Shit just got out of hand! “Italian” Mac-n-Cheese

from Daniel Larkin
to Jamey

I know I had mentioned to you about a week ago that I was planning on making some Southern Mac ‘n Cheese. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask) things got a little out of hand, and my simple comfort food spiraled into a whole different genre of dairy-and-pasta. Here’s how it all started.

I’ve made good Mac ‘n Cheese in the past, so good in fact that Jenny and my mother in-law both requested it for their birthday meals. Personally, I like my recipe, but I’ve never been a fan of fact that it’s kind of bullshit in that it’s just pasta, a roux with milk, and Velveeta. It tastes good. Obviously it should, Velveeta is engineered to hit every one of my fat-man sensors, but it’s too processed to warrant any real pride.

Well I recently found a squash “souffle” recipe that caught my eye, and its gooey consistency was perfect for what I wanted. So that’s where this all began. I say “began” because things really did get out of hand; I ran out of things, let time lapse on a few occasions, and ended up generally winging it.

Now before I lay this all out, I want to express my disgust for food companies that think adding a tiny bit of olive oil and a smidgen of shitty parmesan cheese to an already substandard product makes it “Italian” and therefore “gourmet.” Bullshit!  Italian food starts from the beginning concept, and is always about freshness! That’s why I refuse to call this Italian Mac ‘n Cheese.  This was all a happy accident that ended up using a few “Italian” components. But it’s kind of Italian Mac ‘n Cheese.

Here’s the ingredient list:

  •     12 Ounces whole wheat pasta spirals – cooked al dente, cooled
  •     3/4 pint cherry tomatoes – halved
  •     Bunch fresh basil
  •     Extra virgin olive oil
  •     Good shaved parmesan
  •     Handful fresh parsley
  •     2 Eggs — separated

For the sauce:

  •     2 tbs Butter
  •     2 tbs All purpose flour
  •     8 oz. block of good cheddar – shredded
  •     One cup whole cottage cheese.  None of that low fat bullshit.
  •     1-1/2 cups whole milk
  •     1-1/2 tsp salt, pepper to taste
  •     3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  •     Red pepper flakes to taste. (Late thought.  I didn’t try it, but it would certainly work wonders)

Toss your sliced grape tomatoes and chopped garlic in olive oil and roast them in the oven at 400º for 10 to 15 minutes — until they become fragrant.

Now, make the darkest roux you can with the butter and flour.  (Melt the butter over low heat, add the flour, and cook on LOW stirring often, until you get the color of cardboard.  If it smells like burning cardboard, you went too hot and need to start again.)

Add the milk to the roux and stir while you continue to simmer.  This will turn into a velvety rich cream.

Adding the cheese will cause the sauce to cool a bit.  That’s fine, because we want it a bit cool before we add the egg yolks.  After you’ve added the cheese and egg yolks, take the egg whites and whip them until they’re nice and frothy.

The rest is simple.  Just toss everything together in an oven safe dish; pasta, cheese sauce, roasted tomatoes and garlic, parsley and egg whites.  Top it all off with a sparse, but noticeable layer of parmesan and cover it.  Place the covered dish in an oven that has been preheated to 350º and bake for 30 minutes.

NOW!  Like I said, some of my personal timing was off.  Like an idiot, I tried to work out while this was cooking, and I let it go for close to an hour.  While that made for good burnt cheese sides (yumm!) it also dried everything out a bit.  I rolled with the punches and tried to moisten it up with late addition of cold, clean olive oil, which really breathed a breath of freshness that elevated everything to the next level.

So serve, scoop out a good portion, top with some chopped fresh basil and a good drizzle of fresh olive oil.

There you go, dude.  It may sound like a bit much for Mac ‘n Cheese, but it turned out wonderful.  Jenny and her mother both said it was better than the Velveeta version.  And that’s something I can actually be proud of.

from Jamey W. Bennett
to me

YUM! I do not believe one can go too far with mac n cheese. I always tell people when raving about Stone Brewing Company to drop the $18 on their mac n cheese, because it’s worth every penny. Sounds like you have $18-grade mac n cheese!

As far as the roux and burnt cardboard…I think that’s where I went wrong on my mac n cheese back at Easter. I knew immediately what you meant when you said that.

Fresh Red Sauce

from Daniel Larkin
to jamey10:39 AM

I know I’ve told you about my rustic marinara with carrots, onion, celery, rosemary, thyme, oregano and Cabernet Sauvignon; a recipe I learned/adapted while working at Cafe Nonna in Nashville.  I use this for lasagna and other hearty dishes.

But I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about my simple red sauce.  It’s nothing I learned at a job or from some aged family member.  I’m slightly ashamed to admit I learned it from Anthony Bourdain’s “Skills” episode of No Reservations.  (Most other things on that episode were stupid basics I already knew, but the sauce stood out so much to me that I made it the next day.)

I’ve made this recipe using both fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes, and as long as you use San Marzano canned tomatoes, there’s almost no discernible difference.  I’ll probably still make it fresh every now and then just because I enjoy the process.  The recipe calls for Roma tomatoes, but I’ll bet you can use any tomato variety, so long as it’s been vine ripened and has a good sweet flavor.

To make it with fresh tomatoes

  • Blanche a few pounds of Roma tomatoes until the skins break, and then transfer them to a bowl of ice water.  This should only take a few minutes, and it’s more efficient to only do a few tomatoes at a time – that way you don’t drop the temperature of the boiling water too much, and you can keep a closer eye on the tomatoes.
  • Once the tomatoes have cooled, peel the skin off.  (this is actually very easy, since the skins have separated during the blanching process)  Over a bowl, run your fingers through the tomato cavities and take out as many seeds as possible.  Don’t worry about getting them all, I think that’s impossible.  You can reserve the liquid and seed mix to strain and add later if you think the sauce needs it.
  • Toss the tomato flesh into a heavy-bottomed pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil, some salt and a few shakes of red pepper flakes.  Cook this all on low for about 45 minutes, mashing it with a potato masher every few minutes.  The goal is to get a semi-smooth consistency without having to use a blender.

Or, you can use two 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes.  Toss them in a pot with the oil, salt and pepper – skip the potato masher – and cooking for about 30 minutes.

Here’s the secret to this recipe, and where the fresh and canned tomato recipes converge.  In a separate small pan (I use one of those tiny single-egg pans) toss between five and ten cloves of garlic cut in half.  Obviously, the more garlic you use, the more you’ll taste it, so plan accordingly.

Next, throw in a handful of fresh basil leaves on top of that; again, using as much as you think you would like, but at least a good handful.  Sprinkle on a few more red pepper flakes, and douse it all with enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the garlic.  (I use the one-egg pan because I can easily cover the garlic with less than a cup of oil.)  Warm this mixture on low heat until the basil has wilted into the oil, and keep it on low while the tomatoes simmer. The point here is to infuse the oil with the garlic and basil flavors.

When your tomatoes are at the right consistency, pour in the oil – through a strainer, leaving the garlic and basil behind – and whip vigorously to incorporate the oil into the tomato mix.  (In the picture below, I’ve separated the oil into another container, because I was dehydrating the tomato mixture for a hiking trip.  You can’t dehydrate fat, so I packed the oil separately an incorporated it at camp.)  

Anyway, now take a deep whiff!!  Hot damn!

This is great served just with noodles. Throw 4 ounces of al dente noodles and a splash of noodle water and about 6 ounces of sauce into a shallow pan.  Let it simmer until the noodles are done, and then drop in about a tbs of butter (yum) and some chopped fresh basil.  Toss it all in the pan for a bit – try to look like a celebrity chef.  Plate it up and eat.

It’s a super simple sauce, and you can’t beat the freshness of it all.  The sweet acidic tomatoes and the rich garlic and fresh basil.  Man, it’s great.

OR!!!! This stuff makes fantastic pizza sauce!  The flavors are so fresh and bright, that they just sing on a plain cheese pie.