Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower

Matt first made Ina Garten’s Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower in February and we knew immediately that this would become one of our go-to dinners. Now, during Quarantine, we’ve made this at least six times and, guess what? It’s what’s for dinner TONIGHT!! Yum.

This dish is SO different from the average “baked pasta.” The panko-encrusted shells are flavored with lemon, garlic and Fontina cheese. The insides of the shells harbor pockets of creamy ricotta and the occasional salty zing of a caper. Tender cauliflower florets melt into the space between shells and make this meal feel lighter and healthier (or at least less unhealthy!). The entire dish is completed with a topping of panko, parsley and pecorino and baked in the oven until golden brown.

For the past 12 weeks Matt and I have been dependent on online grocery availability and we’ve had to get creative with some ingredient substitutions. Can’t find Fontina? Try Gruyère, Emmental or Gouda.  No shells available in the pasta aisle? Cavatappi and Pipe Rigate work well, too. And that time our online shopper delivered PURPLE cauliflower instead of the normal white stuff? No problem… the dish was just a little more colorful that time around!

We typically get one dinner plus three servings of lunch out of each recipe. This is great as a leftover and, according to Ina’s note in the original recipe, can also be made ahead by assembling the dish, refrigerating, and baking just before serving.

Ina Garten’s Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower

From Cooking for Jeffrey, adapted slightly

You will need…
Salt and Pepper
1 lb. Pasta Shells
Olive Oil
1 head Cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
3 tablespoons Sage, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons Capers, drained
3 cloves Garlic, minced
½ teaspoon Lemon Zest
¼ teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper
10 oz. Fontina Val d’Aosta Cheese, grated
1 cup Ricotta
½ cup Panko bread crumbs
6 tablespoons Pecorino Cheese, grated
2 tablespoons minced Parsley

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente.  Drain the pasta and transfer it to a very large mixing bowl.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large sauté pan, then add half the cauliflower in a single layer. Sauté for 5-6 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender and starting to brown. Place the cooked cauliflower in the bowl with the pasta before sautéing the remaining cauliflower and adding to the pasta.

Add the sage, capers, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper, 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper to the bowl with the pasta and cauliflower. Stir gently, then add the grated Fontina cheese and stir again.

Transfer half the pasta mixture to a large casserole dish. Drop spoonfuls of ricotta over top of the pasta, then cover with the remaining pasta mixture.

Combine the panko, parsley, grated Pecorino and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle topping evenly over the pasta. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the topping is browned and the edges of the pasta are beginning to get crusty. Serve immediately and enjoy!

OMG BLT Pizza

Iron Hill Brewery has been one of my favorite restaurants ever since Matt and I moved within walking distance to the micro-brewery’s Media location twelve years ago.  I have happy memories of sitting in Iron Hill’s outdoor dining area in June 2008 and sipping fresh beer (a wheat beer at that time, I’m sure) while watching hundreds of runners pass by on State Street in the Media 5 Mile race.

Back then I felt sorry for the runners (why run when you can sit outside drinking at Iron Hill??), but in recent years I’ve become one of those runners! Now I always make a point of looking at the happy spectators in Iron Hill’s outdoor dining area when I race by and Matt and I always have dinner at Iron Hill when the race is over.

One of my go-to entrees is the OMG BLT sandwich, a flavorful, drippy, wonderful combination of bacon, pepperoni, balsamic-dressed arugula, tomato, mozzarella and pesto mayo on a warm and crusty ciabatta.  After I became pregnant last summer I was no longer able to partake in the OMG BLT (though I did consider ordering it without pepperoni on more than one occasion!) and it was one of the dinners I was most looking forward to after the baby was born.

It’s even on Iron Hill’s temporary takeout menu during the COVID-19 shutdown. But we’re super cautious and haven’t ordered any takeout. Good thing we can make our own!

Matt, baby K and I have still not visited Iron Hill since her birth in early March, but that hasn’t stopped me from craving an OMG BLT.  I contemplated trying to make a copycat version of the sandwich at home, but we’ve only been doing online grocery shopping and good ciabatta is hard to come by.  (With my luck our Whole Foods shopper would helpfully substitute in a rock-hard gluten free, vegan, fair trade dinner roll!) Matt and I make our own pizza all the time so I happily agreed when Matt suggested that we turn my craving into a pizza.

I bet Kenzie wishes she could eat this.

OMG BLT Pizza

Our pizza version of Iron Hill Brewery’s OMG BLT sandwich.

You will need…
6-8 oz. bacon, cut into small pieces
2.5 oz. pepperoni, quartered if it’s the big 3-4 in. diameter slices from Whole Foods
2 Roma Tomatoes
8 oz. Mozzarella cheese
2-3 spoonfuls Basil Pesto
1-2 tablespoon Mayonnaise
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar
3-4 handfuls Arugula
1 lb. Pizza Dough

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 550°F. Cook the bacon bits over medium heat until brown and crispy, then transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Thinly slice the tomatoes and place them on a paper towel to remove the excess liquid. Shred the mozzarella cheese.

Make the pesto mayo by combining the pesto and mayo in a small bowl.  If you want to get fancy and use a squeeze bottle, add a little olive oil to the pesto mayo until it is thin enough to funnel into a squeeze bottle. (If you’re using the squeeze bottle, make sure your pesto is very well blended otherwise chunks of nuts and garlic will jam up the nozzle!)

Whisk together 1 teaspoon each of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a medium-sized bowl. Add the arugula and toss well to coat.

Stretch the pizza dough into a 14-16” disc (whatever size fits your stone). Remove the stone from the oven and place the dough on the hot stone. Working quickly, cover the dough with the mozzarella, then the bacon, pepperoni and tomato slices. Bake the pizza until the crust is starting to brown on the edges, approximately 8-12 minutes.

Remove the cooked pizza from the oven and transfer from the stone to a peel. (We do this outside the oven rather than trying to peel it off the stone IN the oven.)  Spoon or squeeze the pesto mayo over top of the pizza, then top with the dressed arugula.  Slice and serve!