Ricotta & Pecorino Romano Stuffed Pasta Shells

Pasta dishes can be very easy and simple to make, yet cooking the pasta to al dente is not such an easy task for most.  Al dente, which means ‘to the tooth’ in Italian, is where the pasta is cooked through, but still retains some resistance or chewiness in the center.  Make sure to have enough boiling salted water, in which the pasta can cook and swim freely.  If the water is not salted enough (like sea water), the pasta will be bland and flavorless.  Also, wet or fresh pasta cooks at a much faster rate than dried pasta.  And certain sauces go with different pastas, depending on their shapes and sizes … but that is for another post.

I found these very pretty imported and bronze cut pasta shells at a specialty store a few weekends ago.  I decided to use them for a stuffed shell dish.  Since I had some Ricotta cheese and many tomatoes to use, I made a stuffing out of the Ricotta cheese and a few other ingredients, and a very fast and simple sauce out of the tomatoes.  I then put the sauce on top of the shells, and topped them with a generous amount of one of my favorite cheeses, Pecorino Romano.  Into the oven, and then on the table.  My family loved this dish!  I hope you enjoy it as well.

RICOTTA AND PECORINO ROMANO STUFFED PASTA SHELLS

17.6 oz (1 bag) bronze cut Pasta Shells or any kind you prefer
2 tablespoons organic Butter
2 large Shallots
2 large Garlic cloves
30 oz whole milk Ricotta Cheese
2 cups grated Pecorino Romano** – filling
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
2 cups grated Percorino Romano** – topping
Basil to garnish

**When using Pecorino Romano, please be careful not to over salt your food, as this cheese is very salty on its own.**

THE SAUCE

2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 small yellow Onion
2 large Garlic cloves
8 ripe Tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh Basil – chopped
1 tablespoon fresh Oregano – chopped
2 teaspoons Salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
1 tablespoon Sugar

Begin by finely chopping the shallots and garlic.  In a sauté pan on medium low heat, sauté the shallots and garlic in butter.  Once they are caramelized, take them off the heat, and allow them to cool.

In a large bowl, add the ricotta cheese, 2 cups of the grated Pecorino Romano, the cooled shallots and garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper.  Stir to combine, then taste to make sure the seasoning is right.  Leave the stuffing to the side, while you cook the pasta and make the sauce.

In a very large pot of boiling salted water, add the pasta, and immediately stir to keep the shells from sticking together.  Closely monitor the pasta, as the cooking time depends on its dryness and thickness.  Do not cook the pasta to al dente.  The shells need to be undercooked by a few minutes,  as they will finish cooking in the oven.  You do not want mushy pasta.  When the shells are a bit undercooked, drain them from the pasta liquid, and set them to the side.  Make sure to reserve some pasta water, in case the sauce is too thick.

Roughly chop the onion, garlic, tomatoes, basil, and oregano.  In a pot on medium heat, begin sautéing the onions and garlic in olive oil.  After about 5 minutes, add the tomatoes, oregano, basil, salt, and freshly ground pepper.  Allow the tomatoes to cook down for about 10 to 15 minutes.  Add the sugar, stir, and then cook for another few minutes.  Taste the sauce, to make sure the seasoning is right.  Place the sauce in a blender, and purée it until it is very smooth.

ASSEMBLING THE PASTA SHELLS

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Ladle a couple of scoops of the puréed sauce into an oven safe casserole dish.  This will keep the pasta from sticking to the dish.  You can use a small spoon, a small plastic bag, or a pastry bag to stuff the shells with the Ricotta filling.  Place each stuffed shell in the casserole dish, until it is full.  Ladle the rest of the sauce over the shells, and place them in the oven for 30 minutes.  Take the shells out of the oven, and top them with the last 2 cups of the Pecorino Romano.  Grind some black pepper on top of the cheese, and place the shells back in the oven for about 15 minutes, until the cheese has melted and is golden brown.  Remove from the oven and serve with some fresh basil leaves.  Enjoy!


Lebanese Meat Pies – Lahm Bi 3ajeen – Sfeeha

Lahm bi 3ajeen or sfeeha are delicious and savory meat pies that are eaten all over Lebanon, usually as part of a mezze spread, a side dish, or just as a snack.  What makes them so mouthwateringly tasty is that the raw lamb (more traditional) or beef cooks inside the dough, not separately from it.  This allows all the flavorful meat juices to be absorbed by the dough, yielding an amazing flavor.  For me, making and eating these exquisite meat pies takes me back to when I was young in my mother’s kitchen.  Whenever she made these meat pies, the intoxicating aroma filled the house, as we all gathered to devour them.

LEBANESE MEAT PIES – LAHM BI 3AHEEN – SFEEHA

Recipe yields about 36 to 40 small Lebanese meat pies.

BASIC DOUGHrecipe below
2 lbs ground Lamb (or beef)
1 large yellow Onion – finely chopped
6 large Garlic cloves – grated or finely minced
2 tablespoons Italian Parsley – finely chopped
4 Roma Tomatoes – finely chopped and drained
1 tablespoon Tomato Paste
1/4 cup Tahini
1/4 cup Labneh or Greek style yogurt
3 tablespoons Pomegranate Molasses (optional)
1 tablespoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/2 tablespoon Allspice
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
2 teaspoons Sumac
2 Lemons – juiced
3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil – for brushing pies

LEMON WEDGES – to serve with the finished Lebanese meat pies

In a large bowl, combine the lamb, finely chopped onion, grated garlic, finely chopped parsley, finely chopped and drained tomatoes, tomato paste, tahini, labneh, pomegranate molasses, salt, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, sumac, and lemon juice.  Cover the lamb mixture with plastic wrap, and allow to sit in the refrigerator until the dough is made and has risen.

Make the dough and allow it to rise.

Now that you are ready to make the pies, roll out the dough on a lightly floured clean surface.  Using a round cookie cutter of your choice, cut the dough into rounds.  Remove the lamb mixture from the refrigerator.  Scoop about one tablespoon of the mixture into the middle of the dough rounds.  Do not overstuff the dough.  Pinch the two opposing ends of the round dough, making sure the stuffing stays in the middle.  Then pinch the other two opposing ends, forming an open square.  Repeat until all the dough is stuffed with the lamb mixture.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place all the meat pies on a lightly greased baking sheet.  With a pastry brush, lightly brush all the pies with extra virgin olive oil.  Place the meat pies in the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the meat is cooked and the pies are golden.  Serve warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges or yogurt.  Enjoy!

BASIC DOUGH

3 cups all purpose Flour – plus a little extra for dusting
1 teaspoon coarse Salt
1 teaspoon Sugar
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil – plus a little extra for finished dough
1 – 1 1/2 cups warm Water – depending on humidity
1 pkg rapid rise Instant Yeast – about 2 1/4 oz

*You may use regular active dry yeast, but you will have to proof the yeast in the warm water and sugar before you add it to the flour, salt, and olive oil.  I like using rapid rise, because it is much easier and takes less time for the dough to rise.

Combine the flour, salt, yeast, and sugar in a stand mixer, and turn it on low.  Add the extra virgin olive oil, and slowly add in the warm water.  Start with a cup; should you require more, add a little drizzle at a time.  If your dough is too moist, add more flour.  Turn the stand mixer to medium low and keep kneading the dough for about 10 minutes, until it is smooth and pulls away from the bowl.

On a clean board, sprinkle some flour and transfer the dough to the floured board.  Roll into a ball and place in a greased bowl.  Drizzle a tiny bit of extra virgin olive oil to coat the dough.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave it a warm dark place to rise for about an hour to an hour and a half.


Olive Oil Roasted Vegetables w/ Barley & Feta Cheese

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  I wish all of you a very healthy and happy year to come.

Lately, I have been using many kinds of whole grains as the base for my vegetarian dishes.  I love using Farro and Barley.  Both are anciently cultivated grains that have made a comeback.  They are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fiber; so, they are very good for you.  They are also quite budget friendly.   For this recipe, I used hulled barley, as opposed to the pearl variety, since it is more nutritional.  Because it retains its bran and endosperm layers, hulled barley takes longer to cook than the more polished pearl kind.

OLIVE OIL ROASTED VEGETABLES WITH BARLEY AND FETA CHEESE

BARLEY
2 cups Hulled Barley – uncooked
6 cups Water or Stock
1 teaspoon Salt

ROASTED VEGETABLES
1/2 red Bell Pepper
2 Shallots
2 Celery stalks
4 Garlic cloves
2 large green Zucchini
10 large Brussels Sprouts
4 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3/4 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
1/4 cup White Bordeaux – Optional – or any white wine you like

HERBS & CHEESE
1 tablespoon Dill – finely chopped
2 tablespoons Italian Parsley – finely chopped
1 Lemon – zested
8 oz Greek Feta
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
Drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil – per plate

Rinse the barley under cold water.  In a large enough sauce pan, bring the barley, water (or stock), and salt to a boil, then lower the heat to a slow simmer, and cover for 45 – 60 minutes.  If the barley is not cooked through and looks dry toward the end of the cooking time, add more water, and cook it for a longer time.  After the barley is cooked through, turn the heat off, and allow it to sit (covered) for 10 minutes.  However, while the barley is simmering away, get the sautéed and roasted vegetables ready.

Mince the garlic, finely chop the shallots, and dice both the celery and the red bell pepper.  In a sauté pan, sauté the garlic, shallots, celery, and red pepper in 3 tablespoons of olive oil with  1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated black pepper, until they are translucent.  Deglaze the pan with the white wine, and allow it to reduce, as most of the alcohol will cook out.  Remove from the heat.

Clean, wash, and slice the Brussels sprouts and the zucchini.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the vegetables on a baking sheet.  Drizzle 1 tablespoon of olive oil, add 1/4 tablespoon of both salt and freshly ground pepper, and mix the vegetables well.  Place the baking sheet in the oven for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked through and slightly golden.

Now that the barley is cooked and is done resting for 10 minutes, rinse it under warm or hot water to remove the excess starch.  Drain the barley well, then place it in a large bowl.  Add the sautéed garlic, shallot, celery, red pepper, and the roasted Brussels sprouts and zucchini to the bowl.     Gently combine the vegetables with the barley.

Add the dill, Italian parsley, Greek feta, lemon zest, and the salt and pepper to taste.  Stir, serve, and top each portion with a final drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  You may garnish the plate with a few celery leaves for some added freshness.  ENJOY!