, dry

  • 1/2 cup unsalted cashews, toasted

  • handful of dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes (opt.)

  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano

  • 1/4 teaspoon thyme

  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 1/2 Tbsp onion powder

  • 2 2/3 cups vegetable broth

  • 1 1/4 cups white wine

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
  2. Place all ingredients in a 1 1/2-quart ungreased casserole dish and mix gently.
  3. Bake, covered, for 90 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Let rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

And that's it! It bakes for a long time, but the prep couldn't be much easier. I think I might add chopped celery and carrots next time and maybe some mushrooms for a little more depth. I love that the simplest foods are often the best!

Layered rice casserole (8 servings)

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Happy Vegan MoFo! Here's a casserole!

Today's recipe comes from  Bob's Red Mill, makers of whole-grain specialty products. I found the recipe a few months ago and decided to save it for October, since all but one ingredient was vegan. Why the company would choose to put Worcestershire sauce, which is made with anchovies, in an otherwise animal-free dish is beyond me, but it was an easy fix: I just subbed soy sauce for the Worcestershire.

You will need:

  • 1/2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup short-grain brown rice
  • 1 cup dry textured vegetable protein or textured soy protein (I used TVP)
  • 1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp basil
  • 2 cups grated carrots (from 2-3 carrots)
  • 1 15-oz can tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs or wheat germ (I used breadcrumbs)

Steps:

(If your stomach is hardier than mine is and you can handle onions and peppers that haven't been cooked thoroughly, you can skip the first step.)

  1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a deep rimmed skillet. Cook the onions and peppers for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they're soft and beginning to brown on the edges.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat a 2 1/2-quart casserole dish with non-stick spray.
  3. Spread the dry rice in an even layer on the bottom of the casserole dish. Then, spread the TVP or TSP on top of that. Then layer the drained chickpeas on top of that. Sprinkle the oregano and basil on top of the chickpeas. (My chickpeas were salt-free, so I also added a light sprinkling of sea salt here.)
  4. Next, layer the onions, peppers, and carrots on top of the chickpeas. 
  5. Combine the tomato sauce, water, and soy sauce in a measuring cup or jar; shake or stir to combine. Then pour the mixture over top of the layer of veggies.
  6. Finally, sprinkle the top of the casserole with the breadcrumbs or wheat germ. Cover the casserole dish with foil or a lid and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Serve hot.

Besides using soy sauce, the only change I made to the original recipe was to use tomato sauce instead of tomato juice. Neither Bryan nor I like tomato juice, so buying a 64-ounce bottle of it seemed wasteful. The canned sauce I bought was thin enough that it blended well with the water. Besides, the carrots I used were so fresh that they brought their own moisture to the dish. 

Now, some of you might be thinking, "Textured vegetable protein? Wheat germ? What the hell?" and a few years ago, I might have been thinking the same thing. Here in Chapel Hill, I buy those products at Whole Foods (in the bulk section, usually) or Weaver Street Market, where they're readily available. When I lived in Lancaster, PA, I could buy those items at Rhubarbs Market or at Akron Nutrition Center. I think most well-stocked grocery stores will have them, though. And if you can't find them locally, you can always order online from places like Amazon. However, I know it's not really practical to order a case of something from Amazon if you haven't tried it yet! The TVP blended right in with the rice, since it was roughly the same size as the rice grains. If I hadn't made this, I probably wouldn't have even know the TVP was there!

I'd give this casserole a B. I liked the combination of textures and the two sources of protein, but the flavor was lacking something. I'm sure that if I added more herbs, it would be better. A total of one teaspoon of dried herbs really isn't enough flavor for a big casserole, in retrospect. The recipe has potential though!

Spicy Mexican bean and rice bake (6 servings)

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Beans, rice, and cheese are the ultimate vegetarian combination, in my humble opinion. There are sooo many ways to combine them, from burritos to burgers to casseroles, and you can add a wide variety of ingredients to change the main flavor of the dish (herbs, sauces, veggies, etc.). Plus, it's a cheap combination, too! A couple weeks ago, I tried Faith Durand's spicy Mexican bean and rice bake from

Not Your Mother's Casseroles and was super impressed with the results. The casserole is a colorful (it looked awesome in my Grandma's vintage Pyrex dish), filling, protein-packed supper that makes great leftovers the next day.

You will need:

  • 1 Tbsp canola oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, cored and diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 cups cooked white or brown rice (I used white this time)
  • 15-oz can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 15-oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 15-oz can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar
  • 1 cup sour cream (low-fat or regular)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp chipotle powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ground black pepper

Steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray a baking 9x13-inch baking dish (or any 12-cup or 3-quart equivalent) with non-stick spray and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat; add the onion and green pepper. Cook and stir for 10 minutes, or until the onion and pepper are soft. Add the garlic; cook and stir for an additional 5 minutes.
  3. Add the onion, pepper, and garlic to a large bowl. Mix in the rice, beans, and tomatoes. Stir in the cilantro and 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar.
  4. Mix the sour cream, eggs, chipotle powder, cumin, salt, and pepper in a different bowl. Stir this mixture into the beans mixture and then spread everything out in the prepared dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar on top. Bake uncovered for one hour, or until it's hot and bubbly.

Gotta love it! The leftovers even freeze well!

Pineapple-black bean enchiladas (8-10 servings)

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Every now and again, I make a recipe whose title alone triggers salivation when I remember just how good it was. This Food.com contribution was definitely one of those. I found the recipe a few months ago and bookmarked it, but I wasn't sure how well the flavors would work together. In the end, the beans and pineapple were a lovely sweet-tangy combination, and they were complemented by the tomatoey enchilada sauce and the mildly hot chilies. This is a nice recipe to make when you haven't got any fresh produce on hand!

You will need:

  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 medium bell pepper, diced
  • 20-oz can crushed pineapple, drained with 1/3 cup juice reserved
  • 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 4.5-oz can chopped green chilies, undrained
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro (I used a few tablespoons of dried)
  • 3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 8-10 oz red or green enchilada sauce (Rick Bayless' green chile enchilada sauce is the bessssst!)
  • 8-10 flour tortillas (8 or 9-inch)
  • sour cream (opt.)

Steps:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 13x9-inch glass baking dish with non-stick spray and set aside.
  2. Heat oil over medium heat in a large rimmed skillet. Add onion and pepper; cook until soft. Stir in pineapple, black beans, chilies, and salt. Stir until heated through; remove from skillet. Stir in cilantro and 2 cups of the cheese.
  3. If needed, warm up the tortillas to make them more pliable. Spoon a tablespoon of the enchilada sauce onto each tortilla, and then top that with about 3/4 cup of the black bean mixture. Roll up the tortilla, folding down the ends as you go, and place it seam side-down in the baking dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas, squeezing them into a tight row.
  4. In a small bowl, mix the remaining enchilada sauce and the pineapple juice together, and then pour it over top the enchiladas. Sprinkle the remaining cup of cheese over that. Cover the baking dish with non-stick foil and seal tightly.
  5. Bake 30 minutes, uncover, and bake another 5-10 minutes. The cheese should be melted and the sauce should be bubbly. Top each enchilada with sour cream and more cilantro, if desired.

The enchiladas took a little time to put together, but it was so worth it. While they were baking, they smelled so wonderful that I was convinced I was going to eat two; however, they were filling enough that I could make it through only one! Luckily, they heated up quite well in the microwave the next day.

The original recipe uses pineapple tidbits, but I accidentally bought crushed instead. I think it was actually better that way though, because the pineapple blended in well with the filling. I'll probably do that again next time.

Two notes: Sometimes I add in leftover cooked rice I need to use up, and I've found that's a great way to stretch out the filling. A handful of sun-dried tomatoes (not the oil-packed kind) make a nice addition too! Also, in recent months, as I've become less and less tolerant of onions and peppers, I've been skipping those fresh veggies and subbing in onion powder and a sprinkling of Mt. Elbert seasoning, which contains both onion and bell pepper. If you have to do the same, I really don't think it makes a difference in flavor!