Friday, January 31, 2020

Time to Think Amore’

Day after Christmas, and already stores were filling up aisles with gifts, candies and decorations for Valentine’s Day.  The New Year had not even been celebrated as yet, but we were being programmed to think about a future holiday.  Besides the required gifts to “prove undying love”, a romantic meal is also part of this holiday.  Many restaurants offer specials featuring expensive cuts of meat, or shipped in seafood like lobster.  You know, the types of foods only eaten for holidays and special occasions, where the amount spent equals the amount of love in the heart.

Equating love to a monetary value just does not sound right to me somehow.  However, throughout history, marriages were arranged between families.  Was this a form of keeping these families “pure” by purchasing the correct spouse?  However, women have always been looked upon as a type of commodity throughout history, and world cultures.  Either the groom’s family would pay a “bride price” to the intended bride’s family, or a dowry was offered to the groom’s family.  What is a dowry?  Basic definition is, “A dowry is a transfer of parental property, gifts, or money at the marriage of a daughter.”
Even in modern societies, it is often the bride and her family who foot the major portion of the wedding and reception costs

Whether wealthy or poor (does a middle class even exist any longer?), I believe love is measured in small ways.  The longing look, gentle touching of hands, a little nudge-nudge, wink-wink; an unexpected compliment, or sharing the last cookie while watching a movie.  Does not cost much, well excepting if the cookies are homemade or store bought.

Swinging back to the romantic meal aspect, not every couple can afford a fancy time out.  Does that diminish the value of Valentine’s Day?  Of course not!

Living in Monticello, the nearest Olive Garden is either in Grand Junction, Colorado (2 and 1/2 hours’ drive northeast), or Farmington, New Mexico (2 hours southeast).  Many people enjoy going to one of these when they are in one of those cities.  The commercials are often on television, and yes, we have gone there once in a while ourselves.

Readers of this food column, and people who I have cooked for, know I focus mainly on Italian cuisine.  So, seeing the latest "limited edition menu items" in recent commercials; had to admit that I wanted to try them.  Then I thought about the items, and realized they are pretty close to baked ziti, and another type of baked pasta casserole, made in the past.  In other words, I can make these new items at home, myself!  While my baked ziti and baked pasta casserole use a homemade tomato based sauce, these new dishes require an Alfredo sauce.

Now, and you know I do this, putting my own spin on a recipe is usually on my mind.  Olive Garden uses a "creamy seafood Alfredo sauce" for the shrimp casserole.  Well, I know how to make Alfredo sauce, and it uses loads of Parmesan cheese.  Smoked mozzarella is shredded and used as a topping.  Since this item is not easily found in any local markets, and traveling an hour away to a supermarket is time consuming, regular mozzarella will do.  However, adding it into the sauce, with the Parmesan, will result in a rich cheesy sauce.   Oh, leaving out the nutmeg as black pepper and garlic will be the main seasonings.


Baked Mozzarella Casserole

1 bag (12 oz.) medium sized shrimp
1 bag (16 oz.) tortellini (frozen or dried)
1 can (15.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, rinse & thoroughly drain all excess liquid
8 Tbsp. butter
8 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
6 cups hot milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. dried parsley leaves


Fill a 3 quart pot halfway with water, place on high heat.  While waiting for water to boil, clean shrimp; remove shells and devein.  When water begins to boil, add in tortellini and cook according to package directions.  Fit a metal colander over the pot, place shrimp inside, and steam until a light pinkish coloring.  Place shrimp, drained tortellini and tomatoes into large mixing bowl.

Preheat oven to 400F; spray sides and bottom of 2 quart baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In another 3 quart pot, heat the butter over medium heat until melted; gradually add the flour, stirring until smooth.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns a golden brown color, about 6 to 7 minutes; this is the roux.

Yes!  You can make the sauce, on the stove top, right next to the pot cooking the tortellini and steaming the shrimp.

Add the hot milk to the butter mixture one cup at a time; whisk continuously to avoid burning or clumping. When mixture is completely smooth, add the Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, whisk until smooth again; remove from heat; season with salt, black pepper and garlic powder.

Pour cheese sauce over contents in large bowl, mix thoroughly and spoon into baking dish and sprinkle with parsley.  Place dish in oven and bake for 15-20 minutes; edges around contents, and on the top will be slightly browned, and cheese bubbling.  Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

In case you are wondering, I rinse and drain the tomatoes as I do not want all that red liquid to dilute the cheese sauce, or turn it red.  The shrimp, parsley, and the tomatoes themselves should be the eye catchers throughout the white pasta and cheese sauce.

Now if shrimp is not a favorite, grill up chicken breasts with a light seasoning of salt, black pepper and paprika; cut into bite sized pieces and add this instead.  Or choose another pasta, like rigatoni, but make the cheese sauce as directed, add shrimp or chicken, and bake it up.

This casserole, paired with a salad and garlic bread will make a fantastic dinner for six.  However, it will be a spectacular Valentine’s Day dinner for two, with leftovers!

Mary Cokenour

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