Almost Italian Meatloaf

Almost Italian Meatloaf fresh out of the oven and topped with shreeded mozzarella.
Almost Italian Meatloaf fresh out of the oven and topped with shreeded mozzarella. I use extra melty mozzarella.

As the weather grows colder, my carb cravings grow stronger. I inevitably turn to classic comfort foods, like the Southern classic of meatloaf, green beans and mashed potatoes. Is there a better way to carb out than hiding carbs in a loaf of meat and serving it with a side or two of carbs? Oh, I suppose you might select Panera Bread’s “Pick 2” meal, and order a starchy potato soup with a sandwich and get a side of bread. (Not that I do that … too often.) But still, when you want some comfort you can’t beat home cooking, or at least home style cooking.

As with many of my recipes, Almost Italian Meatloaf originated because of what was and wasn’t on hand. I wanted to make something Italian. I thought I had Italian style bread crumbs, but the container—sitting on a shelf like a respectable container of actual product—was empty. Who does that? Puts an empty container in the pantry? (I do, apparently. I do.) The closest thing to bread crumbs was matzo meal. I was firmly committed to meatloaf by now, so …. Almost Italian Meatloaf.

I keep matzo meal on hand for making matzo ball soup and latkes, which is usually about once a year—matzo ball soup in the dead of winter, and latkes for Hannukkah. Incorporating matzo meal into meatloaf worked out really well, because it’s a great way to ensure I use it up before it expires. 

If you’ve ever had matzo ball soup, you will understand how matzo meal adds a certain density to meatloaf that’s just not possible with regular bread crumbs. Just like a day’s worth of lamp oil lasted 8 days in the miracle of Hannukkah, matzo meal seems to go further with less.

The meatloaf holds together very well, and a single slice is pretty filling, even if you don’t load up with a side (or two) of carbs. Throw some Italian seasoning into a side of green beans and add a side of Garlic Smashed Potatoes, and Southern comfort goes Italian. And if you really need that extra carb, throw in a slice of Italian bread. When it comes to carb loading, why “Pick 2” when you can pick 4?

I have never tried this dish with a vegetable-based protein, but I imagine it’s possible. If you try it, please let me know how it turns out. For a lower sodium version, eliminate or substitute salt. Matzo meal is sodium and fat free, but it’s made with wheat flour, so you’d have to use a gluten free meal if you need a gluten free dish.

Switch out Italian seasonings for cajun seasonings, use corn meal instead of matzo meal, and you’ve got a gluten free cajun meatloaf. Mmmm ….. my carb craving mind envisions cajun meatloaf with a side of gumbo over rice or—better yet—over yellow potato salad, along with a side of cornbread. I think I’m up to pick 5 now. Am I taking things too far?

“We parked in back and walked down the stairs with their polished brass railings, past the old-fashioned kitchen. We could see the chefs cooking. It smelled like stew, or meat loaf, the way time should smell, solid and nourishing.” 

— Janet Fitch

Ingredients

1  lb lean ground beef 

1 TBSP Italian seasoning  

1 TBSP dried or finely chopped fresh basil 

1 tsp coarse ground salt

1 tsp ground pepper

1 tsp cayenne powder

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1 small onion, chopped 

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 C black olives, sliced

8 oz tomato paste

2 eggs

1 C matzo meal

1/2 C shredded Italian cheese

Prep time: about  1 hr 30 minutes, including cook time 

Yields:  1 standard loaf

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together all ingredients except for the cheese. Place into an ungreased standard loaf pan or 9 x 9 square casserole dish. Bake for about 60 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with shredded cheese.

Making Almost Italian Meatloaf at a glance.
Making Almost Italian Meatloaf at a glance.

Serving Suggestions

Serve warm with salad or soup and a vegetable side with Italian bread and dipping oil or bruschetta. Also good with traditional meatloaf pairing of mashed potatoes, especially garlic smashed potatoes and green beans. For lighter fare, pair with a Caesar salad or a platter of sliced tomato and onion drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. Also good with a side of bean or potato soup. Serve leftover slices warm or cold in a sandwich.

Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup

A cup of Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup served with a corn muffin.
A warm cup of Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup served with a corn muffin.

We recently took our former foster kids to their school’s fall festival. From a bouncy house and games with prizes to a bonafide hay ride—even candy corn and some great prize drawings—the PTO had put together one fine fundraising festival. One of my favorite memories from last year was the school fall festival, so it was sweet to do a repeat, and to meet their new teachers and friends. It was one more thing to be thankful for as Thanksgiving approached.

For my husband and me, Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, family gatherings, and traditions. With a blended family, it can be challenging to bring people together and honor disparate traditions. We focus on our priority: quality time together. And while tradition is apparent in our Thanksgiving celebrations, it seems each year is different somehow. 

First, in keeping with a goal of quality time, we flex the day we celebrate Thanksgiving every other year rather than split the day apart. Dear sweet hubby and his ex trade off Thursday every other year (with some rare exceptions). Honoring traditions centers on food that means “Thanksgiving” to each of us. My stepdaughters always make their Mom’s cranberry sauce. My stepson wants green bean casserole.  My husband wants pumpkin pie and turkey. Me? Something with potatoes, please. Everything else on the menu can change. It works well. 

Last year was unique because we did a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday for our foster kids and one on Friday for our daughters. It was also our first Thanksgiving with a child unable to come home for the holiday. This year was also a bit unique … we held our first Wednesday Thanksgiving and we also served a meal on Thursday with a guest. After preparing multiple meals for mostly young children the last couple of years, it was nice to put together two meals geared for adults. This is also the first year I served my new recipe—Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup. 

The secret to this soup’s creamy texture is buttermilk. Did you know that buttermilk has fewer calories than regular dairy milk and is packed with nutrition? It lasts longer, too. It’s easier for lactose intolerant people to digest. It moistens cakes made with regular flour, and it makes smoothies super creamy.  Since learning about all of the benefits of buttermilk, I’ve made it a staple in our house. Don’t want to keep buttermilk in the fridge? You can buy powdered buttermilk or make a substitute. 

As a young adult in Florida, a self-proclaimed “country boy” acquaintance once told me, “You make my heart go pitty pat like buttermilk.” He never clarified what this phrase meant, but I can tell you that this buttermilk-based soup made my husband’s heart go pitty pat for more. In fact, he asked me to make this soup instead of his all-time Thanksgiving  favorite, pumpkin pie.

If you already know how much my husband loves hot food, you know the heat of this soup beat out the sweet of that pie. I used a blend of ground hot banana, Serrano, cayenne and habanero peppers. Cayenne will work fine alone if you don’t have other hot pepper handy. If you don’t like spicy, try substituting the hot pepper with paprika.

If you need to use a dairy substitute, try a plain nut milk instead of buttermilk and add some xanthan gum to thicken the soup and a little vinegar to mimic the sour of buttermilk (please note I have not tested this). This recipe does not call for salt. If the ingredients you use are low sodium, you’ve got a low sodium dish. You can easily double the recipe for larger groups. 

Of course, this soup is for more than Thanksgiving. I have a feeling we’ll be eating it often through fall and winter. For my test batch, we ate the soup plain and with a little shredded cheddar sprinkled on it. Both were great. I think it would be amazing paired with a coconut or garlic naan.

If you celebrated Thanksgiving, I hope you had a wonderful holiday. We certainly enjoyed ours. My husband and I will be eating leftovers for a while yet. I’m working on creative uses of said leftovers, and I’ll share any winning ideas in an upcoming post.

“Thanksgiving, man. Not a good day to be my pants.”

—Kevin James

Ingredients

2 C pumpkin purée (plain)

2 C buttermilk 

1/4 C brown sugar

1 TBSP red curry paste

1 TBSP curry powder

1 TBSP ginger

2 bay leaves

1 to 2 tsp ground hot pepper blend or cayenne

1 tsp fenugreek powder

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp onion powder

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/8 tsp cinnamon

Pinch cardamom

Pinch mace

Pinch nutmeg

For topping, try shredded cheddar cheese or yogurt

Prep time: about 15 minutes                                      

Yields: about 4 cups

Directions

Stir together all ingredients in a 2 qt pot. 

Heat on medium then low until heated through, stirring frequently. 

The soup should have a creamy consistency. Add milk if the soup is too thick for your taste, but avoid making it too soupy.

Remove bay leaves before serving.

Serve warm with or without a topping.  

Making Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup at a glance.
Making Creamy Curried Pumpkin Soup at a glance.

Serving Suggestions

For a light meal, serve with a sandwich, naan, salad or corn muffin. Works well as an appetizer or side dish in a larger meal.

Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese

Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese served with a kosher dill pickle.

Ah, sweet romance—from whence came such poetic lines as “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”  Over time, cheese seems to have snuck its way into this quintessentially romantic scenario. The science behind all that romantic imagery, though—fermented fruit, fungus fueled flour and bacteria infested milk—is not so romantic. 

Normally, if you handed me some moldy piece of food to eat, I’d say, “No, thank you,” and rightly so. But blue cheese is created by the mold Penicillium. It’s one of those friendly bacteria that our bodies love. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Penicillium was used to develop the antibiotic penicillin. Penicillium mold spores break down milk to create the blue veins in the cheese and give blue cheese its distinct flavor. The exact flavor and consistency depends upon the milk source and Penicillium variety, such as P. roqueforti, of Roquefort blue cheese fame. 

The beginnings of Roquefort blue cheese entail a romantic legend. A young man living in Roquefort, distracted by a beautiful woman he spied in the distance, left his meal in a cool cave to chase after her. Upon returning to the cave months later, he found his ewe’s milk had turned into a cheese with blue veins—the first Roquefort bleu cheese. Alas, according to a Forbes.com article about the genetics of blue cheese, the legend cannot be true. Once again, science foils romance with facts. 

The decidedly unromantic, scientific conclusion regarding the origin of Roquefort blue cheese is that a pathogen of rye made its way into flour and from there, into baked bread. But see what I mean about cheese sneaking its way into that “jug of wine, loaf of bread” thing?  It seems that bread and cheese were destined to be together from the start … and that’s rather romantic.

I did not use Roquefort blue cheese in my Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese recipe. I used Salemville brand Amish Blue Cheese. This blue cheese is made from cow’s milk, not ewe’s milk, the milk used for producing Roquefort blue cheese. When I bought this cheese I didn’t know about Penicillium or blue cheese legends, and I have no idea which Penicillium variety creates its lovely blues. When I picked up a small bucket of this Amish blue cheese, I just needed some for Apple Crisp Salad

No matter how small, a bucket of blue cheese demands use in other dishes. So one day I peered into “leftover land” and discovered I also had on hand some cheddar cheese and Cherry Red Marinara I needed to use. I was in the mood for a sandwich … a warm, toasty, melty sandwich. And it was Monday. I was not feeling blue, but I was feeling bleu cheese.

Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese is quick and easy to prepare. The blue cheese and cheddar combination marries well. The result is a sharp, slightly pungent taste in a soft, creamy melt. The marinara adds a flavorful Italian note to the mix. I use a firm, fiber-rich oat or wheat bread to balance the heady melt. The sandwich pairs well with salads and soups, and it’s substantial enough for a light meal by itself.  A slice of cheddar seals up those loose and juicy bits, but shredded cheddar will work. 

Even though my husband and I ate the first trial of Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese as experimental food guinea pigs standing at our kitchen counter, we shared a nice dinner—remembering all of those times we never made it to the table, standing over dinner, sharing the details of our days, our hopes and dreams, our struggles, and our love for one another. Two glasses of wine, a few slices of bread, some melty good cheese … I guess sometimes even science can be romantic. 

“We sealed it with a kiss, and with the kiss, we sealed what would eventually become an engagement, a marriage, a Cape Cod, a dog, grilled cheese sandwiches on Mondays, and everything in between.” 

— Lindsay Detwiler

Prep time: 10-15 minutes  

Yields: 2 servings 

Ingredients

4 slices bread (firm, fiber-rich breads work best) 

softened butter or margarine spread

4 TBSP bleu cheese, crumbled

2 slices sharp cheddar cheese

4 TBSP cherry red marinara

Directions

Spread butter or margarine on one side of each bread slice.

Place 2 TBSP of blue cheese on unbuttered side of two pieces of bread.

Scoop 2 TBSP of marinara onto cheese.

Place slice of cheddar cheese on bleu cheese and marinara sauce.

Heat skillet on medium heat.

Place loaded bread slices on skillet and top with other piece of bread, buttered side facing up.

Toast bread in skillet until bread is browned and cheese begins to soften, flip and toast other side until bread is browned and cheese melts. 

Serve warm. 

TIP: You can substitute shredded cheddar for a cheddar slice, but slices are easier to manage. 

Making Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese at a glance.
Making Bleu Monday Grilled Cheese at a glance.

Serving Suggestion

This sandwich works well with soups, especially potato or tomato soup, warm or cold potato salads, and garden salads. 

Magic Muffins

Magic Muffins, dressed in festive cupcake sleeves, cool on a rack.
Magic Muffins, dressed in festive cupcake sleeves, cool on a rack.

Ah, muffins. So beloved. Even people who cannot or choose not to eat them seem to be sad about the situation. But vegetables? Poor, venerated vegetables … why do so many people claim to hate them? I believe their bad reputation is undeserved.

Nearly every time someone tells me they don’t like vegetables, the issue is not really the vegetable. A story emerges about vegetables that were not prepared well. The most frequent? Boiled okra … soft, mushy, gummy, traumatizingly awful okra. Each time I hear this tale, I feel as sorry for the okra as I do for the humans who had to eat it! 

Kids are especially suspicious of vegetables. And why not, when you get nasty surprises instead of tasty treats? Just getting kids to take one taste is hard. They say things like, “That looks weird,” and “Eww! What is that?” and “I’m not gonna try that.” As a kid, my veggie issues were not with okra. We never had it at our house. But spinach…. 

Spinach and me … we had a love/hate thing. As a toddler, I liked spinach so much I’d try to sneak it from the refrigerator: it’s documented in an old family photo, or I wouldn’t believe it. As a primary school-aged kid I despised it—specifically, canned spinach. It always tasted a little like “can” to me. 

When spinach was served, I would try to figure out how to avoid eating that canned spinach or disguise the flavor in other foods. Nothing worked … including the time I dropped spinach into my sweet tea thinking I could leave the table without finishing my tea. I thought I was so clever. Almost 50 years later, I can still recall the taste. Mmmm … tea, sugar, spinach, can.

Nowadays, I buy fresh spinach. I love adding it to smoothies, eating it in salads, and cooking it in a wide variety of dishes. Sometimes, I even serve it as a side dish.

That’s the thing about vegetables—they are very versatile. And a vegetable—however you decide to use it—will probably taste delicious if it’s been prepared well. Is there such a thing as a vegetable connoisseur? Because I really feel that, as with any well prepared thing, you don’t have to actually “like” the thing to appreciate the quality of it. 

For those who just can’t stomach the idea of eating a vegetable, sometimes the best path is the path of least resistance … put it in another food that you know they want to eat. For my foster kids, these muffins did the trick. They taste like a sweet treat but are packed with zucchini. 

I made some revisions to the recipe “Best Ever Zucchini Bread” from Butter with a Side of Bread on Yummly.  I add milk to the recipe to make it easier to pour the mix into a muffin tin. When serving it to children, I dice the grated zucchini into little green bits to further camouflage the vegetable. My optional recipe addition—flax—provides dietary fiber. The muffins taste sinful enough that my husband Paul feels guilty about eating them, even though they pack about the same calories as breakfast bars and are likely more nutritious.

I renamed the recipe when my foster kids asked what those little green things were in their muffins. My answer, “Magic! These are magic muffins.” The real magic? Call it wrong not to name an ingredient out loud, but these kids—who resisted daily almost every manner of vegetable—ate all of those muffins and asked me to make them again … and again. On the rare occasions I iced them, they were called magic cupcakes.    

I’ve made Magic Muffins without nuts. I’ve made them with pecans, walnuts, and a mix of the two. I’ve made them with and without flax. I’ve made them with oil, applesauce, strawberry-applesauce and a blend of oil and sauce. I’ve made them with dairy milk, almond milk and buttermilk. And now, since I feel like I’ve written some recipe version of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham….  

Say, I like them! I like Magic Muffins! I will eat them on a boat. I will eat them in my coat. I will eat them in a hat. And I will eat them with my cat. I’ll eat them at the kitchen bar. I will eat them in a car. I will eat them here and there. I will eat them everywhere.

When stored properly, Magic Muffins last about five to seven days. If you use a sauce substitute for the oil, using buttermilk adds moisture to the mix. As mini-muffins, they’d make a fun, lower calorie snack. 

Prep Time:  about 60 minutes including cook time

Yields: approximately 24 muffins 

Ingredients

1 C white sugar

1 C brown sugar

3 eggs

3 tsp flax (optional)

1 C vegetable oil OR substitute 1/2 to 3/4 C of oil with applesauce, strawberry applesauce, or other applesauce blend

1/4 C milk

3 tsp vanilla extract

3 C flour

1 tsp nutmeg

3 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

2 C grated zucchini (1 medium zucchini works well, and you can add more)

1 C chopped nuts (walnut or pecan, optional)

Directions

In large mixing bowl, mix sugar, eggs flax, oil, milk and vanilla extract on medium speed.  

Add spices, salt, baking powder and baking soda and mix. 

Gradually add flour and mix. 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. 

Clean and grate 1 medium zucchini. Drain all liquid from grated zucchini. Chop finely and add to mix. 

After zucchini is thoroughly integrated, stir in nuts. 

Line muffin tins with cupcake liners and spoon mix to about 3/4 full in each cup. 

Bake for 25-30 minutes until pick comes out clean. Cool on baking rack and remove from tin. 

Serve or store cooled muffins. 

Making Magic Muffins at a glance.
Making Magic Muffins at a glance.

Serving Suggestions

These are great not only for breakfast but also for snack time. Add some icing and serve them as magic cupcakes. 

Garlic Smashed Potatoes

Mixing garlic smashed potatoes to a rich, creamy texture.
Mixing garlic smashed potatoes to a rich, creamy texture.

Mashed potatoes are my top comfort food. In fact, they’re like medicine. I occasionally suffer from headaches. When I’m recovering, the first food I want is mashed potatoes. When I’ve had a stomach bug, a cold, or I’m just plain worn out … mashed potatoes. When colder weather starts settling in … mashed potatoes. When it’s Wednesday … mashed potatoes. When I want variety … garlic smashed potatoes.

In the movie, Happy Texas, the character played by William Macy—a gay cop in a small Texas town who has fallen in love a man he thinks is a gay pageant planner but who is actually a straight bank robber who has fallen in love with an engaged woman who holds the keys to the local bank and who, believing him gay, has befriended him and has no idea he is either straight or a bank robber (imagine the pitch for this movie, if you will)—says, “Life is about finding out.” I agree, and so is marriage. My mashed potato thing was a mystery to my husband. I was mystified about his obsession with the flu.

When my husband doesn’t feel well, his self-diagnosis is always the flu. It’s not really the flu. In fact, most of the time, it’s not even true flu symptoms. He has an immune system of steel. He’s never had the flu so long as I’ve known him. I’ve had the flu, three of our four foster kids have had the flu—but never him. 

His “flu” requires the treatment of Theraflu. Early in our marriage, I came to believe Theraflu was his solution for everything, similar to the way the father insisted Windex was the fix for everything in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  I learned that when he says he needs Theraflu he does not really mean the actual brand “Theraflu” or even a generic equivalent. He means any medicine that treats or suppresses his symptoms.

I will never understand his “flu thing” but I came to accept how he approaches illness. He, in turn, came to understand the medicinal powers mashed potatoes hold for me. Now when I start recovering from a headache or other illness, he’ll make and serve me mashed potatoes. It’s just the sweetest thing … and so appreciated. And I will grab him whatever actual medicine is needed for his “flu” symptoms.

The only difference between my basic mashed potato recipe and garlic smashed potatoes is mincing up some garlic and mixing it in. And I’ll let you in on a secret: I only use garden-fresh potatoes on special occasions or on a rare whim. Most of the time I use Idahoan brand dehydrated potatoes, bought in the bulk size. I’ve tried different brands, and this one is my favorite. It’s only slightly different in flavor and consistency than garden-fresh potatoes, and it’s super easy for my husband to make me mashed potatoes: I call that a win-win.

We’re on the road today, returning from a weekend in Florida, where we were visiting family on a last-minute whim. I needed to make mashed potatoes for this post and had planned to ask my Mom about it when we arrived. But when I got there, she had some potatoes out because she had planned to make some. Ta da! Mom, a niece, and I made a batch using Russets. Three generations of mashed potato makers talking smashed potatoes. Mom uses Russets. Niece adds in a little mayo like her momma. I prefer golden potatoes and real cream and butter.

You can vary ingredients for fun and to meet nutritional requirements. Feeling adventurous? Try a purple potato! Need to lower fat or cholesterol?  Substitute butter with a margarine or oil and replace half & half with anything from whole to skim milk—even reconstituted dry nonfat milk works. Don’t eat dairy? Use plain (not vanilla) soy milk or just use water. If you need to lower sodium use a salt substitute or omit it. You can flavor with chives or other herbs instead. 

Did you know that Native Americans viewed food as medicine? The cliche “you are what you eat” takes on new meaning when you think of food that way. Moreover, it’s true that the food we put into our body impacts our health, both short and long term. Do you have a food that has medicinal powers for you? Share in the comments!

“Nothing like mashed potatoes when you’re feeling blue. Nothing like getting into bed with a bowl of hot mashed potatoes already loaded with butter, and methodically adding a thin, cold slice of butter to every forkful.”

Nora Ephron

Ingredients

6 medium potatoes (my favorite choice is Yukon gold or similar yellow potato)

1/2 tsp coarse ground sea salt

1/4  ground black pepper 

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

3 TBSP butter

1 oz (about 2 TBSP) half and half

Prep time:  1 hour

Yields: 6 servings

Directions

Scrub potatoes until clean. Remove any eyes or brown spots. Chop into 2- to 3-inch chunks. Place in stock pot and cover with water to about an inch or so above the potatoes. Bring to boil and cook until all potatoes are soft to touch.

TIP: Use a fork to test larger pieces, which take longer to cook through. Fork should easily enter the potato, and it should not break apart in hard edged chunks.

Drain cooked potatoes in colander and place into large mixing bowl. Add salt, pepper, garlic, butter and half & half. Blend on medium, occasionally scraping sides until potatoes attain a slightly whipped consistency. Serve or refrigerate. 

Garlic smashed potatoes at a glance.
Making garlic smashed potatoes at a glance.

Serving Suggestions

Serve as a side with a meatloaf or other meat dish. Use as a base for a meal bowl (chicken, corn, beans, peas, herbs, bacon, chives, sour cream, broccoli, cheese, etc.)  Use as a topping for shepherd’s pie or other casserole dishes.  

Hot Italian Chili

Hot Italian Chili packs protein and nutrients with meat, beans, tomatoes, and corn.
Hot Italian Chili packs protein and nutrients with meat, beans, tomatoes and corn.

When it’s chilly, nothing warms you up like chili. Except maybe spicy food. Why not both? Hot Italian chili features hot Italian sausage to spice things up, a mix of beans to deliver some daily fiber and extra protein, tomatoes to deliver vitamin C along with a few other nutritional goodies and spices to dial up deliciousness. 

Don’t like it so hot? Totally cool to use mild sausage. If I can’t find hot I buy mild and add red pepper flakes. And if I’m serving guests who don’t like hot food, I put the pepper flakes on the side for my heat-loving guests and a container with some kind of ghost pepper in it for my can’t-get-enough-heat husband. 

This past weekend we had guests who invited me to “bring the heat” in every meal. It was a glorious weekend of spicy dishes like chocolate enchiladas, Thai curry, even a new lentil recipe trial. This chili kicked off the weekend, and it was so easy to keep warm as travelers wove their way here, served with only a side of Italian bread and dipping oil and a few brews for the willing. That’s the thing about chilis …. their flexibilty, flavor and transportability make them practical magic: meals hold until guests arrive, keep through a day of game-watching, and haul easily to a potluck.

While dating, my dear heat-loving Paul and I often made meals together. Less frequently, one of us would prepare and serve a meal. One dreary winter day he served some chili that left me breathless and choking on the first bite. For a few scary moments, I was not sure I was going to get my breath back! That chili became infamous as “death grip” chili and set a heat boundary for our food. Comfort, of a sort, became king. 

And if comfort was king, convenience was his queen. If you follow my blog, you know I like to buy things in bulk. It makes money go further, which is great, but also … I’m more likely to have something on hand when the spirit moves me to cook something. Sooo convenient! And that’s really just a nice way to say I buy in bulk because I’m a lazy shopper.

I commonly buy Italian sausage in bulk and freeze a portion. I once found myself with an expiring package I had meant to use in a huge batch of Italian red sauce I had not only neglected to make when planned but also had no time to make before the meat went bad. I also had some black beans on hand. It was chili season, fall temperatures were dipping and I hadn’t made a new kind of chili in a while…. Hot Italian Chili was born.

Variations on this recipe are possible. Use different colors of corn or peppers. Try different mixes of beans. If you don’t eat pork, try substituting chicken sausage, turkey sausage, or even some game meat, like venison. Vegetarian? Use a plant-based Italian sausage (which I’ve tried and it’s passable). If you go with a plant-based protein, I’d recommend adding a little olive oil for fat content. Whatever protein substitute you choose, a little ground fennel or even a few whole or crushed seeds will add a little more Italian sausage flavor to the mix. To lower sodium content, eliminate salt and use low sodium versions of the ingredients. 

“Most people don’t realize this, but every taste is related to a memory or an emotion. Flavors are part of a person’s past, and are the translation of emotion into another language.” 

Saygın Ersin

Ingredients

1  to 1 1/2 lb Hot Italian sausage (or use a meat substitute, may substitute mild sausage as well)

1 C / 8 oz. cooked black beans (drained) 

1 C / 8 oz. cooked pinto beans (drained)

1 C / 8 oz. cooked cannelloni beans (drained)

1 C white corn kernels, drained (yellow also ok, or a mix of the two) 

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 small white or yellow onion, chopped (about 1/2 C)

1/4 C red bell pepper, chopped

1/4 C orange bell pepper, chopped

1 tsp Italian seasoning

1 tsp coarse ground salt

1 tsp ground pepper

2 TBSP chili powder

1 TBSP paprika

1 TBSP sweet basil, dried or chopped

1 TBSP red pepper flakes (adjust to taste)

1 TBSP brown sugar (dark or light)

16 oz tomato sauce 

16 oz diced tomato (fresh or can)

8 oz tomato paste

8 oz water  

Shredded mozzarella or Parmesan cheese

Prep time: about 25 minutes not including cook time

Yields:  about 8 or 9 cups

Cook sausage in pan on medium heat, drain, and place in large crockpot. Add all other ingredients except cheese to crockpot and stir. Best cooked on low setting but will tolerate faster cooking on high. Can also be cooked on stovetop: heat on medium then reduce to a low simmer, stirring occasionally.  

Making Hot Italian Chili at a glance.
Making Hot Italian Chili at a glance.

Serving Suggestions

Serve warm with desired toppings. Shredded mozzarella and fresh diced tomato or onion work well. For heat-loving friends add a side of pepper slices or hot sauces. Combines well with a salad and bread.

Ghostly Chili

Ghostly chili is ghoulishly good.

Ghostly Chili

A chill wind crisps the fall air at sunset. Darkness falls. Floors creak. A slow cooker heats up a heap of chili. Stomachs growl like chains dragging across a floor. A ghostly good aroma haunts your house.

Kids don’t seem themselves. The neighborhood is oddly lit and strangely active. Someone knocks upon your door….  It’s Halloween, the witching hour. Will it be trick or will it be treat? Give them something good to eat!

No tricks—if you’re serving this chicken-based chili on Halloween, it’ll be a treat. Ghostly chili works especially well around this holiday, but it is filling and delicious throughout fall and winter. A trio of beans delivers great daily fiber. 

Years ago I was looking for Halloween party food ideas and ran across a chicken chili recipe in a Southern Living magazine. That version, by Harriet Carroll of Dallas, Texas, was the inspiration for my ghostly chili, so named for the ghostly white ingredients that go into it.

Back then my Florida neighborhood was filled with children and families trick or treating, and I created a hauntingly good destination for trick or treaters, with props, lights, sounds, and—always—I handed out treats in costume.

One year ghosts haunted our home and a witch answered the front door. Another time a mad scientist emerged while strange noises emanated behind an imposing curtain. Yet another a foggy graveyard was a gauntlet for getting your treat from a vampire. Our “spooky house” was on the must-visit list. It was so much fun!

My Tennessee neighborhood is very quiet, with nary a trick or treater. Perhaps that’s because barely a mile from our neighborhood and just down from the local elementary school, a church throws a fabulous trunk or treat on Halloween.

Their event includes bouncy houses, face painting and decorated vehicle trunks decorated with tons of fabulous treats. Even hot dogs and apple cider are to be had. We attended with our foster children two years running and had a wonderful time. This year will seem strangely quiet, but the house will smell good and our stomachs will be full,  because I’m making ghostly chili.   

What’s your Halloween style? Quiet times in? Trick or treating with kids? Parties? Community event? Do you live somewhere that Halloween is not observed? Drop a line in the comments … I’d love to hear from you.

My recipe calls for pre-prepared chicken and chicken stock. Making stock fresh and chopping the chicken up adds about 45 minutes or so to prep time. To keep things easy, I usually use store bought canned chiles and frozen white corn niblets along with pre-cooked beans (sometimes I use canned beans). There is no need to defrost frozen ingredients, but if you have a lot of frozen items it will add a little to cook time.

For a vegetarian version, increase beans or add a plant-based protein, eliminate chicken and use vegetable stock . Use low or no sodium ingredients and add an Italian style salt-substitute for a lower sodium version. This chili freezes well, although I rarely do so because it does not last long at our house.

I cook on low in a crock pot for at least 4 hours before serving. You can cook on low on stove top in a dutch oven or other heavy pan for about two hours, stirring occasionally.

Prep Time:  About 30 minutes, not including cook time

Yields: About 11 cups

Ingredients

2  large chicken breasts, cooked and shredded or chopped (about 4 cups)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

2 C cooked Navy beans (drained)

2 C cooked Northern beans (drained)

2 C cooked cannelloni beans (drained)

2 C white corn kernels, drained (yellow also ok) 

9 oz chopped green chiles

1 tsp coarse ground salt

1 tsp ground pepper

1-2 tsp ground cumin, to taste

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp dried Italian seasoning

2 1/2 C chicken stock  

Directions

Shred or chop chicken and place in large slow cooker, such as a Crock Pot. 

Chop onion and mince garlic; add to pot. 

Add drained and rinsed beans into pot.

Add white corn and green chilies to pot. 

Add seasonings and chicken stock.

Stir ingredients well and cover pot. 

Best cooked on low setting but will tolerate faster cooking on high. Can also be cooked on stovetop on medium to heat then on low setting to simmer, stirring occasionally.  

Making ghostly chili at a glance.
Making ghostly chili at a glance.

Serving Suggestions

Serve warm with desired toppings. Shredded monterrey jack, sour cream, and onion work well. Combines well with a salad and bread.