Dover Post Food Columnist Judi Leaming tries out some quick and easy recipes, including Pumpkin Black Bean Soup, Pasta Lasagna and Paula Deen's Cheeseburger Casserole.

Because we’re traveling, I’m writing this in advance and hoping when it appears, the first warm temps of spring will have lured you outside and you’ll be seeking recipes for quick meals that will allow you to get out of the kitchen and into your yard.

I was so impressed with Paula Deen’s “Cookbook for the Lunch-box Set” I had purchased as a Christmas gift for granddaughter May that I bought a second one so I could continue testing the recipes — and have a copy to give to our granddaughter Rose who will be celebrating her 12th birthday.

Paula recommends making Cheeseburger Casserole for a family dinner so there will be leftovers that can be packed up in microwave-safe containers and taken to school as a lunch-box treat. Paula adds, however, you might want to leave out the onion if you don’t like onion breath at school. Let me note we didn’t notice that problem.

The Pasta Lasagna is a recipe I discovered on that uses similar ingredients to the recipe above but has flavors that are quite different. Both these recipes may become as popular in your home as they are in ours.

Even though it has been extremely difficult to locate the can of pumpkin puree that is a key ingredient in Pumpkin Black Bean Soup, I’m going to include it because we thoroughly enjoyed it and — you may just have that elusive can of pumpkin in your pantry. Libby’s (the label under which most of the pumpkin puree is canned) grows the majority of its  pumpkins in fields in Illinois but last fall, Mother Nature drowned the pumpkin crop just prior to harvesting and consequently the pumpkin puree normally so plentiful is a rare commodity. So if you’re not the lucky owner of a can of pumpkin puree, cut this recipe out and wait for next fall. This recipe also comes from

Paula Deen’s Cheeseburger Casserole
1 pound lean ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 (28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
8-ounces wide egg noodles
Cooking spray
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese (I used 3 cups)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet, cook the ground beef over medium heat, stirring to break up the lumps, until all of the pink is gone from the meat. Get an adult to help you drain off the fat. Add the onion and the green pepper, and cook until the vegetables are tender, about five minutes. Add the tomatoes with juice and the Worcestershire sauce, oregano, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then lower the heat to low. Simmer for about 15 minutes.

Fill medium pot half full of water. Add remaining one teaspoon salt. Bring the water to a boil. Stir in the noodles and boil for about eight minutes until tender. Get an adult to help you drain the noodles. Return the noodles to the pot. Pour the tomato mixture over the noodles and stir until blended. Put the noodle mixture into a shallow 2-quart baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Top with cheese. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the cheese is melted.

Serves six.

Pasta Lasagna
1/2 pound (8-ounces) penne pasta
1/2 to 3/4 pound lean ground beef
1 (26-ounce) jar pasta sauce
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese
8-ounces shredded Mozzarella cheese, divided usage
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2 1/2 quart (9-by-13-inch) baking dish and set aside. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for eight to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain.

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook beef until browned, draining off any fat if necessary. Stir in pasta sauce; remove from heat. In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, one cup of the mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese and egg. Stir until well combined.

In the prepared baking dish, layer half of the pasta, half of the sauce and half of the cheese mixture. Repeat layers. Top with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes until hot and bubbly.

Serves five or six.

Pumpkin Black Bean Soup
(Best made a day in advance to allow flavors to blend)
3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (16-ounce) can petite diced tomatoes with juicer
1/4 cup butter
1 1/4 cups chopped onion
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
4 cups chicken or beef broth
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 pound cubed cooked ham (optional)

Pour two cans of the rinsed and drained black beans into a food processor or blender along with the can of tomatoes. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

Melt butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook and stir until the onion is softened. Stir in bean puree, remaining rinsed and drained beans, broth, pumpkin puree and sherry vinegar. Mix until well blended then simmer for about 25 minutes. Stir in the ham and heat through before serving.
Serves six to eight.

(We felt the flavors blended better the second day so you may want to make this one day in advance, refrigerate and then re-heat.)