Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Like a Lion....

March has definitely "marched" in out here in So Cal. While the rest of the nation is experiencing a prolonged winter we are having weeks of warm balmy weather, followed by weeks of cold damp, sometimes rainy weather. Whenever it gets cold and gloomy, my east coast upbringing kicks in and I want to cook comfort food. Stews, chili, bread, anything warm yummy and comforting. With St. Patrick's Day looming I decided to get my Irish on and cook some Irish Soda Bread Muffins, Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes and Pumpkin Stuffed Pasta Shells. None of these things really goes together, it was more about the level of comfort. And no, pumpkin has nothing to do with being Irish.

My mom is the ultimate Irish Soda Bread cook, so it was almost sacrilegious that I was making a muffin version of this yummy bread. I was actually afraid to tell her! I found the recipe on the "Taste of Home" website. It was easy, quick and delicious. This recipe was definitely different than my mom's bread. Whereas her bread has this crumbly, biscuit look to it, the muffins were fairly smooth with a lovely sheen of melted sugar glowing on their little muffin tops. They were more cake like than mom's bread, too. I came home this past week with a lovely Irish Soda Bread from my mom. It only took us two days to polish it off. It's still my favorite and although the muffins were good, this leprechaun prefers mom's.

Next up were the Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes. If you put a glass of Guinness in front of me I would look at you like you had three heads, and I would promptly offer the Guinness to the dog. The men in my family really enjoy it and I cannot fathom what is remotely good about this stuff. While I wouldn't drink it willingly, I will cook with it. And amazingly, it does chocolate good (and chili, too, but that is another blog post). These cupcakes can be adjusted to grown-ups only with the addition of a whiskey ganache and Irish cream frosting, or you can leave them bare for the whole family to enjoy. The first time I made them I went the full monty and used the ganache as a filling and frosted them with the Irish cream. My 1 1/2 year old niece burst into tears when her mommy took it away from her. She was enjoying the frosting. It broke my heart and I vowed next time I would work around the liquor aspect and make sure I had a kid friendly version. I also found that using the ganache and the frosting was just too rich for me. I like to taste my cake. I feel the frosting or ganache or sprinkles or whatever is on the cake should be a complement to the cake - not a competitor. This time around I made the cupcakes bare. And you know what? They were good! Now, be forewarned - this recipe is not a 25 minute from start to finish recipe. There are quite a few steps and if the phone rings, or the dog decides to chase the cat outside into the garden, you can't walk away from the recipe once you've started it. It's also what I consider a "messy" recipe. If a recipe takes more than two bowls to create, I consider it messy. I am really frugal when it comes to creating a mess for myself to clean up, so the fewer bowls and utensils that get used, the happier I am. I also have a tendency to double my recipes so that may have something to do with it, too. For those of you willing to try this out, here's the link to the recipe I used: Have fun!

After two days of baking it was time to get down to the serious, heavenly-comfort-food-that-won't-rot -your-teeth-out meal. Now some of you maybe thinking, euuwwwwwww PUMPKIN stuffed shells? Well, the recipe name is kinda of misleading. The shells are stuffed with a mixture of sauteed onions, ground beef and spinach, and the pumpkin is added to the cheese sauce making it a glorified mac-n-cheese casserole. The recipe comes from Rachel Ray and is geared towards kids. I don't know about you but the kids in my house range from under 20 years old to over 50 years old. I never know who is going to have the more immature reaction. So I simply didn't inform any of them about the pumpkin the first time I made it.  Turns out I should have doubled the recipe. I was thrilled that everyone really enjoyed it because it is jam packed with vitamins and iron. Way better than taking a pill.

The recipe is set up a bit awkwardly for me. As I mentioned, I don't like to have an abundance of dirty bowls, etc., after cooking. As we all know, clean up is part of the cooking process, so I'm all for making it as painless as possible. Rachel will have you do everything in multiple steps, in multiple pots and pans. Not me. I adjusted for my needs. I cooked the pasta shells and strained them. I used the pasta pot to make the sauce. I sauteed the onion in a large pan, then added the ground beef, then added the spinach in batches, covering the pan between batches to get it to wilt. I didn't bother chopping the spinach up because I used "baby" spinach leaves. You could also use frozen chopped spinach to make it even easier. I stuffed the shells and put them in the baking pan prior to making the sauce. The sauce is a little tricky in the beginning because you have to be sure to really incorporate the flour and by using the pot you boiled the shells in you have a larger surface to deal with.  This sauce also takes a bit of babysitting so it isn't lumpy and let me tell you - it's very much worth it. One other aside, if you like your meal to be seasoned well, you may want to up the salt and pepper amounts with this one. The pumpkin lends a sweetness to the sauce, which in turn lends itself to a bit more salt.  As with all recipes, it's simply a guideline - you can tweak it to your personal preferences. I doubled the recipe this time. The leftovers were gone in two days.

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