Sunday, January 15, 2006

new ways with mac & cheese, part II

I had a dinner party last night. It was one of those dinner parties where everything comes together, where every recipe turns out wonderfully and everyone's having a good time, talking for hours. Good food can definitely facilitate that. The menu: mustard-and-herb chicken from this month's Food & Wine, balsamic-roasted green beans, the crusty macaroni and cheese recipe from the NY Times, a salad with walnuts & pear dressing, and for dessert, molten chocolate cakes (I've made these before-- sometimes they unmold beautifully, sometimes they don't, but they always taste delicious).

The two recipes that I will absolutely 100% make again were the macaroni & cheese and the mustard-and-herb chicken. Amazing. The mac & cheese recipe, the second from the NY Times article on the perfect macaroni and cheese, blew the creamy recipe out of the water. (Actually, after making this one, I am pretty sure I will not return to the other recipe). This recipe was not grainy but flavorful, crunchy, creamy inside, a hint of spice... in short, unbelievable. There were two kids at our dinner party, a 6 and 9 year old, and they loved it, too, which impressed me because I've seen so many American kids who will only eat the stuff from the box.

The original article commented that American cheese has superior meltability, so the recipe is a mix of sharp cheddar and American. I couldn't find the American in the Publix supermarket, so I was shocked when I asked and discovered it was in the nonperishable food aisle-- not refrigerated at all. Okay, no big deal. It does melt perfectly. Basically this recipe is just cooked macaroni mixed with a ton of cheese, placed in a pan, milk poured on top, and cheese sprinkled over, then baked for a very long time until it develops a crust both on top and on the bottom.

The mustard-herb chicken thighs are prepared in a skillet that can go into the oven (my new cast iron skillet is wonderful-- very affordable at Ross Dress-for-Less). You saute them first, flip them over, smear them with mustard and place a breadcrumb coating on top, then bake in the oven for 15 minutes. The recipe directions are firm that you should use fresh breadcrumbs, not the stuff in a can, and in this case you really must do this. Yum, yum, yum. Here are the two recipes:

Crusty Macaroni & Cheese
3 Tblsp. butter
12 ounces extra sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
12 ounces American cheese, coarsely grated
1 lb. elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
salt to taste
2/3 cup lowfat milk (using lowfat did not make a difference here)

Heat oven to 375. Coat 9 x 13 pan with 1 Tblsp. butter. Mix together the grated cheeses and set aside two cups. When pasta is cooked, toss in a large bowl with the rest of the cheese, cayenne, and salt. Place in baking dish and pour milk over top. Sprinkle reserved 2 cups of cheese on top, dot with remaining butter, and bake, uncovered, 45 minutes. Raise heat to 400 and bake another few minutes until crusty. (Recipe said 15-20 minutes of extra baking, but mine was already well-browned after 5.). Serves 8.

Mustard-and-Herb Chicken (Serves 2-- double for more people)
2 1-inch slices of country bread, torn
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan or pecorino romano
1/4 cup olive oil
4 boneless chicken thighs
2 Tblsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tblsp. butter
1 small onion, thinly sliced
Pinch sugar
1 Tblsp. fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400. Pulse bread in food processor until finely shredded. Add garlic, rosemary, parmesan, season with salt & pepper to taste and combine. Add 2 Tlbsp. of olive oil and pulse just to moisten crumbs.

In an ovenproof skillet, heat 2 Tblsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper, saute on one side until golden, about 6 minutes. Turn over, smear Dijon mustard over skin, and spoon bread crumbs on top, patting with back of spoon. Place skillet in oven and roast for 15 minutes or until crumbs are golden and crunchy. (I left mine in the oven, which I switched off, while I finished the rest of the dinner, and with thighs I don't think they dry out, although breasts would).

Sauce: I made this but the chicken really would have been fine on its own, without it. Saute onions in butter with sugar for 6-7 minutes until soft. Add lemon juice, cook until evaporated, about 2 minutes. Spoon onions onto plate, top with chicken.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

new ways with macaroni & cheese

One of the "most emailed stories" in the NY Times this week was an article from this past Wednesday's food section, about a quest for the perfect macaroni cheese, one made neither from a box nor with a flour-water white sauce. Like the writer of the article, macaroni and cheese was not around much in my childhood household, either, so when I went away to school and discovered the Kraft stuff, I was hooked. I don't like the Kraft box version much anymore, especially since I learned about how many weird chemicals and preservatives are in it, but it's good to know there are organic box varieties out there that are even better and not much more than $1.50 each (The article also does an extensive review of those, and I can vouch for Annie's being tasty).

But I was most intrigued by the author's search for the perfect recipe, and she included two, one that professed to be creamy, the other crusty. I could hardly see how the creamy recipe would not also be crusty, since it involved uncovered baking time, which is guaranteed to put a crunchy layer of cheese over the top. What I was really curious about was the fact that she baked the uncooked macaroni right there in the pasta, and that it also featured cottage cheese placed in a blender to remove its consistency.

I tried this one the other night, using all the high-fat ingredients required just so I could get the whole effect. Next time I'll try it with lowfat ingredients and see if it works. A colleague of mine made it with low-fat ingredients and commented that the final texture was "grainy." This was a little bit true of this recipe, but it didn't strike me as grainy in a bad way. The entire pound of sharp cheddar was delicious and decadent, it did have a crunchy crust, and the noodles perfectly absorbed all the creamy goodness of the cheeses. I would definitely try to make this again, but my next move will be to tackle the second NY Times recipe, for "crusty macaroni and cheese."

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

2 T. butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not lowfat)
2 cups milk (not skim)
1 tsp. dried mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 pound sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 pound elbow pasta, uncooked

Heat oven to 375. Using one tablespoon of the butter, grease a 9" round or square baking pan, or gratin dish. In a blender, puree cottage cheese, milk & spices. Set aside 1/4 cup grated cheddar. In a large bowl, mix pureed milk mixture with the rest of the cheddar cheese & uncooked pasta. Pour into pan, cover tightly with foil, and bake 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, uncover pan, stir gently, and scatter remaining cheese over all, dotting with another tablespoon of butter. Bake, this time uncovered, for another 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

pears poached with mascarpone

After the gluttony of the holidays, here's a simple dessert recipe that you can make that won't feel excessive... The mascarpone cheese is creamy without being overbearing, almost like a whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Pears poached with mascarpone cheese
2 Bosc pears, peeled, halved, & cored
2 Tblsp. lemon juice
1 cup water
1/2 cup white wine
6 Tblsp. honey
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
2 tsp. sugar

Toss pear halves with lemon juice & set aside. In a saucepan, combine water, wine, & honey, scraping in seeds of vanilla bean. (If you don't have a vanilla bean lying around, add 1 tsp. vanilla.) Heat until honey dissolves, add pears & simmer on medium low until pears are tender, turning halfway through cooking, 15-20 minutes.

Remove pears to a bowl and boil liquid until reduced to 3/4 cup. Cool syrup & pour over pears, cover & refrigerate. The recipe said to refrigerate at least 8 hours but I only did it for three-- it was really good, but perhaps would be even better if I'd waited longer... Remove vanilla bean.

Beat mascrapone cheese & sugar until smooth, add 1/4 cup of the chilled poaching syrup and whisk until soft peaks form. Place pears on plates, pouring syrup over, and add scoop of mascarpone cream into middle of pear half. Serve & enjoy...