Best of Basic: Loaded Italian Pasta Salad

Best of Basic: Loaded Italian Pasta Salad

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Is it possible that June is already coming to an end? Fine by me, because I’ll be spending the first days of July on vacation. A glorious 10 day vaca in a remote area of Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, it’s pretty much my favorite place on earth. You see, my extended family owns a modest island, smack dab in the middle of the wilderness, and it can only be described as rustic, comfortable, and totally epic. We sleep in sleeping bags and spend 80% of the day without electricity. We spend our days on the lake and evenings by the fire. And the breeze coming off the water at night, while falling asleep in the open air cabins, is pure magic.

This year, I’ll be heading up a bit earlier than usual and spending the first week of July on the island with my parents. But that means, I’ll be missing America’s birthday. I first want to say that I’m not trying to make a political statement here. Although I’d be lying if I said moving out of Trump country hasn’t crossed my mind. But I love the States, and because I’ll be missing one of the best celebrations of summer, I wanted to share a perfect (and easy) recipe for a BBQ-must-have… Loaded Italian Pasta Salad.

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I actually developed this recipe a couple weekends ago when I was visiting my hometown, St. Louis. While everyone else enjoyed this delish pasta salad alongside turkey burgers, I instead, topped it with a medley of grilled veggies, making it a scrumptious main dish for a meat-free eater. Added bonus, this salad can be made gluten-free (using a gluten-free pasta) or made vegan (by omitting the fresh mozzarella balls). Finicky foodies rejoice!

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Other than being diet-restriction friendly, this “best of basic” pasta salad is amazing for two reasons. Firstly because it’s a cinch to make. In the time it takes to cook the pasta, the remainder of the ingredients are ready to go. Then all that’s left is a chill session in the fridge to bring everything together. The second reason is because this pasta salad is packed with fresh flavor from basil leaves and cherry tomatoes, texture from al dente pasta, beans and artichokes, and health supportive because of protein, fiber, vitamins and healthy fats. Finally, the simple vinaigrette, flavored with oregano, dry mustard and garlic powder, brings it all home by adding even more flavor and richness. This pasta salad is seriously perfect. So if you’re looking for a clean, balanced and crowd-pleasing pasta salad to be your go-to summer side dish, look no further. This is it.

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loads of roasted veggies + pasta salad side dish = delish main meal

Best of Basic: Loaded Italian Pasta Salad
Serves: 8 (large side dish portion)   Start to Finish: 30 min + chilling time

Ingredients

1 lb (16 ounces) pasta of choice* (see below for notes)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1.5 teaspoons sea salt, fine grain
1.5 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or granulated garlic)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon maple syrup, or sweetener of choice, optional**
1 12-oz can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 12-oz can artichoke hearts, quartered
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered (depending on size)
1 5-oz can sliced black olives
1 5-oz can pimentos
25 medium basil leaves, about 1 small package, chopped or cut into chiffonade
8-oz fresh mozzarella, I prefer the mini balls (if using a large ball, cut into small pieces)

To Make

Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and pasta. Cook until al dente. I usually drain the pasta about 1-3 minutes earlier than package instructions say to cook. The best way to know? Try 2-3 noodles. When some noodles are cooked and some noodles seem under-cooked, they’re ready. After the pasta sits in the dressing, the underdone noodles will finish cooking. Avoid over cooking noodles, they will far apart after marinading.

While water boils and pasta cooks. Prepare dressing. In a blender, or using a hand blender, combine ingredients olive oil through maple syrup. Blend until fully emulsified. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine ingredients white beans through pimentos.  Toss with cooked/drained pasta (still hot) and prepped vinaigrette. Allow to cool down to room temp (about 10 minutes). Toss mozzarella and basil with pasta salad. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until fully chilled. However, the longer it sits, the better it gets. Make 1 day ahead if possible.

*Pasta Options
– I chose an organic, white flour variety for a classic pasta salad
– Use whole wheat for additional fiber, a chewier texture and a nuttier flavor
– Use a gluten-free pasta if desired, I love Banza brand
– As for shape, penne, fusilli and bowtie are my top choices – I used penne here

**I think a bit of sweetener (just 1 tbs for 8 servings) makes the dressing more palatable and makes the salad more of a crowd-pleaser. Feel free to omit the sweetener or add less

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Roasted Beet Hummus

Roasted Beet Hummus

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Growing up, my mom took every opportunity to make the ordinary into the extraordinary. From something as small as the icing monograms on our toaster strudels before school, to something as meaningful as Christmas morning, she always did (and still does) know how to make things special. So it’s no wonder why I turned out the exact same way, and why I find that holidays are the most perfect opportunity to get creative, make some memories, and have some festive (and often times, delicious) fun.

Halloween is a particularly fun holiday on which to get into the spirit. So last week, on All Hallow’s Eve, I planned a relaxed and laid back date night with Matt…spooky-style. Since he’s never seen Hocus Pocus (I know, sinful), I thought a “Netflix and chill” theme for the evening was a no-brainer. Can’t you just picture it? Tasty noshes, a couple libations, candle light, pumpkin-print napkins, and a good ole classic flick. Doesn’t that sounds simply delightful? Only one question remained. What to cook?

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I finally settled on a three course, couch-friendly, vegan meal plan. The mains? A Leek and Carrot Brown Rice Risotto and a Perfectly Poached Pear with a Coconut-Caramel Reduction Sauce. Both of these dishes are easy to keep on the counter or stove until a commercial break gives just enough time to finish and plate the dishes. But today’s featured recipe is actually not for the risotto or the pear, but rather, for the appetizer portion of the meal, the premiere dish, the opener, if you will; Roasted Beet Hummus.

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Roasted Beet Hummus is not much different than my classic Hummus recipe, except of course, for the subtly sweet addition of roasted beets, which add not only flavor and nutritional power, but also change the color of the hummus to a bright, rich red-pink color. Beautiful! I served the hummus with blanched veggies and pita wedges. But then, I ate it the next day as a veggie burger topping, and it was phenomenal. I can also see myself creating a layered veggie sandwich with this spread, and maybe using it as a vegan pizza base. Only time will tell all the ways this super-food hummus will be used in my kitchen.

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I think this hummus was the perfect addition to our festive Halloween feast because, not only is it visually appealing and vibrant, but it’s also something you don’t see every day, making it special enough for a celebration like this one. But there’s one more reason why this spread is a winner – this hummus also happens to be super healthy and nourishing, always something to think about when making for for myself and to others. Beets are seriously a health and wellness all-star, so before I get to the recipe, I want to end by going over these health-supportive qualities of beets. Beets are a good source of protein and fiber. They contain immune-boosting vitamin-C, potassium, bone- and liver-strengthening manganese, and b-vitamin folate. Basically, beets are a fantastic way to nourish and cleanse the body and the mind, making this Roasted Beet Hummus a must-try for  whole-foodie type like me. Ok, now on to the recipe.

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Roasted Beet Hummus
Yield: 2 1/4 cups

Ingredients

2 medium-size fresh beets, trimmed, peeled and cut into bite size pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
3/4 teaspoon sea salt, fine grain
1 14-oz can chickpeas, liquid reserved, drained, rinsed (equivalent to 1 1/3 cups cooked Chickpeas)
1 large clove garlic
3 tablespoons tahini
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
6 tablespoons water or reserved chickpea liquid (or combo)

To Make

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prep beets, and toss with 1 tablespoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Spread out onto a parchment lined baking sheet and roast until super tender (poke with a knife, no resistance), 45-65 minutes.

When beets are finished roasting, allow to cool for 10-20 minutes. In a food processor combine beets, chickpeas, water or chickpea liquid, garlic, tahini and lemon juice. Add salt to taste (1/4 teaspoon salt is a good place to start). Add additional liquid or water until desired consistency is reached.

Serve with crudités and pita chips. This also makes a great topping for veggie burgers and a yummy spread on a veggie sandwich.

Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion & Goat Cheese Pizza

Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion & Goat Cheese Pizza

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Pizza in the summer? Give me homemade tomato sauce, creamy fresh mozz, and homegrown basil. Pizza in the fall? Different story.

Getting creative with pizza is one of my favorite activities in the whole wide world. We make pizza dough on the reg, but truth be told, most of our pizzas are on the traditional side. You know, red sauce base, mushrooms, spinach, roasted red pepper, Italian cheeses, etc. So I decided to mix it up a little bit. And I’m so glad I did, because Matt deemed this creation one of my best recipes ever. Yep, that’s right. Best. Ever.

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It all started with a little get together we decided to have this past Friday. Whenever we have people over, I always make some kind of a food spread. This is for two reasons. First is that it gives me a chance to experiment in the kitchen and cook for my friends on a small scale. Second is that a couple noshes at a party, even if it’s supposed to be just drinks, always makes for a more welcoming and comforting environment. And I’m all about creating a warm and welcoming vibe in my home, even if only for just me and Matt to enjoy.

So we decided to have a get together. I made roasted red pepper hummus and pita crisps, because I had all the ingredients on hand and because who doesn’t love hummus? Additionally, I decided to make a pizza of some kind. Why pizza? I think pizza is a winning appetizer. Cut into squares instead of slices, pizza is an easy and fun finger food that just about everyone can enjoy. I use our easy pizza dough recipe (get it here), but don’t hesitate to use store-bought, refrigerated crust for an even easier result!

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Now, I didn’t want to do anything traditional or standard here. I really wanted to use this opportunity to bring autumn flavors into the mix. Not surprisingly, butternut squash quickly came to mind. From there, the rest of the ingredients easily fell into place. Garlic oil as the base, caramelized onions for some richness and goat cheese for some tang. Perfection.

The different ingredients in this pizza require some prep time, it takes a bit longer than pizza sauce and mozzarella. But everything comes together in about an hour. Start with the slow process of caramelizing the onions and you have a pocket of time to work on getting the squash into the oven. While the squash bakes, prep the cheeses and make the garlic oil. Everything falls together perfectly in the end. Flavor, depth, richness? Gang’s all here.

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There are enough ingredients here to make two medium-large pizzas. Although calorie-wise one pizza feeds about 3 people, I always allow one pizza for every two people. That’s because Matt, my family and I eat more than normal people. And also because you always want too much food rather than not enough. This is also a good opportunity to plan ahead and double up. Roast two squashes and four onions, freeze the extra, and you can have this pizza super quick and easy next time. I’m definitely wishing I had thought ahead like that. Ugh.

This is a delicious and unique combination of toppings for a pizza, but trust me when I say, it just works. You’ve just gotta give it a try. I like it so much that if I ever have a restaurant, this will be a seasonal pizza on the menu, that’s for sure.

Butternut Squash, Caramelized Onion & Goat Cheese Pizza
Serves: 4-5 (10-12 appetizer servings)   Start to Finish: 1 hour 15 minutes

Ingredients

2 balls Pizza Dough, get my recipe here
1 Butternut Squash, peeled and seeds/pulp removed, cut into a small/medium dice
Olive Oil
Sea Salt, fine grain
Black Pepper
2 Yellow Onions, peeled and cut into thin half moons
4 cloves Garlic, peeled and minced
1.5 cups shredded Mozzarella (6-7 ounces)
1 cup crumbled Goat Cheese (5-6 ounces)
Cornmeal

To Make

Remove dough from fridge, if necessary. Allow to sit for at least an hour at room temperature

Preheat oven to 425 degrees for roasting squash.

First step, start caramelizing onions. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. I used coconut oil but olive oil works too. Add onion slices to pan. Season with salt (2 good size pinches). Allow Onions to slowly cook, tossing occasionally. Keep adding water when pan becomes dry, 2 tablespoons at a time. This should take about 40 minutes. When finished, transfer to small bowl or ramekin.

While onions caramelize, peel and prep Butternut Squash. Toss squash cubes with salt (I used about 1 teaspoon), pepper (I used about 1/2 teaspoon), and 1.5 tablespoons Olive Oil. Spread out onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Roast for 15- 20 minutes. Toss. Roast for an additional 15 minutes, until some edges are golden brown.

Meanwhile, make garlic oil. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 cloves minced garlic over medium heat. When the garlic begins to turn golden, remove from heat and transfer to a ramekin or small bowl.

Grate and crumble cheeses. Press dough balls out to make 2 pizza crusts. Transfer crusts to a peel or pan that’s been dusted with cornmeal. When squash, onions and garlic oil are complete, began assembling pizzas for baking.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Brush about 1 tablespoon of garlic oil onto crusts, including the outer edge. Sprinkle cooked garlic bits evenly over both pizzas. Top each pizza with 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella. Add about 3/4 cup Roasted Squash cubes over each pizza. Distribute onions evenly over each pizza. Top each pizza with 1/2 cup Goat Cheese. Sprinkle each pizza with remaining mozzarella.

Bake pizzas on pizza stones or on pans for 8-10 minutes, until crust is golden and cheese is bubbly.