Sunday, March 22, 2015

Baked Ziti

It was a get-together with plenty of good friends and good food, and a surprise birthday girl. I decided to contribute something Italian, since it is hard to compete with all the authentic Indian, Bengali and Sri Lanka cooks. – Lasagna was first on my mind, but I switched to Baked Ziti since it is easier to serve buffet-style. It came out great, but next time I will add more sauce and cook it less long, since it starts to dry out during reheating. Tasty, nevertheless.

Baked ziti consists of precooked pasta, a meaty tomato sauce and a ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan mixture, ultimately all mixed, layered and baked until bubbly.


I cooked a mixture of pasta, and added 2 bay leaves to give them extra flavor.


The meat sauce with tomatoes.


The mixture of ricotta, shredded mozzarella, parmesan and 1 egg, all mixed. Then add the pasta.


Add most of the meat tomato sauce (but leave 4 cups for layering)>


Prepare the dish.


Bake until bubbly.


Baked Ziti

  • 1 package of pasta (typically 1 pound)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 dash of sweet vermouth (optional)
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 ts dried thyme
  • 1 ts dried basil
  • 1 ts chili flakes (and a dash of cayenne if you like it hotter)
  • 1 large can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 small can of tomato sauce
  • 1 15oz container of part skim ricotta cheese
  • 2 packages of shredded mozzarella
  • 1/2 cup of shredded parmesan
  • 1 egg
  • fresh mint or parsley or basil

Cook pasta with salted water for about 9min (slightly undercook).

In a large pan, sautee the onion and garlic in the olive oil, and once softened add in the meat, and break it up with a large spatula. Brown it from all sides. Then add in the tomatoes and tomato sauce and the herbs and spices. Simmer for about 20min.

In a separate large bowl, mix up the ricotta cheese, 1 pouch of mozzarella and parmesan with the egg with a fork. Just mash it up. Add in the pasta, and mix through.

Once the sauce is done, reserve about 4 cups, and mix in the rest of the sauce to the pasta.

Layer half of the pasta mix in an 9x13 inch oven safe baking dish. Even out, and then layer half of the sauce on top, and half of the mozzarella from the second bag. Add the second half of pasta, even out and finish with the remaining sauce and mozzarella.

Preheat oven to 375F, and bake dish for about 25min. To get a brown crust, turn on the broiler for 1.5min at the end of baking. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.




Sunday, March 15, 2015

Vegetable Biryani

Old man winter decided to put on a layer of fresh make-up before he was ready to leave the party. Oh, boy. Another 10-14 inches today after he looked a bit haggard after loosing about 1-2 feet of snow last week.

One of my favorite dishes lately is the Indian vegetable biryani. A biryani is an Indian equivalent of ‘mexican rice’ or an Italian risotto, a layered, and flavored rice dish with spices and vegetables (there are also meat varieties). For me, the vegetable biryani is the best option. It is a great side during the week, or a main dish, right out of the oven.


A biryani is cooked in a layered way. The basmati rice is pre-cooked separately but not fully cooked, and the vegetables are seared and flavored, and then both parts are finished off together so that the flavors melt.

It can be made with any kind of vegetables, but carrots, cauliflower, beans, even potatoes are a traditional Indian version. A biryani also has plenty of fresh herbs such as mint and cilantro, and a hint of saffron for a nice color and flavor. Cardamon, tumeric and garam massala round out the flavors.

First, the basmati rice is washed several times until the water runs clear and then soaked for 30min (a must for fluffy basmati rice!). It is then cooked with a very salty water that is also flavored with cumin seeds and a bay leaf. However, it is undercooked (!) and done in about 10min.


The next step includes preparing the vegetables: sauteing them in flavored ghee and mixed with herbs, and rounded out with yogurt. Once prepared the rice is layered over it.


There are 2 layers of rice, each one is sprinkled with more herbs spices and a fried onions. The last layer of hot, steamy rice gets an additional drizzle of saffron steeped in hot milk.



The dish is covered with a tight-fitting lid, and steamed for about 15min until the rice is fluffy and the vegetables fully cooked.  For serving, a section from top to bottom is best to serve both vegetables and rice.



Vegetable Biryani (makes about 6 servings)


  • 1 cup good basmati rice, rinsed several times, and soaked for at least 20min
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 TB salt

Bring 1-2 quart of water to a boil, and add the bay leaves, caraway seeds and salt. Add soaked rice and cooked until about 3/4 done (about 12-14min).

Also steep a few strands of saffron with a half cup of the hot, salty water in a separate cup.


  • 2-3 TB (GMO free) canola oil or ghee
  • 1 TB whole black pepper corns
  • 1 ts cumin seeds
  • 1 potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cubed
  • 1 small cauliflower, cut into florets (or 1 bag frozen)
  • 1 cup fresh fenugreek leaves (if available, otherwise omit)
  • 1 TB fresh dill leaves
  • 2 TB jarred ginger and garlic paste

In a heavy bottomed large pot (that will contain the entire dish) with a tight fitting lid, heat the ghee or oil, and add the spices and the vegetables from above and cooked for 5 min until softened. Now, add

  • 2 small green chili, diced (you can also use jalapenos)
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, julienned (cut into very thin long stripes)
  • 1/2 ts cayenne powder
  • 1 ts tumeric powder
  • 1 ts salt

Add these ingredients, mix well and cook for another 3 minutes. Now, turn down the heat. Add

  • 1/2 cup of frozen or fresh green peas
  • 1 cup long, skinny French beans
  • 1 cup of plain cow milk yogurt
  • 1 ts garam masala
  • 1 ts green cardamom powder
  • 1 TB melted ghee
  • mint leaves of 2 springs
  • handful fried onions (home-made or store-bought)

Mix all these ingredients. Using a perforated large spoon laddle the pre-cooked rice on the vegetables (a bit of liquid is good because it is the only liquid added to finish off the dish). Layer on about half of the rice. Add to the rice layer

  • 2-3 TB chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 ts ground coriander
  • 1 ts garam masala powder,
  • 1 ts green cardamom powder
  • a few fresh mint leaves (chopped)
  • fried onions

Now layer rest of rice – and a last layer brown onions, garam masala, cardamom powder, the saffron soak in water, and 1-2 Ts melted ghee, drizzled over the biryani.

Seal the pot – and cook on stovetop on medium high for 2-3min (until steam comes out). Lower flame and cook another 10-12min. (Don’t cook on high heat for too long, because the biryani will burn quickly since it does not contain much liquid).  



Out and about–Spring break in Maine

Spring break is over, and winter decided to put on a new layer of make-up. He was looking a bit haggard, but decided to refresh his complexion before leaving the party in style. One of my spring break adventures included the New Balance factory store in Skowhegan which had a 40% off sale (on the factory seconds).


This is the New Balance factory and, like with LLBean, much is still hand-made right here in the USA.


Unfortunately I came on the second day of the sale, rookie mistake, and the “middle of the road” sizes of the nice shoes were already gone. A lot of 6s and 11s in this blue beauty.


It is no surprise that plenty of people trek to Skowhegan for the sale. 40% off 39.98? Not bad, not  bad. I could not really find any signs of ‘seconds’, the merchandise looked perfect.


Available in my size, but a bit too Florida colored for me.


I finally settled on these, they are amazing, the fresh foam model. Love.


Even more love for these cuties. The adorableness.


It was then off to Freeport which was quite deserted. I don’t think anyone comes to Maine for spring break, and even the Mainers are gone.


In the old days, maybe it was different.


Fell in love with the new flatbreads at Panera bread. Soooo good!


Repurposed an inexpensive bulky bag at Forever XXI as camera bag.


Only batted my eyelashes at this bag.

And now I try to be patient for spring to come, in the next weeks, months.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Newman Trail in the Winter

As many have discovered, there is a new winter trail system in town --- the newly open Newman trail system has its first winter. The Friends of the Orono Trust make sure that the ski trails are groomed for both classical as well as skate skiing, and there are plenty of snowshoe trails, up the Newman mountain. According to the full parking lot, it is a new popular winter spot in town.

This is a ski trail in the University of Maine trail system, not groomed on a Sunday but still beautiful.


The start of the Newman Hill ski trail system.

There are a few maps on the trails, but it is better to pick up a map at the parking lot board.

Uphill, uphill.

The Veazie Railroad bed is flat and wide, great for beginners.

March inspiration under piles of snow

March! Hopefully, this will be the month with rising temperatures and sinking snow coverage here in Maine. Because, there is a lot of snow that has to go before we will see green again. But today, today it is snowing again.


At least, some make the best out of it. Who needs a snow man when you can make a snow pug.


I am inspired by summer clothes collections, and covet this handbag. The rest I probably find in my closet. With the levels of snow and the temperatures, it will be April before I can really wear anything like that.


Neat idea to re-purpose the food props for organizing perfume bottles.

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I am not into the 50 shades of grey thing, although the main male character almost enticed me to watch it since he does such a great job as serial killer on The Fall with Gillian Anderson.

Links of interest: