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.

Hidden Valley Farmigo 2015: Garbage In, Garbage Out

farmigo-logo-orangeIn my line of work — software development — we have an old saying: “Garbage In, Garbage Out” (or GIGO for short). In other words, I could write the most elegant software program ever, but if I feed in bad data, I’m going to get bad results.

The same is true for cooking. I spent more than a decade following my mother and my grandparents around the kitchen, absorbing centuries-old traditions and methods to create some of the finest Southern Italian delicacies you can find outside of the motherland. But I can’t do these dishes justice if I buy industrial, travel-worn, GMO and chemically-treated food from your average grocery store.

Two generations ago, before WWII-era plants manufacturing poison gas were converted to pesticide factories and before bomb-making facilities were re-purposed to make nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers, nearly everything in the food chain was, in today’s terms, “organic.” Many of our grandparents either grew up on farmsteads or maintained a small family or community garden. Growing up in the East Bay, we had a half-dozen tomato plants we would rotate each year with legumes (green beans, favas, limas, etc.) in the age-old tradition of naturally reintroducing nitrogen to the topsoil. As a result, we would enjoy fresh, organic caprese salad with nearly every meal all summer long and still manage to give away bags and bags of tomatoes to our neighbors, fresh off the vine.

By all means, I encourage you to grow your own food, a practice that pays back tenfold the work you put into it. But for many of us, this is too impractical or time consuming.

The very next best thing to having your own garden is using our local farm-to-table service: Farmigo. We started using it at Hidden Valley last year under the stewardship of Erin Bergman, to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. This year, she’s passed the reigns to me. Farmigo provides organic, local, sustainable, GMO-free produce and an assortment of dry goods, baked goods, fermented foods, dairy products and pre-made items from local providers. It’s easy to use and not any more expensive than high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods or Fairfax’s marvelous Good Earth.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Sign up for the Hidden Valley community on the Farmigo web site
  2. Place your order by 11:59pm each Sunday night
  3. Pick up your order from the foyer of the multipurpose room Wednesday between 1 and 2pm*

As much as I love Farmigo’s food, customer service, web site and overall vibe, the best part about this great service is that Farmigo gives back to Hidden Valley.

Last year, we raised $1,443.30 for the school garden, an investment made toward raising a future generation of home-gardeners and conscious eaters.

Please join me and the 54 other Hidden Valley Farmigo Families in the local food movement by signing up today. You can place your first order by Sunday 8/30 and pick up your groceries on Wednesday 9/2. If you use the code LOCAL20 at checkout on your first order, you’ll get 20% off.

Watch this space for cooking tips, recipes and other musings on how to eat well while avoiding the industrial food chain. And remember GIGO and its all-important inverse:

Start with fresh, local, GMO-free, organic raw materials, apply a solid recipe, and you’ll likely get great results.

*As your Farmigo coordinator, I’ll hang around the multipurpose room from 1-2pm each Wednesday to oversee pickups. Before leaving campus, I’ll move any food not picked up by then to the fridge in the multipurpose room foyer (outside the bathrooms). You have until 6:30pm before the YMCA closes and locks up, but you can always pick up your food the next day.