*Super Bowl Week* Puff Pastry Mini Pizzas

Okay, so far in Super Bowl week we’ve paid tribute to Mexico with the taco crescents and good ol’ America with the bacon cheeseburger sliders, so I think it’s time to tip the hat to the flavors of my favorite country, Italy!

The classic combinations of tomato, basil, and mozzarella in these little beauties are definitely reminiscent of Italy, but I did put my own spin on it by using puff pastry and Kielbasa sausage! If you wanted to be more true to Italy in your meat choice, salami is extremely popular there!

Finished Text

Start off with two sheets of puff pastry (one package) and let them thaw out on the counter. (About 30-40 minutes.) Once they’re nearly thawed, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a frying pan over medium-low heat, saute 1 diced green pepper and 1/2 package of kielbasa cut into small pieces, tossing occasionally, for about 3 minutes or until the sausage has started to brown. Set aside.

Take the thawed pastry sheets and cut each one into 9 equal squares. (18 total.) Lay them out on your prepared baking sheets, and then score a crust around the edge of each square.

Score

Doing your best to stay inside the scored square, spread about 1 tsp or so of tomato sauce onto the dough and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, basil, and garlic powder. (If you like things on the spicy side, add a touch of cayenne, too!)

Sauce

On top of the sauce, add about 1 tsp each of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Carefully add your sausage and pepper on top of the cheese, evenly distributing to all 18 pizzas.

Sausage

Once they are all assembled, bake for 12-15 minutes or until the pastry has puffed up and is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a minute or two and then serve!

Finished 2

These are absolutely delicious and packed with flavor, and the lightness of the puff pastry means they aren’t too heavy to go with anything else you might be serving!

Finished 3

The best part is that these are super flexible – you can top them with whatever you like! No matter what your culinary taste is, I’m sure there’s a million different ways you could make these to suit you!

Full Recipe:

Puff Pastry Mini Pizzas

Yield: 18 pizzas

Ingredients:

2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
1/2 (14oz) package of kielbasa, cut into small pieces
1 green pepper, diced
1/3 cup tomato sauce
Salt, pepper, basil, garlic powder, cayenne – all to taste.
1/3 cup mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese

Process:

1) Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

2) In a frying pan over medium-low heat, saute diced peppers and sausage for about 3 minutes or until sausage has begun to brown. Remove from heat and set aside.

3) Cut each sheet of puff pastry into 9 equal squares (18 total) and lay them on the baking sheets. Score a crust along the edges of each square.

4) Staying within the scored square, spread 1 tsp of tomato sauce onto each square and then sprinkle seasonings on to taste.

5) On top of the sauce, add mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, about 1 tsp of each cheese per square.

6) Carefully add the sausage and peppers to the top of each pizza, distributing it evenly to all 18 pizzas.

7) Bake for 12-15 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Remove from oven, allow to cool for 1-2 minutes, and then serve immediately.

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Tuscan Pasta with Sausage in Lemon Blush Sauce

This one’s gonna be good – we’re traveling to Italy for this one! 🙂

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had the pleasure of going to Italy and exploring the various culinary tastes the country has to offer. Tuscany is probably my favorite region of Italy… Rome is great and all, especially for history buffs, but it’s housed in the central coastal territory of Lazio. Tuscany is just above Lazio, also on the coast, but contains gorgeous scenery and fabulous cities like Lucca, Pisa, and my favorite, Florence. (Known to the Italians as Firenze. Also, Tuscany in Italian is referred to as Toscana.)

If you’ll allow me to nerd out for just a moment, here’s a couple photos from Florence that may help to illustrate why I love it so much: (More photos at the bottom from Lucca and Pisa.)

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Both photos were taken along the famous Arno river. And if the beautiful scenery isn’t enough to convince you, just know that Florence is known for farming… especially cattle. Which means fabulous leather goods for a fraction of what you’d pay in the States, and: the best. steak. ever. No joke.

Once you get finished booking your flight to Italy, though, I’ll show you how to create a dish (albeit it not steak) that just oozes Toscana with every bite.

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Blush sauce is this fabulous blend between a cream sauce and a red tomato-based (pomodoro) sauce. I kicked up the pasta a little by adding smoked sausage, but this would also be great meat-less, as well!

Finished 1

The prep photos I show are for my lowly serving for one person, but I’ve adjusted the recipe for this blog post to feed four to six people. So, when your pans look fuller than mine, don’t panic!

Cook your pasta according to the directions on the package. I used Farfalle (bow-tie) pasta but you could do any bite-size pasta. Penne would also be great! A one pound box of pasta is typically enough for 4-6 servings.

While you’re waiting for your water to boil, do some prep work. Dice 1/4 of a large onion (or 1/2 of a small one), mince 3 cloves of garlic, take a cup of cherry tomatoes and cut each one in half lengthwise, and cut one package of smoked sausage (usually 14 oz) into 1/2 inch pieces. (I really like kielbasa, but any smoked sausage would do!)

Once you add your pasta to the boiling water, add your sausage to a large frying pan coated in olive oil over medium high heat. As long as you’re using smoked sausage, you only need to brown it. If you’re using a raw sausage (such as chorizo) then you should cook the links first, then cut them, and then combine them with the rest of the ingredients.

Once the sausage has browned (only a couple of minutes), add the diced onion and 1 cup of frozen peas. Toss this to combine, then reduce heat to low and cover.

Sausage onion peas

Let that simmer for 4-5 minutes, then add your minced garlic. Toss to combine, let cook for an additional minute, and then remove everything from the pan into your serving dish (temporarily).

Return the pan to your burner on low heat and add 1 & 1/2 cup tomato sauce and 4 ounces of cream cheese. (Half an 8oz block.)

Sauce 1

Stir this gently for a minute or two until the cream cheese has melted and is incorporated into the sauce. Add in about 3/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese and melt this in as well, along with the juice of 1 lemon, salt, pepper, and basil, then remove it from the heat and add in your halved cherry tomatoes. (To make it extra lemony, add in the zest from the lemon as well!)

Add tomatoes

Once you’ve drained your pasta, add it to the serving dish on top of the sausage and pour the sauce on top. Stir it to combine everything, and serve topped with fresh grated Parmesan.

Finished 3

Full Recipe: (Extra Italy photos are below the recipe.)

Tuscan Style Pasta in Blush Sauce

Yield: About 4 servings

Ingredients:

One box uncooked bite-size pasta (like Farfalle or Penne)
4 quarts water

1 tbsp olive oil
1 package smoked sausage, like kielbasa, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 large red onion, diced
1 cup frozen peas
3 cloves garlic, minced

1 & 1/2 cups tomato sauce
4 ounces cream cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
Juice of 1 lemon (zest optional)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp basil

Process:

1) Cook pasta according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, proceed with the remaining steps.

2) Coat a large frying pan in olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add sliced sausage and brown for 3-4 minutes.

3) Reduce heat on frying pan to low, then add peas and diced onion. Toss to combine. Cover and let simmer for 4-5 minutes.

4) Uncover sausage and add minced garlic. Cook for another minute, then remove everything to your serving dish.

5) Return pan to low heat and add tomato sauce and cream cheese. Stir gently until cream cheese is melted, and then add in 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese.

6) Once all of the cheese has melted, stir in lemon juice, salt, pepper, basil, and tomatoes. Remove from heat. Add sauce and drained pasta to serving dish. Stir to combine and serve immediately. Garnish with fresh grated Parmesan.

As promised, here’s a few more photos from around Tuscany…

This one is in Lucca, during the early afternoon when all the shops were closed for lunch.

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Three guesses where this one’s from! Yes, it really does “lean”! It was originally intended to be the bell tower for the cathedral, but obviously since it’s always been leaning, it never made it to that purpose!

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This is also in Pisa, looking from the tower back toward the entrance to the walled section of the city. This building is the baptistry, the first of the three iconic buildings of Pisa. (In between the tower and the baptistry is the cathedral.)

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This one is, of course, not in Tuscany, since I said earlier that Rome is located in Lazio, but I couldn’t resist adding this super romantic night time Colosseum photo!

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Pasta Carbonara with Baby Spinach & Kielbasa

If you’re anything like me, and most of the rest of America, it’s pretty hard to resist a hearty pasta dish. There’s a little drop of Italian in us all, even if it’s just in our hearts and not in our actual heritage, and the idea of a good plate of pasta is almost as appetizing as chocolate. At least to me.

I have been blessed enough to be able to travel to Italy and learn some of their culinary secrets, and while there I was able to perfect one of the most classic Italian pasta staples there is: Pasta Carbonara. It’s a delicious Alfredo-type pasta, but it doesn’t actually use Alfredo sauce. In fact, the most notable thing about Carbonara is there is no milk or cream in the sauce at all – it’s made with eggs, and accented with bacon, onion, and garlic.

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The first great thing about Pasta Carbonara is that it’s really fairly simple once you know what you’re doing and it’s quick to toss it together if you have a night where you just didn’t have time to prepare properly for dinner. (It also sounds and tastes fancy but is easy to cook for a large number of people, if you have some last minute unexpected dinner guests!) The second really great thing about Carbonara, though, is that it’s like a blank canvas just waiting to be added to. It’s great in its traditional form, but you can add almost anything to it and make it taste amazing. This is one of my favorite versions, and I’ve never had a single complaint from anyone I’ve made it for.

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There’s a lot of steps to this one, but they are all very basic and simple, so try not to feel overwhelmed! The recipe I’m giving is for just one serving, but it is very easy to double/triple/whatever based on how many people you are feeding! I give it in the one-serving format because it’s a fantastic meal to cook when you’re by yourself and have had take-out one too many times that week!

Start off by getting 4 cups of water in a saucepan and 1 cup of water in a frying pan. Add a couple teaspoons of salt to each, then put them both on high heat to bring them to a boil. (Tip: use hot water from the sink instead of cold. It boils a lot faster!)

While the water is heating up, roughly chop a small handful of baby spinach. It should end up being about 3/4 of a cup.

Baby Spinach 1       Baby Spinach 2

The water in the frying pan will boil first; once it starts boiling, add the spinach to the pan. You only need to make it slightly tender, so after it’s been in the water for a minute or two, immediately drain it in the sink.

Spinach in Pan       Spinach drained

Go ahead and leave the spinach in the colander – you can drain the pasta right overtop of it later. Put the frying pan back on the stove and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to it, then go back to the cutting board for more prep work.

You’ll need to dice 1/4 of a medium sized onion and mince 1 clove of garlic.

Onion and garlic

A few MAKE OR BREAK TIPS to make life easier…

To dice the onion, cut it first this way, avoiding cutting all the way to the hairy end (about 1/2 inch between each cut):

Onion Cut 1

… And then this way, again about 1/2 between each cut:

Onion Cut 2

Cutting it this way helps keep the onion in place and ensures all your pieces are the same size, which is essential in cooking!

Garlic is very sticky and hard to peel. It makes life so much simpler if you smash the clove under your knife:

Smash Garlic

This breaks the protective skin away from the sticky clove so that you can easily peel it off. Mince the garlic by finely chopping it with your knife and then set it aside with the onion.

Finished garlic & onion

Switch to a plastic or metal cutting board from here on out, because now you’ll be working with meats. It’s important to never cut meat on a wooden cutting surface, because the wood can absorb the bacteria in the raw meat.

Chop the kielbasa first. It’s technically not raw, as it’s a smoked sausage. It typically comes in a long, folded up link that looks like this:

Kielbasa

You won’t need nearly that much, of course, so just take a few inches off the end, maybe 3-4 inches.

Small Kielbasa

Cut it longways first, to cut it in half, and then chop it into 1/2 inch (or so) pieces:

Chop Kielbasa 1       Chop Kielbasa 2

For those interested, the knife I’m using is by Paula Deen and it’s probably my favorite knife in my kitchen. I strongly recommend investing in a good set of kitchen knives. I got mine from Walmart.

MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Before you start on the bacon, put some heat under your frying pan with the oil in it (a medium-high heat level should do it). You never want to put food into a cold pan! Especially when you’re cooking with oil, you always want to heat the oil first before adding the food to it.

Roughly chop 2 strips of bacon, about 1 inch wide.

Raw Bacon

NOTE: True Italian Carbonara would use Pancetta, which is a type of Italian bacon-like pork product, but since the point of this blog is to show you simple and easy ways to cook, I’ve used bacon, which is found in far more American homes! (We always have at least a pound in the fridge; it’s a staple here!) It’s a perfectly fine substitute for Pancetta, but if you’re ever feeling adventurous, pre-packaged diced Pancetta can be found at most grocery stores, especially specialty chains like Wegmans.

Add the bacon to your heated frying pan. At this point the water in your saucepan should have started boiling, so add your pasta and cook according to the directions on the package. I like to use bite-sized pasta when I make Carbonara. A heavy cup of any bite-size pasta is enough for one serving. (I used Rotelle, which cooks to al dente in about 8 minutes.)

Rotelle

MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Always cook your pasta according to the “al dente” time listed on the package if you’re looking for authentic Italian pasta. “Al dente” (or “firm to the bite”) is the appropriate level of done-ness for the pasta to hold to whatever sauce you’re putting on it and not get mushy. There’s nothing worse than over-done pasta!

Using the same glass measuring cup you had the dry pasta in (my ever favorite, handy dandy Pyrex cup!), whisk together 1 egg, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper, 1/2 tsp basil, and 1/4 cup fresh Parmesan cheese. The spice measurements are guesses, as I always just eye-ball it… it’s usually a couple of turns on the salt and pepper grinders and a few shakes of the basil container. (If you grow your own spices, 2-3 leaves of fresh basil in a chiffonade cut should do the trick!)

MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Yes, it really is just salt, pepper, basil, and Parmesan! The trick to really tasty food is to not over-season it. A few flavors should be able to work together well enough to blend into a really spectacular dish. Plus, there is a TON of flavor added by the bacon, garlic, and onion! “But it’s less than a half cup of sauce!” I bet you’re thinking. “How could that possibly be enough?” Pasta is meant to be just that: pasta. Not soup. The true Italian way is to never drown your pasta in sauce, but to lightly coat each individual piece of pasta. If it looks like your pasta is wallowing in a swamp, it’s probably too much sauce.

Egg Mixture       Spices

Once the bacon looks about like you could pull the pieces out of the pan and eat it (about 4-5 minutes), you can lower the heat to medium-low add your kielbasa and diced onion.

Cooked bacon       Add Kielbasa and onion

Once the onion and kielbasa have browned (another 2-3 minutes), remove the pan from the heat and add the garlic. The residual heat of the pan will cook the garlic and the lack of a continual heat source will prevent the garlic from burning. (Nothing smells or tastes worse than burnt garlic!)

Add garlic

By now your pasta should be done.

MAKE OR BREAK TIP: Just before you drain the pasta, take a couple tablespoons of the boiling water and whisk it quickly into the egg mixture. This will “temper” the egg and keep the mixture from turning to scrambled eggs as soon as it hits the hot pasta!

Once you’ve tempered the eggs, drain your pasta in the sink right overtop of the spinach that you left in the colander, and then return the pasta and spinach to the saucepan. Add the tempered egg mixture to the pasta and stir it in quickly.

Add egg mixture

Add the meat, onion, and garlic from the frying pan and stir this in, as well. Ta-da, you’re ready to serve! Despite the length of this blog post, it should really only take 15-20 minutes to create the dish from start to finish, depending on how fast your water boils!

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I promise you, as soon as you’ve tried this dish, it will quickly become a staple in your home! I make it probably at least once a week. There are so many different ways you can create this. If you want to do the classic carbonara, just make this dish without the spinach and kielbasa. Another great variation is to add 1/4 cup of dry white wine when you add the garlic to the frying pan. Let it reduce down for a couple of minutes before you remove it from the heat and it adds another delicious dimension to the dish!

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Full Recipe:

Pasta Carbonara with Baby Spinach and Kielbasa

Yield: One serving.

Ingredients:

5 cups water (4 for pasta, 1 for spinach)
2 tbsp salt (1 for pasta, 1 for spinach)
3/4 cup chopped baby spinach

1/4 medium sized onion
1 clove garlic
3-4 inches of a kielbasa link
2 tbsp olive oil
2 strips of bacon

1 heavy cup of Rotelle pasta
1 egg
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Process:

1) Put 4 cups of water in a saucepan and 1 cup of water in a frying pan. Add a tablespoon of salt to each, then put them both on high heat to bring them to a boil.

2) Roughly chop baby spinach. Add it to the water in the frying pan once it boils. Remove and drain after 1-2 minutes. Return frying pan to stove and add olive oil to the pan, but don’t turn the heat on yet.

3) Dice onion and mince garlic. Cut kielbasa link lengthwise, then chop into 1/2 inch pieces.

4) Turn the frying pan to medium high heat, then chop bacon into 1 inch pieces. Add pasta to boiling water in saucepan, and then add bacon to heated frying pan and cook until crisp and browned, stirring occasionally, about 4-5 minutes.

5) Whisk together egg, salt, pepper, basil, and fresh Parmesan cheese in glass cup. Temper this egg mixture with 2 tablespoons of boiling water from the pasta.

6) Add kielbasa and onion to pan and brown, tossing occasionally, about 2-3 minutes.

7) Remove frying pan from heat and add garlic, allowing the residual heat to cook it.

8) Once pasta has reached al dente (8 minutes for Rotelle), drain overtop of spinach and then return pasta and spinach to saucepan. Add egg mixture and stir in until cheese is melted, then stir in meat, onion, and garlic. Serve immediately.