True Confessions of a Mid-Life Cook

There's a definite correlation between my profound love of music and how and what I've taught myself to cook. My favorite music to listen to and to perform is soulful, sensual, sometimes funky and always bluesy in nature . . . and that's exactly how I cook. I like to get my hands in the food. I chop, I knead, I stir with my hands. Sometimes I wear my big rimmed cowboy hat, nightie and Old Gringo boots in kitchen, sometimes a coonskin cap when the mood strikes and sometimes just an apron and a smile. Using the freshest of ingredients, I love to bringing a new spirit to old favorites. I am so to drawn dishes seeping in both Texas and Southern tradition,with a special affinity for those authentic old jewels found in South Louisiana.
Because they, too, are so powerfully soulful?

I've discovered being a good cook is a journey and not a destination. (Yes, I stole an over-used corporate slogan and made it my own--but it's still the truth) Every time we screw up, we learn. And in part, that's what this blog is about. Cooking fearlessly. With heart, with soul -- and with some damn good music to inspire. (If your three layer chocolate cake ends up looking like a Jerry Springer rerun or you cut the tip of your thumb off while making New Year's Day gumbo, WHO CARES?Proclaim Francine Reed's "I'm a Handful" your theme song. She would like that.)
We cook because we find ourselves kinda empty if we don't.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Macaroni and cheese with crunchy panko topping

This rainy and cold day (so rudely interrupting a glorious spring break in West Texas,) demands a little taste of comfort to help my crew forgive and even possibly forget Mama Nature's latest little joke.  And when I turn to comfort food, its usually in the form of macaroni and cheese because it's a crowd-pleaser. It can hold it's own as a main course when paired with a green salad.  And it makes my eyes roll back in my head, warming my soul.

This is a such versatile dish with so many interesting selections of cheeses and spices from which to choose.  Today I'm using white Cheddar, Romano and Asiago cheeses because they are just the best when combined with the wonderfully crunchy panko topping (Japanese bread crumbs - don't worry, your larger grocery chain will have it.)

1 tablespoon seasalt
Chicken stock
1 lb elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons butter (3/4 stick)
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound white cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz Romano cheese, shredded
4 oz Asiago cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups panko

Preheat oven to 325
Bring large pot of chicken stock to boil over high heat, add the mac and cook stirring some, until al dente, 7 to 8 minutes. Drain.

Melt butter in large saucepan over med heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and cook whisking continuously about 3-4  minutes (you're making a blond roux.) Add milk and whisk away until the sauce is thick and bubbly.  Add heavy cream, all three cheeses and the salt & pepper. Cook, stirring until cheeses are melted completely.

Add the macaroni to the cheese mixture and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a buttered 9x13-in baking dish and top with the panko crumbs.  Bake until hot and golden, about 15 to 20 minutes.I always broil for about 2 minutes to get the panko crumbs nice and brown.

Thoughts on variations:  My kids are somewhat mac-n-cheese purists and have only recently accepted the panko so if I'm cooking with them in mind, I keep it simple.  However, you can see where the sky is the limit on variations.  A few ideas:
  • Top with bacon crumbs and chopped sweet onion after baking
  • Stir in carmelized onion before baking
  • Add Italian spices to your cheese mixture and maybe a little cooked Italian sausage
  • Top with pulverized cheddar Gold Fish crackers before baking
  • Top with buttered bread crumbs, fresh Parmesan before baking
  • Add Albacore tuna and tarragon to the cheese mixture
  • Stir in a  touch of chorizo sausage and chopped cilantro
  • Add cooked CRAWFISH TAILS and a little cayenne or Zatarains seasoning or both!
Once you've made your own mac and cheese from scratch, it's doubtful that you'll go back to those Kraft boxes. I'm sitting here typing this watching one of my fourteen year olds in the kitchen sneaking more bites, after devouring a plateful just minutes ago.  His eyes are rolling back in his head, too . . .although he'd never admit it.

Note on reheating:  This recipe makes a bunch of macaroni and cheese.  Tonight I reheated a little of the leftovers  in a small Pyrex dish  when I was oven frying some fish in a hot oven (about 425) for 20 minutes.
This temp browned the bottom adding yet even more crunch to the panko that had settled and didn't dry it out.  Even BETTER the second time around.

Suggested listening:  ". . .like a school girl waiting for the spring."  That's me today.  Norah Jone's "Turn Me On."


The Chef In My Head said...

I am forwarding your fabulous recipe to my sister to add the ingredients to our giant grocery list. We are headed to NC for spring break on the beach with a few families. Perfect for our menu!!
And, yeah, what the heck happended to our warmer weather here in Texas???
Happy Sunday~LeslieMichele

Tavern on the Concho said...

Have a great time with family on the beaches of NC! And this mac-n-cheese serves a bagillion -- perfect for family gatherings.