I grew up eating TV Dinners a lot. I’m not even ashamed to admit that because I actually really liked them as a kid. The best part was the dessert in the center, of course. What kid doesn’t like the idea of a tasty dessert after dinner, right there just waiting for you. Waiting to be eaten. I always tried to eat the dessert right away but I was never allowed to. Adults. AKA fun ruiners. My favorite TV dinner was the Kid Cuisine one with chicken nuggets, corn, mac and cheese, and chocolate pudding (with the sprinkles). Sprinkles were a must. Those dinners were the greatest thing on earth, I don’t care what anyone says otherwise. On a side note, I also really liked the TV dinners with mashed potatoes and corn, because I LOVED to mix the corn and mashed potatoes together. To this day, I still do that…mix corn with mashed potatoes whenever I make them in the same meal. If you haven’t tried it before, you’re missing out.
Now that I’m an adult, TV dinners just aren’t as acceptable or cool for that matter, so rather than continue suffering in misery and missing out on all the cool things kids get to do, I thought I’d take things into my own hands. This year, I’ve decided to start a new segment on the blog that I like to call International TV Dinners! A full meal, complete with a main dish, two sides, and a small dessert for you to enjoy in one sitting. If you happen to do it sitting on the couch watching TV, so be it. I couldn’t just stop at a regular TV dinner though. I like themes a lot, mainly because I’m a person who likes structure and direction. I thought it would be great to make each TV dinner post in this segment, internationally themed.
The first one up is Italy. No particular reason, only that this is the first one that popped into my head. So here we are in the first installment of this new segment. New year, new us. I worked really hard on this post, and I’m very excited about it, but don’t let that cloud your judgement. I mean, if you don’t like it I’ll just cry myself to sleep every night for the rest of the year. But really, not a big deal. I hope you like it though. I just think there’s something so fun about the concept of a TV dinner. We all know them as yucky frozen meal, but they don’t have to be unappetizing. They can be gourmet, just like I hope to show you with this new segment. So let’s explore the world together, one TV dinner at a time.
So what’s in our (not so) fancy pants TV dinner?
Don’t let this overwhelm you. These recipes are actually really simple, and if anyone can do it, I know that you can. The best way to tackle this is to breakdown the meal in parts. Start with the most time consuming recipe. And because the dessert is always the best part, I think it’s a good idea to start with the Hazelnut Chocolate Meringue Cookies. I tried my best to come up with Italian-ish recipes. Hazelnuts always come to mind when I think of Italian food for some reason.
Meringue cookies are basically just sweetened egg whites that are beaten to death until they’re glossy and voluminous. In a large bowl, combine the egg whites, powdered sugar and salt. Set the bowl over a bowl of simmering water and cook until warm to the touch, about 3 to 5 minutes. Make that the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl, and that you’re whisking constantly.
**Note: For the best meringue, it’s best to use room temperature egg whites. Leave them out for about 1 hour before using!**
Once warmed through, transfer the mixture to a clean mixing bowl and then beat on high (with the whisk attachment) until glossy and stiff peaks form. Stir in the vanilla extract and then add in the chopped toasted hazelnuts and chopped dark chocolate.
**Tip: To get the most flavor from the hazelnuts, it’s best to toast them before chopping them up. Place the nuts in a dry skillet and then set over medium-low heat. Toss often and heat until toasty, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Transfer to a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.**
Drop by the spoonful onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Make sure you leave enough space in between each, so that they don’t stick to each other when baking.
Bake in a preheated 350ºF oven until set and cracked on top, about 15 to 18 minutes. Rotate the pan, halfway through baking. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
**Tip: These can be made up to 3 days in advance and kept in an airtight container at room temperature. That would be a great way to make this meal even easier. Make the cookies in advance!**
Now that the cookies are done, let’s proceed to the next step. The Sausage and Spinach Stuffed Pasta Shells. Start by browning the sausage, and cooking the onions, garlic and spinach in a large skillet until the sausage is crispy and the spinach is wilted and bright green.
In a medium bowl, mix together the ricotta, mozzarella, sausage and spinach mixture, salt and pepper until fully combined. This is the delicious filling that is going to go into our jumbo pasta shells. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with pasta sauce. Then stuff each of the (slightly undercooked) pasta shells with a big spoonful of filling.
**Tip: If you want to make this quickly, use store-bought pasta sauce instead of making your own. I really like Prego Traditional when I don’t have time to make my own. This isn’t an ad for them; I just happen to think it’s the best tasting store-bough pasta sauce out there. Just in case you do want to make your own, I have a great recipe for one that I used for these Meatball Sliders!**
Top each of the shells with a bit more sauce and a sprinkling more of mozzarella cheese. Bake until bubbly and golden brown on top, about 15 to 20 minutes.
**Note: Remember that everything is cooked through, we’re just wanting to warm the pasta shells up and melt the cheese!**
While the pasta bakes, get the garlic bread going. Cut a small French baguette in half, lengthwise, and place on a baking sheet. In a small bowl, combine the softened butter, minced garlic, paprika, salt and pepper until well incorporated.
Smoother the bread with the garlic butter and bake until crispy and golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, cut into pieces and then sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley.
Set the bread off to the side and proceed to the last step. Assembling the salad and putting this whole meal together. Let’s talk about these amazing ceramic TV Dinner plates for a second though. They’re crucial to this entire segment. I found these at UncommonGoods.com. Pick some up for yourself! (Although I do have to admit that they’re definitely necessary. They’re just cute.
Are you getting excited? The meal is almost complete and it was a cinch, right? We’re at the home stretch over here. The last thing to do is put together the Avocado Caprese Salad. Make this last because it’s the easiest, but also because it’s best when done fresh. Layer a few slices of tomato, fresh mozzarella, avocado, and chopped basil together. Then drizzle with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and season with a bit of salt and pepper.
**Tip: To save yourself added dishes, build the salad right on the plates themselves! Also, for added flavor, use heirloom tomatoes instead!**
That’s it. You’re done. You finished this meal all on your own. You should be proud of yourself. I’m most definitely proud of you, but I knew you could do it. All you have to do is finish platting everything. Set the cooked pasta shells in, a few slices of bread and definitely don’t forget about the cookies!
If this isn’t a full and complete Italian meal, I don’t know what is. Of course, it might not be all that authentic, but it’s my take on it, and I think it’s pretty good. What it lacks in authenticity, it most definitely makes up for it in taste. And when it all comes down to it, isn’t that all that really matters?
Now that you have this whole themed meal, go all the way. Serve it with a glass of red wine and play some Italian music on. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never said no to a Dean Martin tune in my life, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I’m not made of stone.
Since these are TV dinners after all, eat them on the couch watching a movie. Play an Italian movie for extra brownie points. I love the idea of themed dinners, which is partly why I’ve stared this segment. I’m not rich at all, and traveling all over the world, while it is a dream and goal of mine, it isn’t always practical or an options, so I feel like with these internationally themed dinners, I can sort of travel. Sort of. I’m traveling through food, which is the best kind of traveling.
- 2 large egg whites, room temperature
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3/4 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts
- 1/2 cup finely chopped dark chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, set aside.
- Fill a medium saucepan just under halfway with water, and bring to a boil. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg whites, sugar and salt. Set over the pot of boiling water and cook until warm to the touch, whisking constantly, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a clean mixing bowl.
- Whip on high, with the whisk attachment, until glossy and stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the hazelnuts and dark chocolate. Drop the cooking on the prepared baking sheets, by the spoonful. Make sure to leave enough space in between each cookie.
- Bake until lightly golden brown and cracked on top, about 18 minutes. Rotate the pans halfway through baking, front to back, up and down. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature. Eat right away or store in an airtight container at room temperature, for up to 3 days.
- Yield: about 12 cookies
- 12 to 16 jumbo pasta shells
- 4 hot Italian sausage links, removed from casings
- 1/2 a small yellow onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 (6-ounce) bag baby spinach, thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 (24-ounce) jar store-bought marinara sauce (Prego Traditional is best) or homemade pasta sauce
- Bring a large pot of cold water to a boil. Season with salt and throw in the dried pasta shells. Cook until just about al dente. It should be slightly undercooked because they'll continue to cook in the oven. I figure about 3 per person, but boil a few extras just in case they tear while boiling or stuffing. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
- Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add in the sausage and break down with a wooden spoon. Cook until brown and crispy, about 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the onion, garlic, and spinach. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook until the veggies have softened and the spinach has wilted, about 5 minutes longer. Remove from heat.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour half of the sauce into the bottom of a 9 by 13-inch baking dish.
- In a large bowl, stir together the ricotta, 1/2 cup mozzarella, and cooked sausage mixture. Stuff each of the pasta shells with the filling, by the spoonfuls, and place on the prepared dish. Once all are stuffed, spoon the remaining sauce onto each of the shells and sprinkle with remaining mozzarella. Bake until warmed through and the cheese has melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.
- Yield: 4 servings
- 1 small French baguette, cut in half lengthwise
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 2 garlic cloves, grated or finely minced
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- pinch of salt
- pinch of pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Place the baguette pieces on a baking sheet and set aside.
- In a small bowl, mix together the butter, garlic, paprika and a pinch of salt and pepper until well combined. Spread evenly onto each half of bread, and bake until golden brown and crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool slightly, and then cut into wedges. Sprinkle with fresh parsley for garnish.
- Yield: 4 servings
- 2 medium heirloom or vine-ripe tomatoes, sliced
- 8-ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
- 1 large ripe avocado, pitted and sliced
- 1/4 cup sliced fresh basil
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- Layer the fresh mozzarella on a plate along with the tomato and avocado, making sure to alternate between each.
- Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and then sprinkle with fresh basil. Serve immediately.
- Yield: 4 servings