Crispy Mac & Cheese With Artichokes, Fried Shallots & Panko

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Macaroni and cheese is an iconic dish, indelibly associated in most peoples’ minds with American Southern or comfort cooking. Like many classic American dishes, its’ origins lie elsewhere–in this case Italy and France, via England. Leaving aside powdered and boxed versions, the idea of binding cooked pasta with a Mornay sauce (essentially a Bechamel with cheese) and baking it in the oven is at least a couple hundred years old.

To my mind there are exactly two kinds of macaroni and cheese : crispy and creamy. Endless additions and variations on these themes are all well and good as long as the results play out as either something crusty and crunchy and cheesy and dry or something thick and creamy and cheesy and soft. Inbetween measures are to be despised, as are most attempts to capture the best of both worlds by having a crusty top and soft interior. In my experience, such efforts are either doomed to end in failure or dissatisfaction.

There are no shortcuts to a proper mac & cheese of either variety. Here we have the crusty, crispy kind. The kind that, when reheated, is dry (but in a good way) and chewy (but in a good way), bound with just enough sauce to keep everything toothsome but not to detract from the tactile pleasures of a proper crunchy mac.

The first thing to do is cook your pasta. You will want to make a pound of pasta, boiled until al dente or perhaps slightly stiffer than that. As for choice of pasta, I like to use a long pasta like thin ziti or cavatappi or penne in this type of mac & cheese. For the creamy variety, I would choose traditional elbows or small shells or orecchiette. These considerations have more to do with surface area than anything else. Boil the pasta, drain it and cool by washing it with cold running water. Then toss the pasta with :

2 tbs butter or 1 tbs butter and 1 tbs shallot oil

This is the only step that can reliably be done ahead of time in my mind. Some may disagree, but I find that a cooked and cooled bechamel or mornay becomes a bit stodgy and doesn’t integrate with the pasta very well. You can use pre-cooked pasta but from this point on the results will be most delectable if everything is composed and integrated at once. This mac and cheese is truly superior when first pulled from the oven, but also makes an excellent dish to be reheated and served again.

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Next you will want to make the mornay sauce, and get the oven preheated to 425°. An excellent creamy mac can be made on a stovetop, but for this variety a nicely hot oven is required.

For the Mornay sauce :

Warm in a small saucepan :

2 cups milk, whole preferred

Melt in a medium saucepan :

2 tbs butter

Add to the butter :

2 tbs all purpose flour

Cook, stirring or whisking, for two minutes or more (this goes a long way towards removing the raw flour taste)

Slowly incorporate the warm milk into the sauce, a quarter cup at a time. You may whisk if you like, I usually use a flat-ended wooden spoon and then move to a whisk once about half of the milk has been added.

Once all the milk has been added, cook the sauce over a low heat for about 15 or 20 minutes. This will remove the rest of the floury taste from the sauce, as well as thickening it a bit.

Add, stirring :

4 oz. medium sharp cheddar cheese, grated

2 tsp hot paprika (smoked if possible) (optional)

2 tsp sweet paprika (optional)

2 tsp dry mustard powder (optional)

salt to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Once all these ingredients are incorporated, toss with the cooked pasta, and add :

1 cup of cooked artichoke hearts or drained marinated artichoke hearts, roughly chopped

1/2 cup fried shallots, roughly chopped

Toss until well combined.

In a small skillet, heat :

1 tbs butter or shallot oil

Add :

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

Toast, stirring, for a few minutes.

Place the cooked, sauced pasta in an oven-safe casserole dish. I like to use a natural stoneware dish for this.

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On top of the pasta, spread out thinly :

2 oz grated cheese of your choice (parmesan, a sharper cheddar or cheese with jalapenos or habaneros are all good choices. You may use the same variety used in the mornay sauce, but I find it is more interesting to add some variety here.)

A further 1/4 cup or so of fried shallots

The toasted panko

Place the dish in the oven. Bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes, then remove the pan and lightly press down on the surface of the mac & cheese with a wooden spoon, allowing air to escape from the dish, which should be bubbling and hot. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the surface is crispy and browned. You may wish to add a tablespoon or two of butter, thinly sliced and dotted on the surface of the dish.

Once the dish is browned to your satisfaction, remove it from the oven and serve.

This dish will reheat well, but you will most likely want to cover it with foil during most of the reheating process, only removing the foil for a few minutes of baking. Otherwise the mac & cheese will become too dry.

Key : The key to this recipe is in the texture, the crispy and crusty tactile taste of panko and thick, heavy-cut macaroni tossed with just enough sauce to bind the ingredients. The artichokes and shallots are added primarily for sweetness and texture.

Winter Root Vegetable Stew with Paprika and Mustard

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This is a hearty, rich main course dish which could be varied endlessly with sides and additions, vegan or not. One could of course serve it with starches such as noodles or potatoes, but I find that it is substantial enough on its’ own. In fact, what I will recommend is a garnish of sharp, very thin raw vegetables and fresh herbs, if possible. Like all proper stews this dish is much better reheated and served on the second day. I roast the beets and then add them to the dish before adding the spices for aesthetic reasons. They change the color of the dish quite dramatically, but in a nicer way then when added in the beginning. One of course could use golden beets or white beets instead and dispense with all this roasting nonsense.

This is a dish in which prep and timing are pretty essential. Have all your ingredients chopped and sized, take your time about the cooking of this and remember to let it cool, sit overnight and then serve the next day. It will be much the better for it.

Roast @ 425° :

12 oz beets, unpeeled, wrapped in foil

The beets are done when they a little bit more firm than you want in your finished dish. Remove them, keeping them wrapped and let them cool naturally.

Heat in a pan (deep enough to accommodate all the ingredients, but wide as possible) over medium heat :

3 tbs oil of choice (I use olive)

Add :

10 oz. onion, large dice

Sautée for 5-10 minutes, until softened.

Add :

2 fresh bay leaves or 4 dried bay leaves or 4 bayberry leaves

Add :

5 oz celery, cut into 1/2″ thick pieces

Sautée for 5 min or so, until softened.

Add :

1 oz of garlic, freshly chopped

Sautée for 3 min or so.

Add :

12 oz carrots, cut into 1/2″ rounds

Sautée for 5-10 min or so.

Add :

12-16 oz celery root, 1/2″ x 1″ pieces

Sautée for 3 min or so.

Deglaze pan with :

2 Tbs. Sherry or Chinese Cooking Wine

Add :

Enough vegetable stock (preferably a rich roasted stock) or other stock or water to cover the vegetables well (1-1.5 quarts), bearing in mind the beets to be added later.

1-2 tsp crushed dried juniper berries

2 tsp dry mustard

2 tsp dried thyme

Grinds of black pepper

Bring the pan to just short of a boil, then cut the heat to a slow, mild simmer. Allow this to cook until the sauce has thickened and the vegetables are close to being tender enough to eat. Always bear in mind that the vegetables will cook a bit in their retained heat. If the vegetables seem close to done and the sauce is far too thin for your liking you can add a liaison. Heat some oil and whisk in an equal amount of flour (I usually go about 2 tbs of each), whisk and heat for a minute or two, then add in some of the hot fluid from the stew. Keep adding fluid until you have something that is not yet liquid but no longer paste. Add this back into the stew and it should thicken up nicely.

When you feel like you are close to being ready to cut the heat, stir in the following :

The cooked beets, which by now you will have peeled (very easy once roasted) and cut into the appropriate size (1″2 x 1″ chunks in this case).

1 1/2-2 tbs prepared mustard (whole grain or dijon styles are good)

2-3 tbs of paprika (I usually use a mix : this time it was 1 tbs hot, 2 tsp smoked hot and 1 tsp sweet)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Allow this to cook for another few minutes, then adjust your seasonings as needed.

Serve right away or allow to sit. Reheat the next day and serve with fresh garnishes.

All times used are approximate. I cook by taste and texture. It’s far easier and more accurate than following a clock. In each stage of the sautée, the vegetables should be cooked until they begin to soften. If the pan gets too dry (which shouldn’t happen) you can add some extra sherry or wine, or water if necessary. The stewing process will take from an hour on, depending on how slow your simmer. Allow it to develop on its own, checking and stirring every 10 minutes or so. You will know when it is done.

This recipe can be varied in what vegetables are used, provided they are approached with understanding of how long they take to become tender. Of course it could be garnished or accessorized in dozens of ways. It’s already pretty hearty in itself but if you wanted to serve it with noodles or rice I’m sure it wouldn’t be bad. I prefer to go the other direction, and add something sharp and bright as a garnish, like paper-thin slices of spicy black or daikon radish, fresh snips of chive or field garlic, raw chiles, pickled or preserved vegetables, and of course fresh herbs if available.

I have left the spicing at kind of an entry-level dosage. All of the seasonings can be added again at the end, which is usually when I toss in a little more thyme or juniper or mustard or what have you. The flavor is hearty, and deep. It may remind one of a treatment of beef or pork in terms of the flavorings used, but this is no meat substitution recipe. The combination of thyme, mustard and paprika complements the beet-celery root-carrot trinity. But perhaps you will discover an even more perfect one!

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Key : The key to this recipe is making all the vegetables the same consistency, particularly one that has a bit of texture to it. For some people that solution lies in very precise cutting, for me I’ve always just preferred to add the ingredients one by one and rely on intuition. Some people like to throw in everything at once and cook it long and slow. There’s no right way, just one that works.