Let me be the very last to wish you a Happy New Year. Can I make amends by being the first to say Happy Valentine’s Day? I’m hitting you up with a delicious shiitake kale lasagna today, and it’s just about perfect for showing the love. Ooey gooey goodness. Check. Next-level comfort food. Check. Flavors that are literally layered. Check. Check. Check. (A lot of layers requires three checks!) What distinguishes this dish from my normal recipe style is that it takes a bit of time. Did I say a bit? Half the damn day. (I exaggerate – a lot). Hence the love factor, as in it is a labor of love to prepare. And in fact, it was a labor of love that I even bring it to you. You can thank my two neighbors that showed up on my doorstep, knocking timidly, hands extended and holding up a cherished lump of frozen kale mushroom lasagna. “Could you? Would you? Figure out what this is?” they asked. They’d found it in the back of the freezer, and it had been a gift. They loved it and wanted more. It was the last little slab. This kind of reminds me of Monica and Phoebe trying to recreate Phoebe’s grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe. Anybody?
I tried it and knew if it was going to be a project I’d undertake, I would surely have to kick the flavors up a notch. I tested this a couple of times, once with the oven ready noodles – no bueno in my mind, but you do you – and it kept getting better. The last one we made together. One thing I learned then and there is that it’s fun to cook with friends, maybe even more fun than cooking for friends. Who knew? This is a perfect recipe – since it has 6 components – to either make over a couple of nights, getting the sub-recipes ready to assemble, or even better, enlist some friends, giving each their own ingredient to prep. I was worried that it was really a bit involved for my blog – I like to roll simple and flavorful. But the reality is lasagna was never meant to be an everyday dish. In Italy, it is a special occasion dish, eaten in smaller portions as a starter. Argh! Americans!! Must we supersize everything??!! I told my colleague Elena Tedeschi from Well Rooted Kitchen that I was working on this, and she gave me a side-eye glance and begged to be reassured that I was not adding ricotta. Wait, what? I always had. Before I could answer, my rolodex brain flipped back to realize that of course the traditional would have been made with béchamel, or besciamella in Italian, a white sauce. I assured her I had a béchamel, conveniently leaving out that I ALSO HAD RICOTTA!!!!!! What am I, an American…adding more when less would have done? Yup! Sorry, not sorry. Not only do I add ricotta, I season the hell out of it. Blame it on the first round with the oven-ready/no-cook noodles. I was trying to keep the dish moist. I will not apologize.
I remember a Washington Post article about the Americanization of lasagna. They are not wrong. The article describes in detail the variations throughout regions of Italy both in terms of recipe and special occasion where you might find it served. The thing they have in common is just how special this dish is, and how laborious – and even expensive – it can be. I think this one fits in right about there. Classic dishes are more likely to be made with homemade thin, nearly translucent noodles. I do short-cut this with a dried pasta, but I try to find an Italian brand, like De Cecco, which is thinner. Bonus points for an artisanal pasta maker. Because lasagna noodles are used by the piece, not the weight (how many pieces are needed to cover a layer?) but sold by the weight, not the piece, it’s tough to guess how much you will need. I used a pound of that inferior no-cook domestic brand, but only 1/2 pound of De Cecco.
I have worked over the years with the legend, Marcella Hazan. She is no doubt rolling in her grave over this version. While a laborious gesture of love, her lasagna was certainly not overstuffed. I would argue that the thing mine has going for it is that there are two distinctly different (and perfectly seasoned, I might add) vegetables – kale and shiitakes – that are the stars. But you can still distinguish all other layers individually – pasta, béchamel and ricotta. I have seasoned each component separately, and you can taste them distinctly. But enough about me, let’s get this party cooking. Have you called your friends yet to schedule a lasagna fest?
Shiitake Kale Lasagna
Prep the Vegetables
I am using two kinds of kale, as well as shiitake mushrooms, in lieu of meat for this non-traditional – go ahead and say it – Americanized, Katy-ized version of lasagna. Both Lacinato (also known as dino, Tuscan, black, or flat) kale and baby kale are sautéed, then sweat to a reduction. They get a dose of red pepper flakes for their seasoning. Shiitake mushrooms are sautéed in butter and the pan is then deglazed with Marsala wine.
Make the Besciamella
This white sauce is normally butter, flour and milk, but because of the double dose of starch – flour + noodles – I cut the milk with vegetable stock. Don’t try to make sense of that – just know I am lightening up the béchamel a bit by not solely using milk for the liquid. Like all roux-based sauces, it’s 1 Tablespoon fat to 1 Tablespoon flour to 1 cup of liquid. Got that? I hope by now you have that mastered. So, it takes 1/4 cup fat, in this case butter, to result in one quart of sauce. Tricky math – 1/4 cup dry is 4 Tablespoons and one quart liquid is 4 cups. Voila! I’m seasoning this with some coriander – just because it plays well with the earthy vegetables – and some nutmeg, albeit more French than Italian. Stay with me.
Season the Ricotta
Elena: Just skip this section and forgive me.
I thin the whole milk ricotta with some milk, and season it with lemon zest, fresh basil and thyme, and a dash of red pepper flakes. Easy peasy.
Cook the Noodles and Grate the Cheeses
As mentioned, look for a high-quality Italian-brand dried pasta. The amount needed will depend on the number of pieces per pound. Figure 13 to 15 noodles, which is hard to determine when you are shopping, so buy the one pound box. Before you cook, lay the noodles out in a pan and see what you will need to cover three layers. I like to do the first and third layer cross-wise and the middle layer lengthwise. That makes it easier to hold together when you cut the lasagna. If all layers go the same direction, you will no doubt trigger a noodle landslide. Nobody wants that.
For the cheeses, I used Pecorino Romano (a classic), goat Mozzarella (cow will do) and Fontina Fontal (super melter). Each cheese brings its own special flavor notes and texture, but at a minimum you want a finely grated super flavor like a Pecorino and a hand-grated melter like a Mozz and/or Fontina. Shout out to The Cheese Lady for filling my life with options!
Layer the Shiitake Kale Lasagna
At the risk of TMI, I have provided a detailed list of the layering order with specific details on how much of each ingredient to use. Maybe its me, but I often find myself trying to figure out why I end up with some arbitrary ingredient portion left over or trying to count layers and doing long division, especially if the details are buried in a verbose paragraph. It makes the printout lengthy but you can NOT go wrong. Not on my watch!!
I hope you will find a cold wintery night and a couple friends to either help you prep or at least to pour your wine as you go. You will be the belle of the ball if you mic-drop this on the table. Some red wine and a big salad – maybe with a touch of sweetness like juicy pears – and settle in. Buon Appetito.
This shiitake kale lasagna is a dreamy wintery dish, chock-full of earthy greens and mushrooms, with a cozy dose of melty cheeses and warm spices. Enlist your friends and make a night out of prepping the layers and assembling, then settle in to reap the rewards.
1 Tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bunches of Lacinato (dino, Tuscan) kale, cut into thin strips (chiffonade)
2 5-ounce packs of baby kale
3 Tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
1 – 2 Tablespoons butter
12 ounces shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
2 Tablespoons Marsala wine
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Béchamel Sauce (makes 1 quart):
4 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups of milk
2 cups of vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Grating of fresh nutmeg
1 pound ricotta cheese
Zest of one lemon
1/3 cup milk
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound Italian-brand lasagna pasta (you will need about 15 pieces)
1/3 pound Pecorino Romano, 1 1/4 cups grated
1/2 pound goat (or cow) Mozzarella, 2 cups grated
1/3 pound Fontina Fontal, 2+ cups grated
Preheat oven to 325oF. Butter a 3-quart 9 x 13 baking dish.
Prep the layers:
Kale: Heat olive oil over high heat in a large sauté pan. Add chopped garlic and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add chopped Lacinato kale and the baby kale and stir to wilt. You may need to add the greens in batches, until there is enough room to add more. Add 3 Tablespoons water and cover. Cook for about 2 minutes, then remove the lid and cook about 2 minutes more until the liquid is evaporated. Season with salt and red pepper flakes.
Mushrooms: Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the shallots and cook about 4 minutes until shallots are golden. Add 1 Tablespoon butter and the shiitakes, cooking for 4 minutes until cooked through. Add an additional Tablespoon butter, if needed. Deglaze the pan with 2 Tablespoons Marsala wine, scraping up the brown bits. Season with black pepper.
Béchamel Sauce: Heat 4 Tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, whisking in the flour until smooth. Cook the roux for several minutes, letting it bubble at least one minute, until lightly golden. Add the milk and vegetable stock, in a slow drizzle until all is incorporated. Season with salt, coriander, pepper and nutmeg. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for seasonings and adjust.
Ricotta: Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Pasta: Cook the noodles according to package directions in salted water, undercooking by about two minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Drizzle a little olive oil on the noodles and lay them out on a foil-lined sheet pan, with plastic wrap between the layers. Cover with a damp towel if you are holding for a little while or wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate if you are prepping a day ahead.
Cheese: Combine the three cheeses together in a small mixing bowl and set aside.
To make assembly easier to follow, I am listing each layer separately, along with how much to use. Layer as follows:
Béchamel Sauce – 1 cup
Lasagna Noodles – cross-wise, about 3 – 5 pieces, depending on brand, trimmed to fit
Béchamel Sauce – 1 cup
Kale mixture – 1/2 of the mixture
Grated cheese – 1/3 of the mixture
Mushrooms – 1/2 of the mixture
Ricotta filling – 1/2 of the mixture
Lasagna Noodles – lengthwise, about 3 – 4 whole noodles, trimming as needed to fill ends
Béchamel Sauce – 1 cup
Kale mixture – 1/2 of the mixture
Grated cheese – 1/3 of the mixture
Mushrooms – 1/2 of the mixture
Ricotta filling – 1/2 of the mixture
Lasagna Noodles – cross-wise, about 3 – 5 pieces trimmed to fit
Béchamel Sauce – 1 cup
Grated cheese – 1/3 of mixture
Place on a sheet pan to catch bubble-overs, and bake, covered with foil sprayed with oil to prevent sticking, for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and raise the oven temperature to 425oF. Bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes until the cheese is starting to brown and the lasagna is bubbly.
Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
The prep time here is directly correlated to how many people and how much wine. I am a speedy chopper and prepped in less time than shown. If you are a leisurely chopper or socializing, it may take longer. Or, many hands make light work.
This late summer quick and easy pasta dish needs no introduction – corn, tomatoes, and summer squash? Why, hello friends! Welcome!! In a word – YUM! I found myself with a zucchini/tomato bounty post farmer’s market and wanted to whip up something that screams, “I see you Indian summer and I beg you to stay.”
There’s always so much to do this time of year, so why waste time getting dinner on the table? I say that it takes 25 minutes in the notes below, but that is really for the non-multi-tasker. If you get that water boiling first, start your sauté, drop the pasta, and add the veggies to the tomatoes, all while sipping a nice glass of vino, you will be done in far less time. Or at least you won’t notice. This dish is inspired by those that want no fuss, yet full flavor. Skillet-burst tomato & corn pasta has got your back.
Was your sweet corn as amazing as mine this summer? Dutch Love, Silver Queen, Peaches & Cream! Yes, please!! I am partial to the white corn, but the key to me is tiny kernels, sweet enough and oh-so-tender that you can eat it raw.
But corn shopping can get competitive where I come from. It might not be at the market by 8:15, because they are still picking, and by 9:15 you might be disappointed. A total shut out. Thanks to Ham Family Farm and my really pointy elbows, I was corn-endowed all season. Do you remember Everything But the Farmer Farmer’s Market Salad? Same joint. That is a salad that is also epic this time of year. And as long as you are buying tomatoes, buy extra and put up a batch of oven-dried tomatoes. You will thank me all winter.
Skillet-Burst Tomato & Corn Pasta
To get started, drop the cherry and grape tomatoes – I love heirlooms for their gorgeous hues – into a sauté pan with garlic. Whirl the pan to coat the tomatoes with the EVOO and sizzle til they start to char and burst. Add the summer squash and cook until caramelized.
Toss in some corn, arugula, and seasonings, then add the al dente-cooked pasta and Parmesan. I am using rigatoni here, but any short-cut shape will do. Divide among bowls, top with hand-torn fresh Mozzarella and fresh basil. As always, check the seasoning. I like to use a finishing salt like Maldon, and of course some fresh pepper or hot pepper flakes.
This late summer quick and easy skillet-burst tomato & corn pasta dish needs no introduction. Corn? Tomatoes? Summer squash? Why, hello friends! Welcome!! This dish highlights the bounty of late summer produce. Tumble onto a bed of pasta, shred some fresh mozzarella, garnish with basil, and you have yourself a feast.
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
4 cups heirloom cherry tomatoes, about 1 1/2 pounds
3 sprigs fresh thyme
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds summer squash, about 8 extra small, trimmed and sliced (if using larger squash, cut into half-moons)
1-pound rigatoni, or another short-cut pasta
3 Tablespoons butter
2 ears of fresh corn, cut from the cob
1 cup thinly sliced arugula
Red pepper flakes to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2 balls fresh Mozzarella
2 Tablespoons thinly sliced basil (chiffonade)
Finish with Maldon sea salt or other flaky finishing salt
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan. Add garlic, tomatoes and thyme, and season with salt and pepper. Stir to coat the tomatoes, smashing garlic further. After 6 minutes, add the summer squash, stirring occasionally. Cook for an additional 5 or 6 minutes until the summer squash start to brown and caramelize.
Meanwhile bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, according to the package instructions, about 12 minutes.
Turn the heat down to low on the sauté pan, and stir in butter, corn, arugula and season with red pepper flakes. Cook for three minutes, scrapping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Remove the thyme.
Drain the pasta, reserving ½ cup of pasta water. Add the pasta to the vegetable mixture and add the Parmesan. Stir to combine, adding pasta water to thin, if desired.
Divide among six bowls and top each with 1/3 of a ball of fresh Mozzarella, torn by hand.
Garnish with basil and finish with flaky sea salt, adding more red pepper flakes if desired.
Use a bit of the pasta water, if you prefer a more saucy pasta and feel free to hit it with more butter. What could be bad?
Not going to lie – I wouldn’t be mad if you threw a Tablespoon or two of pesto on this. I did however create this combo of ingredients to let stellar tomatoes, sweetest corn and gorgeous squash be the rock stars. The more things you add, the less they are the standouts. This pasta mimics a fresh ear of corn slathered with butter. You be the master of your destiny!
Prep Time:10 minutes
Cook Time:15 minutes
Keywords: Tomato, Corn, Pasta
To source the Maldon salt and see more of my must-have kitchen tools, visit my shop. (affiliate links)
Finally! Ermahgerd!!!! Did you think that winter would ever end?? I for one did not. Today in NYC it was 90 and stickeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! But that means not only are the farmers’ markets in full spring swing, they are pushing out the bounty that Mother Earth shares this time of year. Garlic scapes! Remember them? I am scooping them up to dose plain ole pesto with these fresh shoots and flowering stems of the garlic bulb, while also jam-packing the processor with not only basil, but also arugula and parsley. Arugula and Garlic Scape Pesto! Oh yeah!!
Those growing garlic will be familiar with this curlicue that shoots up from the buried bulb. I’m sending out this scape pesto recipe now because my readers are scattered across the globe, and it is found from May through July, depending on where you are. It usually starts shooting up about a month after the bulb’s first leaves, and many will cut it back and compost to stop diverting energy so the bulb itself can fatten up. Resist! Just say no! Cut back, but don’t compost. There are many things you can do with these stems, from chopping and adding to a potato salad, to making sauces like this scape pesto, to making those cute bundles below. They can be eaten raw, blanched, roasted or grilled. For a deep dive on all things you can do with these divine shoots, check out (and follow) Suzie Durigon at Just Crumbs. She has a wonderful post on everything you always wanted to know about scapes.
Try to find a farmer that will sell you a big bag. They last a month or so in a plastic bag in the fridge, and buying them by the piece can get pricey. I have seen them for a quarter each, but I shop at the end of the day and dazzle farmers with my true appreciation for this shoot. I can usually make off with a 2-gallon ziplock filled for just $10. As long as you are successful in your hunt, why don’t you whip up a batch of Roasted Garlic Scapes? You won’t be sorry. They have that I-want-more-ish quality like salted edamame, with a big dose of robust flavor. Plus they are easy-peasy and are a bit of a show stopper.
Arugula & Scape Pesto
The ingredients, ratios and directions are detailed below, but rest easy that this is a 5 minute processor recipe. The scapes, arugula, parsley, and basil give it a jewel-like green color and the Parmesan and sunflower seeds (so much cheaper and flavorful than pine nuts) give it some body. I am serving it here atop a fresh gemelli (did you know that is Italian for twins, as the pasta is doubled over and twisted together?) and oven-dried tomatoes. The tomatoes are from the freezer and were dried at the end of last season when they were at their peak. I linked the recipe below so you can keep it in mind for later this year. You could also add some of the other spring veggies, like peas or asparagus tossed in at the end of the pasta’s cooking, or even some sauteed morels or other spring mushrooms. This flavorful pesto is not limited to pasta: drizzle it on a Caprese, marinate vegetables for the grill, or spoon it on a grilled steak or chicken breast. It’s so universal you can also slather it on a panini.
Swapping out more mature bulb garlic with just-in-season garlic shoots, while supplementing the basil with arugula and parsley, gives this scape pesto a bright and spring-like freshness that is great on anything from pasta to grilled fare to tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.
10 – 12 garlic scapes, trimmed and sliced crosswise
1 cup tightly packed basil
1/2 cup tightly packed Italian parsley
1/2 cup tightly packed arugula
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
Juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Place the scape, basil, parsley and arugula in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse 8 – 10 times until coarsely chopped.
Add the remaining ingredients, except the olive oil, and pulse again to combine. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a thin stream until combined and desired texture is reached, scraping down the side of the workbowl as necessary.
Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
The salt in this recipe is based on using it with pasta. If you plan to use it in a non-carby way like a fresh mozzarella drizzle, then you may want to cut back on the salt.
Serve on pasta – hot or cold; top a tomato and fresh mozzarella Caprese; spoon onto grilled chicken, steaks, fish or vegetables; or slather on a sammy.
Prep Time:5 minutes
Keywords: Scape Pesto
When you give this spring arugula and scape pesto a whirl, tag me on Instagram and as always, I LOVE to see your comments below.
Are you full yet? I know. I know. The mind reels that we are still talking about food. But trust me – this dish does not disappoint. And, be honest. Turkey sandwiches start to feel redundant. Turkey Tetrazzini, a dish I grew up on, however is creamy, hearty, and full of mushroomy goodness. My mom found her recipe (very, very loosely translated below, in part because 50 years ago directions were vague and ingredients were more a suggestion when “the homemaker” already knew how to cook) in the 1968 Panhellenic Meats Cookbook. “Every home should have a good meats cookbook. This cookbook is filled with wonderful recipes submitted by sorority members over the nation. Here you will find all sorts of mouth-watering meats – from tried-and-true favorites such as hamburger pie to exotic foreign treats.” These gals surely got around because despite foreign dishes starting off with lasagna and Canadian meat pie, they also ranged from Turkey to Taiwan to Tahiti.
Speaking of the 60s…who’s doesn’t like a good road trip to pick out dinner? I’ll take THAT one!
Tetrazzini was invented in a hotel (debates over whether it was San Francisco or NYC) in the early 1900s. Opera star Luisa Tetrazzini is its namesake. There is seemingly no standard for what ingredients are required, but it generally includes poultry, a cream sauce and long thin pasta. The Meats Cookbook recipe may or may not call for sautéing the onion in bacon grease. I am not sure I can in good conscience call for that. And I’m here to assure you that I always choose the healthier EVOO. But you should know that is probably a lie. It is definitely a lie. It’s your cholesterol. Do what you will. For goodness sake, it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Is this really the time to show restraint?
Instead of talking turkey, let’s just let the Tetrazzini do the talking!
3 Tablespoons flour
About 4 ounces butter, divided per instructions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
4 ribs celery, sliced
1 green bell pepper, stem removed, seeded and diced
4 shallots, minced
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 pound spaghetti
4 cups chopped turkey
2 cups grated cheddar
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
6 pieces of bacon, cooked and crumbled (are you saving the fat for shallot sauté?)
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs or seasoned breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 350oF. Butter a 9x13x2-inch 3-quart casserole.
I’m switching it up here and making a cross between a milk-based Béchamel white sauce and a chicken broth based Velouté. That makes it creamy and also a bit lighter.
Start by making a roux, using 3 Tablespoons each of butter and flour. Melt the butter and whisk in the flour to make a roux the texture of wet sand. Let it start to bubble and continue for one minute. Whisk in the milk and chicken stock. Combine well. Season with salt and pepper. Add the celery and peppers and simmer for 15 minutes until thickened, whisking from time to time to make sure the sauce does not stick, and the vegetables are softened.
Prep the Veggies:
Meanwhile, add 1 Tablespoon of the remaining butter (or the bacon fat if using) to a sauté pan and add the shallots. Sauté until golden and a bit crispy, about 8 minutes. Drain on a paper towel.
Add an additional 2 Tablespoons of butter to the pan and sauté the mushrooms until browned.
Cook the Pasta:
Cook the pasta according to package directions, under-cooking by a minute or so. Drain.
Time to Combine:
In a small bowl, combine the parsley, shallots and Parmesan.
In a large bowl, add the pasta, turkey, mushrooms, cheddar, and gradually add the sauce, folding to combine evenly. Add half the parsley/shallot/Parmesan mixture and toss well. Transfer to the prepared casserole dish.
Top the pasta mixture with the remaining parsley/shallot/Parmesan mixture and sprinkle with the bacon and breadcrumbs, dotting with 1 Tablespoon butter.
Bake it Off:
Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes until bubbly.
Note: Sometimes when I make this, I let it cool to room temperature and freeze until I need it. In that case, I add all the parsley/shallot/Parmesan mixture to the pasta before freezing, and wrap well, without additional toppings. Then when I am ready to bake it off, I top the thawed casserole with bacon, breadcrumbs, and a bit of fresh Parmesan or grated cheddar. Per Darryl Hannah in Steel Magnolias, “it’s in the freezes beautifully section of my cookbook.”
Serves ??? How much do you love this? At least 6 or 8, and more if you are willing to share.
After that fantastic morning cutting the cheese with the Cheese Lady (LadieS, original and 2.0), I wanted, no needed, to drill down on the “recipe cheeses” that Shelley was going on about. Yes, I do like to cook with cheese, but I also couldn’t be happier with a big spread, especially if there are raw milks in the mix. But after sharing my insights into the featured “recipe” cheeses in my last post, I turned around, drove back and bought even more, just for cooking. Mac & Cheese seemed like an easy and simple go to idea, but as you are probably noticing, I’m not one to let well enough alone. Okay, that’s not 100% true – I pendulum-swing from letting stellar ingredients shine (less is more) way across to an insane amount of add-ons (more is more). Have you already forgotten the Everything but the Farmer Farmer’s Market Salad? I rest my case. I’m sure there are good pharmaceuticals for this split personality, but I choose to go it alone and see what boils over each day’s pot.
So this recipe is part Mac & Cheese 101 – including classic French béchamel technique – and part KMG – Katy Goes Mad …in this case, for Pimento Cheese. Two big drivers here: The Cheese Lady Muskegon sometimes has Zingerman’s Pimento Cheese. At the risk of telling you about it and creating a run on the stuff, it’s divine. The second is dear ole Dad. I think pimento cheese sandwiches were a staple his mother made – Grandmother Keck was quite the cook in the farm-girl-vegetable-soup-and-applesauce-by-the-vat-load-sort-of-way. Whatever his inspiration, he was super fond of the spread and, like me sourcing out the goods from Zingerman’s, he had his haunts. (I hate to admit that it was a Stuckey’s gas station on the highway south of Terre Haute….let’s just say this apple rolled a few acres after falling from that tree.) The notion of his love for “pimenna”, as he more or less Hoosier twanged it, lives on, and it wouldn’t be unheard of to find it served at an engagement party or stuffed on whole wheat and into your Christmas stocking – not because you’re dying for it but because it needs to be there. It’s the right thing to do. Some things you just don’t question.
There’s one more reason I’m keen to dose the mac & cheese in the southern way – a recent trip to Atlanta, trend-spotting for a client, had me in awe of the many uses of pimento cheese. From apps almost to dessert, I was hard pressed to find a joint without the ubiquitous spread in the 13 restaurants I visited in 36 hours. It was some kind of heaven and I’m sure my Pop was sitting nearby, somewhere on the right hand.
For the basics: The start to any classic flour-based sauce is a roux – equal parts flour and butter (or in the case of gravy, flour and meat or bird fat), generally used in equal portions. It’s always important to toast the flour, once the two are whisked together. That is what gives the sauce a cooked, somewhat nutty taste. For those that thicken pan drippings by whisking in flour at the end, there will always be a slightly raw flour taste. The longer you toast the roux, the deeper the color and flavor. Some gumbos will have it go all the way to a deep rich dark color. But Mac & Cheese is based on a white sauce, so for this the roux, we will only toast it until it just starts to bubble – about a minute or so.
No Shame in Measuring
I can eyeball proportions pretty well and often don’t measure but there is some chemistry at work here and there is no shame in measuring. A little precision will help ensure success. When making gravy at Thanksgiving, even I pour off all the pan drippings to see how much is fat and how much is broth – stay tuned for a Fall drill down on that. In a flat roasting pan, it’s damn hard to tell the ratio – pretty easy in a glass measuring cup when the fat floats.
The key proportions for a sauce of average thickness are:
1 Tablespoon Fat
1 Tablespoon Flour
1 cup liquid
Mac & Cheese is generally started with a white sauce or Béchamel. There you are speaking French again. You’re welcome! The addition of cheeses to this blond roux-thickened base turns Béchamel to Mornay. Add crayfish and you have Nantua Sauce. Sautéed Onions makes Soubise. And you can probably guess what makes Béchamel into Mustard Sauce. FYI, Bechamel is one of three of the five mother sauces that uses roux – so pay attention here! 1 T to 1 T to 1 Cup!
For a pound of pasta, you will need 3 to 4 cups of sauce. I make a mean turkey tetrazzini that uses spaghetti (not such a clingy noodle) and it seems to soak up about 3 cups of sauce. Since you are adding cheese to further thicken this sauce, I find Mac & Cheese with a curly, needy noodle like cavatappi will absorb closer to 4 cups. (Better safe than sorry – err on the “make-too-much” side). So who’s doing the math here? 4 Tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter, 4 T flour, 1 quart of milk.
After you finish the sauce, stir in grated cheese(s). I’m not bothered by the color here and chose white cheeses (high quality, of course: Fontina Fontal for its creaminess and ability to hold a sauce and Barber’s Cheddar for its edge). I realize that some of you can’t get over needing the bright yellow – but for the love of God, please use a quality yellow cheddar. Did you see that Kraft recently did the world’s biggest blind taste test? Assuming that fans would complain when they took out some dyes and non-natural additives, they secretly made the switch without changing the packaging (except ingredient list) and way ahead of schedule. Nobody noticed. I did feel pretty much affirmed on my comment last month that commercially produced turmeric “tasted – well, yellow” because Kraft used it in lieu of yellow dyes 5 and 6. I can promise you if the turmeric had tasted like ginger, as intended, someone would have noticed! But the unspoken fact still remains – even though these additives are so called natural, they are not natural to cheese. There is nothing wrong with a white sauce with white cheeses!
The other thing I like to do with the cheeses is grate some and cube the rest so you get pockets of cheesy goodness that melt and string as you pull. If you don’t like that (seriously, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?), then either chop the cheeses more finely, or grate them all. With any of the grated cheeses, use a coarse grater. If you grate too finely (think green shakers of wood pulp/cellulose), the cheese “dust” won’t melt well and will cause the sauce to be a bit gritty. Nobody likes that! If you are using a variety of flavors like I am – or even more distinctive flavors, like a blue or pepper cheese….or blue with pepper (yes! Glacier Wildfire Blue!!!) – it’s really important to add the cheeses separately from the sauce so you get the distinct pops of flavor. If you only added them to the sauce, it would be a blended flavor and the strongest cheese wins. Not the goal! Layer! Layer! Layer!
I’m starting you out with the basics here and including the southern twist, but there are plenty of other ways to jack your mac, and I’ll ‘bring it’ in the future.
Ooey Gooey Mac & Cheese with Southern Twist (“pimenna cheese”)
4 Tablespoons butter
4 Tablespoons flour
4 cups of milk
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
2 cups grated cheese (I used a combo of ¼ pound Fontina Fontal and ¼ pound Barber’s Cheddar)
Melt the butter and whisk in the flour to make a roux, the texture of wet sand. Let it start to bubble and continue for one minute. Whisk in the milk and combine well. Add the salt and red pepper flakes. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until thickened, whisking from time to time to make sure the bottom does not stick. Add handfuls of the 2 cups of grated cheese and stir until melted.
Meanwhile cook the pasta according to package directions in salted boiling water, stopping about two minutes early. Drain and transfer to a mixing bowl.
Pour the cheese sauce over the warm pasta, using about ¾ quarters of the sauce to start. Stir until combined, adding additional sauce as desired. (You will likely want it all). Add the You’ll Thank Me in the Winter Oven Dried Tomatoes, peppadew and 2 Tablespoons of chives.
Preheat oven to 350oF.
Transfer 3 cups of the sauced pasta to a buttered 3-quart casserole dish. Layer 1/3 of the remaining cheeses (the grated fontina, grated and chopped gruyere, and chopped mozzarella). Repeat with two more layers of pasta and cheese until all are used, ending with the cheeses.
Combine remaining Tablespoon of chopped chives, panko and fried onion topping in a small bowl. Sprinkle on top of the pasta and dot with butter.
Bake the assembled macaroni and cheese for 30-40 minutes until bubbly. Raise oven temperature to 450oF and bake an additional 7 to 10 minutes until top crisps up.