Pizza Sauce Hack! Skip the marinara and use THIS instead!

Could this title be any more of a cliche click bait? I know, I know. But it really fits. I hate making marinara/pizza sauce and I hate buying it even more.

First, the kind you buy is WAY too sweet to use for anything else but pizza. And if you don’t already have a half opened marinara jar, there is seriously no way you need that much for your one pizza night.

But you still need something under all that cheese and toppings. Many times I make my own garlic, herb, and oil mix. But last night I looked in the fridge and it practically jumped at me singing “Put me in coach!”

Toum, you are perfect.

What is it? The garlic sauce from Zankou Chicken! Known as Toum, this Lebanese garlic sauce is the perfect consistency and flavor for pizza. To be fair, it is perfect for a lot of things and I’m currently obsessing about it.

As the creepy best friend from Love, Actually said so well: “Toum, you are perfect.”

It is garlicky without being too pungent, and it has a smooth mayonnaise consistency. We had some from our local Greek restaurant, but it only has three ingredients (lemon, garlic, and oil) and looks really easy to make.

So, I’ll try to make it soon.

I make homemade pizzas pretty regularly. We’ve even hosted make your own party nights, which are really a blast. I have a fairly specific method for pizza, developed through trial and error. I think my version works because it keeps the pizza from sticking to the cooking surface, and makes transferring the raw pizza slightly more error proof. I can’t wait to have Toum as a topping option at the next one!

Here’s how I do it:

  1. Make pizza dough. I’m not going to lie to you and say I use my own pizza dough recipe. I use Bobby Flay’s dough recipe, which I chose because it makes sense and is fairly easy to pull together, even the night before you want to make the pizzas. Just let it sit in the fridge covered over night and take it out about 1/2 hour before you are ready to turn on the oven. Otherwise, follow the instructions in the link.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. I often use grilling mats because they resist sticking. Shape the dough into a round ball and sprinkle the top with more flour. Then cover with a clean tea towel and let sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Gather your toppings. For this pizza I used Toum, mozzarella, parmesan, mushrooms, and jarred roasted red peppers.
  4. Turn the oven on to 425F (I use a pizza stone– if you do too, be sure the stone is in the oven to preheat as well.) A very hot oven and cooking surface is important to pizza— preheating is crucial.
  5. Uncover the dough and start to push and stretch it into a roundish, flat shape. Mine usually end up being rather square-like.
  6. If you have a pizza tray or board you can transfer the dough (with a grilling mat or parchment paper underneath the dough) to that before you start adding the toppings. If not, a clean cutting board works. This makes it easier to move the pizza to the oven later.
  7. Add your toppings, starting with Toum. Using the back of a spoon, spread the sauce around the dough, from edge to edge. Follow with a thin layer of cheese, any other toppings, and another thin layer of cheese.
  8. Transfer the pizza to the oven with the grilling mat or parchment paper to prevent sticking. Check out my masterful (snerk) pizza slide video:

9. Let the pizza cook for about 20 minutes, checking in after about 15 minutes. Try not to open the oven for the first 10 minutes.

Here are some glamor shots before and after:

10. Eat pizza.

Going Low Carb? Try These Stuffed Zucchini Boat Babies

I had gestational diabetes when I was pregnant with my daughter last year. So I got pretty good at developing meals that were delicious and could satisfy both my hungry husband and my increasingly picky son.

Incidentally, it was pretty irritating that for the 6 months we ate for my dietary plan, my husband lost the teeny tiny beer belly he had been developing. He got ripped. I stayed the same weight, which was actually the right thing for me (I mean, I was growing a wee human). But still. It is sooooo unfair.

In any case, I have since fallen off the low carb wagon, and have been feeling the need to get back on again. I felt pretty good and healthy, with lots of energy. I also know it is the diet I should be following at least 80% of the time.

For the record, I did NOT do Keto. I do not think keto is a healthy way to live. But I did focus on eating (A LOT) more salads and replacing high sugar/high carb snacks with nuts, veggies, and yogurt.

I also cut out bread– but added in quite a few mournful and angry fist shakes.

But I digress. Here is the recipe:
4 zucchini squashes halved and cored
1 lb ground beef or sweet Italian sausage
1/2 onion chopped small
2-3 garlic cloves chopped
1 package of button or porcini mushrooms chopped

1/2 can tomato sauce
1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
Fresh torn basil (for garnish)

To prep the zucchini, simply cut them lengthwise down the middle and use a spoon to scrape out the softer inner portion of the squash. Leave enough flesh on the squash to ensure the boats don’t collapse in the oven. Save the inner portions the stuffing mixture.

If you are paying attention, you’ll notice that I’m only using 3 zucchinis in this recipe, although I called for 4. I had 4 but they were from Trader Joe’s, which means that one went bad before I was able to cook it. I love TJ’s but you all know the produce has a time limit: Don’t buy any of it unless you are planning to use it within three days.

Turn the oven to 400F.

In a large skillet, over medium high heat brown the meat and add the veggies, giving everything a good seasoning with salt and pepper. Give the onions 5-10 minutes in the pan to soften and become translucent. Then stir in the tomato sauce and vinegar and let simmer on low for a few minutes. This should be rather thick, but if it is a little soupy, just let the sauce reduce.

In the meantime, rub a little olive oil on the zucchinis and lightly season them with salt. Place them open side up on a lined baking sheet.

Fill the boats with the mixture and top with parmesan cheese. Put them in the oven for 20 minutes. As soon as they come out of the oven, sprinkle the fresh basil over the top and serve.

The Notorious MSG

MSG (alias monosodium glutamate; alias glutamate; alias glutamic acid) got a bad rap, see. It is innocent, I tell ya, innocent! It had a lousy lawyer, see. It was with its momma in Toledo.

Here are some the ways I use MSG in my kitchen:

Some natural sources of monosodium include tomato, seaweed, and shitake mushrooms. Fermented food sources include Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, and soy sauce. Here’s a list of more foods with natural MSG.

The reason these foods and condiments exist is because humans find the flavor irresistible. It is the essential component of savory and as we all know, the Japanese say it best with “Umami,” which, come on, it even sounds like “yummy.”

I use something in this picture in nearly ever dinner I make, sometimes several of them combined.

Probably the most intense of my MSG sources, is the Maggie Seasoning. If you’ve ever had Chinese soy sauce, this kinda what it tastes like. The Maggie, however, is VERY concentrated. Three dashes for your entire family’s meal is enough to boost flavor without overpowering the dish. It is not an everyday addition for us, but once in a while if I’m making something and I just can’t get the flavor deep enough, this is a lifesaver.

In case you are worried, there was bad science linking MSG to illness and racism that perpetuated those negative associations. If you’d like to do further reading, here is an article that debunks the myths of MSG. Most scientists have largely concluded that MSG is safe, although an allergic reaction is, of course, possible.

Chicken kabob veggie bowls

A yogurt marinade makes for juicy delicious chicken, without the hassle of finding those kabob sticks you know you put somewhere…

NOTE: I had some gorgeous pictures of my kebab bowl, but they are lost to the tech gods due to an old phone that won’t update. Please enjoy images of these beautiful fruits and veggies from our local farmers market.

There’s a reason we usually do kabobs this on the grill. They spatter like crazy. But sometimes you can’t remember where those dang kabob sticks are. So you decide to improvise. I wanted mediterranean style kabobs and I went for the stove top. They still taste amazing because, although you miss the smoke flavor, this recipe is all about the marinade. Reserve 1/4 cup to drizzle over the bowl once it is assembled (warning, it has raw garlic, so vampires beware!)

Here is the recipe:

1 pkg boneless skinless chicken thighs (cut to bite sizes)
1 onion, cut large
1 pgk sliced mushrooms
1 zucchini sliced into half moons
Any other veggies you might have that are good in a stir fry. Broccoli, carrots, green beans, cabbage, etc.
Golden buttered rice, (cook 1 cup rice with 1 cup chicken stock, 1 cup water, 1 tbl butter, and 1 tsp turmeric)

Chicken Marinade:
1 cup plain greek yogurt
5 cloves of garlic crushed
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tsp paprika (I like smoked)
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper

Let the chicken sit in the marinade for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, heat a large skillet on high with a tablespoon of oil or butter. When skillet is hot add onion and mushroom into skillet and season with salt and pepper. Let the vegetables cook on high, flipping mushrooms and onions occasionally, to golden brown (add any long-cooking veggies to this step, e.g., carrots) as well. Add other veggies and cook to desired doneness.

Remove vegetables from skillet and set aside.

Add another tablespoon to the skillet and gently lay chicken in one layer, in batches if necessary. Allow to brown over medium high heat, making sure chicken is cooked thoroughly (no longer pink). Serve with golden buttered rice and veggies in a bowl.

Sausage and blue cheese stuffed mushrooms.

or “What to do when you have a lot of little leftovers.”

This is just a little post because we’ve been overwhelmed with holiday BBQs. When we got home from a weekend full of meat-heavy meals, hubby said he just wanted something light. I took the opportunity to unload some leftovers. Here is what I used:

10 Mushroom caps
1 cup sweet Italian sausage crumbles
3/4 cup pizza sauce
1 pkg blue cheese crumbles
1/2 cup leftover wilted spinach
Fresh grated parmesan
Plain breadcrumbs

To make the mushrooms, I arranged the caps in a container and sprinkled them with salt. Then I mixed together the sausage, cheese, and spinach. I put heaping spoonfuls of the mixture into the mushrooms and topped them with parmesan and breadcrumbs. Into the oven they went at 350F for 25 minutes.

Super simple and a decent Sunday evening meal.

Stuffed mushrooms are great for getting rid of fridge ingredients. In this case, we had had a make-your-own pizza night earlier in the week. I had planned to make stuffed mushrooms for a party, but it turned out we didn’t need another side dish.

One pan, one process. Mushroom and tarragon chicken.

This incredible one-pan meal is all about technique and endless possibilities.

This pan is overfilled. But doesn’t it look delicious? Photo by Sébastien Marchand on Unsplash

The ingredients

4-6 bone-in, skin-on thighs or skin-on chicken breast (the skin is important)
1 c sliced mushrooms
3 tbls chopped fresh tarragon
2 large spring onions, chopped small
2 garlic cloves, chopped or grated (or about 1 tbls)
1/4 c heavy whipping cream
1/4 c white wine (aka, whatever is left over from last night)
2 tbls lemon juice (or one lemon squeezed)

The equipment

Garlic grater, crusher or microplane
Oven-safe or cast iron skillet (essential)

Turn oven to 375 F.
Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.
In a hot cast iron skillet place chicken skin side down. Be sure not to crowd the pan. Sear on high until skin is crispy and light brown. Turn the chicken over with tongs and (safely) move the skillet to the oven.
Cook 40-60 minutes until chicken is 160 F internal temp.
Meanwhile mix heavy cream, white wine, lemon, garlic, and green onion in a measuring cup. Add some salt and pepper.
When the chicken is done, move it back to the cooktop and remove chicken. Add mushrooms in a single layer and sauté over high heat until one side is golden brown. Turn mushrooms and golden them up.
Reduce heat to medium low and pour the cream mixture into the pan. Use tongs or wooden spoon to scrape up brown bits and incorporate them into the sauce. Cook, stirring often, until liquid is reduced by half (about 5-10 minutes). Turn the heat off and add half of the tarragon. Taste and adjust seasoning. Place chicken and any drippings back into the sauce, and garnish with the rest of the herbs.

The chicken, veggies and sauce can be served over rice, egg noodles, or with a salad.

The story

I love this meal. It is so fancy and yet you only use one pot. I make this when I want to remind myself that “I can f-ing cook!” True story: this was the first meal I made after our daughter was born. After several months of take out, meals from the freezer, and friends feeding us (thank you thank you thank you) my husband devoured it and said, “I missed your cooking.”

This is actually a really simple meal and its very easy to swap ingredients. I tend to use chicken thighs because they stay juicy, even if you overcook them…in fact they get better. Anything I can shove in the oven and walk away from is a bonus. That’s why skin is important. When you flip the chicken, make sure the skins are super crispy. It will continue to cook in the oven while bathing the meat (mmmm chicken fat bath). You want properly rendered skin that crunches when you eat it. (I love chicken skin-don’t judge me).

I generally use my 8-in. cast iron skillet because it fits four thighs nicely. Plus I love it. However, when I’m cooking for more people, I need a bigger vessel. Enter my 12-in. Calphalon Unison skillet. It is light-weight (comparatively), easy to clean by hand, and goes from stove to skillet in one easy swoop. I’m super sad to report that the line has been discontinued. Stock up if you see them at TJ Maxx.

Tarragon has a licorice flavor, but it’s not in your face. If for some reason you don’t like (or have) tarragon, many herbs make a nice swap. Cilantro is especially nice and you can confidently add a big handful if you are looking to use up a bunch. Parsley is a bit grassier, and should be used 1:1 in place of the tarragon. I haven’t tried mint or basil yet, but I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t work. Rosemary should be used sparingly since it is pretty strong and can easily take over a dish. If you try something different let me know.

Green onion is also a taste thing. You can use regular onions, but cook them with the mushrooms so they have a chance to sweeten up.

Another ingredient that can be substituted is the heavy cream, although your choices are limited. I’ve used whole milk with minimal difference in flavor. What I like about milk or cream in combination with lemon is that you get that sour cream/buttermilk flavor. Plain yogurt would do here too. I would still add the lemon, though, because I like the lemon flavor.

If you use a nut milk, almond (unsweetened and plain) will likely give you the cleanest result. I’ve never done coconut milk. I bet the flavor would be wildly different, but still delicious. I would definitely use cilantro for a coconut milk application. And I might throw in some curry paste, ginger, lime leaves… and now that’s a whole other post.

Don’t have mushrooms? Well, that one is a little tougher. But hey, I could see this as a broccoli or cauliflower meal. Asparagus? Sure. Want to add green beans? Go nuts. What you add or exchange will change the flavor profile, but your results will still be yummy. Cook any veggies over high heat to give them a bit of caramelization. They will pick up some of the chicken flavor from the fat in the pan (you’re welcome). Do remember that veggies are more delicate than mushrooms so remove them from the pan while the sauce is reducing to avoid creating soggy gray mush.

Of course, you can always omit wine. A splash of white wine vinegar can create a similar result. The point is, this is a process meal: Cook the meat in the pan, remove the meat, cook veggies with pan drippings, add a delicious liquid with some thickening properties and reduce. Add fresh herbs. Add the meat back in and serve.

Sit back and enjoy the accolades.