Butternut Squash Mac N Cheese

Butternut Squash paired with cream cheese is creamy goodness…enjoy this wonderful macaroni and cheese variation this Valentine’s Day with your loved ones.   My sister-in-law Gayle makes the best butternut squash soup, so this one’s my way of thanking her for making me love butternut squash with cream cheese — she makes her yummy butternut squash soup every special occasion.

Butternut Squash Mac N Cheese
You know homemade mac n cheese always tastes better than boxed mac n cheese.  But you’d even enjoy this “nutty” mac n cheese that is creamy, rich and satisfying on a snowy day…Gotta make this!

1 – 2 lb Butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 chicken cubes
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 box (8 oz) cream cheese, sliced in cubes
1 package (1 lb) small pasta (shells, elbow, ziti)
2 tablespoons panko
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
1 can vienna sausage, drained and chopped

Cook pasta in salted boiling water until al dente (cooked but still firm to the bite), strain and add oil, tossing well to coat.   Set aside.

In a large pot or dutch oven, place butternut squash, whole milk, chicken cubes, brown sugar and minced garlic.  Add enough water (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups) to cover the butternut squash.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 25 minutes or until squash is tender when pierced with a fork.    Puree with a handheld immersion (stick) blender.   Add salt, mustard, black pepper, cayenne pepper and cream cheese.  Stir until cream cheese is melted.  Adjust seasoning.  Stir in hot cooked pasta.

Pour into lightly-sprayed or buttered 13 x 9 x 2 Pyrex baking dish.  Top with panko bread crumbs, grated parmesan cheese and chopped vienna sausage.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350 F for 20 minutes.  Uncover, and bake an additional 5 minutes.   Serve while hot!

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Pasta with Basil Walnut Pesto

I know you can use any herbs to make pesto, but I’m sticking to just basil, period.  Nothing can compare to the sweet-smelling basil when turned to paste along with other ingredients.  Here’s my “sweet” pesto recipe with pasta…that little bit of sweetness just reminds me Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  So this for sure is one sweet treat for your loved ones this coming special day….enjoy!

Pesto is a very simple Italian herb sauce and is good on almost anything…top on pizza, spread on toasted baguettes for a pesto bruschetta and toss on cooked pasta.   You can freeze pasta but you would want to briefly blanch first the basil leaves in a salted boiling water and really completely dry in paper towels to retain basil’s bright color and fresh taste.  Spoon into ice-cube trays and freeze.  One rule on pesto though, never heat it, just toss with hot pasta or top on sauteed vegetables.

Basil Walnut Pesto
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
2 tablespoons minced garlic (6 cloves)
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed and rinsed in cold water (pat dry if freezing pesto)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon maple-flavored pancake syrup
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a blender or food processor, break toasted walnuts into small bits.  Add the garlic and basil leaves. Pour in half of the olive oil to loosen mixture.  Add rest of the ingredients and pulse until the mixture is fairly smooth and of paste consistency.

1 pound fettuccine (or any pasta), cooked al dente, drained and tossed with 1 tablespoon oil
1/2 cup to 1 cup ricotta cheese

Sauteed Chicken and Vegetables
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, diced   roasted chicken chunks
1 cup green peas
1/2 lemon squeezed (1 teaspoon of juice added to pesto)
salt and pepper

Saute to heat and put in a bowl with cooked pasta and ricotta cheese.

Add the pesto sauce and sauteed chicken and vegetables; toss and mix well (may add a bit of pasta cooking liquid).  Cut some tomatoes and add them to the pasta.  Transfer to serving plate and sprinkle with fresh basil leaves and grated parmesan cheese.

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Meatballs and Spaghetti in Red Tomato Sauce

Even grown-ups adore Spaghetti and Meatballs!   When it is this cold and chilly, expect your family (not necessarily just Italian families, we just embrace pasta so much, it is comfort food to the rescue) to scream “Spaghetti”.   Make this spaghetti for the grown-ups in your family, it’s got VODKA!

Refer to the images display on shaping meatballs.  I put on a plastic glove on my left hand and hold a spoon on my right hand.   Scoop some meatball mix, squeeze and force it out into your covered clenched left fist.  When desired size is obtained, cut it with spoon and transfer to foil-lined baking sheet.   I prefer baking the meatballs than pan-frying.   This way I have all the stove-top for making the red tomato sauce and boiling the pasta in salted water until al dente (meaning cooked but still firm to the bite, you just have to test and test, but be careful not to burn your tongue!).

I use sazon seasoning here for flavor (cilantro) and for color (achuete), it it inexpensive, all you need is a packet.    Give the sauce a medley of exploding spices and aromatics — garlic, onion, crushed red pepper flakes, celery, carrots, fresh basil leaves, dried oregano, dried bay leaves, salt and pepper.  I love it sweeter, but then it is all up to your tastes.   Long simmer (to blend all flavors well) is the key to achieving an over-the-top spaghetti sauce.   And you just have to have grated parmesan cheese.

Now, let’s do it.  Here’s the recipe:

Do this in advance and store in fridge.  And when hubby says, “I’m home”, you say, “Dinner’s ready in minutes”.  Sweet indeed!

1 cup dry bread crumbs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 lb ground beef
1 lb Italian sausage
4 eggs
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried basil

Preheat oven to 375°F.  In a large bowl combine all meatball ingredients; mix well.  Form into meatballs and place in foil-lined large baking tray.  Bake for 20 minutes.

Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoon cooking oil
1 packet Sazon cilantro/achuete seasoning
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper (Glenn/Tito Joe preferred 1 teaspoon)
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
2 cans (8 oz each) tomato sauce
1/3 cup vodka
1/3 cup fresh basil, chopped
½ tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup sugar (or more)
1 can mushroom pieces, drained
1 box spaghetti, cooked al dente in salted boiling water, drained
Parmesan cheese for topping

In a large casserole pot, heat oil and sazon seasoning over medium-high heat.  Add onion, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes; saute until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes.  Add celery and carrot and season with salt and pepper.  Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.   Add tomatoes, vodka,  basil, oregano, bay leaves and sugar; reduce heat to simmer until sauce thickens a bit.  Remove bay leaves and taste for seasoning.  If sauce tastes too acidic, add unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, to round out the flavor.  Use handheld immersion blender to puree the sauce.  Add mushroom pieces, meatballs and drained spaghetti noodles; toss.   Top with parmesan cheese.