Tuesday, January 24, 2012

One Heck of a Mac 'n Cheese

~Subliminal Craving~
Crazy Pittsburgh weather!  Monday I jogged with my dogs wearing shorts and a T-shirt.  This, a 12-hour heatwave, after I was bundled up in sweats under a blanket with a fire in the fireplace all weekend.  HotDog taunted me with gems like, "Are you cold?  Do you need another shawl, Grandma?"  I periodically checked the LLBean Doppler 11 Viper Radar meteorological center for the outside temperature, and I craved comfort food while the thermometer never budged above 25 degrees F.

Specifically, I had a hankerin' for macaroni and cheese, and I was determined to find a Keeper from scratch.  Now comes the humbling part where I confess that I made a passably tasty macaroni and cheese for years, but I shortcutted the bechamel with cream-of-whatever-floats-your-boat canned soup.  Yes (hangs head), I did it.  Over and over and over again (hangs head lower and curses Campbell's for being so daggone convenient).

The Saturday afternoon creation yielded a lovely casserole, but it lacked clarity and depth.  I made the roux as one should, whisking and heating the flour and butter until smooth and nutty-brown, then adding milk and Cheddar and Colby Jack cheeses.  I baked it, we ate it, we had seconds, we went as far to say it was good, yet no one declared it a Keeper.  It missed the mark - no question.  Somehow and despite this, the now-17-year old manboy saw to it that only a small container of the dish saw the refrigerator.

Sunday morning brought a renewed zeal for mac 'n cheese.  I wanted REALLY GOOD mac 'n cheese, which I knew in my heart of hearts did not contain flour.  Come to think of it, my mom always made a beautiful clear gravy with cornstarch.  Yes!  THIS is the ticket to letting the glorious cheese flavors shine through to every tastebud!  Thanks, Mom!

My light bulb moment and a second cup of coffee energized me.  I scoured the Internet, scrutinizing, picking and choosing what sounded good from several recipes and reviews.  And ya know what?  I discovered that I can crave something that I've never-ever cooked before:  Swiss chard.  Wow, have I even eaten it before?  (Pauses to stare at blank wall and ponder... nope, I got nothing.)  Something about the thought of Swiss chard and pasta and a blend of more complex cheeses - and oh, let's invite sauteed mushroom bits to this fantasy - made those little glands behind my lower molars get all juicy-juice.

And I gotta say, I was so right on target with the whole Swiss chard thing.
1) It adds confetti-like interest to an otherwise aesthetically monochrome dish.
2) Those self-titled Swiss chard haters can step off, because it truly can't be tasted here.  For reals.
And 3) Every little teeny bit of fiber should be welcomed with open arms when you're talking this much cheese in one serving.  Think of it as little cowboys in the bloodstream, hollerin' "Come on, little LDL doggies, move along!  YAAAW!"

Ah, yes.  Move along to your permanent place in the recipe binder of Keepers.  YAAAW!

One Heck of a Mac 'n Cheese
Sauteed Mushrooms recipe, 1/4" dice and omit salt
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons corn starch
3 cups 2% milk
12 oz block Gruyere cheese, grated, divided
8 oz block smoked Gouda cheese, grated
4 oz block Cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (1/8 tsp if ground)
1 teaspoon of prepared mustard (I love Ingelhoffer stone ground mustard)
1 bunch Swiss chard, center ribs removed
2 lbs elbow macaroni
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.  Bring 6-8 cups of water to a boil over high heat.

Prepare Sauteed Mushrooms recipe while you wait for the water to boil; transfer from pan to small bowl or prep cup.  It's kinda sad, really, that the trade-off for tremendous flavor is shrinking up so...  Maybe two batches next go-round?  Hmmm.

When the water boils, add the Swiss Chard leaves.  Stir gently, then cook for one minute.
Remove from water with tongs and place in strainer to drain.  Keep the water boiling and add some salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the elbow macaroni and cook as directed; drain.

Combine cold milk and cornstarch; set aside.  Melt the butter in a large pan.  (In retrospect I suggest rinsing and using the macaroni pot since you'll have to stir the pasta into the cheese sauce pretty soon.)  Add the onions until they begin to brown.  Quickly stir in the garlic, then gradually whisk in the milk/cornstarch mixture.  Stirring constantly, let mixture begin to boil.
Continue stirring for about 5 minutes until mixture is nicely thickened.  Whisk in the mushroom bits and grated Gruyere, reserving 3/4 cup Gruyere for later.  Whisk in the Gouda, then the Cheddar, then the black pepper, red pepper, nutmeg, and mustard.
Add macaroni and stir to coat evenly.  As you can guess, it did not happen in this fry pan; everything ended up convening in the pasta pot at this point.

Spread Swiss chard leaves on paper towels and press leaves with more paper towels to remove excess water.  Give 'em a fine chop.
Lightly butter a 13x9 casserole dish (I used my seasoned stoneware casserole and had success without buttering), and press half the macaroni mixture into it.  Sprinkle the Swiss chard on it.
Add the the other half of mac 'n cheese and top with remaining shredded Gruyere.
Sprinkle with additional grated nutmeg and ground red pepper, if desired.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until cheese lightly browns.
Serve hot. 

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