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.

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Harissa (North African Hot Sauce/Paste)

Hey Dude!

Man, I am so excited. I finally tried my hand at harissa, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Don’t know if you’ve ever had harissa, but back when I was selling hummus, a company from D.C., called Cava, was demo-ing some harissa next to me, and I fell in freaking love with it.

What makes their harissa unique, and so damn good, is their use of stewed tomatoes. So I wanted to see if I could figure out a harissa with tomatoes at the base. And since I have several bags of smoked or dried peppers in my pantry, my brain put the following together

  • 10-12 sun-dried tomatoes (I used Bella Sun Luci)
  • 1 red pepper
  • 2 ancho peppers (dried poblanos, check a Mexican grocery store)
  • 1 smoked ghost pepper
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • Salt, caraway, ground coriander, parsley
  • Lemon juice
  • Red wine vinegar

My method was quite simple. I roasted the red pepper and sun dried tomatoes at 350 degrees. I pulled the sun-dried tomatoes out after about 10 minutes, then kept roasting the pepper about 20 more minutes. After it was roasted, I let it cool until I could handle it, and I pulled the skin off.

Meanwhile, I submerged the ancho peppers and ghost pepper in a glass of water. Likewise, I soaked the now roasted sun-dried tomatoes in a separate glass of water.

Then, I simply combined all the ingredients in my food processor, adding a few shakes of each of the seasonings.

I used the lemon juice and red wine vinegar for flavor, preservation, and pasty consistency, 1 tablespoon at a time. In all, I think I used 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 1-1/2 or 2 of red wine vinegar. Added a little more salt, and bam. I have a delicious African condiment. Goes great on sandwiches, meat, pita bread, mixed with hummus, whatever!

I’m not sure roasting the sun-dried tomatoes was necessary, so next time I’ll probably try it without and see how it compares.

Thai Weeping Tiger Steak Taco

[NOTE: This is the first in an on-going series of posts on fusion tacos, where food from around the world goes wild, and becomes something greater: a taco.]

from: Jamey Bennett
to: Daniel Larkin

Hey Dude,

I hope your hike is going well. Sorry about texting you when you were on the trail. I wasn’t thinking!

SO I found out there is a Thai taco fusion truck on the Drexel campus, just a couple miles away, so we went to find a taco today. I wanted to get some ideas from them, and, well, I just wanted a taco. Unfortunately, after driving around the city trying to find it, getting distracted and going to Trader Joe’s and a camera shop, we got to the taco truck…and it was closed for some reason.

Fortunately, I had two 5 oz. beef tenderloins thawing back at home, and bought some awesome flour tortillas at Trader Joe’s. So I went home and got started.

I absolutely love Thai food, but find myself ordering the same things when I’m at a restaurant. It’s only at home that I find myself dabbling in the other kinds of Thai food. But I’ve seen Weeping Tiger Steak served at a number of Thai restaurants, sometimes even cold over greens. There are several legends about Weeping Tiger Steak, ranging from someone stealing a cow from a tiger and him crying about it, to serving it so spicy that even a tiger couldn’t take the heat.

Whatever the case may be, I wanted to save the weeping for the salsa. A Thai salsa seemed tricky at first. From what I can tell, Weeping Tiger Steak is sometimes served with a dipping sauce, and the sauce sometimes has tomatoes. So I searched out a few Thai and Laotian chili sauces, took a few ideas, upped the tomato content, thereby adapting it into a salsa.

I took a dozen small tomatoes (you can use cherry tomatoes, mini heirlooms, whatever), and roasted them in a skillet with about 1/4 red onion and 2 cloves of minced garlic. Essentially, the idea is to blacken more than to sautee, and boy do the tomatoes get so delicious in the carmelization process. Once roasted, I put them in my food processor with 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper, 8 fresh and uncooked cherry tomatoes, 2 tablespoons white vinegar, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon sugar.

The salsa is good enough for dipping chips, and there should be enough left over to use it for just that purpose. That said, some may not be a fan of the flavor of the fish sauce…so if I were to serve it as a dip, I’d consider omitting the fish sauce. However, at that point, it becomes less Thai and more Mexican.

For the beef, I took 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. I mixed well, and poured over the steaks. I let that marinate for about an hour, flipping over and shaking a few times to get the steaks covered really well. Then I simply threw them over the charcoal grill until ready.  Sliced into fajita style strips, and served over a flour tortilla with greens, tomatoes, and the “Thai salsa.”

To recap, here’s all the necessary ingredients:

  • 2 tbs soy sauce
  • 1 tbs fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 10 oz. beef

Salsa:

  • About 20 cherry tomatoes
  • 1/4 red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbs crushed red pepper
  • 2 tbs white vinegar (or lime juice)
  • 2 tbs fish sauce
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • Cooking oil (sesame, sunflower, whatever)

Finally:

  • Tortillas
  • Mixed greens
  • Sliced or diced tomatoes for taco garnish
  • Optional: Sriracha to taste

Makes three large tacos (8-inch flour tortillas), more if you use the 4 or 6 inch tortillas, of course.

Later,
jamey

from Daniel Larkin
to jamey w. bennett

I read this email on my phone on the way home, and almost made the guys search out a Thai restaurant.  It’s 8:22 in the morning now, and I want spicy steak after rereading this.

The flavors sound dead on fantastic, and I love the adaptations from Mexican and Thai.

Sheila’s Amazing Beer Chili

from: Jamey W. Bennett 
to: Daniel Larkin

Dude,

My friend Sheila in Nashville makes what is possibly the best chili I’ve ever had. Last year, she gave me her recipe to use in a chili cook-off at church, and she has given me permission to share it with the world.

She sent me a follow-up email about a meatless version she makes. She said she does it pretty much the same way as below, except for no meat and more beans.

Cheers,
Jamey

From: Sheila Uselton
Subject: Re: chili
To: “Jamey W. Bennett” 

Okay Jamey. Here is my attempt to remember how I make chili.

First I brown a pound or so of good quality ground beef. (ground round or sirloin, etc.) AND a pound of hot sausage like Jimmy Dean’s or whatever. While that is browning I also throw in a chopped poblano pepper (or two if they are really small.)

After the meat is brown I start adding stuff. I add my chili mix, which is usually the Wick Fowler chili kit. Just get one or two if you are making a big batch.I like chili mixes that contain masa. Then I add a large can or two of crushed tomatoes. I always get two cans in case it needs it. Then add your beans. I use black beans and light red kidney beans. I also put in a can of yellow hominy to pay homage to our love of New Mexico southwestern style cooking. I always add a bit more garlic and ground cumin too.Then take two beers out of the fridge. Pour in one beer and make sure it is not a sweet beer. Drink the other beer. At this point, just eyeball it and add whatever else you think it might need.

Now, here is the secret that I just discovered that is amazing. Buy a can of chipotle chilies (smoked jalapenos) and add those. It gives it the most amazing flavor. You will find these little devils in the Mexican food section of your store. Or go to the Mexican grocery store if it’s close by. The ones I used came in a small can with some kind of red sauce in them. Put the chilies AND the sauce in. I think they also can be found in a dried form, but I did not want to have to mess with rehydrating them due to my laziness. Keep in mind however, that this will make your chili HOT, so be discriminating as you add these. Your judges might be pansies from the East who can’t take the heat.

Call or text me if you have any questions. Hope you win!

Love,
S.

[Editor’s Note: Don’t forget the sour cream, cheese, Fritos, hot sauce, or whatever else you like with your chili.]

IPA-Crusted Pizza

Dude,
It was good to talk to you tonight, and a bit of an encouragement just to share stuff with ya.

So the verdict is in. The pizza was really good. I’m still way amateur when it comes to homemade pizza, but theconsistency and presentation on this one was pretty good.

Basically, I kinda just winged it. I really wanted pizza, but I wanted to stick with my October Unprocessed commitment. So at Trader Joe’s I picked up unbleached whole-wheat flour, and some good, basic mozzarella with no crazy anti-caking agents or anything. I had bacon from Whole Foods, local hot sausage from the farmer’s market, and some jalapenos I pickled myself (inspired by your pickled eggs bit).

For the dough, I used 4 cups flour, 1 tsp. baking powder (this is the only iffy thing on processed foods), 1-1/2 tsp. salt, a packet of yeast, 2 tbs. olive oil, and a can of beer. Mixed it together (had to add a little water), kneaded it and covered. After about 2 hours I split it in two, rolled it into a ball, and then flattened that shit.

I did my own pizza sauce, too (sorta). I got the idea from AllRecipes.com, but I did things my own way. Basically, I took about 4 oz. tomato paste, 3 tbs. grated parmesan, a couple garlic cloves, 2 tbs. honey (instead of sugar), ¾ teaspoon onion powder, and ¼ tsp. of each of the following: oregano, marjoram, fresh basil, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and red pepper flakes. Then I slowly poured crushed tomatoes into the mix, stirring constantly, until it tasted how I wanted. I also salted to taste. It was sweet and yummy.

One pizza was a spicy Hawaiian-style. I used bacon, sausage, pineapple, and jalapeno.

The other pizza was full of caramelized goodness. I caramelized slices of heirloom tomatoes (!!!!!) in my skillet, and caramelized some onions – all with my local, organic, raw butter. Threw that on a pizza with cheese. DAMN. I think tomorrow I might just caramelize some tomatoes to eat like candy.

Sprinkled oregano on top, then baked at 400 degrees. I always bake in a pan, then for the last couple minutes I pull the pizza off the pan with my pizza peel and put it directly on the rack.

I’m interested in your pizza tips one day.

Cheers,
Jamey

P.S. Oh yeah, and I brushed melted butter on the crust. It was awesome.