PERRYSBURG - "I've always done sofrito-style cooking, but I never knew it was called that," says local resident Kay-Lynne Schaller.
Attending a cooking workshop on sofrito, which is Spanish for "a well cooked and fragrant sauce," she discovered she was already an expert.
The contents of a sofrito vary, depending upon the country in question. In Spanish cuisine, it contains garlic, onions, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil, while in Caribbean and Latin American countries roasted peppers and herbs are added into the mix.
Schaller, a Penta Career Center satellite teacher based at Anthony Wayne Junior High School for the past two years, emphasises "nutrition and wellness" in her family and consumer science classes.
That's why she works hard to come up with tasty recipes that include plenty of fruits and vegetables but will still be appreciated by a 13- or 14-year-old palate.
Because teens young and old invariably love pasta, she recently dreamed up the Pasta Sofrito with Autumn vegetables as a class cooking project and the vote appears unanimous that she has a winner on her hands.
"My new secret ingredient is goat cheese!"
She combines onions, golden and green bell peppers and Dei Fratelli diced tomatoes. "It's not a sauce; I'm looking for something fairly thin. Then I throw in 2 to 4 ounces of goat cheese and that gives it an incredible, creamy consistency. My husband says 'Stop right there! It's fine like that.' And it is, but..."
She knows she can take the flavor up a notch higher.
"I like to take the fresh fall vegetables - kale, zucchini - and my surprise ingredient is an acorn squash" and treat them as an accompaniment to the sofrito dish.
Schaller, who was raised in Cygnet, the daughter of Lloyd and Rose Schaller, has a vast amount of cooking experience from which to draw.
"I've worked in restaurants for 20 years, including Carmel, Calif. - everything from fine French dining down to casual cafes."
Her knowledge extends to selecting and evaluating fine wines. "Of course, now that we have kids, that's all down the tubes," she said with a laugh. "It's drinking cheap wine now."
Along with teaching, she does some test cooking.
Her current assignment, for a non-profit organization, involves test-cooking dog biscuits!
Dog biscuits or haute cuisine, she has discovered that starting with the best ingredients is key.
When it comes to olive oil, for example, "always opt for extra virgin. You get the best variety you can find."
Schaller recommends one particular brand, Columela artesano. "At 17 fluid ounces for $16 or $17, it's not cheap," but the flavor is phenomenal and the product is available in this area, at Giant Eagle stores.
The same approach holds true for parmesan cheese. "I tell people: 'Buy the best parmesan cheese you can afford'" versus a regular brand that tastes like grated cardboard in contrast. Here her favorite is Regiano Parmesano.
The choice for tomato products is easy.
"I promote Dei Fratelli heavily; the sodium content is lower (than competitors) and it's local, local, local - (so) the nutrient count is a little higher."
Dei Fratelli, produced by Hirzel Canning Co. at Northwood, buys all its tomatoes from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan farmers, Schaller said.
"Dei Fratelli has a large variety of diced and chopped tomato products. Other excellent choices are chopped tomatoes with onion and garlic or chopped tomatoes with basil and herbs. The tomato pieces will be slightly larger."
As for the pasta, she says, buy the Barilla Pasta Plus - the one in the yellow package. "It's made with lentils and chick peas, not just flour, so it has more fiber and protein. My students didn't like the wheat pasta, but this they do. This one looks like white pasta but the nutrients are much higher."
Here are two final hints from Schaller:
¥ The reserved cup of water from the pasta cooking water is good to add more moisture to the basic sauce if you feel it needs more liquid. "I have also saved the water for a day in the refrigerator to add back to any pasta leftovers, as the noodles will absorb a lot your sauce overnight."
¥ For the "autumn vegetables", use whatever you have in abundance. "If fresh vegetables don't look great, look for quality frozen vegetables. Try to include a variety of colors in your sauteed vegetables" for the most nutritious meal.
Pasta Sofrito with Autumn vegetables
12 ounce box of Barilla Pasta Plus Spaghetti or Thin Spaghetti (about 2/3 of the box)
2-3 T. olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, smashed
1 small onion minced
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
14 1/2 oz. can Dei Fratelli Petite Diced Tomatoes
2 to 3 oz. fresh Goat Cheese, crumbled
Sea salt or Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
2-3 T. olive oil
1/2 medium zucchini sliced into thin half moons
1/2 medium summer squash sliced into small thin slices
4 to 5 mushrooms sliced thin
2 to 3 cups swiss chard sliced into thin ribbons
1 cup of roughly cut pre-cooked acorn squash or butternut squash (outer skin removed)
3 to 4 oz. Parmigiano Reggiano
Optional: fresh herbs or chopped parsley to garnish
Cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water when you drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the pot.
Meanwhile, heat 2-3 T. olive oil in a 12" nonstick sauté pan over medium high heat, and add the smashed garlic cloves and let sauté for 2 minutes or until the garlic starts to turn brown. At the point when the garlic begins to brown, pull it out of the pan and throw it away. Add the minced onion and diced bell peppers and sauté until the onions are almost translucent, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the Petite Diced Tomatoes (3/4 of the can to the whole can, depending upon your preference). Simmer another 3 to 4 minutes (the sauce will be thin at this point). Taste the sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Just before the pasta is done cooking, crumble in 2 to 3 ounces of fresh goat cheese and simmer for 1 more minute.
When the pasta is finished cooking, mix the pasta and the sauce together and hold in a warmed bowl or platter while you prepare the Autumn vegetables.
Return the sauté pan to the burner on med-high with another 2 T olive oil, sauté the fall vegetables in the order listed until the zucchini are slightly brown and the swiss chard is wilted, between 3 to 5 minutes. Place the sautéed vegetables over the pasta and top liberally with thin slivers of fresh Parmesan Reggiano cheese.
Garnish with fresh herbs or chopped parsley and serve immediately with extra Parmesan cheese on the side.
To pre-cook the squash of your choice, place it in a microwave for 4 to 5 minutes on high. It will be very hot when you remove it; let it cool, and then chop into large sections. Carefully slice off the tough outer skin and discard the seeds, and chop the squash into 3/4 inch pieces.
Purchase the goat cheese in 4 ounce "logs" and crumble on your own; it is much more soft and creamy than the pre-crumbled pieces which do not seem to melt as nicely and are more expensive as well. You can also purchase a variety of herbed goat cheeses which add a bit more flavor, too. If you have any goat cheese left over, it freezes well if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and labeled. Don't lose it in the freezer!
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