spaghetti squash

Baked Spaghetti Squash Casserole

I wish I could come up with something more unique to call this dish but I seriously lack the creative juices. It may surprise some of my closer friends and family that despite my penchant for writing, I really struggle with creativity. I think that’s why I like to edit other people’s work more than anything. My writing here is about staying in touch with far-flung friends and family, and making connections with like-minded strangers who enjoy sharing information across this vast space we call the internet. Ask me to get creative and I just sit here writing and re-writing, banging my head for thoughts that just won’t come. So today I just push on and write and hope that my plain title doesn’t undersell this amazing meal.

This is something we (Don) concocted but it was inspired by a friend (thanks Diane!) who used spaghetti squash last month in a way we hadn’t imagined. This post isn’t going to play out like much of a recipe in the full sense of the word. This is more about the fundamental structure of the dish and the process. It is highly adaptable to your own blend of flavors, tastes, time available to cook, etc.

First, let’s talk about cooking spaghetti squash. When we first discovered spaghetti squash two years ago, we cooked it in the microwave. This is an option, and it’s the quicker option if you are pressed for time. One of the drawbacks we encountered with microwaving was that the squash was always very wet. We would strain it to try to remove as much water as we could before serving, but often our dishes were still runny. So one day, we tried roasting it instead. A vast improvement. But we still always strained the squash after scraping out the strands with a fork or tongs. Now, we’ve adapted our roasting process so that it comes out just right. We slice our squash in half, remove the seeds, brush with olive oil, and roast it flesh side down for 20-30 minutes at 375 degrees. After about 20 minutes, I check the squash by pressing on the outer skin with a finger. When it gives a little, feels slightly soft to the touch, we flip the squash over and continue roasting it for another 15-25 minutes. This helps dry out the excess moisture and gives the flesh a toasted look and flavor. The timing all depends on the size of your squash. The larger they are, the longer they tend to take. The one in the photos below took about 50 minutes total.

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Most people use a fork to remove the strands but I find that tongs work just as well.

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As you can see, we are still a little gun-shy about making sure our squash isn’t runny. We always still place it in a colander first, but in this case, that bowl underneath wasn’t wet in the slightest.

While the squash was cooking, Don put together a blend of fresh vegetables and spices. I decided late in the game that I should be taking pictures and getting it all down, so I don’t know what all is in that bowl. I can guess at a few things: onion, cherry tomato, garlic, mushrooms, bell pepper, jalapenos…maybe a few other things. This is where you can modify based on your taste. Use vegetables you like or have on hand.

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We also browned two kinds of sausage…

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…and prepared our casserole dish by rubbing it with coconut oil. We also pulled out a jar of our own blend of tomato sauce with meat, previously canned.

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I began to see Don’s plan taking shape now.

Once the squash was done roasting, we combined it all in a large bowl and mixed it together well.

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As if this wasn’t already delicious looking enough, we then added fresh mozzarella.

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We baked it for 30 minutes at 350 degrees to bring it all together.

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Beautiful.

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So, to sum up. You can make a delectable lasagna like dish with spaghetti squash, a few veggies, some meat (for meat lovers), and your sauce of choice, whether fresh from home or store-bought. Just brown your meat, roast your squash, dice your veggies, mix it all together, and bake! Easy. Peasy. Maybe a little time-consuming, 60-90 minutes, but totally worth it.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
~ Michael Pollan

Mushroom gravy smothered pork, spaghetti squash, and butternut mash

Well, the saga of the oven continues. We had hoped to buy and install a new one in the last two days. The buying part happened yesterday at least. To our surprise, the local Home Depot doesn’t keep any appliances in stock. So there was no option of bringing a stove home same day. *sigh* I was a little perturbed at first hearing from Don via text that the stove would be delivered next Wednesday. But once we had a chance to talk and he explained, I couldn’t fault him for something that was out of his control. I do bang my head when he tells me that it could have been delivered Monday but because he’s working Monday he turned down that delivery day – to say nothing of the fact that I have the entire next week off for the holiday and I could have accepted the delivery on Monday. *sigh* How Don managed to not know that I have next week off is beyond me. I’ve mentioned it and/or referred to it repeatedly in recent weeks, it’s posted on two calendars in the house – which clearly are only for my benefit – and my holiday schedule is the same as it was last year. *sigh* Moving on…

In consolation for not keeping products in stock, Home Depot offers free delivery and free removal of the old unit so that’s something to appreciate. It will be nice to not have to manhandle the two stoves up and down our stairway ourselves.

So, if all goes well, we will have our new stove/oven just in time for Thanksgiving. Cross your fingers for me.

Last night’s dinner was an exercise in experimentation and although, as Don put it last night, it doesn’t make for a very “pretty” plate, it was damn good. We made ground pork, smothered in mushroom gravy, which we served over spaghetti squash, and mashed butternut squash on the side. I know, sounds kind of weird, right? But sometimes you just gotta take a chance and see what happens. We if hadn’t, we would have missed out on an awesome meal.

Smothered pork chops served over rice is an old favorite from our pre-paleo/primal days. Since rice is no longer a staple for us we were in search of options. We had a spaghetti squash waiting to be used for something so Don thought we’d give that a try. We didn’t have any pork chops available but we have tons of hog meat ready for grinding for sausage, etc. So we defrosted one of our 1 lb packages and ground it right into the pan.

After browning the meat a little, Don added onion, green onion, some spicy red peppers from our garden, and a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup, probably some salt, pepper, and garlic too. What meal would be complete without those few essentials? This simmered for over an hour while we did some projects around the house. We could have cooked it for less time but it’s a convenient dish that can be left to simmer for long periods at a low temp while you handle other things that might be demanding your attention.

Eventually, because we had to eat sometime, I tackled the two squash. The spaghetti squash I cooked the usual way; see this post for our method. The butternut squash has been sitting around waiting for a recipe I want to try – that requires an oven! grrr. We decided it was time to find another use for it; we were not sure what its shelf life was. We were curious whether it would make a good mash, and whether we could steam it for mashing. From a quick scan on Google, it looked to me like most people prefer to roast it or make soups from it. Even the recipes I found for mashing it called for roasting it first. But I found one recipe that referred to steaming it so we decided that was enough confirmation to give it a try.

I cut up the squash…

and placed it in a pan with about an inch of water. I brought it to boil and turned it down to medium and steamed it for about 20 minutes (until the squash was soft.) I had a bit of a scare because my water boiled off and my squash started to burn to the pan, but I saved it pretty quickly. I was multi-tasking a bit more than I should have been when doing something new. But, no harm. It still turned out great. At that point I drained the squash and added butter, salt, and pepper. The squash was so soft I only used a fork to break it down and a mix it all together. It reminds me of sweet potatoes. It’s good. Our squash was about 1 lb and we ate the whole thing.

All in all, the meal was a resounding success given all the experimentation. I was not confident that the meat and gravy was going to work with spaghetti squash but I need not have feared. It might sound weird but it sure tasted dandy.

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Unconventional Chicken Parmesan

This was inspired by a friend who made it in a slightly different way about a week ago. When an opportunity came this week for me to make dinner, I wanted to give it a try. It was so delicious I wanted to eat it all! I managed to restrain myself and left enough for Don and for one portion of leftovers – that Don got to take to work. I may have to make it again soon so I can have more. 🙂

Here’s what I used:

3 chicken thighs
salt
pepper
1 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 sweet onion
1/2 jar Emeril’s Roasted Red Pepper Spaghetti Sauce (gluten-free and made with natural ingredients)
1 medium-sized spaghetti squash
parmesan cheese
mozzarella cheese

My Method

I rubbed the chicken thighs with a little salt and pepper and then placed in about an inch of water in our wok. (We tend to cook just about everything in our wok which might seem weird to some but, hey, it works.)  I turned the burner to medium and placed the lid on the wok. I cooked the chicken this way for about ten minutes, then turned it over and let it cook for another ten minutes or so. The chicken turns white and the water boils but does not cook off because the lid keeps it trapped in the pan. It sort of boils and steams the chicken. This allows it to be extremely tender and juicy.

While the chicken cooked, I also preheated the oven to 450 for baking later.

Once I felt comfortable that the chicken was thoroughly cooked, I removed the lid and added the tbsp of garlic and the diced onion to the water. I moved the onions to the center of the pan and surrounded them with the chicken. I let it all continue to cook this way as the water cooked off and the onions cooked down to be soft and translucent. This took about five minutes, maybe a little longer. While I waited, I poured the spaghetti sauce into a 8 x 8 square baking dish. When I was ready to add the onions and chicken to the dish, I removed the chicken and set it aside so I could pour the onion and garlic mixture into the pan and mixed well with the sauce. Then I added the chicken to the pan and covered the thighs with the sauce. Lastly, I topped it all with a generous sprinkling of shredded parmesan cheese, then a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese on top of that. I placed the pan in the oven and baked for 15 minutes (until the cheese was browning and the sauce was bubbly.)

As the dish baked, I cooked my spaghetti squash and prepared my “noodles.” This was the first squash I cooked personally and I am glad to report I did just fine. (I’m always a little nervous the first time I do anything.) For details on how to cook a spaghetti squash see this previous post.

Not your traditional breaded chicken parmesan but a delicious alternative in my opinion. I topped my plate with a little more shredded parmesan and gobbled it up.

Once you’re sensitized to the negative effects of unhealthy choices, it gets easier to turn down what used to seem impossible to resist. 
~ Mark Sisson, The Primal Blueprint

Chicken Casserole with a Paleo Pumpkin Twist

I keep meaning to write a post that is not food related (just to mix things up) but events keep conspiring against me. Last night I arrived home to find that Don was still not home from hunting for the past two days. I had not planned ahead for dinner, foolishly thinking he would be home and he would be handling that. I don’t know what I was thinking. He would have missed a good portion of the day if he had come home that early. So, dinner was on me. And nothing was defrosted. And most of our vegetables were with him. So what was I to do?

Well, I saw this recipe yesterday so I went to the computer and pulled it up again and, as luck would have it, I had everything to make the meal – except a head of cauliflower. The chicken was still frozen so I pulled it out to defrost, took a quick 25 min spin on the stationary bike, then made a quick trip up to the closest grocery store and grabbed a cauliflower. All in all, not a huge delay on getting started and in the end it worked out fine because the casserole came out of the oven just as Don was finished unloading the trailer and coming inside.

It was good. Not mind-blowing. A little light on the flavor for our taste. After I added a little cayenne to my plate and mixed it in, it was better. I had added some red pepper flakes to the cauliflower as I roasted it, thinking that would add a little kick, but I was not sure how it would blend with the pumpkin flavor so I didn’t use much and the flavor really didn’t come through. Other than that, I kept pretty strict to the recipe posted on paleOMG. If Don had been home earlier I would have consulted him on flavor of the sauce and asked him what else we could do to spice it up. Since I was on my own I played it safe. I didn’t want to ruin 1.5 lbs of chicken and waste all the other ingredients.

If you’d like to give this dish a try, here’s what you’ll need. I’m certain you’ll enjoy it, especially if you have stronger culinary instincts than me and can add spices “to flavor” better than me. 🙂

Ingredients (as I used them):

  • 1.5 lbs chicken, cut into bite size pieces
  • spaghetti squash (I used leftovers)
  • 1 head of cauliflower
  • 15 oz pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 can canned coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 3/4 sweet onion
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil

Preheat your oven to 425 for roasting the cauliflower. Cut your cauliflower into bite size pieces and drizzle some olive oil on it. Add salt and pepper to taste. (I added some red pepper flakes as an afterthought.)

Place in oven and roast for 25 minutes. I stirred the cauliflower around to help it roast evenly about two or three times.

While the cauliflower does it’s thing, if you need to cook your squash, stab it six or eight times with a knife and place it in the microwave for 6 minutes. Then turn/flip it, and nuke it again for another 6 minutes. You can tell that it’s done if you touch the side and it gives a little. Once cooked, take it out and let it cool enough to touch. Then cut open and remove the squash. For more details and pics, see my recent post for spaghetti squash. I was able to skip this step because I had leftover squash from making spaghetti during the weekend. It was a great way to use up the rest after having eaten spaghetti for four meals in the previous three days.

While your veggies are cooking, chop up your onion and sautee it with a little olive oil and garlic.

Once the onions are nice and tender, add your chicken.

Place a lid over the pan and steam the chicken and onions for about 5 minutes or until the chicken looks mostly cooked through. I let mine go for about 8 minutes. I didn’t want the chicken to be undercooked and the subsequent steps didn’t seem like there would be much more cooking to me.

Next, add the coconut milk, pumpkin, and spices.

Mix together well. I let the sauce simmer for maybe ten minutes to blend the flavors and to give the chicken more chance to cook. It was about this time that Don rolled up in the trailer so I was also stretching out the last few steps so that the dish would not be ready to eat too soon.

In the meantime, the cauliflower had finished roasting so I took it out and let it sit while I reheated my leftover squash.

Next, place the cauliflower into a casserole dish and layer the squash over it.

When you’re satisfied with your chicken and sauce mix, pour it over the top.

Then broil for about 5 minutes. Again, I let mine go for about 7 because I was stretching things.

Take the dish out and let it sit for at least 10 minutes to cool and to let the sauce thicken.

At last, dish up and enjoy!

Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat. 
~ Fran Lebowitz

Spaghetti Squash – My New Love

I had read about spaghetti squash but I never would have believed it without seeing with my own eyes and tasting it myself.

IT IS AMAZING!

I’m not kidding. Close my eyes and it tastes just like pasta – without all the carbs! (And believe me, I don’t need to close my eyes, there’s nothing to shy away from.)

Look at it!

Looks just like pasta doesn’t it?

Let me show you how we got there…

Here’s a spaghetti squash.

Pretty plain-looking.

How do you cook it?

Well, Don did some checking via youtube videos and he liked the option of stabbing it like a potato and cooking in the microwave for about 12 minutes (give or take a little more if your squash is really big.) There are other options of course but this is what we’ve done twice now and both times it came out great and felt like it was easy as could be to make.

Because the squash is so big, use a knife to stab large slits similar to using a fork on a potato. Dons says, about six to eight holes should do. Make sure to go deep but not all the way through to the other side. Place it in the microwave and zap it for 6 minutes. Then rotate the squash (flip it over) and let it go for another 6 minutes.

Take it out and let it sit for a few minutes so it’s not too hot to touch.

Then cut that baby open.

Next, simply remove the seeds.

Then, scrape out or remove the spaghetti strands. Tongs work great in Don’s opinion.

If your squash is especially watery, you might try putting the “pasta” in a colander and let it drain just like noodles. We didn’t need to do this on our first squash but the second one could have used some drainage. We were just so hungry that day we didn’t care. 🙂

Finally, add your pasta sauce and meat, cheese if desired, and let the noms begin.

When digested, all carbs are sugars.  So, think of eating carbs as eating sugar.  
~ Dennis E. Bradford