Cheers to Toughness and Mac and Cheese

The people of Cleveland are tough, like many of the people in their snow-covered neighboring states.  There are people all over the warmer parts of the country doing the same jobs as the people of the snow country, except here, things are a bit more difficult. They do it in all of the never-ending snow and the bitter cold.  Car washers, airport luggage handlers (and all of the people directing planes out on the tarmac), tow truckers...etc.  So on this mid-day in early March, as I stepped outside and began walking down the street, I realized that I am one step closer to that toughness than I was 6 months ago.  As I walked in the fresh 37 degree sunshine, I was having thoughts of springtime.  I was thinking of the Bloomingdale's ads and the beautiful models in their flowing short dresses and sandals.  And how maybe I could be wearing one of those dresses soon.  When you have those thoughts at 37 know you are a Clevelander, or almost one. 
  However, it still being officially winter means that I can still eat hearty soul-warming my favorite, macaroni and cheese!  B loves it too which is good, and since I will not let him buy the one in a box in the freezer know which one I am talking about...I feel like I should make it every once and a while.
  Well, my version is made with a few variations, the biggest variations are below: 
I make the cheesy sauce with cheese, 2% milk, nutmeg, cayenne, thyme, salt and pepper and chicken broth to substitute part of the milk (you can use vegetable broth too).  It gives it a fuller flavor.

I then make a simple fresh tomato "sauce" with just fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and herbs, which I layer into the dish at the end (to brighten up the flavors).  I use smooth, Spanish Manchego cheese...instead of cheddar (and Black Truffled Pecorino on top).  I know, I never do anything the normal drives B crazy, to say the least, even if he does love this dish.
Then I also like to toast some breadcrumbs in olive oil for sprinkling on top...

And Voila!

Manchego Mac
5 or 6 small fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put tomatoes in a saute pan on medium heat. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and add the clove of garlic. Let the tomatoes cook down for about 10 minutes, then sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.

3/4 cup of bread crumbs (I like panko since it is so light)
1 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
    Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs, and just toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.

1 pound pasta (I like to use shells- or anything small)
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups homemade or low-sodium store-bought chicken stock
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 cups low-fat (1 or 2 percent) milk
Roughly 2 1/4 cups Manchego cheese, grated or chopped small
Roughly 1/2 cup Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, freshly grated

 Cook pasta until almost al dente, about 5 minutes in a large pot of boiling salted water (about 1 tbs of salt should be added to the water when it reaches a boil). Drain and put back into the pasta pot and set aside.

Whisk 1/2 cup stock into the flour in a medium bowl; set aside. Melt remaining tablespoon butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in nutmeg, cayenne, remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add milk and remaining 1 1/2 cups stock. Whisk in flour mixture. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Reduce to a simmer. Cook 8 minutes, whisking frequently. Add Manchego; cook, stirring, until melted. Pour over the pasta in the pasta pot and stir to combine.

Use a large casserole pan or smaller ramekins.  Put a few of the tomatoes in bottom, then layer with the pasta, and more tomatoes.  Sprinkle breadcrumbs, a bit more of dried thyme and Parmesan cheese on top. Bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately!


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