Make Your Own Mac ‘N Cheese Bar

macaron and cheese toppings
In my family, Chuck’s macaroni and cheese is iconic. Does your family have dishes like this? Dishes that are requested by the guest of honor at birthdays and dreamed about by family members away from home for too long.

Over the years we have bullied Chuck into making his mac and cheese so often that, out of boredom, his recipe has morphed. Chuck cooks kind of like I do – which is to say that he chafes at strict recipes, loves to improvise, and can rarely manage to reproduce an exact replica of any dish. So now, when Chuck makes his mac and cheese, there is always a twist. Sometimes there’s bacon, sometimes chunks of pickled garlic. Whatever inspires Chuck ends up in the mac and cheese.

When we had friends over for dinner last weekend, it occurred to me that it would be awfully fun to let each one of us tinker with our own, individual bowl of Chuck’s mac and cheese. I made up a big pot of cheese sauce, and we each tossed the bubbling cheese with pasta and any other mix-ins we desired before throwing it in the oven to bake and crisp. Jeff, of course, dove right into the crumbled bacon and diced Italian sausage. I was a big fan of the steamed cauliflower and fresh herbs. Basically, anything goes here, so the toppings below are just suggestions. And as for the cheese sauce, feel free to adjust that to your tastes as well. Chuck sometimes mixes up the cheeses he includes, or throws a can of diced tomatoes directly into the cheese itself. But don’t skimp on the mustard powder – it’s Chuck’s (not so) secret ingredient.

macaroni and cheese homemade baked

Mac and Cheese Bar
serves 8

For the pasta:
1 pound dry pasta (I like penne or rotini for this)

For the cheese sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup minced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 cups milk
3 cups shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

For the toppings:
1/2 cup crumbled cooked bacon
1/2 cup diced cooked Italian sausage
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup diced tomato
1 cup steamed cauliflower
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (basil, dill, parsley and cilantro are all good options)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water until just al dente. Meanwhile, in a large pot, melt the butter. Sauté the onion and garlic in butter over medium heat until soft. Add in the flour and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir in the salt, pepper, and mustard powder, and cook the flour mixture 5 minutes. Slowly add just a splash of milk, and wisk until a smooth paste forms. Add half of the remaining milk in a slow stream, wisking constantly. Wisk in the remaining milk and cook until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes more. Add in the cheeses and stir continually until the cheese is fully melted. Add additional salt and/or pepper to taste. Keep the cheese sauce warm over low heat while you assemble the mac and cheese.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8 oven proof bowls or ramekins. Give each guest his or her bowl to fill with pasta, cheese sauce, and any variety of mix-ins. I suggest topping with parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Arrange the bowls on two jelly roll pans and bake until the tops start to brown and the cheese sauce is bubbling.

Published in: on May 14, 2013 at 5:38 pm  Comments (4)  
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Pantry Pasta with Celery and Parmesan

pasta with celery and parmesan

Sometimes the washing machine breaks and floods the basement with sudsy water. Sometimes the heel of your favorite black leather ankle boot breaks off as you’re walking up the stairs to your office. Sometimes a jagged pebble on the interstate bounces up and cracks your windshield. Sometimes, all of these things happen on the same day.

And at the end of a day like this, simple, unfussy food can feel so, so good.

There was a time when the more exotic ingredients a recipe had, the more desperately I wanted to rush out and buy every single one. I would lock myself in the kitchen for hours, emerging triumphant, elaborate concoction in hand, anxiously awaiting oohs and ahhs. And every so often I still get the urge to flex some culinary muscle.

But these days, I fully appreciate the basic beauty of a quick, easy, tasty and healthy recipe.

Quick. Easy. Heathy. It’s the holy grail of weeknight cooking. I used to think that simple was boring – a cop out. But the truth is that simple is elegant, sophisticated. Kind of like my favorite black leather ankle boots were before that six-inch heel bit the dust.

But back to the food.

whole wheat pasta with celery and parmesan

The thing with simple food is that each ingredient matters. Good pasta, fresh celery, and the very best cheese you can find turn some simple pantry staples into a pretty delicious dinner. Assuming that, like me, you have a thing for cheese, you might even have all of the ingredients for this deceptively basic dish in your kitchen right now. And if you don’t, well, make this pasta once and I promise you’ll start keeping anchovy paste and wedges of parmesan on hand at all times.

This pasta takes all of 10 minutes to make, is full of flavor, and is ultimately comforting. If you think you aren’t a fan of anchovies, I don’t blame you. Neither was I. Until I tried melting down anchovy paste in plenty of fruity olive oil. When cooked, the anchovy paste imparts a deep, rich, salty flavor to the pasta that is frankly addictive. And if Jeff, the consummate fish hater, asks for this pasta on a weekly basis, then there really has to be something to this anchovy business. As for the celery, well, I use it because it’s always in my fridge. Why do I buy celery every week? I honestly have no idea. But I do it. And I’m always looking for ways to use it up. Go figure. I suppose that you could elevate this dish by using a bit of sliced fennel and some fennel fronds instead. But the humble celery works just fine. It’s lovely, actually, and pretty underrated.

The real star here, though, is the cheese. Which means you should spring for good cheese. And no, good cheese does not come in a shaky can. I’m not actually sure that stuff is cheese at all. What you want is a nice wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano. And a good grater.

pantry pasta up close

Pantry Pasta with Celery and Parmesan
Serves 4

1 13.25 ounce box of whole grain linguine
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons anchovy paste
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 cup chopped celery leaves

In a large pot of boiling, well salted water, cook the pasta until just al dente. Be careful not to overcook. Meanwhile, in a very large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Saute the anchovy paste and garlic in the oil, stirring often, until the garlic starts to brown slightly. Add the celery, oregano and red pepper and continue to cook until the celery is soft, about 5 more minutes, and then reduce the heat to low. When the pasta is done, drain and reserve 2 cups of the pasta cooking liquid. Add the pasta to the skillet with the celery mixture, along with one cup of the pasta cooking liquid. Toss the pasta with the sauce, along with half of the cheese. Cook, stirring, for a couple more minutes, adding additional cooking water to loosen the sauce if needed. Serve the pasta in bowls, topped with the celery leaves and the remaining cheese.

Published in: on March 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm  Comments (9)  
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Alchemy: Bucatini with Garlic, Anchovy, and Oil

bucatini aglio al olio

My 7th grade science teacher had a knack for analogies. To explain the difference between a compound and a mixture, he made brownies.  Brownies represented a compound; the ingredients, after the baking process, become indistinguishable, and impossible to separate.  Flour, sugar, cocoa powder, butter and eggs transform into this treat that is all of the ingredients but none of them.

In a sort of alchemy, even the simplest ingredients can become something wonderful with a little heat, a little attention. You may think you hate anchovies.  I get it. Those slimy little filets are not my cup of tea either.  But when anchovy paste cooks down in a full-bodied olive oil, it becomes a nutty, savory sauce.  The anchovy-haters in your house will have no idea what they are eating, they will just know they love it. 

The fragrant anchovy and garlic mixture that coats this pasta will linger in the air, it will make your kitchen smell like the North End of Boston.  It’s a smell I’m going to miss.  Every night, on my way home from work, all of the prep cooks are in their Hanover Street kitchens sauteing and chopping and the smell of garlic fills the air.  My mouth waters, and I’m hungry the minute I walk in the door of the apartment.  Maybe this move will be good for my waistline.

The last time we moved, I scrounged up this Bacon Pepper Pasta with the crumbs from the cupboards. This pasta dish is similar in its simplicity. Just a few ingredients, those that linger in the fridge when you haven’t managed to get to the store in a while. You can use linguine or spaghetti if you don’t have bucatini, but I love the toothsome bite of the hollow noodles.  And I love that they are so difficult to twirl, so slurpy and messy to eat.

Please forgive me if I don’t manage to post in the next week or two.  It might take me that long to find my knives and roasting pans in this mess of boxes.

Bucatini with Garlic, Anchovy, and Oil

Serves 6

1 lb bucatini (or spaghetti)

1/4 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons sliced garlic

2 tablespoons anchovy paste

pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until just al dente.  Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking water before draining the pasta.

Meanwhile, over medium-low heat, heat the oil in a large saute pan.  Add the garlic and anchovy paste and cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to brown.  Add the pepper flakes if using. Add in the pasta, reserved water, and cheese and toss well to combine, cooking another minute or so.  Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve with additional cheese at the table.

Published in: on March 29, 2011 at 7:21 pm  Comments (29)  
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The Question of Meatballs

Sicilian meatball

My Sicilian friend Katia first introduced me to this easy method of cooking meatballs.  I stood in her kitchen watching her form and drop meatballs into simmering sauce, and wondered if perhaps it was an Italian secret.  But after interrogating the wait staff at a variety of North End Italian restaurants, I found that the majority go for frying, touting the browned edges as flavor boosters.  But I must admit, these meatballs, simmered in wonderfully flavorful sauce, impart their flavor and become meltingly tender, unlike their fried counterparts.   I then thought that maybe this simmer method was specifically Sicilian, but in chatting with a colleague at work, discovered that his Sicilian wife bakes her meatballs. A mystery.

When it’s so cold outside that my eyes tear up as soon as I leave house, all I want is warm comforting food.  Hearty food. But given the abundance of holiday treats and frequency of holiday parties this month, I’m trying my best to eat lightly in between the festivities.  So healthy comfort food is the name of the game in December. And of course, with all those parties to attend, and cookies to bake, this is not the time of year for lengthy dinner recipes.

Which brings me back to these meatballs.  Is there anything better than a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs?  But ground lean turkey and egg whites make these lighter.  And if you choose, whole wheat spaghetti is a great alternative for a bit more fiber.  But what I love most about these meatballs is how they are cooked.  Simply form the meatballs and drop them into the simmering sauce, no need for added fat.  

How do you cook meatballs? Bake? Fry? Simmer?

If you have never tried the simmer method, I urge you to give it a shot.  Tender meatballs, extra flavorful sauce, and no added fat from frying.  I found this particular recipe in an old issue of Bon Appetit Magazine.  I love the use of pesto to flavor the meatballs.  You can use store-bought pesto or homemade, whichever you prefer.  And good quality store-bought chunky tomato pasta sauce is just fine here.  The meatballs will flavor the sauce itself anyway. But I like my quick-fix tomato sauce, so I have included that recipe for you below as well.

pasta with meatballs

Turkey Pesto Meatballs

adapted from Bon Appetit

Serves 6

4 cups chunky tomato pasta sauce  (store-bought or ee recipe below)

1 pound ground turkey

1 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs

1/3 cup pesto (store-bought or homemade) 

2 egg whites

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound spaghetti

Bring the sauce to a simmer in a large pot. Mix together the turkey, breadcrumbs, pesto, egg whites, and salt. Form into 11/2 inch meatballs. Drop the meatballs gently into the sauce. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.  Serve the meatballs and sauce over the spaghetti.

Quick Fix Chunky Tomato Pasta Sauce

4 garlic cloves, sliced

1/3 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoon olive oil

1 26 oz package of Pomi brand chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup red wine

1 cup water

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried parsley

salt and pepper

In a large pot, saute the garlic and onion in oil over medium low until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, and water along with the herbs, and simmer on low 15 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm  Comments (24)  
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Gadgets, Gizmos, and Bacon Pepper Pasta

lasagna noodles with bacon and peppers

“I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got who’s-its and what’s-its galore
You want thing-a-mabobs?
I’ve got twenty”

Yep, I’m quoting the Little Mermaid.  It’s that bad. We have boxes stacked in every corner, bubble wrap strewn across the floors, and today I had to reopen a box because I realized that I’d packed away the checkbook. 

When did I amass so much stuff?

kitcher utensilsIn packing up my kitchen for storage, I have discovered dozens of gadgets and gizmos.  We are moving to a furnished sublet complete with basic kitchen gear – pots, pans, knives etc. Last night, surrounded by melon ballers and cheese graters and meat thermometers and citrus zesters, I realized the only thing in my kitchen that I really need to bring with me is a single cast iron skillet. That’s it.  That’s all I need for sauteing or baking or, well, just about anything.  And as for the rest… I’ll make do. So what if my melon bits are not round? or if my lemons go unzested? And for that matter, I think I can manage a few months without a waffle iron or ice cream maker.  And for crying out loud, why on earth do we have something called a ‘quesadilla maker’?

lasagna noodles with bacon and peppersWhat happened to me?  I used to be the queen of making do!  I’m the girl who lived in a tiny NY apartment and baked cupcakes for 200 in a toaster-oven. I owned exactly three forks, two wine glasses, and one single fantastic French knife.  And tonight, when I made dinner with a handful of lingering ingredients and not a single gadget, I felt a bit like my old self. 

pastaThis dish came together out of nothing.  Our cupboards are bare, but we had some leftover bacon hiding in the back of the freezer, and a few lasagna noodles all alone in the pantry.  And with that, we had dinner.  A pretty awesome dinner, actually.  I was surprised to find that I loved the sliced lasagna noodles.  They had awesome texture, and were a perfect foil for the rich sauce.  The bits of noodle matched the bits of pepper and much to my surprise, the whole thing just worked. Of course, you could sub in any short pasta you like here, if hacking apart noodles is not your thing.  I think farfalle would work very well.

I’m excited for a few months of making do ahead of me.  But for the next week or two I won’t be spending much time in the kitchen.  Once we get settled in the new place, I promise I’ll be back!

creamy noodles with bacon and cubanelle

Make Do Bacon Pepper Pasta

Serves 2

4 strips bacon, chopped

4 ounces lasagna noodles (about 5 noodles)

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1 cup thinly sliced cubanelle pepper (about 1 small pepper)

pinch of red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons cream

parmesan cheese for serving

In a large skillet, saute the bacon over medium heat until almost crisp, about 5-6 minutes.  Drain all but 2 teaspoons of bacon fat from the pan. Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the noodles until just al dente. Don’t overcook. Drain the noodles and reserve 3/4 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Add the onion and pepper to the bacon in the skillet and saute until the peppers are soft, about 8 minutes.  Meanwhile, slice the lasagna noodles into 1/2 inch strips. Add about 1/4 cup of pasta cooking liquid to the skillet, along with the red pepper flakes.  Stir in the cream. Add the sliced noodles to the pan and toss to combine.  Add more pasta cooking liquid if desired. Serve topped with parmesan cheese.

Published in: on August 25, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (29)  
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An Unexpected Recipe: Garlic Pepper Pasta with Fresh Herbs

linguine with garlic pepper sauce

I have two kinds of cookbooks on my shelf: the ones I use (few), and the ones I don’t (many).  Oh sure, I look at them all, admiring the pretty pictures, imagining fantasy dinner parties.  But when I’m looking for real inspiration, I have a few standbys.  The Joy of Cooking, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Paris Sweets and my signed copy of Simply Ming are my go-to favorites. Eclectic certainly, but this covers all the bases.  Classic basics, healthy staples, quality desserts, and creative, unexpected flavors.

fresh herbsFlipping through Simply Ming a few weeks ago, looking for inspiration for the bok choy in my CSA share, I found Black Pepper Garlic Sauce.  After a wonderful stir-fry, loosely based on Simply Ming’s Melted Black Pepper and Garlic Napa Cabbage, I still had a full cup of the sauce leftover.  You see, this fantastically inventive cookbook is based around a series of condiments.  Chef Ming Tsai creates lovely fusion dishes with these sauces and salsas and sambals.  And best of all, in the margins, he offers even more simple suggestions.  Of course, all of these condiment recipes make very big batches. The idea is that you can keep them in the fridge for a week or two, making the actual preparation of final dishes really quick and easy.  Hence the extra cup of sauce.

I ruled out the Black Pepper Garlic Lobster from Ming Tsai’s restaurant Blue Ginger because of Jeff’s seafood allergy, but there in the margin was an intriguing suggestion: pasta.  Simply toss the sauce with pasta.  Now that’s my kind of weeknight meal – easy, fast, and flavorful.

garlic and scallionsWith the herb plants on my windowsill exploding with fragrant leaves, I decided to doctor up my quick pasta dish.  And the flavors of the purple basil and parsley were wonderfully fresh with the sweet garlic and tangy pepper.  I’ve since reworked the sauce just a bit, making just enough for a pound of pasta, and changing up the proportions a little.  The Asian fish sauce may sound a bit off-putting here, but trust me, it is the secret to making this sauce special – don’t skip it.  It lends just a very faint flavor of the sea, a bit like linguine with clam sauce (but no clams).  Actually, adding in a few steamed littleneck clams might not be a bad idea… that is, unless your husband is allergic to shellfish.  And in case you find ourself with extra sauce, it makes a wonderful warm potato salad too.

Garlic Pepper Pasta with Fresh Herbs

Sauce adapted from Simply Ming by Ming Tsai and Arthur Boehm

Serves 6

1 pound linguine

3 tablespoons roughly chopped garlic

1/2 cup chopped scallions

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon fish sauce

3 tablespoons softened butter

1 cup chopped fresh spinach

1/2 cup chopped fresh purple basil (or regular basil)

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.  Meanwhile, saute the garlic and scallion in oil over medium heat for two minutes.  Add the pepper, wine, stock, lemon juice, and fish sauce.  Simmer until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Transfer the garlic mixture to a blender and whir until smooth.  Add the butter and blend well to combine completely.  Return the sauce to the pan over low heat.  Add the drained pasta, spinach, basil and parsley and toss all to combine well and wilt the greens and herbs. Sprinkle with cheese and serve hot.

garlic black pepper pasta