The grand feast is almost upon us. At this stage you most likely have your Thanksgiving menu set in stone and the last thing I wish to do is wreak havoc on your plans by tempting you with another Thanksgiving recipe.

Instead, I am taking you back to the three recipes that my family and I are most thankful for from the past year: Penne alla Vodka, Savory Salmon Cakes and Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche.

Each of these recipes is easy to make, utilizes ingredients that are commonly available in our local grocery stores and can be easily doubled to accommodate large groups. These are the recipes that we have made again and again throughout 2021 and the ones we will keep craving for years to come.

I have been flooded with email requests for my homemade pie recipe over the past two weeks, so, as an added bonus, I am including my favorite all-butter pie crust recipe. Easy to make, ultra-flaky and versatile, my recipe yields two pie crusts, so you can use one to make the quiche and the second for any other kind of pie on your holiday menu, or you can pop the extra crust in the freezer to save for another occasion.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for this column, which gives me an excuse every week to create beautiful food, learn something new and share what I’ve learned with you. I wish you and yours a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!

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Tony’s Choice: Penne alla Vodka

Penne alla Vodka is rich, lush and full of umami. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Penne alla Vodka is rich, lush and full of umami. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

There was no hesitation when I asked Tony which 2021 recipe gets his gratitude. “Penne Vodka, hands down,” he said. I developed this recipe to recreate an experience we had when visiting Rome a few years ago, and it takes us back to the Eternal City every time I serve it.

“Rich, but not heavy, simple, yet complex, and oh, so delicious,” is how I described this pasta dish when I shared it with you last February. Penne alla Vodka is always a dinner winner, and it can be on your table in under 30 minutes, from start to finish.

A heavy splash of cream is added to give the sauce a lush and creamy finish and its signature rusty-pink color. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
A heavy splash of cream is added to give the sauce a lush and creamy finish and its signature rusty-pink color. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Penne alla Vodka

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Serves: 4 as an entree, or 6 to 8 as first course

Ingredients:

1 pound penne pasta (or other short, tubular noodle)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 ounces pancetta, diced

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

¾ cup vodka

28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (1)

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 to 2 cups water

¾ cup heavy cream

¼ cup Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese, plus more to garnish

1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, stems removed, finely chopped

Directions:

Fill a large pot with at least 4 quarts of water. Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, according to the directions on the package. When ready, drain the pasta and set aside until ready to toss with the sauce.

As the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally until crispy, about 5 minutes.

Add the onion, garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Add the vodka and cook on medium-low, stirring occasionally until it is nearly all evaporated, about 5 minutes. Most of the alcohol content will burn off during this stage.

Add the crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Stir in 1 cup of water and cook over medium heat until the sauce reaches a simmer, then reduce to medium-low and simmer for 12 minutes. The sauce will thicken during this time and can be thinned out if desired by adding more water, ¼ cup at a time until desired consistency is achieved.

Stir in the cream and cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Add the cooked pasta and grated cheese and toss until the noodles are evenly coated. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve with more grated cheese, a sprinkling of chopped parsley and a good loaf of crusty bread to sop up the sauce.

Giovanni’s Choice: Savory Salmon Cakes

Sarah's Savory Salmon Cakes are easy to make, affordable and filled with crowd-pleasing flavor. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Sarah's Savory Salmon Cakes are easy to make, affordable and filled with crowd-pleasing flavor. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

We have enjoyed these Savory Salmon Cakes at least twice a month since I shared the recipe with you last August. Tony and Gio conducted a taste test between our Maryland Crabcakes and this recipe, and I was delighted when my salmon cakes were declared the winner.

I use fresh salmon for this recipe, but a canned variety will also work in a pinch. The salmon cake mixture can be prepared several days in advance of cooking, and you can also freeze the cakes, unbaked or fully cooked, for two to three months. Gio insists that these salmon cakes are full of the savory flavor experience called umami — but all you really need to know is that they are delicious.

The salmon cakes cook quickly in hot canola oil, taking only 2 to 3 minutes per side until golden brown and crispy. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The salmon cakes cook quickly in hot canola oil, taking only 2 to 3 minutes per side until golden brown and crispy. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Sarah’s Savory Salmon Cakes

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Makes: about 3 to 3 ¼ pounds of salmon cake mixture (12 to 13 4-ounce large cakes, or 24 to 26 2-ounce medium cakes, or dozens of small cakes)

Ingredients:

2 pounds salmon fillet

½ cup real mayonnaise

¼ cup Dijon mustard

6 dashes Tabasco

7 dashes Worcestershire sauce

2 eggs

2/3 cup orange bell pepper, small-diced into ¼-inch pieces

2/3 cup red onion, finely chopped

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning

2 ½ to 3 cups panko breadcrumbs

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon ground pepper

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and position the oven rack in the center. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Place the salmon fillets on the baking sheet and rub each side in the oil until lightly coated. Sprinkle the top of each fillet with kosher salt and ground pepper.

Bake the salmon in the oven until white droplets of fat appear and the fillet is fully opaque and flaky in the center, about 16 to 20 minutes. Let the salmon cool for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, use a whisk to combine all the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs.

Once the salmon is cool, use your hands to break the fish up into small pieces about ½-inch in size, adding it to the bowl as you break it. Add 2 cups of breadcrumbs to the mixture and use a rubber spatula to gently fold the ingredients together until well combined.

Test the mixture by squeezing some in your hand. If liquid leaks out, it is too moist, so add more breadcrumbs, ¼ cup at a time, until the liquid appears fully absorbed and the mixture begins to clump together. Expect to use 2 ½ to 3 cups of breadcrumbs. The mixture is ready when it can hold the form of a cake.

Refrigerate the mixture for 30 minutes so that it can firm up before forming the cakes (this step can be skipped if short on time).

To form the cakes, use your hands to pat the mixture into round cakes about 1-inch high and place on a baking sheet lined with foil or wax paper.

Heat ½ cup of oil in a 10-inch pan over medium-high heat. Test for readiness by tossing in a few breadcrumbs. If they sizzle, the oil is ready.

Place the walleye cakes in the pan, being careful to leave a little space between each cake. Saute on each side until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes each side. Place the finished salmon cakes on a plate or baking sheet lined with paper towels.

Serve immediately or place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 4 days. The cooked cakes can be served at room temperature or reheated in the microwave or oven until heated through.

To freeze: Fish cakes can be frozen either cooked or uncooked. Place on a baking sheet lined with foil, wax paper or parchment (let cooked cakes cool to room temperature before freezing). Freeze for 2 hours until firm and frozen. Wrap each cake in plastic and store in a freezer bag or airtight container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Thaw to room temperature before reheating or cooking.

Sarah’s Tips:

  • If using a whole side of salmon, remove the skin and cut into 4 or 5 fillets.
  • Sides of salmon often come with the skin still on, which has to be removed before baking the fillet. Some butchers will remove the skin by request, and Costco often has sides for sale where the skins have already been removed (and the price difference is negligible).
  • The cakes can be made and formed in advance and refrigerated for up to 3-4 days before cooking.
  • If preparing many cakes at once, keep them warm in a 200-degree oven after frying, until ready to serve.
  • For a quick aioli dipping sauce: Combine 1/3 cup good mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 clove of garlic (finely minced), 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.

Sarah’s Choice: Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche

Sarah's Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche is lush, creamy and full of savory flavor. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Sarah's Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche is lush, creamy and full of savory flavor. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

This recipe is my favorite of the year for a host of reasons. First, it’s delicious and freezes beautifully, which means that we always have a quiche or two on hand when we need a quick and easy dinner option. Second, this quiche has been one of the top sellers on my SarahBakes ready-to-bake frozen foods menu, where it is available fully cooked and ready for you to reheat in your own oven.

And finally — I developed this recipe with my mom, and we have used the cream cheese custard base in a variety of differently flavored quiche recipes, including the Savory Vegetable Quiche featured here last September. Any time I get to cook with my mom is time for which I am grateful.

Sarah's Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche features a simple and versatile base of three eggs, cream cheese and whole milk that can be combined with a variety of ingredients. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Sarah's Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche features a simple and versatile base of three eggs, cream cheese and whole milk that can be combined with a variety of ingredients. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

Three Cheese Ham and Spinach Quiche

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Serves: 6 to 8

Ingredients:

1 sheet of pie crust (homemade or a premade crust)

1 egg white, lightly beaten

¾ cup cooked ham, finely chopped

1 cup fresh baby spinach, finely chopped

½ cup red onion, finely chopped

½ cup baby bella mushrooms, thinly sliced

3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

3 large or extra-large eggs

1/3 cup whole milk or half and half

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

½ cup cheddar cheese, shredded

¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated

To pre-bake the pie crust:

Line a 9-inch pie plate with the pie crust, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Crimp the edges using your fingers or a fork. To keep the crust from shrinking as it bakes, let it chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line the pie crust with a layer of parchment paper and fill with pie weights (rice or dried beans also work), making sure to distribute evenly along the bottom and the sides.

Bake the crust until the edges start to brown, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and reduce temperature to 375. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights from the pan.

Cover the edges of the crust with a pie shield or aluminum foil to prevent overbrowning. Return the crust to the oven and bake until the bottom and sides begin to turn a light, golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes (times will vary depending on your oven).

Remove crust from oven and use a pastry brush immediately to coat the bottom and sides with the beaten egg white. This will seal the crust and prevent weeping once the quiche is baked.

Let pie crust cool completely before using. Prebaked pie crust may be covered in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 3 months.

To assemble and bake the quiche:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine the ham, spinach, red onion and mushrooms; set aside.

In a large bowl, use a stand or hand-held mixer to beat the cream cheese on medium-high speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating hard after each addition until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed. Add the whole milk and beat on medium-low speed until well combined.

Fill the cooled pie crust with the ham mixture, and then sprinkle the cheddar and Parmesan cheeses evenly over the top. Add the egg mixture and gently shake the pan to evenly distribute.

Cover the edges of the crust with a pie shield or aluminum foil to prevent overbrowning. Bake until the top of the quiche is golden brown, and the center has just a slight jiggle, about 25 to 28 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before slicing.

To store: Cover the quiche in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 2 months.

Sarah’s Tips:

  • The egg mixture is a base custard that can be used with any combination of ingredients. To change the variety, use measurements similar to the items listed in the recipe.
  • To reheat a whole frozen quiche, bake at 375 degrees until the center is hot, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cover lightly with aluminum foil to keep the top from overbrowning.
  • For easy reheating, freeze individual slices.

Homemade Pie Crust (Pâte Brisée)

Ingredients:

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt (I prefer finely-ground sea salt for better flavor)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and chilled

¼ to ½ cup ice water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Chill cut butter in freezer for 15 to 20 minutes.

In a food processor, mix the flour, sugar and salt together until combined, about 15 seconds. Add the butter and pulse 15-20 times until the mixture appears coarsely ground. Add the water slowly through the feed tube, starting with a ¼ cup, and then by the tablespoon, until the dough just holds together when pinched between 2 fingers.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and form into a ball. Divide the ball in half and form each half into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour, or up to 2 days, before using.

To achieve the best crust, use very cold butter and water and avoid mixing or handling the dough too much.

Recipe Time Capsule:

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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.