A Back-to-school Classic: Mac & Cheese

2015-09-21 19.50.03Yes, I realize that mac & cheese comes in variety of boxes and/or bags. But — as is the case with roasted peppers — the homemade version is just better, period. Unlike roasting peppers, however, making your own mac & cheese is easy, taking only maybe 5–10 minutes more than the box method. Here’s my family’s take on a home-ec recipe (remember home-ec?) from the 70s, that, with a few modifications, has stood the test of time. The “secret ingredient,” tomato paste, adds color and a tangy flavor that kids will love, assuming there’s any left after the grown-ups have their way with this tasty dish.

Yield

4–6 servings

Ingredients

1 Lb elbow pasta

2 T unsalted butter, plus 1 T more, diced and set aside

3 T white or durum flour

1/2 C milk (2% or more milk fat)

1 T tomato paste

8oz cheddar cheese, cut into a dozen or so cubes

1 T breadcrumbs

Instructions

Bring a pot of water to a boil (for the pasta) and preheat the oven to 325°

In the meantime, prepare a roux by melting 2 T of the butter over low heat in a saucepan, adding the flour and whisking vigorously to get the lumps out. When the roux begins to turn light brown and get fragrant, start adding the milk slowly, continuing to whisk until you’ve added all of it.

The end result should be a smooth, creamy, pourable sauce with no lumps. If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too thin, continue simmering over low heat and whisking constantly until it reduces to a good thickness.

When you’re happy with the sauce’s consistency, add the tomato paste and cheese cubes and continue to cook over medium-low heat until the cheese is melted, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling water, following the package directions, but leaving it slightly al dente (because it will continue to cook in the oven). When finished, drain (but do not rinse!) and add to a casserole dish.

When all the cheese cubes have melted, pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and stir to coat.

Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top and dab with the remaining butter cubes.

Bake at 325° until the cheese sauce bubbles, around 10-15 minutes.

Allow to cool for five minutes and enjoy. Be sure to save some for the kids.

Blueberry-glazed Pork Chops with Grilled Mission Figs

Blueberry-glazed Pork Chops with Grilled Figs
Amateurish food photography by Yours Truly

This is my reboot of the classic pork-chops-and-applesauce dish. It got some dubious looks from our nine-year-old, but she ended up thoroughly enjoying it.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep/cook time: 15-20 minutes

 

Ingredients

Two packages (four pieces) of Rancho Llano Seco pork chops

4 T Revive “Zonky Fruit” Blueberry Jam*

8 ripe Mission Figs, sliced lengthwise into thirds (peaches or these fantastic pluots would make good substitutes)

4 sprigs of rosemary, left whole

A few tablespoons of olive oil (to coat the pan)

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional: Trader Joe’s “Zhoug” spice blend (a mix of dried coriander leaves, parsley, chili, garlic, cumin, cardamom and cloves)

Instructions

Allow the pork chops to reach room temperature. (Soaking the closed packages in tepid water helps speed this process.) Salt and pepper (or brine) your chops as you normally would before grilling or griddling. (I use a Himalayan Salt Block to salt my meats and fish, but that’s a story for another day.) If you’re brining, try adding two teaspoons of Zhoug to the brine or experiment with other spice blends. If you’re not brining, sprinkle your spice blend on both sides of each chop during the salting process. If you want to keep it simple, just stick with salt and pepper.

In the meantime, coat a cast-iron skillet with olive oil and griddle the fruit (figs, peaches or pluots) until seared and tender but not burned, 1-2 minutes per side. Set aside; they don’t have to be kept warm.

Bring the cast iron skillet to high heat, adding more olive oil if necessary. Sear the chops, covered, for about two minutes per side.

Meanwhile, prep four plates with a sprig of rosemary (and any side dishes). Place one chop atop the sprig of rosemary and adorn each with a tablespoon of blueberry jam and two of the grilled figs (or other fruit).

*This jam is a nice (and delicious!) time saver, but if you want to make your own blueberry glaze, it’s also pretty easy. Drop of half pint of blueberries into a saucepan, add a quarter-cup of water and tablespoon of maple syrup, then simmer on medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Sicilian Roasted Peppers

Photo credit: http://www.italianfoodforever.com
Photo credit: http://www.italianfoodforever.com

If you’ve been underwhelmed by roasted peppers from a jar, be “peppered” for an entirely different experience when you roast and peel them yourself. It’s a little more work, but well worth the effort.

I usually serve these little delights as an appetizer at room temperature with some nice crusty sourdough or some crackers. (At back to school night, I served them with pita chips.) They’re also great over goat cheese on crostini or mixed with sauteed spinach and ricotta in calzoni. I’ve also used them as burger, sandwich or (post-bake) pizza toppings.

Ingredients

3 red, yellow or orange bell peppers (skip the green ones for this recipe; they’re hard to peel)

a small handful of basil leaves, chopped

2 T extra virgin olive oil

the juice of 1 lemon

1 clove of garlic, peeled and sliced into thin shavings

a teaspoon of dried oregano

a pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)

salt and pepper (to taste)

an ink-free brown paper bag

Instructions

Move your oven rack to the highest or second-highest setting to get the peppers nice and close to the heat. Preheat your broiler on the highest setting for a couple minutes.

Wash and remove stickers from the peppers and place them, whole, on a foil-lined jellyroll pan under the broiler. Broil until the skin turns black. Carefully turn them on their sides and continue to broil and turn until they’re uniformly charred, about 3-5 minutes per side, plus another 1-2 minutes for the bottoms.

Remove the roasted peppers and place them in the brown bag to cool. (The additional steaming in the bag makes them easier to peel.)

Meanwhile, prepare the marinade by combining all the other ingredients in a serving or storage dish.

Now comes the fun part. Once the peppers are cool to the touch, remove them from the bag (and compost it), peel off and compost all the charred skin, seeds and stems, tossing the fleshy roasted pepper flesh into the marinade as you go. (It’s okay if a few seeds make it into the final dish; that always happens to me no matter how OCD I am about peeling and de-seeding.)

Lastly, let the marinade marry with the peppers for at least a few hours (up to three days). For best results, do not freeze.

Be sure to let the peppers come to room temperature before you enjoy them.