Whip Smart Kitchen

Recipes, methods & musings for the whip-smart home cook

Italian

Tricolore Pear Salad

Dinner, Vegetarian, Summer, Fall, Italian, Recipe, Salad, SidesLeannda CavalierComment

Sweet, soft pears and pine nuts complement a mix of buttery, nutty and bitter lettuces dressed in a simple balsamic vinaigrette.

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions or want more info!

I need summa those sweet greens—jump to the recipe, please!

Summer isn't over yet and I'm trying to squeeze out every last drop, but... fall has undeniably started creeping into my thoughts. Maybe it's just from spending the majority of my life in school and teaching, but once August hits everything goes into overdrive, hurtling toward September like a defensive end on a pass rush. 

I truly love fall. I love the start of school and football. I love the foliage and wearing sleeves again. I love pumpkins and bold spices. But it still feels like everything summer is ending way too fast. Pools are closing and I'm seeing school buses everywhere. Didn't we just do the Fourth of July? 

Luckily, I've got the perfect dish if you're also struggling to accept all that comes with the inevitable shift from summer nights to autumn evenings.

This Tricolore Pear Salad is incredibly simple from the short ingredient list to the simple dressing, but trust me, it has an undeniable wow factor. 

It's based on the classic Italian insalata tricolore, which uses a mix of dark and light lettuces brilliantly to balance bitterness and sweetness as well as softness and crunch. It also happens to feature the three colors of the Italian flag, green, red and white. 

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Some also call caprese salads insalata tricolore, which makes sense with the color theme, but we'll leave that in its own pedestal where it belongs. 

I do a little catering as a side job, mostly for small events, but sometimes I do personal catering too. I developed this Tricolore Pear Salad for a client whose family wanted to eat a version of the paleo diet, in an effort to keep the choices from getting stale and, oh boy, I could not have predicted what happened.

He told me the first time he picked up the salad that he had never had a fresh pear before—which is actually something I hear pretty frequently about peaches and pears—so nobody here really knew what to expect. 

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They LOVED it. Like ordered it multiple times a week from there on out. It got to the point where I was visiting multiple grocery stores a multiple times a week because I was buying out all the ingredients for it. Once we got into the later fall and fresh pears got harder to find, I had to limit the amount of times they could order just because I literally could not find enough ingredients.

It was a problem, but you know, a nice one. If you guys are reading this, know I love you and your pear madness!

I recommend using green d'anjou pears for this salad, though I've also used green and red bartletts with great results. There's just something special about a d'anjou pear—it's sweet and buttery with just enough crispness. Red ones are nice later in the fall as they're a little more robust.

Whatever you do, use a good one! If all the d'anjous are rock hard? Move on to the next kind. If it's so soft it falls apart in your hand? 

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You got a million ways to get it. Choose one

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I've actually been putting pears on salad for years now, usually in an arugula salad with goat cheese and a sweeter dressing, but I think using no cheese, a more acidic dressing and bitter chicory takes this salad up several notches. 

It's pretty common to serve a tricolore salad with shaved parmesan, but I actually really like this salad without the cheese. The softness of the pears and the nuttiness of the pine nuts and arugula pretty well takes care of that desire for me in this case. 

Speaking of simplifying the dressing, HOLY COW is this EASY. Just combine three ingredients and shake. If you want, you can switch it up with other vinegars or add other things (I might add a garlic clove and let it sit for a different salad), but there's no need, and you probably have balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt on hand already if you cook often. 

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I can't say enough about how much I love this aspect of Italian cooking. I'm a person who tends to make things much more complicated than they need to be, which is sometimes good, and sometimes makes my life a living hell.

Maybe that's why I go back to Italian food so often. Or maybe it's that my husband is Italian, I'm coastal Croatian, and Italian food is TASTY.  

One piece of advice I do have is that when you're making something so simple, use the best quality ingredients you can find. That's one of the reasons simplicity works so well in Italy: pretty much everything they use is grown nearby and freshness is key (with exceptions, of course, because they clearly know how to preserve tomatoes and cheese like wow).

I'm not telling you to break the bank here, but I am saying you can uplevel your kitchen game approximately 100 notches just by investing in a good extra virgin olive oil for cold foods like salads. I typically buy an okay brand in bulk for cooking, but I keep a big bottle of my one of my favorites on hand for dressings and drizzle. 

What are my favorites? I love going to an olive oil specialty store and doing a tasting to figure that out. My favorite is Oil & Vinegar in Greenville, South Carolina. Their products are all high-quality, their staff is super knowledgable (but not snobby!) and they're so friendly and enthusiastic that it's tough to want to buy anywhere else.

My most recent buy, pictured in the background above, was their extra virgin olive oil from Puglia , and it is SO good—robust, peppery and a little sweet. It's got low acidity and high polyphenols (antioxidants), making the flavor more intense and the oil better for you. 

That being said, if you just wanna pick some up from the grocery store or order some from Amazon, that's totally cool too. In that case I encourage you to experiment, but I recommend California Olive Ranch EVOO as a good starting point. 

Here are a few things to pay attention to if you're picking one up on your own: 

How to choose a grocery store olive oil: 

  1. Is it fresh? Most good olive oil brands will have a harvest date somewhere on the bottle, as olive oil doesn't necessarily age well. 
  2. How is it bottled? Olive oil should be stored in a cold dark place, so a dark, glass bottle is the best packaging. You don't want the oil deteriorating as it sits in the truck. 
  3. Where is it from? Check the country or region of origin. First of all, it should only have one. Second, foreign isn't always best, as the further away it is, the longer it probably took to ship and the harder it is to find out about the source. This is why I recommend California Ranch Olive Oil. Now if you're buying imported oil from a specialty store, you can probably go for it safely as they will be more discerning about the source.
  4. How long is the ingredient list? Hint: it should only list one thing. Extra virgin olive oil. 
  5. Is it cold-pressed? Good olive oil is processed with olives that are crushed and pressed without help from heat or chemicals, so the bottle should say cold-pressed. According to Larousse Gastronomique, this designation doesn't necessarily tell us much anymore as processors now have machines that are temperature-controlled, even if they don't use traditional extraction methods. First-pressed means virtually nothing as modern methods don't typically require a second press. Still, if a bottle doesn't even bother saying it? I'd steer clear unless you know the person who made it.
  6. Other factors? Higher polyphenols means more antioxidants and a bolder flavor. The lower the acidity, the better (extra virgin olive oil must have less than 1 percent acidity). You might not be able to find this information on bottles of grocery store olive oil, which is okay, but it's a good sign if you can. 

If all else fails, try out Google University! Here's a great article from The Kitchn that does the work for you with recommendations from Italian cooks.

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I tend to give balsamic vinegar a bit more of a pass, for better or for worse. Don't get me wrong, really good balsamic vinegar makes a huge difference, and you should get an aged vinegar marked Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale with a D.O.P. certification if possible. The thing is... a lot of grocery store brands are pretty good in their own right, and purity is less of an issue. 

That being said, if you live near a specialty store, go in for a tasting! A top-quality balsamic isn't as necessary to me as top-quality olive oil, but it is undoubtedly one of my favorite special occasion splurges. Especially a cherry-flavored one. Mmmmmm. 

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Now let's talk about that green. And red. And white.

You can make many variations of this salad depending on what's available (my local grocery stores don't always make it easy to find good greens), but here are the leafy ingredients I like to use:

  • Arugula (rocket) - A soft, nutty green and situation where stems are okay. You don't have to use it, but I highly recommend it.
  • Baby kale and baby Swiss chard - Soft versions of the big leafy bunches you know. Earthy and lightly bitter, but much more subtle than their later stage selves. You can often find a mix of these (sometimes along with arugula, spinach and other young greens) marketed as "super greens". Bonus: baby swiss kale adds a nice aesthetic touch with its bright pink stems. 
  • Radicchio - It looks like thin red cabbage, but it's not! Radicchio is an Italian chicory with a mildly spicy, slightly bitter flavor. It's not thick and woody like cabbage (and doesn't have the same side effects), but it does still have a crunchy bite. Don't sub in red cabbage. Just don't.
  • Belgian endive - Another chicory plant with delicate, buttery leaves and a nice crunch. This one is a little bitter too, but it's subtle and it works with the dressing and pears. Embrace the bitterness. I typically peel off the outer leaves and then cut off the hard bottom as needed to pull the rest off easily, but you can also cut a cone into the bottom to get all the leaves off at once. 
  • Substitutions - Some of these can be a little hard to find, I'll admit. I don't know if I'd made this unless I can find at least two of them or else it's a different salad, but here are some recommendations. In a pinch, I've used baby romaine instead of endive. It's not the same, but it has a similar texture. If you can't find radicchio, seriously, don't use red cabbage. My grocery stores typically have a box of four "artisan lettuce" varieties that typically include chicories you could use instead. If it's curly and spindly, it's probably a chicory or something with similar flavor.  For the darker greens you could use spring mix if you have to.
  • Red Cabbage - Just don't! I'm warning you.
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The last, but definitely not least important element of my Tricolore Pear Salad is the toasted pine nuts, and yes, I do think toasting them makes a big difference when you're eating them raw. Pine nuts are earthy little tree nuts that give pesto its nutty flavor.

They're much milder than pecans and softer than almonds, which you might typically put in a sweeter salad. I would almost call them creamy based on the feeling of chewing them. 

Toasting them may feel like one more step, but it's super easy and fast. The one skill you need to have is vigilance. 

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How to toast pine nuts: 

  1. Heat a pan over medium heat.
  2. Pour in the pine nuts and stir frequently for 2-3 minutes, or until you start to smell them and they leave grease trails on the bottom of the pan, and remove them to a plate to cool. Watch them closely and if they start to brown or smoke, remove them to a plate immediately so they don't burn.
  3. That's it!
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This Tricolore Pear Salad is far from rabbit food, and I have family/friends/happy customers to back me up on that if you don't believe me. BUT I hope you'll make it to find out for yourself! You could even make it into an entire meal instead of a side dish by adding a little chicken or even sliced steak, which I sometimes do when I pack up the leftovers for lunch the next day. 

If you do make it, let me know by sharing a photo with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen and tagging me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. You can also use the "tried it" feature on Pinterest to help out others looking for a salad they don't have to force themselves to eat!

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Let's get this pear party started!

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Cheesy Fusilli with Tomatoes and Sausage

Dinner, Comfort Food, Italian, Pasta, RecipeLeannda CavalierComment

Pasta in a creamy parmesan sauce, topped with roasted tomatoes, spicy sausage and nutty arugula. Simple enough to throw together tonight, flavorful enough to make again for company this weekend.

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My mouth is watering. Jump to the recipe, please!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions or want more info!

I've had a whole lot to celebrate lately. Between the little girl we're expecting in November and all the excitement that comes with planning, visits with loved ones, and a slew of weddings—including three of my bridesmaids: my bonus sister Marie and two of my best friends since childhood, Kaitlynn (of The Keto Show) and Hannah—it's been an incredible whirlwind season of life!

Everyone should have a go-to special occasion recipe. Cheesy fusilli with tomatoes and sausage is one of our favorites of all time. Don't get me wrong, we switch things up all the time and I love to try out new dishes, but this is the one I know I can make from memory—grocery store to plate.

This is the one I make for my husband's birthday. This is the one I make when we're celebrating small victories. This is the one I make when we need a little extra homey comfort. 

It's evolved a lot over the years. I started making a version it in college because the most of the ingredients were affordable, and I learned at an early age that keeping parmesan in the fridge was a priority. The technique is a little more sound now, but the roots are the same. 

Cheesy fusilli with tomatoes and sausage is perfect for summer when you've got fresh grape tomatoes all over the place, but guess what? Grape tomatoes are also some of the best to go for year round. They keep well and smaller tomatoes don't need as many resources as larger varieties to be packed with juicy flavor.

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I made cheesy fusilli with tomatoes and sausage a few weeks ago because pregnancy cravings pretty much demanded it. Whenever I make it, I like to do this thing where I just happen to not mention what I'm making to Adam until he figures it out on his own—usually around the time he smells the sausage and sees me piling on the arugula with a mound of fresh grated cheese on the cutting board.

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You'd think it would get old after 8-ish years, but nope! The reaction is always so worth it. Huge smile, high-pitched questions ("Good smells— wait, is this what I think it is?!"), fist pump and the only kind of hovering from another grown adult I can tolerate. It's like I brought home a winning lottery ticket. It's the best

After we finished eating, Adam asked if I would post this recipe for his birthday this year. That's in October. I thought about it and realized this is a pretty great summer recipe with all the cherry tomatoes bursting onto the scene right about now. I asked if he'd mind if I made it again that week to post this month.

He didn't take long to answer yes, but there was one condition. He wanted me to tell you it has a good mouthfeel (too much Food Network?), and... I mean, he's not wrong! Between the creamy cheese sauce, al dente pasta, acidic tomatoes, fatty sausage and the arugula to lighten it all up? Yeah. 

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So there you go. Good mouthfeel.

Another major perk of this recipe is just how EASY it is to make. It looks like it takes a lot of work, but really it comes together in about 25 minutes if you just prep the ingredients ahead. It might take you a little longer if you're a beginner and cutting still takes a while, but hey, all the more reason to in some practice with your knife!

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Nervous about making a cheese sauce? Don't be. 

Like a lot of my favorite recipes, you can learn how to make other dishes without realizing it too. Sneaky education is my favorite kind. If you can make one cheese sauce, you can make lots of cheese sauces. Just try out different cheeses, liquids and seasonings and you can make hundreds of totally different pastas or toppings, all your own. 

This one doesn't use a roux, which I think is great for two reasons: 

  1. It shows there are lots of ways to make a tasty cheese sauce.
  2. It gives you some low-stakes practice in moving quickly with heat and cheese, because if you want to cook at home often and easily, you probably should learn to make a roux at some point. It's really not as complicated as it seems as long as you have everything ready. Make this first to get your cooking confidence meter nice and high.
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Why use Fusilli in this recipe?

You could definitely use other types of pasta for this recipe, and if already you have most of the ingredients I wouldn't send you to the store just for this, but I do think fusilli is the best choice here.

Fusilli (foo-silly) is a corkscrew shaped pasta, and all those nooks and crannies do a great job of holding onto the cheese without making it pool like shell-shaped pasta might, for instance. But here we're trying to get it to hold onto two different textures: the smooth sauce and the chunky tomato and sausage topping. The spiral shape of the noodles does a nice job of keeping both in check on the plate and, more importantly, on your fork. 

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If you can get your hands on it, I really recommend trying cheesy fusilli with tomatoes and sausage with fusilli bucati noodles. It's basically the same thing, except the noodles are hollow, which adds a fun new texture into the mix. They're a little harder to find (which is why I didn't use them here), but I see them in my regular grocery store on occasion.

You could even use fusilli bucati lunghi if you're trying to check all your pasta shape boxes. They're just super long fusilli bucati noodles you can sometimes find in stores with specialty Italian products. Warning: they will break apart as you cook and eat—so not a lot of twirling action—but they're still fun!

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Funny story, I took the photos for this post before our vacation home to West Virginia in late June/early July so I wouldn't fall too far behind, and I've already made it once since then. My bonus parents came to us with some projects around the house to get ready for baby, and hey, we needed to eat! And celebrate!

It's too late for us hopeless pasta addicts. Don't send help. Join the cheesy side

So what's your go-to dish when you've got something to celebrate? Let me know in the comments! If you don't have one yet, I'm happy to share this one ;)

And hey, if you make this, show it off! Let me know by sharing a photo with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen and tagging me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter! You can also use the "tried it" feature on Pinterest to encourage other pinners to give it a go.

So let's get fusilli!

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Summer Party Panzanella

Dinner, Italian, Party, Recipe, Salad, Slow Food, Summer, VegetarianLeannda CavalierComment

This Italian bread salad boasts the best summer garden bounties and toasted bread cubes, all tossed in a tangy white wine vinaigrette. It’s big enough to bring to your block party—and keeps well enough to keep all to yourself. 

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions or want more info!

Ready to party but less ready to read? Click here to jump straight to the recipe. 

Is there any better feeling than walking out to the garden on a sunny day, picking a juicy cucumber, rinsing it off, and eating it right then and there like an apple? Adding a sprinkle of salt and a splash of vinegar might enhance things a bit, but otherwise, probably not.

Growing up in Wellsburg, West Virginia it seemed like every other house had a garden, or at least a vegetable patch. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more abound. Though my Pop-Pop’s garden was huge and we had some tomatoes and peppers sprouting at my house most years, neighbors would still bring over grocery bags full of their extra bounty all summer.

This is what July tastes like. 

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I could walk outside, grab a cucumber, rinse it off and eat it like an apple—and never run out as long as it was warm! I thought I fully appreciated it then, but now that I have a shady yard hundreds of miles away, I’m really missing the abondanza.

Whether you have a plentiful garden, a bustling farmers' market, or even a decent grocery store, sometimes you just end up staring at all those beautiful veggies thinking, "okay, but what am I actually going to do with all of this?!"

Enter panzanella.

What is panzanella?

Um, just the manifestation of summertime joy and happiness. With bread.

What is it really? A bread salad filled with all your favorite summer produce. I think everyone makes it a little differently, but I like a good mix of tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, red onion and basil. 

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Add a deliciously tangy white wine vinaigrette for good measure and you're golden. Well, golden and all the other colors that taste good. 

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This summer party panzanella lives up to its name. Panzanella in general is great for cookouts because it can safely sit out at room temperature, plus it's best after sitting for a while. Primo vegetarian option, but no one is skipping this dish just because it's not barbecue. 

This specific panzanella recipe has another advantage: the bread is toasted in the oven rather than pan-fried. I do realize both stovetops and ovens are hot (especially in the middle of summer), but the oven method is so much faster, less messy and less greasy-feeling. It’s also a little easier to evenly cook the bread this way.

Hold up, is the bread cooked in authentic panzanella?

Classic panzanella, as it's made in Italy, features stale bread soaked in vinaigrette and tomato juice in yet another example of what I love about Tuscan cooking—finding a way to use what's around and still managing to make it irresistible.

Somehow over the years, especially in American versions, it's evolved a bit to the point where we're grilling, frying or toasting the bread to dry it out enough to really soak up the vinaigrette. I'm gonna be honest. I REALLY like it that way. The texture. The flavor of the slightly browned bread. The crisp from the hot olive oil. Everything about it. 

How do you toast bread for panzanella? Simple. Just toss it in a little olive oil and salt...

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Toast it in the oven until it's just turning golden-brown, turn the oven off, and leave it for a few minutes to dry off.

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That's. It. 

Another difference from panzanella purist recipes? The OG dish is typically made with bread, tomatoes, onions, vinaigrette, maybe basil, and that's it. Sounds delicious, but I have all this amazing produce laying around and it all tastes SO good together. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again. There's a time and a place for making food perfectly authentic, and I'm all about knowing the rules, but you're missing out on some incredible food if you're not willing to be a rule-breaker sometimes. 

HOWEVER, there is one unbreakable rule here. 

This recipe is great for bread that's a day or two old and starting to get a little stale, but for just about everything else it's all about freshness. That goes for all the vegetables down to using garlic you cut yourself—not the jarred stuff. This is a true peak of summer recipe. If you’re not eating all your ingredients as fresh (and ripe) as possible, don’t make this.

You’ll thank me when you take a bite.

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I like to make this with red and orange bell peppers (orange are my favorite to eat raw), but yellow is great too. Green peppers are a little too grassy for me in this particular recipe, but hey, try it out if you have some on hand you want to use up. Let me know how it goes!

I’ve made summer party panzanella for a bridal shower, for dinner parties, for hungry football players who helped us move, and plenty of times on regular old weeknights. My husband and I have been known to destroy one of these in 24 hours—yeah, that’s an entire loaf of bread for two. Yikes. Such a good yikes. 

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As it sits, the vinaigrette and the juices from all those veggies meld and soak into the bread for such explosive flavor that you don't even need fireworks, okay? Leave the pyrotechnics to the professionals, because you can blow minds all on your own with this. 

Some people will beg you for this recipe. Everyone else will just ask you to make more. 

Luckily for me, we do travel to the land of veggie-sharing (aka West Virginia) pretty often during the summer. I'm actually surrounded by fresh tomatoes and basil at this very moment, some of which I just ate in a frittata. We also live fairly close to some great farmers markets and the famous Grainger County tomatoes in Tennessee, so I’m not completely missing out.

Still, if you live in a community like the one I grew up in, know I’m jealous. Go out and pick the biggest, most misshapen, sun-ripened tomato you can find and slice it up with some salt for me!

So what's the produce situation in your area, and what's your fave summer vegetable or fruit? A super-ripe peach or plum might be runners-up to tomatoes and cucumbers for me. Basil and mint are great too though... Oh God, I almost forgot watermelon! For the record, that was an actual, unedited stream of consciousness.

Anyway, freshen up the comments below with your picks!

If you try out this summer party panzanella, let me know by sharing a photo with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen and tagging me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. You can also use the "tried it" feature on Pinterest to help others find it too!

Let's get toasting!

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Blackberry Blood Orange Breakfast Cake

Baking, Breakfast, Dessert, Italian, Recipe, SummerLeannda CavalierComment

This Blackberry Blood Orange Breakfast Cake is a summery twist on an Italian classic. Juicy blackberries and hints of tangy blood orange give this lightly sweet yogurt cake plenty of personality to accompany your morning coffee.

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Feeling the cake, but not feeling the chat? Click here to jump to the recipe.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions or want more info!

I'm so excited about this recipe for so many reasons.

In 2016, I traveled with my husband, bonus parents and bonus sister to Italy. It was incredible, and I'm pretty sure I belong there. Yes, I know it's one of the most overly-romanticized places on Earth. Yes, I know there are problems there too—I watch Last Week Tonight. But really, I've spent so much time since trying to replicate the feeling of being there at home.

This cake feels like Tuscany. The flavor and texture. The ingredients. The simplicity. Everything.

It was inspired by a traditional yogurt and olive oil cake made in the medieval hill town of San Gimignano in the Siena, Tuscany region of Italy. Torta allo yogurt is a classic. Don't be afraid of the olive oil. You won't taste it in this recipe any more than you would taste the flavor of canola oil, and it's incredibly common in Italian baking, which is all about what's available locally.

Part of the reason this dessert caught my eye is that the first variation of this recipe I saw in A Family Farm In Tuscany: Recipes and Stories from Fattoria Poggio Alloro by Sarah Fioroni (about a farm near where we took an agrotourism excursion) is so simple that it uses a yogurt cup as a form of measurement for the flour, oil and sugar. I just love that.

I chose not to do that here because packaging can be so different here in the U.S. and I personally buy it in bulk, but the sentiment is pretty beautiful. It honors the idea that baking is about ratios, but it's also rustic. It's the kind of thing my Ya-ya would teach me to do.

Making it seasonal

Yogurt and olive oil cake is also practical because it uses ingredients most people who cook regularly will already have on hand, and you can add any seasonal touches you may have. In winter you could totally make it a cranberry or rosemary orange cake. Spring? Hello, lavender and honey. Fall? Cinnamon spice sounds good!

My version, blackberry blood orange breakfast cake, plays up some of my favorite fresh flavors of summer. I've been very into blood oranges lately. Partially because they have folate in them which is good for pregnancy, and partially because they are DELICIOUS. They're a little more tart than regular oranges, and I personally think they're more flavorful in general.

It doesn't hurt that they're gorgeous, either.  

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As for the blackberries, I have never not been into those juicy little summer candies. They're wild and beautiful, tart then sweet. A little seedy, but in a good way. Blackberry is one of my go-to flavors, whether for preserves, compote, flavored water or sweets—but honestly none of that can compare to a gooey, just overripe blackberry baked into this cake. 

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Perfection.

Blackberries are also rich in polyphenol antioxidants, which give them their dark, jammy color. The science on just how beneficial those phytochemicals are is a little shaky, but loading up can't hurt right? They're also a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and too many blackberries is probably better than other foods that tout polyphenols like olive oil and red wine, right? 

This cake isn't super fluffy like your typical dessert cake. It's on the firmer side and light, like so many great Italian treats. Think about crunchy biscotti soaking up your cappuccino, or chewy ciabatta drenched in olive oil and dried herbs. It's incredible with coffee or tea in the morning, but don’t rule it out for dessert. 

Plus, it's beautiful. I didn't even work all that hard to arrange the fruit on top and look at it. I know this is almost the same as the main shot above, but seriously. STRIKE A POSE, CAKE. 

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Just like that. STRIKE IT. 

Baking the cake

Making it is simple too. Totally beginner-level. If you are a true beginner, there's one place I really want you to pay attention, and that's when you're beating the eggs and sugar. If you just do it quickly like with a lot of typical cake recipes, you're not going to get the volume you need. You really do want to let it go about five minutes or until it doubles in and looks creamy-yellow and foamy, like the photo below.

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Sweetening the deal

I love serving this cake with whipped cream. Even better? Blood orange whipped cream! It only takes a few minutes and one extra ingredient to whip up, and you're already zesting oranges, so it's honestly crazy not to. Besides, if you've never made whipped cream, learning how allows you to level-up approximately 1,000 desserts. 

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Just do it, okay?

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Seriously, I hope you make this and I hope you love it as much as we do over here! If you do, let me know by sharing a photo with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen and tagging me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. You can also use the "tried it" feature on Pinterest to help out others looking for a tasty seasonal cake!

Let's get baking!

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Blood Orange Blackberry Breakfast Cake Nutrition Info

Blood Orange Whipped Cream Nutrition Info

Sweet Onion Tomato Sauce with Gnocchi

Dinner, Comfort Food, Italian, Recipe, Sauces, Winter, Pasta, VegetarianLeannda Cavalier4 Comments

A rich, creamy pasta sauce with sweet onions, savory tomatoes, peppery seasonings and sharp parmesan. This sauce is versatile and easy to throw together with things you probably already have. 

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means I get a small commission if you buy products I recommend at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I believe in from companies I believe in—either I use them myself or I've at least done thorough research and vetting. Please reach out if you have any questions!

My belly is growling. Jump to the recipe, please!

Have you ever noticed how much colder it feels when it's already been warm and the temperature dips back down? I've been walking around for weeks without needing a coat, and it's SNOWING today! My body is reacting like it's sub-zero in my nearly 70º house. I'm dealing. 

So on a shivery, grey day what better to warm up with than a hearty plate of gnocchi?

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I got the idea for this recipe while shopping at one of my favorite health food stores after a long day out in Knoxville. I was so tired, but I really wanted to eat well that night. Knowing I had a good hour-long drive home, I was looking for convenience food, but like, good convenience food. Something I would feel good about eating and re-eating for lunch the next day.

I settled on a few different kinds of frozen ravioli you can buy in bulk—red pepper eggplant, spinach ricotta, one with sausage, I think—and some vegetables. So I just needed a sauce.

I wandered over to the refrigerated section where they have fresh sauces I always want to try, and saw this incredible-looking vidalia onion sauce that REALLY pulled me in. I could smell it. I could taste it. I was ready to drink it. But it was too expensive for me to justify at that moment.

Listen, I’m not above spending nearly $8 on a little jar of sauce I want to try, but I was already almost over my grocery budget and the ravioli was reasonable, but not exactly cheap. Plus, I knew I could make it at home. I mentally noted the color and texture of the sauce, glanced at the description on the jar and made a plan. 

The best part? I already had all the ingredients. In fact I always have these ingredients, and if you cook often, you likely do too. 

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This sauce goes great with gnocchi texturally because while it’s thick, it’s pretty smooth. It wraps around the ravioli like the edible manifestation of a bear hug. Beyond that soft, pillowy gnocchi makes a tasty canvas for the sweet and savory flavor of this Roasted Sweet Onion Tomato Sauce.

This Sweet Onion Tomato Sauce is super easy to make, and it comes together pretty quickly. It's going to be really great for you if you aren't a fan of doing a lot of chopping, or if you're just too tired to do a bunch of that tonight—which I totally get. It's the reason I thought about buying the sauce in the first place!

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The plan I made in the store was pretty simple, and I was pretty sure I could knock it out in about half an hour. I just needed to roast some sweet onions until they were a little caramelly, and incorporate them into a simple tomato sauce. 

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Like I said, I was pretty worn out, and besides, roasting the onions whole seemed like the way to go. So what to do? Bring out the blender. It honestly made things go so quickly. I just simmered the tomatoes while the onions were in the oven, added everything to the blender, and voila! 

Beautiful sauce that tasted like a lot more work went into it.

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Now for some salt, fat, acid and heat action. A little honey, red pepper flakes, white wine vinegar, basil parmesan cheese and cream go in to build a sauce that tastes like it came from a restaurant (or an $8 jar at a health food store). 

Whirrrrrrr it up.

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I’ve also tried the sauce with pork loin (amazing) and I’m sure it would go with chicken or steak. Probably even with some seafoods like mussels or scallops. It would work well with long noodles such as spaghetti or linguine, with ravioli or other stuffed pastas—really with just about any pasta.

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I have mixed feelings on the “rules” of pasta. I get the point. Pesto goes will with pastas it can stick to rather than pool in. Pastas with hollow shapes are going to go well with sauces they can scoop up like tasty little spoons. The thing is, some people have hard and fast rules just for authenticity’s sake.

I think authenticity has a time and a place, and I can appreciate it. On the other hand, if I want bolognese sauce and only have angel hair on hand, I’m not going to the store just for authenticity’s sake. Besides, why shut down creativity or experimentation? 

Personally, I think it’s worth knowing the rules—if only so you can break them mindfully. 

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There's something so satisfying about knowing you made it yourself, right? 

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Oh, hey, and it's Lenten Friday friendly! I swear I didn't intend to post a chicken recipe on a Friday last time. 

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If you like this recipe, you may want to sign up for my email list for more. If you sign up, you get a free guide to overcoming one of the biggest commonalities of people who say they're not good at cooking—and one of the easiest things to fix! Just click on the graphic below to sign up and download.

P.S. If you ever need help with a recipe or have a question, please reach out. I'd love to help!

Did you make this recipe? Take a picture and let me know! You can always tag me and hashtag #whipsmartkitchen on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook (links below), or use the tried it feature on Pinterest.

Until then I'll be here trying to warm up, and hoping all our flowers still bloom and plums and grapes still come in, unlike last year after a 75º February and a bunch of cold snaps. Give me something to look forward to here. 

Let's get roasting!

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Nutrition Facts for Sweet Onion Tomato Sauce (without Gnocchi and Kale)

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Nutrition Facts for Gnocchi with Sweet Onion Tomato Sauce and Kale

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Tuscan-inspired white bean tomato soup

Fall, Italian, Recipe, Soup, VegetarianLeannda CavalierComment

A simple, delicious, rustic soup inspired by the flavors of Tuscany. This recipe makes enough to feed a crowd, but it's incredible after the flavors mingle in the refrigerator overnight, so leftovers make this great for smaller families and individuals as well.

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Need... food.... Jump to the recipe, please.

Cannellini beans are one of my favorite foods. That's probably kind of weird, but it's true. Beyond being creamy and delicious, they're so versatile. If you stock them in your cabinet—canned or dried—with just a few other staples, you'll have vast number of meals at your fingertips any time. This is one of them.

This soup is inspired by one I had at a farm in Tuscany. Fattoria il Poggio sits atop a hill in Montecarlo, Lucca, in the outskirts of San Gimignano. Everything we had there was perfect, but the standout item to me was the soup. It wasn’t the prettiest course. It wasn’t the most complicated. It was simple, rustic, resourceful and delicious.

The funny thing is... somehow we finished the dinner without actually figuring out what the soup was! We didn't have any menus, as everything was family-style and the dishes were all pre-planned regional specialties. 

Except the steak fries. Fairly certain those were to placate potentially picky Americans. I mean... I still partook.

It's pretty unlike me not to ask, but there was SO much food going around that my intentions were lost when—OH, TAGLIATELLE! Roast pork? Wait, ribs too? Hold up, sausage now? 

Anyway, I'm still not entirely certain what the soup was... so let's put on our detective hats!

What we know about "The Tuscan Soup": 

  • It was bean and tomato based
  • The beans were pureed, creamy and demure
  • Sage might be the main seasoning 
  • It had some kind of grain
  • Olive oil for daaaayys
  • That I was too excited to eat and only got terrible photos of it
 Exhibit A: terrible photo.

Exhibit A: terrible photo.

Soup suspects:

So much of the food that comes to mind when we think of Italy is functional, and origin stories of Tuscan soups are downright utilitarian. They were designed to make the most of what was around to feed as many mouths as possible, but what they’ve evolved into is deliciouuuuus.

Possibility 1 — Ribollita

Of all our contenders, this is the most well known. Ribollita means “reboiled,” which cuts right to the chase. Originally it was last night’s soup reheated, plus stale bread to add bulk and avoid waste. It started out as way to cheaply feed lots of people, but it’s evolved into an intentional staple that generally features white beans, kale and cabbage, tomatoes whatever vegetables are fresh or on hand. It’s like the ultimate kitchen-sweep meal. You can follow a recipe, or just throw in whatever you’ve got following deliciously loose guidelines. A lot of variations puree most of the soup so it's crazy-thick.

Our soup was much lighter—so appropriate for the blanket of humidity under the July sun, not to mention all the courses to come. 

Possibility 2 — Zuppa alla frantoinana, a.k.a. Tuscan bean and vegetable soup

It’s also possible that the soup of the day was zuppa all frantoiana, another resourceful Tuscan soup utilizing "this and that" based on what’s abundant from local harvests—summery beans, vegetables and olive oil, finished with crusty bread. It's fairly similar to ribollita, if not a variation. The difference as far as I can tell is a heavier focus on vegetables and olive oil vs. bread. 

This one's generally pretty hearty with big chunks of vegetables, sometimes including potatoes, squash, and fennel depending on what's growing nearby. Wah-waaaah, not our soup. 

Possibility 3 —  Zuppa di farro (alla lucchese), a.k.a. farro and bean soup

This one is the most structured of the three, following what I’ll call a soup formula. It starts out with an Italian soffritto (dice of onion, carrot and celery), and the body is built with farro cooked in a stew of pancetta, tomatoes and borlotti beans, also known as cranberry beans for their pink speckles. It's finished off with a big drizzle of olive oil, because it would be a crime if it wasn't. 

Winner winner chicken dinner! Maybe? Here's a delicious-looking recipe for zuppa di farro with photos... I'll let you decide for yourself, I'll be over here making some. For comparison.

Who knows though? It may have been something else. I love Italian food, but I'm hardly the world's foremost expert. If you have other ideas, what are you waiting for, tell me about them! I have serious food FOMO. 

If you've been there and I'm completely wrong... be gentle, please ;)

My take

Ultimately, I decided to create a recipe for a soup that I thought captured the spirit of our meal, though it's not exactly a recreation. I used ingredients that were easy to find in my local grocery store, tasted as I went, and let the spirit move me. The spirit of hunger and food lust.

I think that goes with the whole Tuscan vibe though, right? Using what's around? Making something delicious out of simplicity? Know what's delicious to me?

Cannellini beans. Tomatoes. Sage. Oregano. Cheeeese. Finish it off with olive oil and bread crumbs.

You know, for authenticity.

So I started with extra virgin olive oil, a soffritto of onion, carrots and celery (yes, same as a mirepoix in French, but with a little more leeway) and some garlic. 

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This goes back to the "formula" I mentioned. There's no one formula. Soup is really more like a choose your own adventure food. A suggested order of common ingredient combinations. 

Next came the stars of the show, tomatoes and cannellini beans. Lots of them.  

 Sigh. A beauteous bean.

Sigh. A beauteous bean.

I used some vegetable broth to spread it out, and seasoned it with the actual Tuscan soup in mind. Plenty of fresh sage and some dried oregano. Next I grated the cheese directly into the soup, which pretty much eliminated the need for salt.

But listen, I need you to use the real cheese here. Not the kind in the can.

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If you grate cheese directly from the wedge, it's going to melt into your soup and make it nutty, earthy and well-seasoned. If you pour the canned kind in, it's going to clump into a ball and taste like salty pencil shavings stuck in your teeth, then you'll have to add a bunch of salt to make up for it. If you do use a pre-grated cheese, make sure it's a good one, and remember that even the best will dry out if it sits in your fridge too long. A wedge will last longer, as will its flavor and texture. 

One thing I like to do with a lot of soups is to throw in a few handfuls of spinach or whatever soft baby greens I have on hand. I just like to find ways to get more greens into my system. I mean, why not? 

I made the executive decision to purée  some of the soup with an immersion blender to make it creamier. You can get the same effect by putting a portion of the soup in a regular blender or food processor, but using an immersion blender is so much easier. You don't have to lug your blender out of the cupboard or worry about transferring hot soup. I've been using a slightly older version of the Cuisinart Smart Stick 2 Speed Hand Blender for about three years, and I highly recommend it (affiliate link, see disclaimer).

It was definitely the right call for texture. Like I said, it didn't need to replicate the actual Tuscan soup, but I wanted it to at least pay homage. I wasn't about to let celery and onion bits crash every spoonful and kill my vibe.

Bits don't kill my... Nope. Sorry. Okay, going home for the day. 

Please enjoy responsibly.

 Nutrition facts are based on 1-cup servings, not accounting for breadcrumbs or extra cheese.

Nutrition facts are based on 1-cup servings, not accounting for breadcrumbs or extra cheese.

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As always, I want to hear from you! If you make this recipe, make sure you come back and let me know how it was, or you can post a photo on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #whipsmartkitchen.

Question for you: What's the most memorable food you've had while traveling? I want to hear allll about it in the comments :)

Ravioli with pea pesto sauce

Adaptable for Vegetarians, Italian, Recipe, Sauces, Pasta, Dinner, Winter, SpringLeannda CavalierComment

I'm in a hurry. Jump to the recipe, please. 

Since the beginning of the year, I've been cleaning out my kitchen to make things organized, clean and fresh. It's something I highly recommend, and I try to do it every few months.  

If you're like me, you probably find a lot of odds and ends you forgot about when you clean out your freezer. Half a cup of mango with freezer burn. Overripe bananas you meant to bake into bread. Things you froze to avoid wasting... and end up having to throw away because you kept it too long. 

Maybe you even have some UFOs—unidentified frozen objects. 

I've gotten a little better about this over the last few years. This time around I did find a few things I wanted to get rid of to make room for new additions, so I've been planing ways to use them up. 

One of those things was bag of peas leftover from making vegetable soup. They were still good, but a little past their prime. I happened to have some pesto in the fridge and some sausage ravioli in the freezer, so I decided to make a pea pesto cream sauce.

I'm gonna be honest with you here. It was SO much better than I thought it was going to be. Isn't it magical when that happens? It was rich and cheesy, but somehow bright and fresh. The basil and lemon juice gave the old peas new life. 

About that frozen ravioli...

As much as I shout to the rooftops about homemade being best and unprocessed foods, I believe processed foods do have their place. 

One of the staples of my freezer is frozen pasta, and I love to pick up refrigerated pasta from the grocery store every once in a while. You can get shockingly good store bought ravioli and tortellini these days. Some of my favorite selections are at Earth Fare, Trader Joes, and sometimes Sam's Club. Even the store in my small town has a decent selection.

I can think of few things that taste better than homemade pasta, and I still believe homemade is best... but making it takes time, counter space, and patience. I recommend you try it at some point. If you do, I think you'll realize it's not a mythical feat.

That being said, I'm not here to judge you if you buy it pre-packaged.

When you buy, just read the label and make the best choices you can. Here are a few common-sense guidelines on what to look for:

  • Refrigerated pasta with a close expiration date is a good sign, as it probably doesn't rely heavily on preservatives. The shorter the shelf-life, the more likely it is that valuable nutrients haven't been removed or altered to make them last longer. Read the packaging to see whether it mentions the use (or lack) of preservatives.
  • Pasta made in-store or locally was likely made recently (maybe even that day) with high-quality, whole ingredients. The more minimally processed and less transport, the better.
  • If it's made in small batches, even better. This suggests a person made it and that the recipe was created for quality, not manufactured for the masses.
  • Check for standard nutrition information such as sodium and sugar content, as that can be a drawback of processed food. 
  • Pay attention to how many ingredients there are, and how many you don't recognize or can't pronounce. This isn't gospel, but the more there are, the more processed it probably is.
  • Bonus points if the ingredients are local and don't include antibiotics or added hormones. 

All that being said, if it looks good and you want to eat it...

Do it! Even if it doesn't meet the above criteria. Just don't eat it every night and you'll be fine.

Being aware of what you're eating and making the best choices possible is great, but a bit of pre-made of pasta every once in a while isn't going to automatically give you cardiovascular/metabolic disease (or make you fat). Just be sensible. Don't overdo it or rely on it. 

When you eat it, don't feel guilty. Eat it slowly, savor every bite and appreciate it. 

Now, let's get cooking.

Now that I've shared, it's your turn! Tell me what role processed foods play in your life. Do you try to stick to minimally processed or unprocessed foods? Do you not care either way? Is this something you think about?  I'm so curious to know your thoughts, so let me know in the comments. 

If you make this dish, let me know! Leave a comment below, or post it on Instagram and mention @leanndacavalier and #whipsmartkitchen! I want to see you get cooking!

 

 

Summer slow-cooker veggie lasagna

Slowcooker, Italian, Recipe, VegetarianLeannda CavalierComment

This post was originally published on my old blog. This version may contain minor edits and updates. The original is preserved at Recipe Repository

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Making pasta the right way is an art.

Getting the perfect al dente bite. Building the flavors in your sauce for hours on the stove. It’s a process that’s been perfected, taught and argued over for years and years.

But you know what? Sometimes you just need to eat some freaking pasta right now.

Or perhaps you need it right when you get home from work/school/marathon/sockhop.

Two practical truths: 

  1. Compromising on traditional perfection is actually progress if it gets you fed in time to finish out your day and get some sleep. “Imperfect” homemade lasagna is much more healthful than making some “perfect” ramen.
  2. Sometimes pasta done the “wrong” way can be just as good as pasta done the “right” way.

I know. Burn.

I like authenticity as much as the next food-obsessed person, but there are days when you really just need a win. This is quick and easy victory that takes care of itself while you focus on everything else.

Considering the above, this lasagna is basically American Pharoah. 

It delivers on what I consider to be the true markers of a great lasagna: smooth, creamy ricotta layers; aromatic sauce with simple ingredients and complex flavors; plenty of gooey  mozarella; and above all a beautiful balance of acidity and richness. The vegetables make this summer dish surprisingly fresh and bright for both a lasagna and a slow-cooker meal. 

Another win: I consider this to be a pretty healthful meal. Lots of veggies, a good amount of protein and no added sugar. Pasta isn’t even so bad as long as you have it in moderation, as this meal encourages.

You know what else is pretty healthful? Using full-fat cheese. It tastes better, has a better texture AND guess what: eating fat isn’t what causes weight gain. 

Generally if something says fat-free or reduced-fat it actually means sugar and carbs have been added and THOSE are what make you gain weight. Backwards, right?

I’m gonna step down off that soap box and refer you both to Emily Schromm (so smart!) and the documentary “Fed Up” (on Netflix). I did Emily’s 21 Day Superhero Challenge in February. I’ve always been fascinated with food and nutrition and I learned a lot from her.

I also gained the ability to do push ups. It was a big deal.  Look her up after you read this!

Emily probably tell you not to eat the pasta though, so… I mean you could try sauteed eggplant slices instead?

Or eat the pasta. I triple-dog dare you.

Summer Slow-Cooker Veggie Lasagna

Serves 8-10

Special equipment:

  • 6-quart (or larger) slow-cooker
  • Apron or old t-shirt

Cheese Filling

Ingredients:

  • 16-oz container full-fat ricotta cheese
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup finely shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1 tsp Italian spices
  • ¼ cup minced shallots
  • 2 cups spinach or other baby greens, cut into thin ribbons
  • 1 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced thin
  • 2 cups finely chopped baby bella mushrooms or portabello mushrooms

Instructions:

  1. Combine ricotta, egg, shredded parmesan, Italian spices and shallots in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Stir in spinach, and mix until evenly distributed.
  3. Stir in zucchini and mushrooms until mixture is even.

Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes, in juice, no salt added*
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • ¼ cup fresh basil, cut into thin ribbons
  • ½ tsp fresh rosemary, minced (or ¼ dried rosemary, crushed)
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

  1. Drain tomato juice into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Crush the tomatoes by hand using the following method:
    1. Wearing an apron** or other cover, hold tomato in the palm of your hand over the same mixing bowl, fingernails facing down.
    2. Carefully pierce the stem end of the tomato with your thumb and gently squeeze out as much juice as possible.
    3. Keeping your thumb in the center of the tomato, close your fingers around it and squeeze as hard as possible to crush the tomato’s flesh. It doesn’t matter whether the fibers fully separate.
  3. Repeat with all remaining tomatoes.
  4. Add garlic, basil and red pepper flakes, then stir to combine.
  5. Salt and pepper to taste (start with a pinch of each).

Lasagna Assembly

Ingredients:

  • Tomato sauce mixture
  • Cheese filling
  • 1 TBSP good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 15 lasagna noodles (about 12 oz)
  • 4 ½ cups full-fat shredded Italian cheese blend or mozzarella, divided

Instructions:

  1. Pour olive oil in slow-cooker and use a brush or paper towel to coat the bottom and sides
  2. Pour 1 ½ cups tomato sauce mixture in and spread to cover the bottom evenly.
  3. Lay five noodles over the sauce mixture, breaking as needed to cover as much sauce as possible. I find laying them lengthwise and breaking to cover the corners works best.
  4. Carefully spoon half of the cheese filling over the noodles and spread to cover, packing it down firmly and cover with 1 ½ cups of the tomato sauce mixture.
  5. Sprinkle 1 ½ cup of the Italian cheese blend over the sauce evenly.
  6. Add another layer of noodles, cheese filling, sauce and Italian cheese blend.
  7. Add the last five noodles, and remaining sauce. Reserve last cup of Italian cheese blend in the refrigerator for serving.

The layer breakdown should look like this, going in order from the bottom to the top:

  • 1 ½ cups tomato sauce
  • 5 noodles
  • Half of the cheese filling
  • 1 ½ cups tomato sauce
  • 1 ½ cup shredded Italian cheese blend
  • 5 noodles
  • Half of the cheese filling
  • 1 ½ cups tomato sauce
  • 1 ½ cup shredded Italian cheese blend
  • 5 noodles
  • remaining sauce
  • (after finished cooking) 1 ½ cup shredded Italian cheese blend

9. Place lid on and cook on low for 4-6 hours OR on high for 2-3 hours.

10. Take the lid off and spread remaining shredded Italian cheese blend on top. Turn off heat, replace lid, and let sit for 45 minutes to allow the noodles to absorb the juices.***

11. Serve warm!

Notes:

*You can always use pre-crushed or diced canned tomatoes and skip the tomato-crushing step. I personally prefer the rustic and varied texture of hand-crushed tomatoes.

**Hand-crushing tomatoes is messy no matter how careful you are! Move anything you don’t want tomato splattered on at least four feet away.

***In the picture above you can see a small amount of cooking liquid around the edges of the lasagna. That’s from all the veggies, and it’s the result of not letting it rest for 45 minutes. It’s not pretty, but it’s delicious—plus, it means the noodles are more firm because they haven’t soaked all the liquid up. If you let it sit, the noodles absorb all that extra liquid, meaning less sits on the plate, and the layers are easier to keep together, more like a traditional lasagna. To me it’s a toss-up in terms of taste, but letting it rest is definitely more aesthetically pleasing in the end. 

This recipe is loosely adapted from an “Eating Well” slow-cooker vegetarian lasagna recipe, which you can find here