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Ask My Friend Maillard

There's Something About Spaghetti: Part 1

THE QUESTION: “How can I modify my family’s [favorite meal, spaghetti and garlic bread,] to be more nutritious &/or have less sugar? The jar of sauce alone has a lot of sugar & sodium! Do you have a quick & easy way to hack this and/or an easy recipe for homemade marinara sauce? [...]  How about the bread? My kids love that white bread in the freezer section but I know it’s not good for them!”


The epitome of family meals: the perfect spaghetti supper. And as we all know, the ‘perfect’ hinges on the tomato sauce. At first I was hesitant to try to go down the road of “easy homemade pasta sauce”. Firstly, the inherent choose-your-own-adventure-ness of such a ubiquitous family favorite makes concise recommendations or recipes difficult. Every home cook has a different definition of ‘the’ definitive tomato sauce, and every eater likes theirs a slightly different  way. Secondly, for anyone who dislikes cooking or is short on time and therefore looking for an easy/fast recipe, cleaning up after making a tomato based sauce is a deterrent from ever doing that again.

So I could tell you to simmer/roast some boxed/canned/fresh/heirloom tomatoes with, or never with, some additional veggies and a sprig of rosemary/thyme/basil/parsley until, blah blah blah. Your eyes are probably already spinning at all the options and the ghosts of previous tomato splatter appear. Then you reach for the jarred stuff from sheer anticipated exhaustion. But on the other hand reading the ingredient list of a packaged pasta sauce can make parents feel guilty about the amount of sodium and sugar they are feeding their kids (not to mention ingesting themselves). Running an internet search is no help; entering “healthy hacks for store bought sauce” into Google resulted in 196 million items in less than half a minute. Ironically this blog post will now add to one to that overwhelming total. Below for "part 1" I have tips and ideas for making choices in the grocery store. What to look for in a store bought tomato sauce and what you can buy to add more nutritious elements to any pasta dish then look out for "part 2" coming soon where I will tackle the problem of a great tomato sauce from scratch that even the most cooking-averse parent will come to love.


I have two tips to help you have more control over the healthfulness of this family favorite without making a sauce from scratch.



  • Tip #1: Get in the habit of reading ingredient lists. Remember, the mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful in the world, but if you are buying a pasta sauce with artificial preservatives and flavors you are not eating something that would qualify as the mediterranean diet, even if it is, loosely, Italian food. So if you are buying a premade sauce, choose the sauce with the fewest ingredients, no high fructose corn syrup, and that appears to have actual tomatoes first on the list. It took me about two minutes to find this jar and compare it to the other more recognizable brands. You could simply look for one with “no salt added” emblazoned on the front if you are in a rush (pro tip: If they haven’t added any salt, there’s no need to add sugar). You can see the nutritional label for the jar pictured here.

  • Tip #2: Add in more veggies. Roasted red pepper and cauliflower florets; these are two of the most under-the-radar nutritonal powerhouses in the produce section, not to mention great texture additions for pasta. Other great options are diced summer squash, grated butternut squash, wilted spinach and arugala - all packed with healthy goodness. Then top with fresh herbs for an extra flavor + vitamin boost. You can also add whole or pureed beans to the sauce itself for extra protein. If you are making a meat sauce brown sausage in the bottom of a pan, remove the meat to a plate and then sautee veggies/greens in the rendered fat. This way you don’t need to add extra butter or oil, and the veggies take on that meatiness that will keep kids coming back for more once they get a taste.


As for the garlic bread...there’s really no such thing as ‘healthy garlic bread’. I would recommend going all in and making it an occasional indulgence instead of a weekly buy; or switch to bruschetta. If you want to make your own garlic bread so you know exactly what is in the heavenly goodness, Alex Guarnaschelli’s garlic bread recipe is unique yet familiar. It definitely does not qualify as a health food, but you have more control over the quality of ingredients than you do in the frozen aisle.  Assuming they are old enough to use knives/the oven, you could also get the kids to assume some responsibility for dinner by telling them that if they want to have garlic bread when you make spaghetti, they have to make it themselves.


On to bruschetta. Basically, this is just thin slices of baguette with yummy topping. Often diced tomato, onion and basil but you can get olive tapenade, pesto or other spreads like baba ganoush or roasted red pepper cream cheese at most grocery stores. Or make them yourself! Top with a bit of cheese and broil for a couple of minutes to get that gooey cheese and crispy crunch that makes garlic bread such a great addition to spaghetti suppers. A great way to inject vegetables into a carb-heavy meal.


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Hand Me A Hand Pie

Question: My teenager seems allergic to breakfast and is always rushing out the door in the morning.
Do you have any quick and easy ideas of what I can get into this child before he/she departs for school?!”



My Advice: For an easy and versatile solution I think we should look to the British. That’s not something I would normally say in relation to food, unless the question was “what should I use as a condiment for my fried cod?”, but I think the hand pie is the answer you seek. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest you serve that teenager mincemeat pies -although I bet their face when you suggest that would be priceless- but filled puff pastry is buttery, portable and customizable. A breakfast triple crown!


The trick will be getting some nutrition into those portable calories that a teenager will eat and, more importantly, enjoy. Starting with store bought puff pastry dough, real fruit and nutella or cream cheese, I think any parent can make a strong case for breakfast.


sweet filling ideas:

berries, nutella & cream cheese or mascarpone

sliced fruit & jam

apple slices & brown sugar cinnamon

jam & nuts with lemon glaze & sprinkles on top

dates or figs, bacon bits & balsamic vinegar


savory filling ideas:

pesto, chicken, mozzarella, & cherry tomatoes

spinach, bacon, & cream cheese or feta

“pot pie” a.k.a. potatoes, carrots & meat of choice

curried chicken, potato & peas

artichoke, spinach & cheddar


You could even call them homemade pop-tarts or danishes if that will help. Or if your teenager is a savory breakfast person then do their favorite sandwich meat with spinach and cheese and you’ve got a breakfast sandwich on-the-go. Making bite-sized versions can also be especially appealing.  


The basic process is  simply to follow the baking instructions on your store bought puff pastry, filling and shaping as you see fit. But if you prefer more specific instructions I’ve documented myself filling store-bought puff pastry dough below the filling suggestions. I made them for a party this weekend so they are not quite what you will be aiming for will breakfast puff pastry. You DO NOT need a tiny cookie cutter or egg wash to create breakfast for your kids... unless you enjoy time consuming weekend baking projects.



Step 1: Defrost  puff pastry



Step 2: Roll, Cut and Fill Puff Pastry



I made these diamonds for a party, to shape your breakfast hand pies, cut the rolled out dough into 6 or 8 rectangles then fill and fold in half.


Step 3 (Optional): Brush pastries with an egg wash. Whisk together 1 egg and 1tbsp milk or water and brush a thin, even layer across the hand pies. For extra sparkle and flavor sprinkle flakey salt or demerara sugar on top, depending on whether you used a savory or sweet filling, respectively.



Step 4: Bake as directed on your box*, Cool, and Enjoy!


*Keep in mind that a thick filling can make the cooking time much longer than indicated.


Step 5: Reheat. Some fillings will be good cold, but that buttery goodness of the puff pastry shines best when warm, so stick the hand pie in an oven or toaster oven untill the outside is crispy again; you can also microwave if short on time but it will not crisp up. 


Please comment if you have any questions about fillings, the ones suggested or how to adapt your favorite breakfast combo into hand pie filling. And as always, Ask My Friend Maillard your own questions anytime on Facebook, Twitter or by Email.

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Zoodles 'N' Cheese!

THE QUESTION: Is there a yummy way to have macaroni and cheese on a limited-carb diet?

When it seems like everyone is trying to limit or eliminate various things in the “typical American diet” comfort foods become much maligned. Gluten-free noodles are becoming more prevalent and some brands even have acceptable tooth and texture, but doing comfort food carbohydrate-free is much harder. This question comes from the parents of a three year old who wants to start eating as a family now that their son is old enough that he will try the food they are eating for dinner. The only problem; the three year-old is a bread and noodle eating fiend while the parents are trying to avoid carbs, especially processed carbs. 

IMG_4463.JPGOn this mandolin model the "V" shaped blade slices thin strips while the little teeth-like blades create the crosswise cuts resulting in a uniform julienne.

My solution for them is one of my favorite kitchen tools: the mandoline. A mandoline allows the cook to make paper thin slices, and some models also jullienne in a single step. This gives you the ability to make any veggie look like a pile of noodles. Utilizing the magic of the mandoline, starchy macaroni and cheese can become a bowl of refreshing “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) and cheese! You can use another vegetable if you prefer -and there are some suggestions below- but I think that the freshness of zucchini is a great counterpoint to the rich cheese sauce. 

My answer does assume stovetop, or “blue box”, mac  ‘n’ cheese is what’s being replaced, hardier veggies, like carrots, could be prepared in a similar way to make a baked/casserole version with the same sauce plus extra cheese and bread crumbs on top. But, in general, the better a vegetable will stand up to being baked the more natural carbohydrates it contains so for this particular problem that isn’t the best solution. The stovetop method also allows you to make traditional noodles for carb-y members of the family but still have everyone eating the same meal. Some alternate, lower-carb veggies are asparagus and bamboo shoots.


HOW TO: preparing “Zoodles ‘N’ Cheese” 


Julienne 1 medium zucchini per non-carb eater. I recommend investing in a mandoline that juliennes in one step as pictured above (a very handy time saver if you enjoy cooking), but if your mandoline only has one blade, slice the zucchini lengthwise on the thinnest setting and then use a knife to create the zoodle width of your choice. Toss the zoodles with some lemon juice. I would leave them raw, the sauce will warm them. If you want to cook them you could steam them or quickly pan sear with a neutral oil. 

IMG_4460.JPGAll the ingredients and tools to make Zoodles'N'Cheese

For extra ease, you might also try looking for pre-julienned vegetables at your favorite grocery store. In Fredericksburg, I know that Wegman’s usually has them.  



Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese is noodles, or in this case zoodles, tossed with a Mornay sauce. This is a classic french technique and an infinitely adaptable sauce. The following recipe is easy to memorize and then customize to your family’s preferences because the measurements are all twos.

Make a roux by melting 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over low heat then whisking in an equal amount of flour until you have a uniform paste. Add a dash of ground nutmeg and two dashes of ground mustard seed, whisk again to incorporate.

Slowly add 2 cups of room temperature milk (I use canned whole milk, but any kind will do) and whisk until the roux has been fully dissolved. Heat on medium whisking frequently until the sauce just begins to boil. Turn heat down and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. If you stop here the sauce is called a bechamel which is one of the five “mother sauces”.

Add 2 ounces grated cheese and stir until fully melted. Now you have Mornay, yay. Gruyere or cheddar are commonly used, I like a combo of gruyere, asiago and parmesan. The cheese is up to you, just be sure not to use anything soft like mozzarella or a young swiss cheese, they will make the sauce stringy and unappetizing. Adjust the seasoning to taste. If it is too thick whisk in a little extra milk or butter.    


Please comment (with pictures!) if you try this at home or have any stories about using julienned veggies as noodles. Don’t forget to send in your own food questions via Twitter or Facebook.


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How can I make PB&J sandwiches exciting?

Welcome to my new blog, Fred Parents! The focus of this blog will be responding to food challenges and answering common mealtime questions from you. When I am between challenges, I plan to write up seasonal/local cooking tips that are family-friendly and budget-conscious.

Please let me know if you try any of my suggestions, and if you want to send me a challenge or a question, I'll be waiting. Contact me at myfriendmaillard (at) or on Twitter - I'm @JoannaMaillard.

[Disclaimer: The following is a slight cheat since I asked myself for this inaugural post.]

THE QUESTION: How can I make PB&J sandwiches exciting?

Some lucky few never get tired of a classic like PB&J, but the rest of us have innumerable reasons to look for updates, upgrades or disguises.

Such as:

  • You want a gourmet lunch on a budget.
  • Your household is bored with the usual go-tos.
  • You love pb&j but hate that the bread gets soggy when made the night before.
  • You need to be sensitive to nut allergies.
  • Your household is very active and needs extra protein/calories.
  • OR comment with your own reason & I'll create a variation on one of the ideas below.

Perhaps you, or maybe your teenage child, want a more refined lunch box. You could get a jar of artisanal nut butter and extravagant jelly, slather them on fresh toasted bakery bread, and be happy with the upgrade. BUT after a few weeks that isn't exactly a budget option. Instead, get creative. Peanuts are used all over the world as a base for soups, sauces and condiments; whenever you need a bit of inspiration just do a quick search for how peanuts are used in cuisines you enjoy then adapt those flavors to go with your favorite peanut butter!

My top suggestions for exciting PB&J:

#1 Go Thai or African Fusion with a PB&J Chicken Salad Sandwich.

This solution is a flavor bomb, a protein boost and has the potential for fancy, so it solves most of the reasons for upgrade listed above.

PBJ chicken salad sandwich

For one sandwich:

½ cup shredded chicken- Use leftover poached/grilled/roasted chicken or a store bought rotisserie chicken. If you do not eat meat seared tofu or farro/barley are excellent substitutes for the chicken.
2 tbsp [any nut or seed] butter- A natural, crunchy PB is best for taste and texture. cashew butter or tahini are good for those who need to be careful of peanut or nut allergies respectively.
1 tbsp jam/marmalade- I recommend starting with a citrus marmalade or plum jam if the then moving on to other favorite fruit, I love to use
2 tsp vinegar- preferably unseasoned rice vinegar or lime/lemon juice
2 tsp soy sauce- Use Tamari, Worcestershire, or Fish sauce is you are gluten-free
1 tsp sesame/neutral oil- this is just for added moisture/tenderness it is optional or can be replaced by water, juice, or vinegar depending on taste.
Seasoning to taste- fresh pepper and a spoonful of gochujang or sriracha is my inclination, but a little lemon juice and cinnamon would also work well.

Stir those six ingredients together (letting them all come to room temperature first works best). Store mixture covered in fridge if making for the whole week/ sooner than the night before. Recommended to use before 1 week has passed.

Adjust any measurement above to your preferences/dietary needs or container size.

PBJ chicken salad

Container- Personally, I would go with a french roll, pinch out some of the inner crumb and stuff it full with the mixture PLUS herbs, sprouts and pickled carrots/jalapenos because I love textures. But whatever bread, wrap, or large leaf you have available to contain everything will work!

If that is too informal or has too many choices for you put this salad from Bobby Flay in between two slices of your favorite bread and enjoy.

#2 Make lunch packing a fun project by waffling/shaping sandwiches.

With younger or easily entertained audiences, making the shape or texture different or simply crafting the food themselves is all the excitement they need. A waffle iron or panini press can help for texture. The crunchy crust and creamy insides will call out for Elvis-esque additions: banana, cooked bacon, chocolate, and potato chips are all crowd pleasers (or just make a waffled sandwich with those four fillings if you are feeling decadent).

When waffling make sure to either use nonstick spray on your waffle iron or butter the outsides of your bread like a grilled cheese. Or, simply grill in a skillet as you would a grilled cheese if you have no waffle iron, the goal is the interplay between crunchy crust and creamy insides, not buying new equipment. If you have young children and cookie cutters you can make it even more interactive and have "grilled tea sandwich PB&Js".

Remember food can always be fun!

As soon as you start creating variations, you will begin to succumb to the limitless creative process. Try anything at least once, especially if a toddler suggests it (they have a beautiful lack of boundaries that should be utilized more in cooking). If you are looking for more discussion of the limitless possibility of peanut butter, listen to the first episode of Food52's new podcast Burnt Toast.

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About Joanna

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I am a young entrepreneur who loves to solve problems; from the daily crossword to a client's cooking conundrum. Passion for soccer, architecture, travel, and experimenting with cooking techniques (mostly) define my life. My company, My Friend Maillard, is a personal chef service designed to help clients who don't have the time or inclination to cook at home. I approached Fredericksburg Parent to host this blog so I could also help local families find answers for their seemingly intractable food and cooking related problems.

Did your teenager just decide to go vegan? Do you want to know why your cakes always collapse in the center? Do you want to know how to get chicken skin really crispy? Just Ask My Friend Maillard. Make your queries as specific or as weird as you like and submit them anytime through Twitter, on Facebook, or via email to myfriendmaillard (at) Can't wait to hear from you!

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