The Devil’s in the Details

Being vegetable farmers, we don’t eat out a lot.  When we do go into town and want to eat out, we tend to stay away from chain restaurants.  In a pinch we are willing to eat at Panera or Chipotle.  There are many reasons for this that I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say, we can eat better at home.

We did however find ourselves in Panera the other day for lunch.  I was desperate for the restroom at the time, so while Val was ordering I hurriedly headed in that direction.  I opened the door to find a man standing there.  He looked surprised, then annoyed.  I gave him my best disapproving look and slipped into a stall, promptly locking myself in.  I waited until I heard the thud of the restroom door and let out a sigh of relief.  What was he doing in here anyway?  Hopefully he wasn’t a pervert!  Maybe he was just confused?  No, I thought and settled on jerk.  I finished my business, unlocked the stall and headed to the sink to wash my hands.  It was then I noticed the urinals to my right.  My face flushed bright red in the mirror.  I gathered my pride, picked up my 2 inch self and quietly slithered out of the restroom, hoping desperately to go unnoticed.  They really should make those signs bigger!  Walking briskly past the gentleman who had been in the men’s room, I flashed him my best smile, although my flushed face was a dead giveaway.  I sat down across from Val and said, “I think I’ve lost my appetite.”

“How come?”

I was full of humble pie.  All the way home we would look at each other, laugh hysterically and I would just shake my head.  I was so sure.  Once home it was clear that I needed some comfort food.  We settled on homemade Mac-N-Cheese.  At least it was something I could be sure of!

Assembling the ingredients

In the beginning, mac-n-cheese for me was made with good old-fashioned Velveeta and plenty of it.  Then we upgraded to Kraft, as it was cheep and easy.  Sometimes we would even jazz it up with a little diced ham.  After having my fill of this approach, when I was single and low on cash, I started looking for the real thing.  I soon found there are many approaches to homemade mac-n-cheese.  I now use a version which enables me to use many different kinds of cheese, along with protein and vegetable additions.  I appreciate a recipe that offers so much flexibility and that can be adjusted to the diners preferences.  Top it with homemade breadcrumbs and bake it for a real down-home and satisfying dish.

Flexible Mac-N-Cheese:

For the topping

  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups coarse, fresh breadcrumbs, lightly toasted
  • 2 Tbsp finely grated Pecorino cheese

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F.  Place bread crumbs on cookie sheet or jelly roll pan and toast lightly (about 8-10 minutes).  Place toasted bread crumbs in bowl and toss with butter, garlic and cheese.  Set aside.
For the cheese sauce
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 cups whole milk
  • Kosher salt
  • 3-5 cups of freshly grated soft cheese such as: Sharp Cheddar, Gruyère, Comte, Gouda, Fontina, Monterey Jack or Havarti
  • 1 cup finely grated accent cheese such as:  Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, Feta, Chevre or Mascarpone

Melt butter in a heavy-duty saucepan or Dutch oven on low.  Whisk in flour and continue to whisk over low heat for about 3 minutes.  The butter and flour should gently bubble without coloring.

Making a roux for the cheese sauce

Slowly add the milk, while whisking constantly.  Whisk until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of heavy cream, about 6-10 minutes.  Raise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, continuing to whisk constantly.  Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 10 minutes.  Turn off heat and gently whisk in your cheeses and any herbs and spices you have selected.

  
Optional Herbs or Spices
  • 1 1/2 tsp fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage or 1/4 cup of parsley (no more than two)
  • 1 tsp of freshly ground black pepper, dry mustard or toasted and ground cumin or 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper or nutmeg (no more than two)
Add-Ins (optional)
  • Combinations of vegetables and/or proteins up to 3 cups such as:  frozen peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, ham or prosciutto, scallions, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, chard or kale, bacon or pancetta, jalapeno or Serrano chiles. 
Make sure you cut and cook your vegetables until just tender or al-dente before adding them.  Fry your bacon or pancetta ahead of time, then drain on paper towels.                        
Pasta
  • Use 16 oz or 1 lb of pasta such as:  elbows, shells, penne, campanelle, ziti, cavatappi, rotini or pipette.
Boil the pasta according to package directions, less one minute.  Drain and place it back in warm pot to combine the rest of the ingredients.  I do this while I’m making the cheese sauce.  Mix pasta, cheese sauce and  add-ins to combine.  Place in 13×9 inch casserole dish, and top with reserved breadcrumbs.  Place in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until hot and breadcrumbs are golden.  Serve immediately.
Serves 6

This version has spinach, ham, Monterey Jack, Fontina & Pecorino

“Swallow your pride occasionally, it’s non-fattening.”  –author unknown

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4 Responses to The Devil’s in the Details

  1. Hi 🙂 I will let you know. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog, for the follow and adding me to your blogroll – I so much appreciate it. 🙂 Have a great weekend.

  2. I was laughing out loud … great story! Sounds like something I would do! And your recipe sounds wonderful. I haven’t made mac and cheese in quite awhile … I think it’s time. 🙂

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