Comfort food re-invented

Thu, 12/10/2020 - 7:30pm

The cold, blustery weather is back with a vengeance and, as winter approaches, purple flag days are once again a regular thing. That means we are all craving comfort food in front of a cozy fire …and a nice glass of red doesn’t hurt.

French onion soup is one of my go-to comfort cravings. I love to take those core flavors and mix it up a bit and put a new spin on an old classic. How can French onion soup be even more comforting? Create a pasta dish layered with caramelized onions, oozing French onion flavor, and loads of Swiss cheese. The best meatballs, zucchini, and spinach (to make it healthy, of course) weave in and out of the saucy penne. A flavor bomb in every bite that fills your belly and warms your heart.

French Onion Penne with chicken meatballs and zucchini

The caramelized onion sauce

1 stick butter
3 pounds onions, sliced into thin rounds
(about 4-5 large onions)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves,
stemmed (plus stems for garnish)

The meatballs

2 slices white bread
1/3 cup milk
2 pounds ground chicken
2 eggs, beaten
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup shredded Jarlsberg cheese (or good
quality Swiss)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil

The rest

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium to large zucchini, cut into halfinch thick half moons
1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente to
package directions
4 cups baby spinach leaves, packed
2 cups shredded Jarlsberg cheese (or good
quality Swiss), plus more for garnish

To caramelize the onions, melt the butter in a large cast iron or oven-proof skillet over medium low heat. Add the onions, sugar, and salt to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently until the onions are soft and golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes. You do not want to sear or brown the onions. This a slow cook that will create soft, sweet caramel colored onions.

While the onions slowly cook (remember to stir occasionally), make your meatballs. Rip the bread slices into small pieces and put them in a large bowl. Pour the milk over the bread and mix with your fingers until all of the milk is absorbed and the bread is mushy. Add the remaining meatball ingredients, except the olive oil, to the bowl and massage everything together with your hands until well combined. You do not want to over-mix, but be sure that all of the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the meat. Form the mixture into golf ball size balls (should make about 24 meatballs).

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and add the meatballs. You may need to work in batches, so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Brown them on all sides, turning with tongs. Remove to a plate when they are browned — note they may not be cooked through but will continue cooking in the sauce.

Don’t forget to keep stirring those onions until they are soft, silky, golden brown and caramelized!

In the same frying pan that you made the meatballs, add the additional 2 tablespoons of olive oil, chopped garlic, and zucchini. Cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until the zucchini is soft and lightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

When your onions are done, add the Worcestershire and corn starch to them and stir until the cornstarch is dissolved into the onions. Turn the heat to medium high and add the red wine and beef stock. Cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce begins to thicken and turn brown. Add the fresh thyme and continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes until a rich silky sauce has formed.

Add the meatballs into the sauce and stir to coat. Cook for 1 minute. Top with the 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the cheese is melted and lightly browned on top. Note: if you do not have an oven-proof skillet, you can transfer the meatballs in the sauce to a 9-inch x 13-inch baking dish and top with the cheese to bake.

Remove the meatballs from the oven and test one… because you won’t be able to resist. Then, add the zucchini, pasta, spinach, and remaining half cup of shredded cheese to the pan. Toss everything together until the spinach is just wilted and the cheese is melted.

Serve in bowls and garnish with more cheese and thyme sprigs. Devour!

Check out Pam’s blog for more great recipes.