Going Meatless, and Apple Gouda Penne Pie

Dear Joey,

Few things make you happier than coming home to a meat-heavy dinner. You can’t hide the way your eyes twinkle with desire when you come home to a big, juicy roast finishing up in the crock pot, a really good steak on it’s last hour marinating in the fridge, or even a big pan of meatballs simmering away in the dutch oven makes me think you are happier to see dinner than you are to see me.

I will never forget the excitement in your voice when I told you I was craving a big, juicy steak while I was pregnant with Mia. It probably stunned you to hear those words from me, as you knew my fickle feelings about meat. Your face lit up as you began to imagine all the delicious ways we could cook a steak that night, without forethought, preplanning, let alone the steak itself in the house. Soon we found ourselves at the store and as we perused the various cuts available, I deferred to you because really, I don’t know what I am doing when it comes to steak. I charged you with cooking of said steaks as well, and you looked so proud when you presented me with a beautifully crusted filet mignon drizzled with the yummiest homemade pan sauce I had ever tasted.

Those nights are rare around here because I have mixed feelings about meat. I admit that it is delicious, but it nevertheless grosses me out a little. When I do cook meat (which is becoming more and more rare around here) I generally go easy on the amount I eat (if any at all) because the truth of the matter is that no matter how yummy it is, it creeps me out a little when I think about what meat actually is (cows, chickens, pigs)

I didn’t always have a love/hate relationship with meat. It was a gradual change, one that I can’t really pin to any one reason or moment. When I was growing up, I loved it. Some of my favorite dinners were beef stew, pot roast, hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes, and oven-fried chicken. I had some friends who were vegetarians and I remember wondering what in the world they ate.  

Perhaps I have some sort of genetic predisposition to this, as neither of my grandmothers are not big meat eaters, and their consumption of meat continues to dwindle with age, but I am fairly certain that the real reason I’ve lost my appetite for it because of the less than ideal way most meat makes its way to our collective national table. Lucky for me, you accept this about me and even agree with me on the major issues that get me so fired up. The one area we differ on this point is the fact that you still love meat, and you crave it more than I ever really do.

I’m really thankful that despite your deep love of a good piece of meat, you don’t mind having meatless dishes for dinner, and I am even more thankful that you humor me while I experiment with meatless dishes and find out what vegetarians actually eat. I promise that I will never try to pull a fast one on you or change your favorite dishes into meatless ones (can you imagine tofu stroganoff? Gross.) I’ll not let my little hang up in the kitchen keep me from cooking the kinds of meals you like best, as long as you don’t mind a few meatless dishes here and there to balance it out. Plus, you might find, as I have, that meatless does not mean tasteless. In fact, you may discover (as I did) that meatless can be awesome. Like last night’s dinner: it was a winner, right?

I believe your exact words were, “Apple Gouda Penne Pie, huh? (Taste.) Mmmm. Ya. I’ll eat that. (Double helping.)”

Yes, meatless can be awesome indeed.

Love, Scratch

Apple Gouda Penne Pie
This dish makes meatless meals look good. The  original recipe calls for apple cider instead of broth (which is what I used), but I didn’t have 1/2 a cup of apple cider on hand (who does?). You could even use white wine, if you wanted to. The result will still be decadently rich and satisfying, and would go very well with a crisp green salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. Think of it as fancy macaroni and cheese, perfect for grownups with a sophisticated palate, but kid-friendly all the same (my kids devoured it!).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs, divided
1 teaspoon dried thyme, divided
12 oz. dry penne pasta
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled , cored and chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 cups 2% milk
1/2 cup vegetable broth
6 ounces cream cheese
6 ounces gouda cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a spring form pan and sprinkle sides of pan with 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs. Set aside.

Over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of butter; add remaining 1/3 cup panko and 1/2 tsp thyme. Combine, then remove from heat.

Cook pasta for two minutes fewer than package directions. Drain, and return the pasta to the pan.

In a large pan over medium high heat, melt 3 tablespoons butter and add apple and onions. Sauté until tender (about 8 minutes). Stir in flour, salt and pepper. Cook for two minutes. Add milk and broth; cook  until thick and bubbly, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low and add the cream cheese, gouda and thyme. Stir until the cheese is melted and combined.

Pour sauce over pasta and gently mix thoroughly. Pour mixture into the prepared spring form pan and top with reserved panko mixture.

Bake for about an hour, or until edges are golden and cheese is bubbly. Let cool for about 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

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