It's been just about as cold as it ever gets here, hovering around 50 or so, and although the sun is bright, I'm freezing, so that means dinnertime is all about comfort food.
Comfort food warms me just thinking about it. It comes in large pots or big casseroles, isn't always as complicated as it may first seem if I'm trying a new recipe, and is challenging to keep from helping myself to just one small serving. What's best about comfort food is that time in the fridge over night improves the flavor. And since I'm the one who gets to enjoy it for lunch, that matters quite a bit.
While my sister's family was here for the holidays, I made several dishes I'd say fit this bill — which provides yet another characteristic of comfort foods: They can feed a big group, and if you're not sure whether everyone will be able to sit down to dinner at the same time, they're nearly always something that can be made ahead, and heated up.
I'm sure we all have our favorites, but one of mine is Macaroni and Cheese. It probably tops my list. In the last few months, I've sampled a variety of recipes, not so much trying to find the one we like best, but more to see just what each recipe can do with an old classic.
This version is similar to Ina Garten's, but I've included some thick bacon and parsley, and cut back on the cheese. Not quite a Bacon, Lettuce, & Tomato Mac-a-Cheese, but the idea was there.
Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon and Tomatoes
1 lb. thick pasta
4 c. 2% milk
4 T unsalted butter
1/2 c. flour
4 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
6 oz. colby jack, shredded
6 oz. extra sharp cheddar, shredded
6 strips extra-thick bacon, cooked, drained, and chopped
4 small roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
2 T unsalted butter, melted
1-1/2 c. fresh bread crumbs
1/4 c. Italian parsley
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and position a rack in the center of the oven. Spray a large casserole with oil and set aside.
Cook the pasta selected in well-salted water until al dente and drain.
While waiting for the pasta, fry the bacon just until it begins to brown, remove from pan and drain well.
In a food processor, pulse 3-4 pieces of bread until fine crumbs appear. Add the parsley and pulse a few more times. Pour in the melted butter and pulse again until combined.
Heat the milk in a small sauce pan or the microwave until hot. In a skillet, melt the butter and add the flour, stirring over medium low heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the hot milk while continuing to stir, and cook until thickened, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and add the cheese, stirring until all is melted and smooth. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.
Stir the bacon pieces and tomato into the cheese mixture until combined, then add the pasta making sure all is coated. Sprinkle bread crumb mixture over the cheesy pasta mixture and bake until hot, bubbling and beginning to brown, about 25 minutes.
- This is creamy, but not overly cheesy. The combination of quantities keeps it from being greasy which is often the case with macaroni and cheese.
- The bacon is perfect in this, of course, and the tomatoes add a nice bit of tartness.
- We're fairly new to the idea of bread crumbs on this dish, but we like it. The crunchy texture is a nice compliment to the creamy pasta. Try panko or Japanese breadcrumbs, too. They work very well if you're without a food processor.
- If you don't have fresh tomatoes with good flavor at this time of year, canned whole or diced tomatoes that are well drained will work just fine and taste great.
- Have fun choosing your cheese, but choose well. I like to make this dish when I have odds and ends in the fridge. Go easy on the blue cheese unless you love it. It can take over the dish.
- Because I recently tried a mac-a-cheese recipe that included cauliflower, I'd say you could include that as well, or substitute it for the bacon and tomatoes. We liked the crunch, and calorie-wise, it's better for you as long as you don't use the half-n-half or whole milk. That recipe can be found here.
- A sprinkle of dried red pepper flakes finish this off before you take your first bite.
- I know steamed spinach would be great mixed in with this. Or what about broccoli? Maybe next time.
As a final note: I often mention the food we enjoyed while I was growing up, and macaroni & cheese was a favorite. Mom didn't use a cheese sauce — instead used a white sauce or bechemel and layered that with grated cheese, then poured milk over the whole casserole. Although my memories are excellent, I can say I've tried enough versions over the past year — all which use a cheese sauce — and we're sold. Sorry Mom. I know you'd agree.
By the way, when are you coming for dinner? Or lunch? Remember — lots of left overs!