Eggless Zucchini Cannelloni

When I was single and lived alone, I ate a lot of frozen dinners. They had names that included “Lean” (because low-fat was healthy) and “Healthy” (because healthy was healthy), so clearly this was the right thing to do. I remember running into someone at the grocery store with my cart full of low-fat frozen dinners, low-fat snacks and diet sodas and they commented, “Wow, you eat healthy!” and they weren’t even being sarcastic.
These days I don’t eat a lot of frozen dinners, but I was recently reminded of one I really liked back in the day.
I got a KitchenAid Vegetable Sheet Cutter attachment for Christmas and was searching for things I could make with zucchini that my son would eat. I ran across a photo of beef-filled cannelloni with a white sauce and immediately recalled that favorite frozen dinner, and became obsessed with trying to create a zucchini version of it. I think this comes pretty close. It is not low-fat ’cause I’m not into that anymore. It is eggless, so you could probably throw an egg into the filling and make it more firm if you’re not trying to feed a teenager who’s allergic to eggs and suspicious of vegetables. He ate it all, so I’m calling this one a win.

Zucchini Beef Cannelloni by Laurie Sterbens

While my Vegetable Sheet Cutter cannelloni was in the oven, I cooked sweet potatoes in the air fryer because I like to use as many gadgets as possible.

Zucchini Beef Cannelloni with Bechemel Sauce

Cannelloni
1 pound large zucchini, sliced into sheets
1/2 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced celery
1/4 cup minced carrot
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces lean ground beef
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup beef broth
1 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella

Bechamel Sauce
1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 dash paprika
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice zucchini using Vegetable Sheet Cutter. Cut into 4- to 5-inch sheets and place on paper towels. Sprinkle with a little salt and set aside, then press with paper towels to remove excess moisture before filling.

Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet. Add onion, celery, and carrot, and cook over moderate heat until softened. Add the garlic, and cook 1 minute. Add beef. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is no longer pink. Add wine, and reduce for 1 minute. Stir in broth. Add herbs, bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Uncover, and reduce until almost dry. Discard bay leaf. Set aside to cool.

Transfer the cooled meat mixture to a large bowl. Stir in mozzarella.

To make bechamel sauce: In a small saucepan, add milk. While whisking, slowly add in flour. When blended, add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and and stir in Parmesan.

Spoon 1/4 cup of the filling down the center of one zucchini slice, roll to enclose the filling and place in a buttered gratin dish. Repeat with the remaining zucchini slices and filling, arranging in single layer. Ladle the bechamel sauce over the cannelloni, and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with a bit of paprika.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until bubbling. Run under the broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 2 minutes, or until golden.

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Adventures in Air Frying

Hello. Yes, I realize this is my first new post here in, I don’t know, years, but I recently got a new air fryer. You probably did, too. We need to talk.
I love my new air fryer. Loooove it. I immediately uploaded all (few) of the appealing recipes from the product website into my meal planner and went looking on Amazon for a cookbook. There aren’t many — this is a fairly new gadget and it’s apparently still kind of Wild West as far as recipe development and cookbook publishing.
Then I started looking around for things I already make that would be better in the air fryer. (At this point watch out; stand still for too long in my kitchen and I will air fry you.)
There have been more hits than misses, but here is what I’ve learned so far:

Holy salt shaker, Batman. The recipes I tried from the product website and cookbook I found had waaaay too much salt. Admittedly, I try not to use too much salt when cooking, but I also eat out a lot and I know the difference between well-seasoned and way overboard. My theory here is the early air-fryer adopters are people trying to reform unhealthy diets that probably included things like fast food and they’re used to a lot of sodium. Question the salt quantities in some of the recipes out there.
Everyone is right about the chicken wings. Some people don’t use this machine for much else and that’s understandable. You could keep yourself busy making all kinds of delicious chicken wings. The first time I made air-fried buffalo wings, my picky 14-year-old gobbled a whole plate of them and pronounced them better than his second-favorite wing purveyor. I guess that makes me tied for first, but since I’d never tried to make wings before, I was pretty happy. Skin-on chicken thighs are also amazing in the air fryer.
Fried fish is going to be a learning process. Or I may just respect the fish and throw it in the deep fryer, which I’ll have to drag out anyway for the hush puppies.
Vegetables can be strange. So far I’ve cooked two non-potato vegetables: Broccoli and brussels sprouts. Here’s the thing. I actually like these vegetables. Some people don’t, so for those people it could be an improvement to blast them to ashes, I don’t know. I found them … interesting as an appetizer, maybe, but I think I prefer my brussels sprouts roasted and my broccoli gently steamed or stir-fried. Maybe I should air-blast some beets. I hate beets.
The air fryer makes the best baked potatoes ever — crispy skin, fluffy inside, and they cook in under half an hour. We like the skins with olive oil and salt, but I found that with the air fryer the skin gets crisper if you do this after cooking them.
I also had great results with panko-crusted chicken breasts, which turned out nice and crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.

Air-fried, panko-coated chicken breasts.
The chicken breasts formerly known as oven-fried turn out crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside when cooked in an air fryer.

Air-Fryer Panko-Crusted Chicken Breasts

Cooking spray
1 1/2 cups whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (the powdery jar stuff)
2 teaspoons Penzey’s Northwoods seasoning
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Combine panko crumbs, Parmesan and Northwoods seasoning in a shallow bowl and stir well. Add olive oil to another bowl.
Preheat air fryer to 375 degrees on the Air Fry setting. When preheated, spray cooking tray and multi-layer rack with cooking spray. Cut chicken breasts in half, then dip each in olive oil and toss in panko mixture. Arrange half of chicken pieces on bottom of the air fryer, add the multi-layer rack and place remaining pieces on top. Cook for 10 minutes, pause and carefully turn pieces over with tongs, then cook another 8-10 minutes.

Air Fryer Baked Potatoes

4 small or medium russet potatoes
Olive oil or butter
Coarse sea salt

Scrub potatoes and blot dry. Poke each three times with a fork.
Preheat air fryer to 390 degrees on the Air Fry setting for three minutes.
Put potatoes on the fryer plate and set timer for 25 minutes. Pause halfway through cooking and turn potatoes over, then continue cooking.
Remove potatoes to a plate. Brush skins with a little olive oil or rub with butter and sprinkle with salt. Serve with desired toppings.

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes

Here’s an interesting new discovery in behavioral science: When the last conversation you have before going to sleep is about pancakes, you will wake up craving pancakes. This finding is based on not-exhaustive research consisting of a Facebook conversation I had with a friend about the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant in Deleon Springs State Park.

Pancakes on the griddle by Laurie Sterbens

Whole-grain Oatmeal Banana Pancakes on the griddle are a healthier way to satisfy a powerful pancake craving.

I didn’t make it to the restaurant during my recent visit, but my friend raved about the restaurant’s five-grain buckwheat pancakes and we agreed to meet there for breakfast in the near future.

In the meantime, I woke up with a fierce pancake craving, so I made a batch of my own. I hate that feeling you get after eating the standard white-flour pancakes covered with butter and sugary syrup. A full tummy combined with an insulin spike and crash, leaving me feeling like I want to go back to bed, is not the way I want to start my morning. I make Oatmeal Banana Pancakes, which are not only loaded with fiber but also are a great way to use that last, overripe banana. Also, you’ll notice they’re eggless. That’s because we have an egg allergy in the family, but you won’t miss the egg in this recipe.

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes

3/4 cup rolled oats

1 1/2 cups whole grain white flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 medium banana, pureed*

1 1/2 cups skim milk

Butter-flavored cooking spray

Mix together all dry ingredients. Add banana puree and skim milk and mix gently with a whisk until combined. Heat griddle to 350 degrees and spray with butter-flavored cooking spray.** Cook until pancakes begin to bubble, gently flip and cook to other side. Serving suggestion: Top with blueberries, walnuts and a drizzle of sugar-free syrup.

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes by Laurie Sterbens

Oatmeal Banana Pancakes, topped with fresh blueberries, walnuts and a drizzle of sugar-free syrup, won't leave you feeling like you'd like to go back to bed.

* A half-cup of applesauce also works well here — a handy way to use up those lunchbox-size applesauce cups that my son refuses to eat.

** I usually cheat here and add a pat of butter to the grill, or Smart Balance spread, if I’m feeling a little more virtuous. It just gives the outside of the cakes a better texture.

Another Eggless Cake: Kindergarten Graduation

I’ve been an unemployed journalist posing as a stay-at-home mom for nearly three months now, and weird things are starting to happen. Famous in the family for my brown thumb, I started a small organic vegetable garden with my son. After seeing three miniature bell peppers appear, I became obsessed and started sketching out plans for year-round plantings in the two large raised beds that I now plan to build.

After nine years, the fake bride and groom no longer occupy the crystal frame in our living room and our wedding party now appears in a large silver frame with eight tiny windows that used to say “1 1/4 x 2.” The fake bride and groom were with us for so many years I thought they’d earned a place in the family, though, so they are in the frame behind our own wedding picture.

I am seriously hoping I’ll find employment before I descend into full photo-album creation or, horrors, scrapbooking, but I have become a frequent flyer at the large craft store that just conveniently opened near my home. I’m finding myself on the hunt for cake decorating supplies, mostly. This is weird because I’m not really into sweets, especially cake. I’ve never gotten over the revelation that icing had shortening in it. Gross.

But I’ve got a little boy with an egg allergy who deserves cakes like every other kid for his birthdays and other occasions. Most recently was his kindergarten graduation. His teacher wanted to have a cake for the class, so I volunteered to make an eggless version, which she supplemented with storebought cupcakes.

Kindergarten graduation cake by Laurie Sterbens

For a kindergarten graduation, "Congratulations" seemed too stuffy. I went with "Yay!"

I decided that “Congratulations Kindergartners” was too stuffy for little kids, and also didn’t relish the idea of piping all those letters and trying to fit it into an appealing design. “Yay!” seemed more appropriate.

I used the same recipe I used for my son’s birthday Bakugan cake, which was a hit with kids and parents alike. I’m not a baker; I start with a mix. I use two boxes of reduced sugar devil’s food mix, each one baked in a 9×15 rectangular pan. Instead of the three eggs called for, I use two parts powdered egg substitute (available at health food stores) and a half a cup of applesauce per layer. This produces a moist, somewhat dense and nicely flat layer a little over an inch thick.

After allowing the cake to cool, I spread storebought chocolate-chocolate chip icing on one layer and topped it with the second layer. I then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream (I do insist on homemade buttercream) and put it in the fridge to set overnight.

To decorate, I first sketched out a design in actual size. I kept the piping to a minimal by using fondant for the balloons and some of the letters. I rolled the fondant out in a pasta machine and cut it with cookie cutters, letter shape cutters and whatever else was handy that worked. I piped on some of the lettering, the balloon strings and the yellow trim, which was vanilla buttercream. I then added star sprinkles. It was not a restrained, elegant design, but it was for kindergarten.  They’re not into restraint.

The cake was a hit, even with people who didn’t know it was eggless. Now I’m wondering what can be my next cake-decorating occasion. Although first there’s the garden…

Not to be confused with Cake Boss

When your little boy turns 6 and he wants to have a birthday party, standard operational procedure is to call the bakery and tell them you need a Spider-Man cake or a baseball cake or a “Cars” cake, or whatever is the current kindergarten favorite.

When your little boy has a food allergy, you have to go to plan B. My son’s allergic to eggs, so I am now the proud owner of a growing collection of professional-looking cake-decorating equipment. I have more equipment than skill. Hey, there’s a reason the saying is “easy as pie.” Cake can be complicated.

Recently my son had a birthday and though we’ve managed to avoid it so far by taking him to theme parks, this time he wanted a party, and that meant a big birthday cake.

These days you can go to a craft store such as Michael’s and have a good chance of finding a kit for making a cake with a variety of popular themes. You currently have no chance of finding what my son wanted, which was a Bakugan cake. Bakugan toys are currently wildly popular with kindergarten boys and were developed by cruel Japanese artists who never considered that somebody might have to reproduce these characters in icing.

My son’s additional requirements were that the cake would be chocolate inside with white icing, with red trim and letters.

After determining that there wasn’t a ready-made kit available, I did a Google search to see what other Bakugan cakes had been attempted out there in Mommyland. There were some brave attempts to reproduce the logo in icing, but nothing really grabbed me.

My solution: First, my standard kindergarten occasion no-egg cake: Two boxes of reduced sugar cake mix. Instead of the three eggs called for per box, I used two parts powdered egg substitute (available at health food stores) and a half cup of applesauce. Baked in two 9×15 pans, they will be slightly more dense than regular cake and will make nice 1 1/2-inch layers.

Eggless Bakugan Cake by Laurie Sterbens

Eggless Drago Bakugan birthday cake by Laurie Sterbens

I slapped a layer of canned chocolate/chocolate chip frosting between the layers, then covered the entire cake with vanilla buttercream. For the decorations, I blew up a picture of the Bakugan figure Drago from a tracing book, traced that onto colored fondant with a toothpick, cut out the pieces and assembled the Drago on parchment paper, then added details with edible marker. I then reassembled the figure on top of the cake and added the red trim (and I would just like to say here that red gel food coloring is pretty disgusting stuff) and lettering. I also added a little fondant platform for the actual Drago toy, which my son also wanted on the cake. The empty space up front later held six red candles.

It’s not Cake Boss, but my son thought it was the coolest cake ever.