Mock Manicotti (Gluten Free)

Mock manicotti

Mock Manicotti (pictured with Meaty Marinara Sauce)

The human brain can connect tastes and smells to memories from long ago. I do not question that logic one bit, especially since there are certain recipes that make my heart my heart sing.

The joy in this dish comes from my early days with Mystery Man. (You can catch the entire history here, here and here).

In between dances we would sit at a table, catch up on the day’s happenings and enjoy a drink. Gin and Tonic for him, Corona with a lime for me. The conversations were all over the place. Cooking, movies, our families, and dance steps were weekly topics. I was not par­ticularly attracted to Mystery Man and neither him to me. We were friends, dance partners, nothing more.

On more than one occasion, Mystery Man mentioned he liked to cook, was good at it, and was known to host a dinner party or two. I laughed it off, until one day the topic turned into a little friendly competition. I’ll cook for you, then you cook for me. We’ll see who can bring the heat.

The competition so intense, we went from one dinner each, to two, then three… In fact I think we are still competing (but I’m winning, for the record).

This dish (in it’s original manicotti shape) was one of the first Mystery Man made for me. It had the best balanced blend of cheeses, the pasta was cooked to perfection, and he had picked up a bottle of wine that complemented the course. He was proud, but not smug, and I was secretly impressed.

For some reason I had forgotten about this dish, until last week Vintage Thread brought a version over for dinner. She used the Tinkyada Lasagna noodles and rolled them for a faux manicotti. It worked beautifully. I dug out Mystery Man’s recipe this week and used Barilla Penne Pasta in a layering method. It worked beautifully, too, and in both cases, my heart sang.

 

 

 

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Cheesy Risotto (Mock Mac&Cheese, Gluten Free) (Mystery Man Part 4)

Cheesy Risotto Cheesey Arborio Rice

Skip to the recipe here. Cheesy Risotto

The Grand Canyon was brilliant. I walked down the South Kaibab Trail in the bright sunlight and carried a full pack of provisions for our trip. Mystery Man, Hockey Guy and his girlfriend, Lady Hockey, hiked along side me. It was only a 6.1 mile journey, but the elevation change was a decent of 4860 feet with little water on the trail and the sun was already baking. We had a full day of walking ahead, but luckily had a campsite along the Colorado River awaiting our arrival.

Mystery Man had just graduated with his Master’s Degree three days earlier. It had been several long years stuck in classrooms, computer labs and offices. It was time to get outside.

I knew the hiking would be challenging. It would be hot. Once we were on the trail we were at least three days from getting back to civilization. I knew all of these things and more. What I deliberately put out of my mind were the shear cliffs and dizzying views from heights I would not be comfortable. I suppressed my fears. I hiked along. Dealt with it. In fact, we were getting close to the bottom of the Canyon and I thought ‘hey, I might have put my fear of heights behind me.’

Then I saw this.

South Kaibib Bridge

Are you kidding me?!

I approached the bridge with shaky knees. Mystery Man was fully aware of this bridge, and had kept this little detail to himself. He knew I would do it – if there was no choice.

There was no choice.

The walking surface was made of grates. You could see all the way – straight down – to the moving river. The bridge was suspended between two rock faces and swung slightly in the breeze.

I laughed at my previous thoughts of overcoming my fear of heights. It was real. It was happening.

We were the only people on the trail, so I asked the others to stay off the bridge to minimize any movement. Taking a deep breath, I put my boot on the first grate, looked straight ahead and strode my short, little, tired, shaky, legs to the next grate. Then the next, then the next. It was a long bridge.

The red dusty dirt clouded the air when I jumped onto solid ground. I finally exhaled. The others had started across and where taking their time with pictures and pausing to take in the views. I peeled my pack off and took a rest on a large boulder.

They joined me at the boulder, and we soon decided our short rest was over. Darkness was just two hours away and we still had to set camp and make dinner.

Upon arriving at our home for the night, Mystery Man and Hockey Guy suddenly became slightly panicked. A camera was missing and the search was on to find it. They decided it must be back at the resting boulder and left Lady Hockey and I to set camp.

So we did.

We set camp, prepped the stove, and settled in. I was getting hungry and short tempered. It was time to get dinner on and Lady Hockey insisted we wait until they returned before beginning to cook. Where were those guys?

Finally. Boots kicked up dust into camp. Making my way to the stove to get things going, I hear Mystery Man suggest we take a short walk down to the river to take in the sights.

“I’m hungry”. I groaned.

He promised it wouldn’t take long and suddenly all three of them were prodding me along. I followed reluctantly, until we reached a path to the helicopter pad. The trail head was marked for “Authorized Personnel Only”, and with a chip on my shoulder, I refused to go further. I really, really, just wanted to return to camp, eat, and rest.

Since I was being the stubborn rule-follower, Mystery Man found a nearby overgrown path. It had thickets. I had changed out of my boots into sport sandals. He led on in front of me.

I called up to him, “If I hurt my feet, I am never going to forgive you!”

“Never?” He said over his shoulder.

“Never!” I yelled.

Just a few seconds later he stopped. The Colorado River’s edge was at our feet, and the valley colors were every shade of orange and green with the setting sun. As I took in the greatness surrounding me, my eye was suddenly disrupted by an unnatural sight. Another bridge stretched across the canyon, but this one was bigger, and there was some sort of trash or strange flag hanging from it.

I turned to Mystery Man, “What is that?”

“I don’t know. Here, check it out.” He said, and handed me binoculars.

The view was very blurry at first, and it took some time to adjust the lens in the darkening valley. I finally zeroed in on the spot. This was not trash or a flag.

Hanging on the bridge was a giant white sign. It had five words.

Jessica Will You Marry Me?

Completely stunned, I brought the binoculars down and turned to Mystery Man, who was suddenly on one knee, with a ring.

Here I was. Covered in red canyon dust. Sweaty. Smelly. Cranky. And here he was. On one knee. Asking that we spend the rest of our lives together.

“….well?” he asked.

It didn’t occur to me he had been waiting for an answer. Of course I would!

“Yes!”

A few moments later we headed for the bridge to retrieve the sign. Thoughts were flying through my head. The ‘lost’ camera, the stalling for dinner, leading me to the right spot along the river… It was all coming together and making sense. That’s when he looked at me.

“It’s all uphill from here.” he said.

“Very funny. I’m hungry.” I replied.

(We had Mac & Cheese with canned chicken for dinner. Since I can’t have Mac & Cheese anymore, I have found this recipe fills the craving, and brings back memories of the Canyon.)

Print It Here Cheesy Risotto

Cheesy Risotto

Prosciutto Wrapped Stuffed Figs

Figs1 Meeting people on the dance floor can be a little strange.  You see them on the dance floor. You smile. You might dance beside them. Heck, you might just dance with one another, but forget their name just as fast as a tuck turn. It takes time to build a friendship when chatting in short spurts in the seconds between songs. Just after Mystery Man and I married we met another Swing dancing couple who recently moved to the area. Through the fits and starts of communicating at dances we learned we had a lot in common. ‘Mr. Zoot Suit’ and ‘Vintage Thread’ were also recently married, had a vintage wedding, and a big band at their reception – just as we did. We were surprised and quite lucky to have met them and the friendships continued to grow. Just a year later we vacationed together at a beach outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  Mr. Zoot Suit’s folks had graciously donated a week of their time-share on the shore. We took full advantage of not only being in a beach hot spot, but the culinary hot spot of Charleston. Sun and sand by day, gourmet restaurant by night. We happened upon a local eatery called Al Di La and took a chance it might be good food – after all, their tagline was ‘A Northern Italian Trattoria’. Mystery Man and I are pretty much open to any culinary experience, but Mr. Zoot Suit is not – he is more of a meat and potatoes man. So, we figured we couldn’t go wrong with Italian fair. figs2 Our appetizer arrived at the table – Prosciutto Wrapped Stuffed Figs, and Mystery Man and I dug in with instant delight. Wanting to share this Heaven-on-a-plate, we offered some up to our friends. To our shock and disbelief, Mr. Zoot Suit was just as delighted with the dish as we were, and instantly ordered another round. The server obliged with the very last serving – it was a seasonal dish and we were quite lucky to have had it. Prosciutto Wrapped Figs First, figs have a very short ‘season’ here in the Midwest. They are shipped in from California and you have to be on your produce ‘game’ to get them before they go mushy or moldy. I happen to have several friends who know of my fresh fig obsession and text me whenever they spy them. Next, get the best prosciutto money can buy – don’t worry, we only need twelve slices for the twelve figs we bought – and that is nowhere near a pound. Your deli counter specialist will gladly sell it to you by the slice. I purchased this at Dorothy Lane Market and it is so yummy! Fig Gallery 1 Gather your ingredients and equipment. Figs, Gorgonzola cheese, prosciutto, a muffin tin and foil.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Cut foil into squares and line each recess of the muffin tin.  Using a paring knife, cut the stem off of the fig in a circular motion (like you would hull a strawberry). Widen the opening with your pinky finger to make room for the cheese filling – being careful not to tear the fig down the side. Fill the fig with Gorgonzola and wrap the prosciutto snugly around. Place one fig in each muffin tin recess. Fig Gallery 2 Bake about 20-30 minutes, or until the prosciutto is slightly crispy around the edges and the cheese is bubbling. Note – you can stuff and wrap in advance! Complete all the steps and wrap (tightly! you don’t want things to dry out) your muffin tin in saran wrap. Refrigerate for up to a day and bake as directed.

Cheese Ball

Cheese Ball 1

Around 1983 Mom and Dad took a huge step into the electronic age. The T.V with fake wood grain, knobs, and a temper, was replaced with a sleek black beauty complete with a remote control. Beneath that beautiful television was our very first VCR hiding behind the glass of a shiny new stand. In the kitchen sat a box with a door, window and touch-pad. Yes, a microwave!

I don’t quite remember how or why we ended up with all of these new things at once. Maybe Dad won the drawing at the American Legion in town again. It might have been the reward of a big catering job, or perhaps just good old fashioned puttin money in the bank. Whatever it was, my sister and I were excited at the idea of making dinner in less than five minutes and eating on the couch while enjoying a movie.

One weekend soon after our new purchases, they came home with the Star Wars movies. I had never seen them even though I had an Ewok stuffed animal. Mom laid out snacks on the coffee table. Microwaved popcorn, cheese ball and beef roll-ups. We gathered our drinks and sacked out on the couch for an evening of fun. I am pretty sure we watched all three movies that weekend. But at the age of six, my attention span was not very long, so I missed pieces here and there and probably snoozed through some too.

The evenings of snacks and movies were few and far between. In fact the only other two I can recall were Top Gun a few years later and Dirty Dancing a year after that. But in all the time that passed in between, one thing was constant. Mom always made the same snacks.

In my college years the Star Wars movies were released in theaters one more time. My friends were movie buffs and some of them found it neces­sary to dress in costume for the big release nights. We stood in line for hours on the night of the first showing, and once inside we had our bags of popcorn and enormous sodas by our sides.

The theater went dark and the crowd clapped and screamed in excitement. The famous yellow words scrolled up the star-studded screen into space. The music boomed in our ears and I reached for my first bite of popcorn. Suddenly, I was over­come by a familiar craving. I needed a Cheese Ball.

UPDATE

Just last week we took the family to Star Wars Weekend at Disney World. Some things never change – I still wanted a cheese ball so I came home and made one.

Cheese Ball Post

Chipped Beef Cheese Ball

Ingredients:

1 – 8 ounce package cream cheese

1 medium onion

6 oz  thinly-sliced corned beef, chopped into ¼ inch squares (you can use a Buddig 2 oz package)

Preparation:

• Soften the cream cheese (leave at room temperature for an hour, or unwrap and microwave 15 seconds at a time until softened).

• Place the onion in a food processor and blend for about thirty seconds. Transfer to a mesh strainer over a bowl and press the juice out with a rubber spatula. You will need 2 tablespoons of juice.

Cheese Ball Onion Step

• Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (or a hand held mixer), combine the cream cheese and onion juice until it is smooth and completely integrated – about a minute on medium speed.

• Reserve 1/4 cup of the chopped beef and set aside

• Add the remainder of the chopped beef to the cheese mixture and combine – about ten seconds on medium speed.

• Form the mixture into a ball using a rubber spatula. Turn out onto serving platter, or plastic wrap if serving later.

• Cover the surface of the ball with the reserved chopped beef.

• Cover and chill for up to two days.

• Serve with assorted crackers.

NOTES: I usually double this recipe for a crowd and make one large ball.

7 Ingredient Artichoke Dip

Art Dip

While it is cool to say we have posh British friends, that is not the reason we are friends with R & S at all. Ok, I take that back, some of the reasons have to do with their British-ness, but I am quite certain we would still be friends regardless of their birth country.  It all started roughly ten years ago when Mr. and Mrs. Air Force were being PCS’d (moved, in military terms) to England. Mr. Air Force learned there was a Royal Air Force chap within his offices who he should seek out for advice.

R & S agreed to give them tips on fitting in across the pond and Mr. & Mrs. Air Force returned the favor by introducing them to Swing Dancing.

Enter Mystery Man and I – fellow Swing Dancers of Mr. & Mrs. Air Force for years.

Our first impression of R & S was they were a little shy and to be honest, we had trouble understanding them at times with their accents and British colloquialisms. These things did not prevent us from getting to know them. We found it very interesting to be in their company and enjoyed learning about their culture and teaching them how to Swing Dance.

Mystery Man and R share a passion for technology and can talk for hours about hardware, software, apps…. S and I enjoy a bit of gardening, recipe sharing and can talk on and on about kitchen crockery and gadgets. But with all that in common, I think the real reason we are such great friends is because they are some of the most genuine people I know. Giving. Gentle.

Most Friday evenings they come over to our house for after dinner drinks and a chat, but only after my two children climb on them like jungle gyms, demand books to be read and are given the mandatory high-fives in all directions before bed time. My babies squeal with glee when I announce it Uncle R and Aunt S are coming over. R & S don’t have children of their own, but they have embraced ours with all the love they could ever give.

___

This is one of the many recipes S has shared with me and it continues to be a favorite for parties. I will typically throw it together a day in advance then transfer it to a small crock pot for the gathering. It can be served with crackers, a nice rye bread, tortilla chips or what ever your heart desires.

_DSC0137Art Dip2

7 Ingredient Artichoke Dip
Ingredients
1 14 oz can artichoke hearts (drained and chopped)
8 oz feta cheese (crumbled)
1 cup mayo
1/2 cup and 2 oz Parmesan cheese (I use Parmesan or Romano)
2 oz jar pimentos
1 large garlic clove (minced)
pinch black pepper
Preparation
• Preheat oven to 350 degrees
• Combine all ingredients and place in a 9” baking dish.
• Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until hot and bubbly.

Serve hot, or transfer to a small crock pot on low for more lengthy parties.

Chicken Parmesan

Chicken Parm

Sometimes there is not a story. Let’s face it, we all have to eat and if I had to have a story for all the food that goes in my belly, well, I would not be eating on a regular basis. For me, not eating is not an option. If my husband* has learned anything in our relationship he knows if he keeps me warm, rested, and my belly full, there is not much else I could ever ask for. He even made this known while we attended a pre-marital workshop years ago. The others in the group laughed – they thought he was kidding. We gave each other a knowing look, and with that we breezed through the rest of the class.

I saw this recipe on America’s Test Kitchen and made it for two reasons. I was hungry and had the right ingredients hanging out in my fridge. It is one of our favorites, and over the years I have made some changes (yes, I even try to improve upon their recipes). It can be a weeknight meal with some simple boiled and oiled pasta and your favorite veg, or you can go all out and impress guests with homemade Spaghetti Sauce (post coming soon!) that has been simmering on the stove most of the day.

Make plenty, because slicing this on an angle and piling on a nice ciabatta makes for a tasty lunch the next day.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

*I will be referring to my husband as Mystery Man from now on… post coming on that, too.

 

Chicken Parmesan

Ingredients:

2 – 8 Ounce Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts

1/4 Cup All Purpose Flour plus 1 Tablespoon

1/4 Cup Parmesan Cheese (grated on the smallest holes of a box grater, or use a micro plane)

3 Large Egg Whites

1 Cup Parmesan Cheese (grated on the largest holes of a box grater)

1 Cup Romano Cheese (grated on the largest holes of a box grater)

4 Teaspoons Olive Oil

 

Preparation:

• Place chicken in freezer for about 15 minutes. Until firm, but not frozen.

• Adjust oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 200 degrees.

• Set up a line of three pie pans or bowls with large surface areas.

• In pan number one, whisk together 1/4 cup flour and ¼ cup micro-grated parmesan cheese.

• In pan number two whisk egg whites until slightly foamy.

• In pan number three combine 1 cup Parmesan, 1 cup Romano and remaining tablespoon flour.

• Remove chicken from freezer and slice in half lengthwise to make two thin cutlets. (Place on cutting board and press down on breasts with one hand while horizon­tally cutting the chicken with a sharp knife.) You should have 4 cutlets.

• Place chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap (or into a plastic bag) and pound with the smooth side of a meat tenderizer to an even 1/4 inch thickness.

• Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a nonstick skillet (12”) over medium-high heat until it shimmers.

• Place a rimmed baking sheet, seated with a wire rack, nearby.

• Using tongs, work down the line of your prepared pie pans, and work with one piece of chicken at a time.

• Coat with flour on both sides, shake off excess.

• Coat evenly with egg white mixture on both sides and let excess run off.

• Press both sides gently into Parmesan/Romano mixture

• Place 2 cutlets in the heated skillet and reduce heat to medium. Cook for 3 minutes, until cheese is golden brown.

• Flip chicken over and cook for another 3 minutes, until golden brown and no longer pink in the center.

• Remove chicken from pan and place on baking sheet with wire rack. Keep warm in pre-heated oven.

• Wipe the pan out with a paper towel. Add 2 teaspoons olive oil and repeat the cooking process until all cutlets are done.