"Because life is good, home cooking is best, and there is always something to be grateful for." - Christy Jordan

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My FAMOUS Stuffed Shells

That's right, I said famous. This is the first recipe that is really my own. I kind of just made it up. I saw someone on Food Network make stuffed shells one time, but I didn't like what they put it in, so I changed it. 

That's the beauty of cooking. You can adapt recipes to your taste. Claire Robinson on Food Network always says, "Be your own chef!" I think a lot of people look at recipes and think "Oh I don't like this one ingredient, so I won't like this recipe." Uhh, HELLO?! Change it! I am always omitting things in recipes (like peppers...yuck) Always keep an open mind when it comes to food. It is so flexible and it really is an art. Be the artist of your own plate.

Okay. That sounded lame, but I'm goin' with it. 

Now don't go around saying that I told you that you could omit things you don't like in every recipe. There really are some recipes that are just not meant to be changed. For example, you won't catch me scarfing down a stuffed pepper anytime soon. We all know I don't like peppers, so I'll just get something else while everyone enjoys their disgusting meal of the worst vegetable ever being stuffed with God knows what. The peppers are the main part of that recipe, so just leave it alone.

I'm talking about making smart swaps. Like swapping chicken for beef, or omitting little ingredients in things if you're not a fan. I tend to omit peppers and tomatoes in things.

Baking is another thing though. Swapping is not encouraged. Baking is all about being precise and it should not be messed with. We'll talk about this later.

Anyways, this is the first recipe that I can really call my own. I'm not saying I discovered it or created it because I'm sure there are recipes out there that are really similar, but this is how I make stuffed shells.

Cheesy, chicken and spinach stuffed, yummy, deliciousness.

This was the most requested thing I made at school. My roommate Erin loves these shells and I've been asked for this recipe several times. One of the best things about them is that they can feed an army. We always had leftovers (which are even better the next day) and they last forever.

So basically, you should try them. And then let me know what you think. 

And feel free to change the recipe if you want! I won't be offended! You could absolutely cook some ground beef or ground turkey and use that instead of shredded chicken. You could omit the spinach or use arugula instead. 

Heck, you could omit the chicken and the spinach and just stuff these bad boys with cheese! I'm talkin' to you vegetarians!! Just use the ricotta and then get some really good, shredded italian cheeses, like parmesan, mozzerella, romano....and you can leave the spinach in. You get the picture.

Onto the recipe!

Chicken & Spinach Stuffed Shells

1 pkg. jumbo shells
1 jar of your favorite tomato sauce
1 jar of your favorite alfredo sauce
1 (2 lb) carton of ricotta cheese (whole or part-skim)
1 small onion, chopped (or half of a larger onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 half of a bag of baby spinach
1 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. your favorite seasoned salt (I use Johnny's)
1/4 c. parmesan cheese
1 bag of shredded mozzarella cheese or italian blend cheese
shredded chicken (either chicken you cooked yourself or from a rotisserie chicken from the store)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. It's important to salt pasta water because it helps flavor the pasta. Just trust me.

In the meantime, go ahead and chop your onion up.

Get out a large skillet and get it heating up over medium heat. Pour in about 3 tbsp. of olive oil and let that get hot. Once it's hot, slide in the onion and let it start cooking away.

Get out a couple big handfuls of spinach and give them a rough chop. There is no science to this. Just run your knife through them a few times so they're not in big, leafy pieces any more. (Sorry, I forgot to take a picture!) The thing with spinach is that it looks like a ton of greens when you toss it in the pan, but I promise it cooks down and will turn out to be a lot less than it looks. So get out more spinach than you think.

Once the onions have been cooking for a few minutes and start to look translucent, slide in the spinach and toss it all around so the spinach gets coated in the oil. It should wilt pretty fast.

As you can see, I didn't add enough spinach. No worries! Just chop up some more and throw it in. Then let it wilt with the rest of it.

Once that is wilted, chop up a couple cloves of garlic and slide them in. We're doing the garlic last because garlic can burn really quickly. If you burn your garlic you'll end up being completely pissed off, you'll have to fish it out and it won't smell good. (I've been there.) Toss all that around so everything is combined well.

Oops, I forgot to tell you to shred the chicken up ahead of time. Whoops! Okay. Make sure your chicken is shredded....then toss it in!

 I just bought one from the store. Easy! They're only about $5 and you can use the meat in anything.

Your mixture should look like this! Onions translucent and everything is cooked down and smells awesome.

If things start to look a little dry in the middle of the cooking process, just pour in a little more olive oil. I try and have everything coated in olive oil because it keeps it moist, but the oil also adds a lot of flavor. Once everything is combined, take this mixture off the heat and let it cool for a little bit. Then let your mouth water because it smells so dang awesome.

That big pot of water should be boiling by now. Dump in the box of shells and let those cook for about 10 minutes or so.

Now let's get that yummy ricotta mixture together.

Thank you, Target, for reading my mind that I was going to make these this week and putting the ricotta on sale. I love you.

Dump the whole container into a bowl.

It doesn't look very pleasant when it first comes out, now does it?

Break that up and get it to a smooth consistency. Now it's time to mix in all those seasonings! Use whatever you want here. I use dried parsley, dried basil, dried oregano, seasoned salt, garlic powder, and parmesan cheese, but honey, just see where the wind blows you. It will be tasty no matter what!

All combined and pretty :)

Your pasta should be cooked by now, so drain it in a colander and run some cold water over it. This will not only stop it from cooking, but you're going to have to handle the shells with your hands and you don't want them to be hot when you're doing that!

While the pasta is cooling off, combine the chicken/spinach mixture with the ricotta mixture. Now you have the filling for these beautiful shells!


You're probably wondering when I'm going to talk about the sauce in this dish. Would now work? Okay, what I do is I combine a jar of tomato sauce with a jar of alfredo sauce. Yes, I understand this probably sounds weird, but it works. 

You see, I don't love straight up tomato sauce and my roommate Erin doesn't love straight up alfredo sauce. So the natural thing to do was meet in the middle and combine the two. I've made it this way ever since! However, feel free to do what you want. Use just tomato or just alfredo and use something else. Maybe something homemade? (Overachievers!)

Dump the two in a bowl and stir until it's all combined. Get out the pan you're going to use. I used a large baking dish... I want to say it was 15"x10" or something in that ballpark. Pour some sauce in the bottom and spread it so it covers the bottom. This will keep the shells from drying out while they're in the oven and it will keep them from sticking to the bottom. Make sure you leave enough sauce so you can pour some on the shells once they're in there!

Here comes the messy fun part! It's time to stuff the shells!

Set up a little assembly line for yourself. You want the baking dish nearby and the filling nearby. I usually do this near the sink so I don't have to move the colander.
Take a shell and open it up in your palm. I cup my hand so it sits open while I stuff it.

Then spoon in enough filling to fill it (a heaping tablespoon or so... use your best judgment).

 I tend to overstuff them because who wants to cut into a barely stuffed shell? Not me!

By the way, if you come across a shell that is not, let's say, in it's best shell form, just don't use it. Some will be ripped and broken and they just aren't pretty. You can use those last if you absolutely have to.

Once the shell is stuffed place it in the baking dish. I like to line them up in rows so they look nice. Just keep repeating until you can't fit anymore in the dish! You'll probably have a little filling leftover and some shells leftover. No biggie!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spoon the remaining sauce over the shells, but don't drench them in sauce. They don't like to swim.

Top with some shredded cheese and then cover the dish with foil. I like to bake them covered at first so they get heated through and then I remove the foil so the cheese will melt and brown.

To die for.

Cover this slice of heaven and put it in the oven for 30 minutes. This will allow it to get piping hot and delicious. Then remove the foil (be careful, it's hot!) and pop it back in the oven. Bake for another 15 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and slightly brown. You may have to crank the heat up a tad.
 Just took the foil off!

Let these cool for a little bit once you take them out of the oven. I've burned my mouth on them several times in my life and it's painful. Take it from me and do yourselves a favor. Sit on your hands if you have to!

Spoon a few shells out onto all your friends' plates and watch their mouths water. Then bask in all their compliments and give them the recipe. 

Then enjoy a few for yourself, along with a slice of Texas Toast. They'll be just as good the next day too :)

Hope y'all enjoy!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pecan Toffee.... It's easier than you think!

Ahhh.... toffee. Don't you love it? I do. I've always loved it. Almond toffee, pecan toffee, plain toffee... I'll take it any way I can get it. I was a Camp Fire Girl (NO... not a Girl Scout) and we sold candy instead of cookies. Camp Fire Girls were ready for anything the world threw at them. We had cute little red vests with patches sewn all over them. I still have mine and I earned so many patches that I ran out of room on the outside of my vest so there are some sewn on the inside. Just sayin'.

I remember when that time of year rolled around when it was time to sell, sell, sell some candy and there was a box of toffee or "almond roca" you could buy and each little toffee log was wrapped in pretty gold paper. They were the only candy option that was individually wrapped...they were special. They seemed so fancy. They weren't just your regular ole' chocolate covered cherries or peanut butter/chocolate combo....no, these were fancy and sophisticated. Or at least they made me feel fancy and sophisticated when I ate them. Those are definitely two words you could use to describe a 7-year-old Camp Fire Girl, right? Thanks for agreeing with me.

If you've never had toffee you are MISSING OUT. Honestly. It's so good. And homemade toffee? Can't beat it.

This recipe is from Southern Living (my Bible) and I've had my eye on it for a while. Last night I was itchin' to get in the kitchen and do something. The job hunt is totally stressing me out and when I get stressed I bake. It helps me clear my mind and let's me focus on something else. So I went back to this recipe and off I went to the kitchen!

Toffee is easier than you think. The only crucial thing you need is a candy thermometer. I bought one last year at school because I attempted another toffee recipe (it wasn't nearly as good as this one) . They're not expensive and it's too hard to try and eyeball when it's at the right temperature. But really, don't try making this recipe if you don't have one. It's important that the toffee is cooked to a certain temperature!

Okay, let's get down to it! 

Pecan Toffee
Recipe adapted from Southern Living 

1 1/2 c. chopped pecans, divided
1 c. sugar (2 sticks)
1 c. butter (Use REAL butter. Don't try using margarine. I've tried before, it's not good!)
1 tbsp. light corn syrup
1/4 c. water
1 1/2 c. semisweet chocolate chips

Get out a medium saucepan and toss in your two sticks of butter, sugar, corn syrup and water. Turn it on to medium-high heat and let it all melt together. This will take a few minutes.

Here's the deal... I didn't see that I was supposed to add the water in with this until I read the recipe again a few minutes later. So here's the butter, sugar and corn syrup all together! Just make sure you add the water in with this.

While that's melting, chop up your pecans finely. Yeah I know, you can buy a bag of "chopped pecans" and that's what I usually buy because they're so easy, but for this recipe specifically I think that finely chopped pecans are better. I started with halves so I had to do a lot of chopping!

 I don't know why I chopped from right to left? That is not normal.

 Meanwhile, the mixture is melting away...

Are your pecans all chopped? Okay good. 

I decided to get cute with it! Benihana's does this with fried rice!

Now get out a small baking sheet and lightly grease it. Just dab a paper towel into a tub of margarine or shortening and wipe it down good.


Now sprinkle about 2/3 of your chopped pecans on the baking sheet. You don't have to do it all the way to the edges (I did) because the toffee mixture doesn't make enough to spread over the whole cookie sheet (I didn't know this). Just a little tip :) OH, also, put the baking sheet on top of two oven pads. The mixture is going to be SO hot and it might not be good for your counter.

The butter/sugar mixture should be bubbling now so stick in your candy thermometer! It should have a little clip on it so it will sit up and attach to your pot.

What we're looking for here is for the mixture to reach the "hard crack stage". This is labeled on the thermometer and it's at 300 degrees. This is easy. Seriously. You don't even have to stir this! Just let it bubble and cook away until that little red line reaches 300 degrees! Simple!

Not quite there. But do you see in the yellow where it says "hard crack"? We need it to get there!

See, the color is starting to change and get caramel-y. Almost there!
 .... and we're there! 

Now turn off the heat and pour the toffee mixture over the pecans on your baking sheet (which is laying on top of oven pads) and immediately spread it as far as it will go without leaving holes in between. Act fast because the mixture starts cooling immediately!

Now get out your chocolate chips and just sprinkle them over the whole mixture. The heat from the toffee mixture will melt the chocolate chips and all you have to do is spread those bad boys around.

Is there anything better than melted chocolate?

Do what you want with this... I chose to lick it. I considered it a wise choice.

 Now liberally sprinkle the remaining chopped pecans over the whoooooooole thing. 
Mmmm hmmm.
Put the baking sheet in the fridge and let it refrigerate for a few hours until everything is set up and firm. Or if you're impatient, throw it in the freezer for a little while. 
Once it's all set up, break it into pieces and scarf it all down. To break it up, I just got a knife and jabbed it under the toffee to lift up some pieces. Just break them into smaller, bite-size pieces. Once it's all broken, put it in a ziploc bag or airtight container and store it in the fridge.
You'll have a hard time not eating all of this. It's going to call to you from the fridge. The thought of it's chocolatey-nutty-caramely-crunchy yumminess is going to be on your brain constantly and before you know it you'll be making another batch.
Oh, this makes good gifts too! But that's only if you don't eat it all yourself. It happens. I'm not judging you.