The holidays are over, and winter has settled in. For me a chilly evening means coming home to prepare a warm and filling dinner for my family.

I received a few cookbooks for Christmas this year. My mom, Ann Wilson, gave me "My Year in Meals" by Rachael Raye, and my colleague Pam Szakacs gave me "Weeknights With Giada" by Giada De Laurentiis.

I credit Rachael Raye and the Food Network about 13 years ago with piquing my interest in cooking. Back then I remember back-to-back episodes of "30 Minute Meals" were on between 5 and 6 p.m. Of course this was back before I had two little boys begging for snacks before dinnertime.

Here are some dinner ideas to warm up your cold nights. The recipes contain a little bit of the unexpected to help you beat the winter blahs.



Asian Pork Ribs with Spicy Noodles

These ribs come from "Campbell's Slow Cooker Recipes." Who wouldn't want to come home to savory ribs in the crockpot on a cold night? Serve them alongside pasta and you have comfort food to the max.

2¾ oz beef broth

½ cup water

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

1 oz (2 inch piece) fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 cup (about 1 oz) dried sliced shitake mushrooms

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

2 full racks pork back ribs (about 4 lbs total)

¼ cup hoisin sauce, divided (found near Asian foods)

1 lb (16 oz) thin spaghetti, cooked according to package directions

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Stir together beef broth, water, rice wine vinegar, grated ginger, shitake mushrooms and red pepper flakes in slow cooker. Stir together five-spice powder, ground ginger, chili powder, and sesame oil to form a paste. Blot ribs dry with paper towels. Rub both sides with spice paste and brush with half of hoisin sauce. Place ribs in slow cooker with prepared cooking liquid (do not stir). Cover and cook on low 8-10 hours or on high 5-6 hours or until meat is tender when pierce with a fork. Remove ribs to platter and brush lightly with remaining hoisin sauce. Keep warm until serving. Meanwhile skim off any fat from cooking liquid.

Place warm spaghetti in shallow bowl. Ladle some hot broth over spaghetti and sprinkle with green onions and cilantro. Slice ribs and serve over pasta.



Fettuccine With Sausage, Garlic and Mushrooms

Thanks to Andy and Amy Walsh of Waukee (formerly of Carroll) I am on week 2 of 10 of their annual weight-loss pool. I am searching for lighter recipes that my family enjoys. I found this recipe in "Williams-Sonoma Healthy Cooking" that uses chicken or turkey sausage instead of pork.

¾ lb cooked low-fat smoked chicken or turkey sausages

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1 lb fresh mushrooms, brushed clean and thinly sliced

1 cup dry white wine

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 lb fettuccine

Bring a large pot three-fourths full of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Slice the sausage into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. In a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat, warm the oil. When hot, add the sausage slices and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and stir until the mushrooms have softened and released some of their liquid, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and boil over medium heat until the mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes longer. Stir in the parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. While the sauce is cooking, add the fettuccine to the boiling water; stir well and cook until tender but firm to the bite, 8-10 minutes, or according to the package directions. Drain the fettuccine and place in a warmed shallow serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the top and toss briefly to combine. Serve at once.



Danish Meatballs

These meatballs from "Rachael Ray My Year in Meals" are sure to perk up your dinner. The tang from the pickle relish is unexpectedly good.

1 lb ground beef, pork and veal

1 small onion, peeled and grated, about 1/2 cup

1/2 cup superfine breadcrumbs

salt and pepper

about 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon dried marjoram, lightly crushed in your palm

2 eggs, beaten

about 1/2 to 2/3 cup whole milk

6 tablespoons butter, divided

1 round tablespoon flour

1 can beef consommé

2 tablespoons pickle relish

fresh dill, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine meat with onion, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, marjoram, eggs and milk. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small pot and use it to butter a large baking sheet. Using a small scoop, roll about 36 walnut-sized meatballs. Arrange snugly on baking sheet and brush with remaining melted butter. Roast meatballs for 15 minutes or until cooked through.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small pot. Whisk in flour, add beef consommé and let thicken a bit. Stir in relish. Serve meatballs in a shallow serving dish and douse with sauce. Garnish with dill.

Serves 8



Creamy Cauliflower Soup With Bacon

Soup is perfect for winter. Not only is this one (from Giada De Laurentiis' "Weeknights With Giada") creamy, it's also crunchy with the addition of bacon and croutons.

10-12 strips (about 1 lb) thick-cut applewood smoked bacon

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large or 2 small shallots, thinly sliced

2 celery ribs, chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 (1½ lbs) head cauliflower, cut into 1 inch pieces

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

8 oz plain croutons

Place and oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange bacon in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Cover the bottom with non-stick aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Bake for 15-17 minutes, until brown and crispy. Drain bacon on paper towels. When cool enough to handle, chop into 1/2 inch pieces.

In a large saucepan with high sides (or a stock pot), melt butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, celery, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in cauliflower, thyme and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat so that the mixture simmers, cover the pan and cook until vegetables are tender, about 20-25 minutes. Using an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth. If you don't have an immersion blender, blend soup in blender in small batches. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with bacon and croutons.