French-style Mac and cheese in the Sierras
As a kid growing up in Northern California suburbs I remember macaroni and cheese — a favorite hot comfort food. It was a main dish in our home. There was the quickie Kraft box of yellow mac and cheese on weeknights; a homemade gourmet version on weekends. I’m talking elbow macaroni, whole milk, margarine, cheddar cheese, and bread crumbs. Both pasta dishes were doable. But back from Quebec — a province with cheesy pastas — I whipped up my own California Mediterranean-style recipe with trimmings aimed for creativity, presentation, and deliciousness.
A few weeks ago, back in Montreal I ended up in my hotel room one night later than I normally eat dinner. I was famished. Instead of ordering a tempting French pasta entrée, I called in a grilled cheese on whole wheat with tomatoes and french fries. The chef delivered the meal to my room. French-Canadian generosity was in the sandwich, filled high with cheddar. I ate the whole thing. Early in the morning at the train station en route to Quebec City, instead of grabbing all the breakfast treats at the business class lounge, I snagged a can of ginger ale. I felt like I was Meg Ryan’s character in “French Kiss.” I was doomed when lactose intolerance hit. Back at home autumn is everywhere and a gooey pasta dish baking in the oven makes a fine main dish or side for dinner any night. Rather than use traditional cheddar, I used six Italian cheeses and cheddar. This recipe is a fat-lover’s dream but eat in moderation—small portions—and savor each bite.
Mediterranean Mac and Cheese
Dash of sea salt
1 tablespoon olive oil (save 1 teaspoon onions)
2 ½ cups uncooked whole grain elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons onion, yellow, diced
2 cups milk (1 organic half and half; 1 2 percent organic reduced fat milk)
½ cup European style butter, melted
3 tables all-purpose flour
1 cup extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
2 cups Italian cheeses, grated (you can purchase a packaged mix)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Dash of ground nutmeg
Grape fresh tomatoes, approximately 15
Parmesan cheese for top
In a large pot of boiling salted water add oil. Pour in uncooked macaroni and cook al dente (several minutes). Drain. In a small pan sauté onions in olive oil, set aside. In a pan, heat milk but do not boil. In a bowl melt butter in the microwave. Remove, add flour. Pour mixture into hot milk. Add cheese, onions, and spices. Once the ingredients are well mixed add cooked macaroni. Pour into small and/or large ramekins. Place sliced tomatoes on top. Bake for about a half hour, or till the macaroni is golden brown. Sprinkle parmesan on top, serve hot. Makes 10-12 servings. This isn’t like Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s that I used to buy at the grocery store. It’s lighter in color and flavors of warm spices and cooked tomatoes make it a fall wonder. I paired a ramekin dish of mac and cheese with a side of organic greens sprinkled with sea salt nuts, fresh raspberries, crumbled bleu cheese, and a drizzle of fruity extra virgin olive oil. Slices of a warm baguette (our friendly Safeway baked it just for me to pick up first thing in the morning!) with real butter made this meal a sophisticated mountain feast for one and perfect for friends and/or family. Motto: Tradition is good but a redo can be great for the palate and waistline.
Cal Orey, M.A. is an author and journalist. Visit http://www.calorey.com for more information.