A Masterful Dinner

Eat your heart out, Olive Garden

After a couple weeks of being sick and a couple weeks of being out of town, I’m back in action.  J just graduated from grad school, so I decided to cook him a celebratory dinner.  Since I wanted this dinner to actually be a success, I opted for pasta, which is something I can (usually) make without completely ruining it.

I had an unlikely source of inspiration for this recipe:  Olive Garden.  I’m usually not a huge proponent of the restaurant, but when my best friend suggested it for lunch one day, I agreed.  I ended up getting the Five Cheese Ziti Al Forno, which ended up being pretty delicious.  I couldn’t finish the whole meal (and never got the chance to finish my leftovers), so it was still in the back of my mind when I was looking for new pasta recipes to try.  I searched for a copycat recipe online, and decided to go with this one.  In an effort to remember what I actually did, I’m going to list how I made it, as I made a few changes and scaled it to what the site listed as 4 servings (which was more like 8 servings!).

Olive Garden Five Cheese Ziti Al Forno (adapted from Food.com)


Ziti Sauce

  • 2 2/3 cups four cheese tomato-based pasta sauce (I used Prego)
  • 1 1/3 cups creamy alfredo sauce (I used Classico)
  • 1/3 cup part skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 2 tablespoons shredded smoked provolone cheese
  • 2/3 teaspoon garlic pepper seasoning
  • 1/3 teaspoon garlic powder

Ziti Topping

  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup Italian breadcrumbs
  • 4 tablespoons shredded parmesan cheese
  • 2/3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Also needed

  • 11 ounces dry ziti pasta
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 11 x 7 baking dish
  • non-stick spray


Combine all listed ziti sauce ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring well.  You may cover and refrigerate for later use if desired.  Next, mix together all ingredients for the ziti topping; again, you may cover and refrigerate for later use.  When ready to prepare the dish, boil ziti pasta for 10 minutes.  In the meantime, spray the baking dish with non-stick spray and preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spread a little over 1/3 cup of ziti sauce into the bottom of the baking dish; you want enough to make an even thin layer of sauce.  When the ziti is finished boiling, drain pasta and add to remaining ziti sauce (I need a new bowl for this.  If you want to minimize on dishes, you might want to make the ziti sauce in a larger bowl.).  Pour pasta and sauce into the baking dish, spreading evenly.  Sprinkle 1 cup mozzarella cheese over top of the pasta, then sprinkle the ziti topping on top of mozzarella.  You may have a little bit of ziti topping left over; discard it (or eat it, I guess…whatever floats your boat).  Place dish in oven and bake until cheese and sauce is bubbling, about 27-30 minutes.  Remove and serve.

There were several things I liked about this recipe:

  1. It was easy.
  2. It was tasty.
  3. You could prepare different parts of the recipe ahead of time.
  4. It reheats well.
  5. J liked it and it didn’t upset his IBS.

This was a winner as far as pasta recipes go.  I don’t really remember if it tasted exactly like the Olive Garden one; all I know is that it was good.  The creamy sauce and the crunchy topping made the perfect combination.  I have to admit, I was a little leery of just combining pre-made pasta sauces, but it turned out really well.  The only change I would make is to make less servings!  There is no way this was only 4 servings; it fills up an entire 11 x 7 all the way to the top.  Next time I make it I’m going to try halving it and using a smaller dish.

PS- I also made caesar salad and milk chocolate pudding with whipped cream and raspberry sauce from Joy the Baker.  The recipe was delicious, but I followed it word for word, so no need to go into detail.  Plus, since I was taking pictures at 8:30 at night with a regular digital camera, the photos didn’t turn out too well.

PPS- I just realized that in leaving out the romano cheese from the original recipe (which I had, but didn’t realize had expired), this unintentionally ended up being a four cheese pasta instead of five cheese.  Unless you count the alfredo sauce, which probably has some sort of cheese in it (I hope).  AND there are four (supposed) cheeses in the pasta sauce.  So maybe it’s a nine cheese pasta dish. Call it what you will…

Vegetable Aversion

Looks gross, tastes great

It all started with an unfortunate incident involving tempeh, Trader Joe’s red curry sauce, and peppers.  “It” being my week-long-and-still-strong aversion to anything remotely healthy.  (Hint: if you like real red curry, don’t buy the Trader Joe’s kind.  Just suck it up and go to a Thai restaurant.)  Anyway, ever since then, just the thought of vegetables has made my stomach turn.  Who knows, it could be some weird side effect from all of the meds I’m currently on, because nothing has really sounded appetizing for the past few days.  I even looked through Milk and Cookies and nothing was calling out to me.  When cookies don’t tempt me, we have a problem.

So I was standing in the middle of the grocery store, trying to figure out what to have for dinner.  I didn’t want anything complicated, but I didn’t want to just eat a frozen pizza (again).  Enter this recipe for Penne with Vodka Cream Sauce.  I haven’t made it in forever because J got sick once after I made it, and I don’t like to make it when he’s around in case there’s something in there that triggers his IBS.  Since he wasn’t going to be here, I was in the clear.

It’s a simple recipe, and it’s ready in less than half an hour if you start the sauce while the pasta is boiling.  I follow the recipe exactly, except that I use shredded parmesan instead of grated.  Be warned: this looks disgusting while cooking.  When you add in the tomato sauce and cream, it will look like a huge mess of grease.  And you’ll think it will never combine.  But it will.  And it will be delicious.  AND it’s just as good reheated.  Which is important when you’re making a pound of pasta for one person.

Yes, I dropped a noodle. Shhh.

I bought a bag of spinach with every intention of having a salad with this to at least have something healthy, but…well, you see my plate at the top of the post.  Maybe tomorrow?


Hey, that’s not quinoa!

Once upon a time I decided I was going to make J like quinoa.  As in, when it’s not hiding in stuffed peppers.  Actually, it was more like once upon a time I needed to make something for dinner, I found this recipe, and it had quinoa and I thought hoped maybe J would like it.  Whatever, the point is I made quinoa tonight.  And it sucked.  The chicken found in said recipe was slightly better.

Here is a breakdown of how tonight’s dinner went:

Make rub for chicken.  Don’t have lid for big enough sauce pan for quinoa; use big pot instead.  Heat olive oil and place chicken in pan.  Put lid on top.  Freak out that steam is rolling out of pan.  Envision lid exploding off of pan, sending molten chicken all over kitchen.  Go get J to check chicken.  J says chicken is fine.  “Are they supposed to be black?”  “Yes, J, that’s why it’s called blackened chicken.  Duh.”  Flip chicken.  Get testy when J tries to help.  I’ve got this, silly man.  Notice apartment is getting smoky.  Complain to J.  J opens window so fire alarm doesn’t go off.  Quinoa isn’t cooking fast enough.  Turn up heat on burner.  Flip chicken again.  Apartment looks like we’ve been chain smoking for two hours.  Check temperature on chicken.  One piece done, one not.  Remove cooked piece of chicken.  Turn down heat on other piece of chicken.  Other piece finally done.  Quinoa complete.  Pour into bowl and add spices/herbs/juice.  Taste quinoa.  Make face like just licked a foot.  Refuse to let J try quinoa because don’t want to ruin his quinoa experience.  J insists, tastes quinoa, says “eh.”  Refuse to serve quinoa; leave it sitting in bowl in messy kitchen.  Plate chicken.  Unsuccessfully try to cut chicken with butter knife.  Taste chicken.  “Eh.”  Finish chicken.  Go back to taste quinoa to see if it’s less disgusting.  It is not.  Make foot-licking face again.  Fin.

Quinoa FAIL

Needless to say, I will not be making this dish again.  I honestly don’t think there was anything wrong with the recipe; the comments on the original article were excellent.  I just think I should be banned from cooking meat.  This, mis amigos, is why I bake.  And my quinoa tastebuds are apparently vegan, because they hated the chicken broth base (J didn’t think it was THAT bad.  I beg to differ.).  Water only, they say (or maybe almond milk?).

Cooking: 1.  Ky: 0.  I need a cookie.

Pre-fast Dinner


Tonight, I fast.  Not because I’m detoxing, or going on some crazy diet, or have actually gone crazy myself, but because I have to have bloodwork done tomorrow morning.  Which unfortunately means fasting.  J joked that he was staying away from me for the night, since he knows that I get…testy…when I don’t eat.  So, in an effort to not bite his head off (since I can’t bite into an ice cream cone), I decided to make a nice dinner to last me for the night.  Because, you know, it would be a travesty if I go too long without food.

I decided on this baked chicken parmesan because the only thing I had to buy was pasta sauce.  This was SO EASY.  I used Meijer organic tomato basil pasta sauce, and J made gnocci with butter and salt (healthy, right?) on the side.  Super easy, super good, super full.

Sneaky Quinoa

Sometimes I like to see if I can slip a healthy recipe by J and see if he notices.  Once, he told me that the spinach-chicken meatballs that I made tasted “too healthy.”  Since then, I haven’t tried another ground chicken recipe.  Until now….dun dun DUN!

I was originally planning on making another recipe from Ambitious Kitchen (the sweet potato & chicken Mexican stirfry), but I saw this one for Enchilada Chicken and Quinoa Stuffed Peppers and was sold.  Anything I can mush up and shove into the oven always wins.

I followed the recipe as stated, except for leaving out the cilantro and adding in jalapenos.  I was a little worried about not cooking the meat beforehand, but the recipe turned out really well, and the meat was fully cooked.  It was moist and flavorful, and J didn’t even notice that there was quinoa in there (bwahaha).  The enchilada sauce really helped make the dish, and as far as canned sauces go, it’s surprisingly healthy, with few ingredients (and no weird chemicals).

The verdict?  I would make it again.  It was a nice “set it and forget it” type of dish.  I think I would add hotter enchilada sauce next time (I used mild here).  And I’m curious to see how it holds up for left-overs.  But all in all, I call a win.