Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mac and Cheese, plus a Beet-y bonus

I didn't grow up in a mac and cheese household. We had Velveeta Shells n Cheese sometimes, and, don't get me wrong, I still love that stuff. But homemade mac and cheese was never something any of us really invested time into perfecting. I didn't miss it, though---we had plenty of amazing decadent other dishes to choose from.

As an adult, though, I do have a go-to mac and cheese recipe which I make every few months for a treat. I started with Robin Miller's recipe on the Food Network. Robin's whole schtick is "Quick-Fix" home cooking for the working parent, so she creates strategies wherein, for example, you cook four chicken breasts at once, use two in a given recipe, and you save the other two for a meal later in the week. The quick-fix strategy applies to her mac and cheese in the sense that a) there's no baking, and b) everything comes together in 20 mins or less. Reasonable for a weeknight, right? 

My only caution is that, while it's a fast recipe, it takes a lot of focus. It requires three different pans going on the stove at once, and two of the three are at risk for burning/overcooking if you leave them unattended. 

Here's what you need:
(once more, please note this is adapted from Robin Miller's Mac n Cheese on
  • One box/bag of pasta of your choice. My favorite is Barilla Plus Rotini because it has protein, fiber, and the shape holds the cheese nicely.
  • One 12oz can evaporated milk. This is available in various fat percentages... I have no opinion regarding which to use.
  • 4-5 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated. I like to grate it myself. By which I mean Edwin does it.
  • 4-5 oz monterey jack cheese, grated. See above.
  • 2 T dijon mustard
  • light dusting of fresh grated nutmeg
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4c plain Greek yogurt OR regular yogurt OR sour cream. Greek is best. Fat percentages, again, are your call.
  • few dashes hot sauce. Don't skip this!
  • 1/2 c plain breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 c grated parmesan

This fills a 13 x 9 dish nicely. I like to half the recipe when it's just the two of us.
I'm not a professional, people.
Not pictured: yogurt
Here's what needs to happen:

- Pasta is boiled in salted water until just al dente. 
- Pasta is drained and tossed with yogurt/sour cream, a little salt/pepper, and set aside
- Cheese is grated (if necessary)
- Cheese sauce is made and kept warm but NOT hot
- Breadcrumbs and parmesan toasted in a dry skillet

The timing can be tricky because, for example, you don't want the pasta to get too cold after you set it aside. So, it needs to be cooked, drained, and tossed with the yogurt all right around the time that the cheese sauce is finished and the breadcrumbs are toasted. It can be done! Just stay focused.

I like to get the pasta water boiling while all other ingredients are prepped. This means grating the cheese...
This is a half batch.
...putting the evaporated milk in a saucepan and hold it at LOW heat

With the milk: black pepper, a few grates of nutmeg, 2T dijon mustard, few dashes hot sauce, salt to taste, optional flavor additions (garlic clove cut in half, fresh thyme)
...and throw the breadcrumbs and parmesan into a dry skillet for toasting

I do not measure this. Roughly 50/50. 
You can even prepare your Final Serving Dish by spooning the yogurt/sour cream into it. When the pasta is drained, you'll put it in this dish and toss it with the yogurt. /sour cream.
Again, half batch!
Now that everything is in place, you can turn up the pasta water if it's not already boiling, and get everybody on their way. Boil the pasta. Once the milk mixture is warm (bath water temp?) you can either let it "steep" for a few mins, or you can just take out the garlic cloves and add the cheese. Let the cheese melt slowly into the milk. Do not let it get too hot! Cheese and milk will both separate if they get hot... meaning the mixture will "curdle." It's still edible, just, you know, ugly. Turn the heat up on the breadcrumbs/parm as well so they can get toasting. Stir them around every few minutes for even color. 
This gives the "toasty crunch" that baking would have provided.
Still with me? When the pasta is ready, drain it and toss it with the yogurt/sour cream. If your cheese is smoothly melted into the milk, you can go ahead and pour it over the pasta and stir it around.
Action shot! My sauce was a little runny, probably because I halved the recipe and didn't measure hardly anything. It does thicken as it cools, though. Because it's mostly cheese.
See that pooling? Again, the sauce thickens as it cools, so you can just keep stirring it around to help the process, or you can accept the pooling and use a spoon to serve.
And don't forget to sprinkle your toasty breadcrumbs!
Delicious optional add-ins:
  • bacon
  • parsley
  • spinach
  • tuna
  • ham
  • chives
  • artichoke hearts
  • basically anything savory that tastes good with cheese

One last note on heat:

Since the milk and/or cheese will curdle if you let it get too hot, this means curdling is nearly inevitable when you microwave any leftovers. I'm just warning you. It still tastes good, it just won't be creamy anymore. 

And since this entry was nearly devoid of nice colors, I am throwing in a bonus dish!

Earth Day Pickled Beets

I love pickled beets. There, I said it! I think plain roasted beets taste like dirt (literal dirt. Earthy. Wet. Dirt-y.) and thus I really prefer the sweet and sour zip of beets that have been pickled. I made pickled beets on Earth Day on sort of a whim, but, you know, since they're so one-with-the-Earth anyway it seems pretty appropriate, right? And they are so goldarn beautiful! There are golden varieties, candy-striped varieties... sometimes I can't stand how lovely beets are.

I mean, seriously. This is food! From the ground! Amazing.
I halved the beets and put them in a foil packet with a shallot and some fresh rosemary.

And then I cooked the packet in the oven at 400° for an hour.
People who regularly cook beets will tell you that the skins slide right off afterward. I didn't cook them for quite long enough because I was impatient. Thus, skin removal was a real pill. 

Anyway, I peeled them and cut them into pieces, then moved them to a big glass bowl to cool down. When the beets were still roasting, I made the pickling liquid out of 2c water, 2c vinegar, 2c cane sugar, and a sprinkle of dried tarragon. I chose tarragon because Alton Brown's recipe for pickled beets calls for "tarragon vinegar." Also, most pickled beet recipes call for apple cider vinegar rather than white vinegar. ...I didn't have apple cider vinegar, so I used white, but I cut it with a little rice wine vinegar, thinking that would "soften the blow." I cooked all these items together in a saucepan until the sugar was dissolved, and then I cooled it down.

Finally, I poured the liquid over the cut beets, and I threw in a halved garlic clove or two. I'm going to let this sit, covered in the refrigerator, for five days before eating. I can't wait! I'm saving the lovely beet greens for a greens 'n' tomato toss later this week.

Do you think this is enough for one person?

1 comment:

  1. Loved that recipe when had it at your home...and had forgotten about it. Thanks! Mom