Monday, 16 May 2016

Cheesy Baked Penne with a Parmesan Herb Crust

We are currently on holiday in New Zealand, and so even though I have been doing some cooking while staying with my husband's sister, I haven't really had much chance to blog, so I took advantage of the time I had yesterday.

I knew that there were quite a few bits of cheese (including some mascarpone cheese) in the fridge, as well as some cooked bacon and a few partial heads of garlic. There was a small piece of blue cheese that I considered adding to the sauce, but I opted to pass it at the table, as not everyone likes blue cheese! Add in two stale buns and we had the makings of a rich and creamy baked mac n cheese, with a crumb topping. I used penne because that was the only pasta in the cupboard; it also happens to be my husband's favourite pasta shape!

Start off by cooking 500g of penne pasta in lightly salted boiling water. Put the garlic in the oven to roast (see the post Garlic for intructions). I had the equivalent of two heads of garlic.

While that is cooking, make the crust for the topping, and the sauce.


In a food processor, place:

2 stale buns, torn into pieces

Process until you have coarse breadcrumbs.


1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs; I used rosemary and chives
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Process to combine.

Place the herb breadcrumbs into a large bowl, and add:

1 heaped cup of grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons olive oil

Mix to combine, and set aside until needed.

In a saucepan, melt:

2 ounces butter

Stir in:

1/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Cook over low heat, stirring, for a couple of minutes.

Gradually whisk in the milk. You will need:

2 - 3 cups

Add the milk gradually, whisking. As the sauce thickens add more milk, until you have a thick, creamy sauce. Allow it to come to a boil, whisking, and then turn off the heat.

Whisk in:

1/3 cup mascarpone cheese


2 cups grated Edam cheese
1/2 cup grated Paremsan

Whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it and return it to the pot. When the garlic is roasted, allow it to cool enough to handle, and then squeeze the cloves out of the skins.

To the pasta, add:

the roasted garlic
5 green onions, chopped
3/4 cup chopped cooked bacon

Pour the sauce over the pasta, and stir well.

Scrape the pasta and sauce into an ovenproof dish.

Sprinkle the top of the pasta with grated Edam cheese.

Spread the breadcrumb topping evenly over the cheese.

Bake at 350F until heated through, the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden and crunchy.

Serve, making sure everyone gets their share of crunchy topping. Pass crumbled blue cheese at the table, for those who want to add some extra tang to the pasta.

  • The cheese sauce is a basic bechamel, with cheese added in. The consistency can be adjusted by adding more flour to give a thicker sauce, or more milk, to give a runnier sauce. For more on bechamel, see the post Basic White Sauce (Bechamel).
  • The kind of cheese you add is dependent on what you like and what you have available, but I like to include a sharp or stronger tasting cheese along with a more gooey, melting cheese. Adding something like mascarpone increases the richness of the sauce.
  • Spices can be added to the sauce...chili flakes, cayenne pepper, paprika, nutmeg are some you can try. Chopped fresh herbs such as thyme, parsley or chives can also be added.
  • Another way to increase the richness of the sauce is to use creamo, or whipping cream, for some or all of the milk.
  • Additions to the pasta can be adjusted to whatever you have to use up...chopped ham, fresh herbs, cubes of cheese, roasted tomatoes or sundried tomatoes, olives, artichokes, caramelized onions, diced and roasted squash or sweet potatoes, roasted red peppers.
  • If you do not have breadcrumbs, or stale bread to make them, just sprinkle cheese on top of the pasta before baking.
  • If you can, make extra breadcrumb topping and keep in the freezer for next time.
  • Of course, any pasta shape can be used!
  • Bake the pasta in individual dishes to serve as a side dish; these can also be frozen and baked when you are in need of a quick meal for one.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Grilled Chicken with Rhubarb Barbecue Sauce

We are off to New Zealand for a five week vacation, and this was my last chance to use something that I knew our daughters won't use while we are away...the rhubarb growing in the garden. There wasn't a lot, as it has just started to come up properly, but I wanted to have a chance to at least use some of it while I could.

I chose to make a barbecue sauce with it, and basted my chicken breast skewers just before removing them from the grill. I then pulled all of the remaining vegetables from the fridge and made a chopped salad to serve with them.

The rhubarb added a tang to the barbecue sauce, and I didn't add a lot of sugar to counteract the natural acidity it brought to the sauce. This sauce was a hit, and I froze the leftovers for another use, although I'm sure it will be gone by the time we get back!

Make a marinade for the chicken by combining:

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Cut the chicken into long thin strips. I used:

3 chicken breasts

Toss the chicken in the marinade. Cover it and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour, while you make the barbecue sauce.

To make the barbecue sauce, cook in a bit of olive oil:

1/2 medium onion, minced

Cook until the onion softens and starts to caramelize, stirring often.

Stir in:

2/3 cup diced fresh rhubarb

Cook over medium low heat until the rhubarb starts to soften slightly. Stir often to prevent burning.


1/4 cup orange juice

Continue to cook over low heat, stirring often, until the rhubarb is soft and the orange juice has reduced to about 2 tablespoons.


1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of salt and pepper

Cook, stirring for a cpouple of minutes, or until the brown sugar dissolves.

Stir in:

1 cup ketchup

Simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, but still has some chunks of rhubarb remaining.

Taste and adjust seasoning.

Thread the chicken strips onto skewers.

Grill the chicken on a hot grill; no oiling is needed as the oil in the marinade is sufficient.

When the chicken is almost cooked through, brush it with the rhubarb barbecue sauce. Cook for a minute, turn and brush the other side. Cook for another minute and then remove from the grill.

I served the hot chicken with a chopped salad, and passed the extra barbecue sauce on the side. Sweet, tangy, slightly spicy and sticky!

  • Rhubarb is naturally acidic, and adding some form of sugar is recommended. The amount you choose is personal; I prefer to keep some of the tartness in my dish. It contains a lot of vitamin C.
  • The water content in rhubarb is quite high, so do not add too much liquid in a recipe where the consistency is important, such as a pie. In a recipe such as this, any extra liquid can be eliminated by simmering the sauce for a bit longer, allowing it to reduce. This will also intensify the flavour of your sauce.
  • Fresh rhubarb stalks can be chopped and frozen for another use. As with purchased frozen rhubarb, keep in mind that the amount of water will be higher than that found in fresh rhubarb. If possible, defrost the rhubarb before using, and drain away the excess liquid.
  • Rhubarb leaves are toxic, so do not use them for cooking. The stalks are the edible part of the plant, which technically makes rhubarb a vegetable!
  • Good flavour pairings with rhubarb are orange, lemon or vanilla; spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, cumin, chili and paprika; herbs such as thyme or rosemary; gin or brandy.
  • If you are short on time, add cooked rhubarb to a purchased barbecue sauce.
  • The amount of spiciness in the barbecue sauce can be adjusted according to your tastes. Add hot sauce, sriracha, chipotle peppers, dried ancho chilies or cayenne pepper.
  • Honey or maple syrup can be used instead of brown sugar, and apple juice can be substituted for the orange juice.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Sweet Potato and Coconut Soup

The one rather large sweet potato I had bought made a creamy, flavourful soup when combined with some leftover coconut milk, chicken stock and spices. It was a quick way to turn the sweet potato into a full meal.

As my daughter said, it's like eating savoury pumpkin pie...

The leftover soup is in the freezer, an easy lunch or dinner for someone.

Since I was also using coconut milk and chicken stock that were in the freezer, I felt even better about this meal!

Using a bit of olive oil, cook:

1 medium onion, diced
3 small carrots, diced

Cook until the onions soften, seasoning with salt and pepper.

Add the spices:

2 cinnamon sticks
1 bayleaf
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Cook for a couple of minutes.


4 cups peeled and diced sweet potato


1 cup coconut milk

Add enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables, and bring it to a boil.

Turn it down and simmer until the vegetables are soft enough to mash with a fork.

Remove the cinnamon sticks and bayleaf.

Puree using a hand blender, blender or food processor.

Strain to remove any lumps that might remain, giving you a smooth, silky soup.

Return to the heat, and adjust the consistency by adding more chicken stock or coconut milk. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve, garnishing with a sprig of fresh herbs.

  • Yams or purple sweet potatoes can be used instead of sweet potatoes; the amount of carrots can be increased and the potatoes omitted to turn this into a carrot soup.
  • To increase the flavour and natural sweetness found in all of these vegetables, drizzle them with a bit of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast them until tender and lightly coloured in a 350F oven, before placing them into a pot and adding the spices and liquids.
  • To increase the coconut flavour, you can increase the amount of coconut milk in the recipe; coconut oil can be used to cook the vegetables instead of olive oil; the soup can be garnished with a swirl of coconut milk or cream, and lightly toasted coconut can be sprinkled on top.
  • Vegetable stock, water or milk can be used instead of chicken stock; this will also give you a vegetarian soup.
  • Other spices that can be used are star anise, ginger, allspice, cayenne pepper. Fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme or sage can be added.
  • Sweet potatoes lend themselves to a variety of flavour profiles. If you have Thai red or yellow curry paste, add some to the soup...start with a small amount and increase it to suit your taste.
  • If you like sweeter soups, add some brown sugar or maple syrup; caramelize the onions before adding the carrots and sweet potatoes; garnish with candied nuts such as almonds or pecans.
  • To add a sweet / tangy contrast, garnish the soup with crumbled goat cheese or a dollop of plain yoghurt (stir in some lime zest or juice).
  • Spice it up with cayenne pepper, sriracha or other hot sauce or some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.
  • Add some alcohol...rum, brandy or bourbon are good choices.
  • Leftover mashed sweet potatoes can be used...cook the onions and carrots with the liquid until tender, then stir in the leftover potatoes, puree and strain.