Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Accent on Mac 'n Cheese

I have a thing for accents.

I admit to you up front, give me somebody spouting pure drivel as long as they do so with a crisp British accent (for instance) and I am thinking to myself, "how very astute - what wonderful commentary!".

It goes further than that. When I watch BBC news I feel smarter, that is how suggestible I am that the accent makes not only the speaker, but the listener as well.

Other accents I find provide a context of charming in a way that often overcomes content.Fabio on Top Chef has made comments on at least two shows now referencing his cooking, monkey asses, clam shells and fried bananas among other things. Unappetizing? Far from it. Because he has that Italian accent, rather than be at all put off I grin like a monkey myself and think, "haha - what a guy!".

It is similar for me when using food terms in a foreign language. Everything sounds better to me in somebody else's mother tongue.

So when I was reading in Emily Weinstein's Bitten Blog in the Times about "Addictive Mac and Cheese" and I saw somebody in the comments section reference a Barilla recipe for the dish, I checked it out immediata.

I was not disappointed. Rather than the ordinary garden variety Macaroni and Cheese recipes mentioned in the Bitten Blog there it was in all its accented wonder: Maccheronia al Formaggio all'Americana (American-Style Macaroni and Cheese). Delizioso, si?From the Barilla website:
Ease of preparation: easy
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Servings: 4-6

Ingredients
1/2 box (8 ounces) BARILLA Elbows
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter
1 large onion, chopped
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

HEAT milk in a small saucepan.
MELT butter in a 4 quart saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and saute until transparent.
STIR in flour and salt; cook for 2-3 minutes.
ADD milk and stir to blend. Bring mixture to a low, steady simmer.
ADD uncooked Elbows, cover and continue to simmer gently for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Mixture will thicken as it cooks).
REMOVE from heat and add cheese. Stir gently until cheese is melted. Pour mixture into a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish, cover and let sit 5 minutes before serving

For a cheesier version, top with an additional 1/2 cup cheddar cheese and broil until cheese is melted .


Before we even got to the Italian name, this recipe already had two things going for it. First off, it requires a shorter prep and cooking time than most of the sworn by mac and cheese recipes being tossed about as "the best".

Secondly, I actually had a half box of Barilla elbows already sitting in my pantry.

Ah, Fate, and not just Fate, but Fate singing the siren song of cheesy noodles. With an Italian accent.

Irresistible.

I mostly followed the recipe as printed. One exception I made was adding in 1/4 teaspoon of dry mustard. Adding dry mustard to macaroni and cheese recipes is for me a step similar to putting Worcestershire sauce into green bean casserole. It always makes for a better end product and elevates the taste to that next level. You might not notice either ingredient in either recipe, in fact you aren't supposed to notice them for themselves, but if you've tasted either recipe with them added and then get a batch without? You miss it.I put my mac into individual serving ramekins (OK I'll admit -partly so I could use the term ramekin here which is as much fun to type as it is to say) and ran it up under the broiler for a little color. I also added about a cup extra of grated blended white cheddar and monterey jack because I had it open and we were heading out of town so I wanted to use it up.

Finally, I discovered, as I was rummaging through refrigerator drawers as part of the usual "going out of town for a few days let's get anything that is going to stink when I come home OUT of here" search, a block of Emmentaler cheese that was, ahem, caff, "a bit" past its sell by date.Here I pause to cop to a pretty cavalier attitude when it comes to keeping and using cheese.

Chicken I am afraid of. If it smells the least bit off or is past a use-by date then I toss it out with deep regrets but no hesitation. Cheese on the other hand, I tend to shrug and think - "hey - this stuff just gets better as it gets older and is part of a process that uses mold development for flavor in many instances so.... eh - I will just cut off this icky part and eat the rest".

Let me rush to add I am no scientist, no food police authority of any sort and my attitudes and experiences with surviving such cheesy rehab projects without incident are not laid out here to suggest an exemplar for others.

Don't do as I did but understand in the spirit of full disclosure that I took the past-the-prime pricey Emmentaler and used about a half cup of it in my mac and cheese to spiff up the flavor profile.

You will note that this recipe calls for chopped onion. I am not sure where or how that got started, I don't think I've seen chopped onion in many mac and cheese recipes previously, but in the spirit of global understanding I duly chopped onions up and hoped for the best. I was not disappointed.

The results? Very, VERY good.

This process of cooking the elbows in milk yields a thick end product that will only withstand a little additional heat before it begins to move into too thick territory. This is not a mac and cheese recipe that will hold for long periods of time, clearly. I am not sure (yet) how it will reheat. I plan on hitting that button when we get back to town. I am quite certain I will need to add some liquid back in as I reheat, and we will see if that results in a broken sauce.

For our first go round I did not gild the lily with a crumb or tomato topping, and I did not put added cheese on top to brown under the broiler as was suggested at the Barilla site. I did throw on a little spanish smoked paprika just to keep the ghost of my Home Economics teacher, "remember children" [we were in Junior High - we were SO not children!] - "you eat with your eyes, first!", off my back and out of my head. 

I think with the second incarnation of this I might stir in some saute├ęd mushrooms and see if/how that dresses it up. Not that macaroni and cheese needs to doll up.Firmly ensconced as it is in the category of a comfort food, macaroni and cheese is a dish that already says "I love you so I made this for you to enjoy". Is there really any other message a food ought to be sending?

With Valentine's Day coming up (a day I kind of hate but we won't get into that just now) I am suggesting that rather than going the way of decadent sweets or taking the route of fussy fancy foods, maybe you will want to try preparing a batch of something comforting for that person you love. Present it without fanfare, dressed up with just your smiling face and the statement "I love you so I made this for you to enjoy", and see where that gets you.

It would sure enough work on me. With - or without - the accent.

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