Thursday, March 26, 2015

Penne alla Vodka

For some reason, this Penne alla Vodka dish makes me think of spring. It must be the peas.

I developed this recipe years ago, inspired by two different versions. One was from my favorite Italian restaurant in New Hampshire, and the other was a recipe in Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Bastianich.

I took my favorite elements from both and created this rich, satisfying vodka-cream sauce. The cream added at the end gives it a smooth, velvety texture while also taming the acid in the tomatoes.

Penne alla Vodka
Serves 6

3 slices bacon, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup vodka
Salt, to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put a large pan of water on to boil.

Place the can of tomatoes in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to break up the whole tomatoes. (This also works well by putting the tomatoes in a bowl and using a handheld immersion blender.) Set aside.

In a large skillet, sauté the bacon until crispy. Remove the bacon and set aside, reserving 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat. Add an additional tablespoon of olive oil into the skillet with the bacon fat, and then the diced onions. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the minced garlic and saute for just 30 seconds. Then pour in the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and season with salt and crushed red pepper. Add the vodka and keep simmering while cooking the pasta.
Add salt to the boiling water, and then the penne. Cook until the pasta is just done, about 10 minutes.   

When the pasta is almost finished cooking, add the cream, peas and bacon to the sauce. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, stirring to combine. Turn off the heat and add the Parmesan cheese, stirring to combine.

Garnish with more grated parmesan, if desired.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cheese and Potato Frittata

Because it’s spring…

Because everyone prefers to be outside enjoying warmer weather than spending a lot of time in the

Because simple, inexpensive, and tasty recipes are always good to have on hand…

I present my Cheese and Potato Frittata recipe, an easy to make dish that works for brunch, lunch or a light supper. Best of all, you can adjust it to fit your tastes. Add some green peppers or asparagus. Use pepper jack cheese instead of cheddar and serve with a side of salsa. Sprinkle green onions over the top. This basic recipe can be the foundation for whatever your food imagination can picture, but it also tastes great just as it’s written.   

Cheese and Potato Frittata
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
5 eggs, beaten
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a heavy, oven-safe skillet, add the oil. Add the potatoes and cooking until one side is brown. Turn the potatoes and add the onions. Continue to cook until the potatoes and onions are browned and tender.
Preheat the broiler. Add the butter around the edges of the potatoes in the pan and cook until melted. Pour the beaten eggs over the mixture. Using a spatula, sift the mixture around so the eggs touch the skillet and cook. (You can also shake the pan to do this.) Once the eggs are just runny on top, sprinkle the cheese on top and place the skillet under the broiler. Cook until eggs are set, cheese is melted, and the frittata begins to brown slightly. Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie

“May you always be blessed with walls for the wind, a roof for the rain, a warm cup of tea by the fire, laughter to cheer you, those you love near you, and all that your heart might desire.”
A traditional Irish toast.

I had so many people comment about my Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie recipe after it was in yesterday’s Topeka Capital-Journal I decided to post it here. Trust me. It tastes as good as it looks! The recipe comes from one I first received from an Irish pub in New England, and it works equally well with either ground beef or lamb.

I hope your St. Patrick’s Day is one filled with fun and joy, plus a little bit of blarney. I also hope this Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie is on the dinner menu.

“May you be in Heaven three days before the Devil knows you’re dead.” –another traditional Irish toast

Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie
Makes 4 servings

2 pounds ground beef   or lamb            
1/2 onion, diced                                   
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup frozen peas
4 tablespoons flour
2 14.5-ounce cans low sodium beef broth
1 ounce Irish whiskey, or to taste         
3 cups mashed sweet potatoes  (see below)

In a saute pan over medium heat, melt butter, add onions, and cook until soft.  Add in ground beef or lamb and spices, and then saute until cooked through. Add the peas. Add the flour and cook for 1 minute, and then pour in the broth and whiskey. Bring to a simmer and cook until the desired thickness is reached.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spoon the meat mixture into a casserole dish or individual serving dishes. Cover the top with the mashed sweet potatoes. Place the dish onto a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips, and bake until the sweet potatoes start to brown on top, 20 to 30 minutes.

Sweet Potato Mash
2 pounds sweet potatoes, cut into cubes
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup half and half
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cover the cubed sweet potatoes with water in a large sauce pan, and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until cooked through. Strain potatoes and return them to the pan. Add the butter and half and half, and mash with a potato masher, being careful not to over mix. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Chocolate Melting Cake

For years, I was told glowing accounts of the Chocolate Melting Cake served on Carnival Cruise ships. Members of the Ditch family raved about the rich, luscious dessert, some of them ordering more than one at a time.

They were right. This dish is amazing.

On the voyage, I participated in The Chef’s Table. This special dinner was limited to about 14 people and featured 6 courses of dishes not on the regular dining menus. The evening I attended, we were treated to a cooking demonstration of the Chocolate Melting Cake by the ship’s pastry chef (whose name I don’t remember, darn it.)

On the Magic, the kitchen crew makes 10,000 to 11,000 servings at a time!

This dessert is rich and delicious, plus easy to make. The key is to only bake it until the top has just set but the middle is still liquid.

Warm Chocolate Melting Cake
Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines
Serves 4

6 ounces dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
6 ounces (3/4 cup) butter
4 eggs at room temperature
6 ounces (3/4 cup) sugar
2 ounces (1/4 cup) flour

Preheat the oven to 390 degrees F. (You can set it for 375 degrees F and allow for a slightly longer baking time.) Grease 4 ramekins with butter and set aside.

In a medium bowl, melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave (heat 30 seconds, stir, repeat) or over a pan of just simmering water until smooth. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together for a few minutes until the eggs are fluffy and the sugar is dissolved. Whisk in the flour.
Add the egg mixture into the melted chocolate and stir until combined. Pour the batter into the ramekins. Set the ramekins into the oven and bake for 14 minutes, or until the top is firm and cake-like but the middle is still pudding soft. Serve warm with ice cream.

Disclaimer: While the crew and employees of Carnival Cruise Lines and the Magic were very hospitable and accommodating during my time on board, I paid for the trip myself. I’m not being paid by Carnival to make this or any upcoming posts with recipes from the cruise. All of the opinions and experiences are my own. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Fun Ship Special

A funny thing happens when March arrives: This winter-loving writer’s mind switches to spring. Once we reach the year’s third month, my affair with winter is over. The weather can get warmer (but not too warm) and the snow can cease for another year.

Of course, Nature doesn't always comply. So far winter is holding on for dear life. This weekend is projected to be nice in Kansas, but I know many of you are growing weary of the cold and snow.

Hopefully, this Fun Ship Special can put you in a warmer mood. On my recent cruise aboard the Carnival Magic, waitstaff carried trays of these festive, tropical drinks around the lobby area as guests boarded. They looked so refreshing I was tempted to pluck one off of a tray. However, I’m allergic to pineapple (crazy, but true), so I asked a server what was in the drink. Yes, pineapple juice was on the ingredient list, so I reluctantly passed.

A few days later, I was chatting with Keith Patel, the beverage operations manager for the Magic. He said the most popular cocktail was the Fun Ship Special. When I mentioned my pineapple issue, he grinned and said, “You know, we can make it without the pineapple juice.”

A short while later, some of my family and I met with Keith in the ship’s RedFrog Pub to give the drink a try. (Check out the bartender in action!) It was wonderful. Tropical and fruity, with a great kick!

I also tasted the ThirstyFrog Red, the pub’s private label beer. Refreshing, clean, not too hoppy, and full of flavor. This is my kind of beer.

Some of my tablemates avoid alcohol, but they gave the virgin strawberry pina coladas a thumbs-up. We also tested some of the pub grub fare.

The coconut shrimp was a winner.

So were the kicked-up conch fritters and these West Indies Roti, filled with curried chicken and dipped in a mango chutney.

The Ditch clan is already planning next year’s cruise, and I can picture myself spending a lot of time in the RedFrog Pub. (Trouble!) Until then, I intend to make many Fun Ship Specials to get me through the blistering Kansas summer to come…sans pineapple.

(Read more about the cuisine on the Magic in my recent newspaper article here.)

The Fun Ship Special
Makes 1 serving

1/2 ounce Barcardi Superior Rum
1/4 ounce Skyy Vodka
1/4 ounce Disaronno Amaretto
1/4 ounce Apricot Brandy
1 1/4 ounce orange juice
1 1/4 ounce pineapple juice
1/2 ounce lime or lemon juice
1/4 ounce Grenadine

Fill a large pub glass with ice. Mix all of the ingredients together. Shake until a good foam is noticed. Pour over the ice. Garnish with an orange slice, cherry, and umbrella, and serve with a smile.

Disclaimer: While the crew and employees of Carnival Cruise Lines and the Magic were very hospitable and accommodating during my time on board, I paid for the trip myself. I’m not being paid by Carnival to make this or any upcoming posts with recipes from the cruise. All of the opinions and experiences are my own. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mushroom Cappuccino and a Winter Break

I know many of you are suffering the winter blahs, especially those of you buried under snow in the Northeast. So I thought I’d give you a break from all of the whiteness with a few photos from my trip on the Carnival Magic to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed going on a cruise. Most of you know from past posts that I love winter! I've never felt the need to escape to warmer climates. Plus, Kansas has had a pretty mild winter so far, with temps in the 50s, 60s, and some 70s…until this week, when it has been more winter-like.

I was envious of my friends in New England getting snow while we barely had a flake. (Though I think even a snow lover like me would be saying enough at this point.) However, I know my feelings about winter are not shared by most.

My favorite part of the cruise was the food--of course. It was amazing! Lucky for us, the wonderful Magic culinary crew shared their recipes. Many upcoming posts will feature my favorite dishes from the trip.

To start, I wanted to share this Mushroom Cappuccino recipe to warm up those chilly winter nights. How good is this recipe? I normally don’t care for mushrooms, but I loved this dish. I tasted it at a cooking demonstration at the Magic's Prime Steakhouse. My eyes closed at the deliciousness, and I could hear "Mmmm" from most of the attendees, myself included.

The cappuccino aspect comes from the creamy layer that forms on top of the soup, much like its namesake espresso drink. On the ship, it was served with a garlic toast and a topping of unsweetened whipped cream.

Mushroom Cappuccino
Adapted from a recipe courtesy of the Carnival Magic Prime Steakhouse restaurant
Serves 4

2 ounces clarified butter (see note below)
5 tablespoons finely diced onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 pound chopped assorted mushrooms
2 pints chicken or vegetable stock
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 pint cream
Salt, to taste
White pepper, to taste
A few drops of truffle oil, optional
1 teaspoon chopped parsley

In a large sauce pan, saute the onions in the butter until they start to become translucent. Add the garlic, and then add the mushrooms. Pour in the stock and add the thyme sprigs. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until the mushrooms are tender.

After the mushrooms are cooked, pour the mixture into a blender and puree until smooth. Then pour through a chinois or fine-mesh strainer to remove any large bits. Return the mixture to the pan and add the cream and, if using, a few drops of truffle oil. Adjust the seasonings and consistency, adding more stock if the mixture is too thick. Ladle the soup into serving dishes and top with a sprinkle of chopped parsley.
Note: To clarify butter, melt butter and use only the clear yellow liquid, leaving behind the milky residue.

Disclaimer: While the crew and employees of Carnival Cruise Lines and the Magic were very hospitable and accommodating during my time on board, I paid for the trip myself. I’m not being paid by Carnival to make this or any upcoming posts with recipes from the cruise. All of the opinions and experiences are my own. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Ever since I first tasted Pastitsio while writing about a Greek festival in Manchester, New Hampshire years ago, I've wanted to make this dish. Also known as Greek lasagna, Pastitsio gets its name from the Italian dish pasticcio, a savory pie with a pastry crust. The Greek version excludes the crust. It has layers of pasta (penne or ziti) mixed with cheese and egg, with a layer of meat sauce in between, and a creamy cheese béchamel layer on top.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to try the recipe when a church group came to my apartment for lunch. I like to keep food gatherings simple and relaxed, so I tripled my Lasagna for Two recipe for one dish, and made this Pastitsio recipe for the other. Along with the casseroles, I served warm, crusty bread and Ina Garten’s Celery and Parmesan Salad.

The Pastitsio was a hit! Everyone seemed intrigued by the touch of cinnamon in the meat sauce and the difference between it and the more common lasagna. They all insisted it would be a good idea to post the recipe here.  

Every Pastitsio recipe has its little differences. Some use ground lamb, though I stuck with beef. I even came across some without cinnamon, though to me it is that flavor which makes this dish delicious. Others have more tomato in the meat sauce than others. I went with a less-saucy version, based on a recipe I got from one of the cooks at the Greek festival.

This dish takes some time to put together, but the results are worth it. Also, you can make it a day ahead and reheat it just before serving.


Serves 8 to 10

For the pasta layer:
1 pound penne or ziti pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
4 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon flour
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

For the meat sauce:
1 tablespoon  unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 pounds ground beef
1 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 tablespoons dry red wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

For the béchamel:
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons flour
2 cups hot milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

1/4 cup grated Romano cheese, for top

To make the pasta: Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and oil. Add the pasta and boil until pasta is just done, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water. Place the drained pasta into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and flour. Stir the egg mixture in with the pasta. Add the cheese and melted butter. Stir to combine. Set aside.  

To make the meat sauce: In a large skillet over medium-high, melt the butter. Add the onion and saute until soft. Add the garlic and cook for just about 30 seconds, and then add the ground beef. Cook until beef is brown. Strain off any excess grease. Add the remaining ingredients and cook until sauce is thick, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside.

To make the béchamel: In a heavy sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and cook until the mixture thickens and just begins to bubble, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat. Slowly whisk 1 cup of the mixture into the beaten eggs. Then whisk the egg mixture back into the remaining cream sauce. Whisk in the remaining ingredients. Set aside.

To assemble: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with non-stick spray. Layer half of the pasta mixture on the bottom. Pour the meat mixture over the top and spread out evenly. Add the remaining pasta over the meat mixture, and then pour the béchamel sauce over the top and spread out evenly. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Let stand 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

To reheat the next day, cover the dish tightly with foil and place into a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes, or until the center is hot.