Tag Archives: Casserole

Lasagne with Béchamel and Spring Vegetables

I’ve been trying to write something here for days now.  I approach the task with the best intentions but know that it’s really only my conscience goading me.  No words come.  I scrounge for a memory worth sharing, then wonder if it’s one I’ve already written about and catch myself wanting to waste time sorting through archived posts to make sure.  It’s an old procrastination ruse, so I’m onto it most of the time.

Photos of recipes I’ve tried and liked are accumulating, waiting for something to be said about them, or the ingredients they were made with,  whether they’re in season, local, organic….or not.  Because you know, that matters, right?

I can’t muster up the energy because it all sounds so trivial.

I’m like an ostrich avoiding reality.  I’d rather edit photos (which qualifies at least as legitimate procrastination), or sprawl on my bedroom floor in front of the big windows on this blustery day watching the storm come in off the Pacific — probably the last we’ll have until next winter.  Mother Nature seems to have gotten March all wrong this year, with its entrance more like that of a lamb’s and its exit resembling a lion’s — at least in San Diego.

I could grab a book and lose myself for a while or think again for what seems to be the millionth time about whether the windows need drapes, and whether I should make them myself — except I’m not sure which closet that sewing machine is in and even if I did, my heart wouldn’t be into it.

A walk in the rain would also be nice, but the force of the wind is rattling the skylights and whistling down the chimneys.  I’d make it out the door and realize how silly a decision it was since I’m nothing like the thin woman clad in white who just sprinted past my window, nor like anyone the Brontës might write about, a thin figure whose dark dress is flapping about her ankles on the hauntingly beautiful Yorkshire moors and proof of a pained existence etched across her brow.

So ridiculously unfocused and thinking none of it really matters.

I’ve been thinking about perspective quite a bit this past week.  Counting my blessings.  Thinking about life, loss, what I take for granted (see foolish exhibits A, B, C, and D above) and what others in the world right now have lost and may never, ever recover.  I’m watching it on the news, in the photos that stream through a variety of websites, and can’t begin to understand.  How can anyone not actually experiencing the magnitude of such devastation understand?  I’m weighing the pettiness of any complaint, feeling short with others for their narrow mindedness, and all in all just very sad and angry.

It’s overwhelming.

So on this first day of spring and all it traditionally represents with respect to birth, new growth, and renewal, I hope the best for people in so many places on Earth right now devastated by things beyond their control.

If you’re someone who has thought about donating to a relief fund for Japan’s recovery, you may be interested in this piece by Stephanie Strom from the New York Times, “Charities Rush to Help Japan, With Little Direction.”

Donations can be made directly to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

More information about other ways to help are listed in “The Lede” at The New York Times“Japan Earthquake and Tsunami:  How to Help”

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Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon and Tomatoes

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 & Cheese with Bacon & Tomatoes

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Green Beans and Chantrelles with Fried Onions

Home Fried Onion Rings
Green beans go way back in my family.  And when I think of them, it's usually not the crispy sauteed with garlic and a few shallots way I routinely fix them now, but something that's a meal in itself:  A big pot of fresh green beans with quartered, unpeeled potatoes, and lots of onions, sauteed in bacon fat, and then stewed slowly until the mixture is somewhere between a soup and a stew. We ate it for dinner, and I can imagine that it most likely was light on my mom's wallet.  It wasn't a favorite, but I wasn't allowed to mention that part because it was food.

I have found a happy medium for dinner now, occasionally.  Especially during the holidays when someone expects "Green Bean Casserole."  You know the casserole I'm talking about, right?  The one developed by the Campbell Soup company in the 1950's  and made with Durkee's fried onions?  Yes, that recipe.

Because my family never ate green beans in a casserole, and we'd never have had our version of beans at a special dinner, I'd never tried green bean casserole until I was well into my adult years.  And when it was my turn to make it for a holiday meal, I did what I normally do — alter the recipe. 

It had to be better if it was made with fresh green beans that still had a hint of crunch to them, didn't it?  And the creaminess had to be able to come from something other than a soup can.  Don't get me wrong.  If you've spent any amount of time reading here, then you know that I was raised eating very simple, wholesome food.  So, I played around with a fresh mushroom saute with caramelized onions, rehydrated mushrooms and used the broth, made a white sauce, added some garlic, but never quite got the flavors to blend well.  It always tasted like greenbeans with sauce on them.

A year ago, I saw a recipe in Saveur that I had to try.  The only problem with it was that I'd have to make crispy fried onions and couldn't imagine doing that on a busy holiday cooking day.  Who comes up with these ideas?  Clearly, someone who doesn't have responsibility for an entire meal.  The only problem is, even though I prepped everything the way the recipe read, I sort of forgot to think about the whole onion frying thing.  Oops.

Since then I've tried the recipe quite a few ways — fried onions and no fried onions, and have found the flavors so nice, that a few shallots works just fine when you're too busy to mess with deep frying.

This year, since we're seriously out of commission due to construction, I'm in charge of green beans for Thanksgiving dinner — and a bunch of other non-turkey items.  I'm going to fry the onions at home first, and store them in an airtight container to assemble the dish after the drive to my sister-in-law's house right before baking time.  I'll have to let you know how it goes since I am anything but the Queen of the Deep Fry.

Have green been casserole, will travel.  Green Bean "Casserole" with Chantrelles

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Macaroni & Cheese: The Ultimate Comfort Food

I grew up eating basic food:  no frills, no hidden ingredients, all good taste and comfort.  My mom’s macaroni & cheese was the best.  None of the recipes she made are written anywhere, but I remember them all.  Her macaroni & cheese, or "mac-a-cheese" as we’ve come to call it, was always made of elbow macaroni pieces — the large ones.  She’d make a skillet full of white sauce, grate cheddar cheese, layer all three and then pour some milk over it all for good measure.  Once in a while, she’d throw in some canned tomatoes, too, and I loved their tart flavor with the cheese.

Curious person that I am, occasionally, a mac-a-cheese recipe will catch my eye, and I’ll give it a try, just to consider that there may be another recipe out there that isn’t just about more steps or ingredients.  And it’s your lucky day, because I have found two that are pretty good, even if there are more steps, more ingredients, and heck-of-a-lot more calories.  Like we need those, right?

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I found the first recipe in a magazine last year.  You’re thinking, what a shocker, right?  It accompanied an advertisement for Tillamook cheese (which is mysteriously absent in my photo above), which is being run again this year.  "Penne Rigate Macaroni and Cheese baked with Truffle Essence" is what I would call the elegant version of mac-a-cheese.  No question about it.  Pricey, too.  But I had to try it out and see what that smoked cheddar and black truffle oil did to a classic comfort dish.  Evidently, most black truffle contains no black truffle.  Instead, a synthetic flavoring agent is used to give it a flavor thought to be similar to the real thing.  I did make sure I had the real thing.  My bottle’s ingredients read:  "extra virgin olive oil, black truffle (tuber melanosporum), natural flavoring."  No artificial anything.  Of course, it set me back $18 for 1.86 oz., too.

More recently, I came across "Mac & Cheese for Grown-ups" in fresh magazine which is affiliated with The Best of fine Cooking magazine.  This recipe caught my eye because it contains four types of cheese, one of which is blue cheese, and I immediately wondered if there could be too much of a good thing.  I don’t know how blue cheese can’t overpower every other flavor in this dish.  My husband loves Four Cheese Pasta, and Four Cheese Pizza, but this was something all together different.  Not exactly conducive to low fat eating, either.  I guess both recipes at least meet the qualifications of mac-a-cheese and comfort food, though.

Penne Rigate Macaroni and Cheese baked with Truffle Essence

Ingredients
3 T kosher salt
8 oz. penne rigate pasta, dry
1 T black truffle oil
2 T shallots, minced
3 oz. applewood smoked bacon, minced
1 T garlic, minced
2 T olive oil
2 T all purpose flour
1-1/2 c. heavy cream
1 T minced basil
1/4 tsp. minced thyme
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
3 c. white extra sharp cheddar, shredded
1/2 c. pecan quarters
1 c. smoked medium cheddar, shredded

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Bring 1-gallon water to rapid boil with kosher salt in an 8-qt. pot.  Add pasta to water and stir.  Boil for 5-6 minutes total.  Pasta should be slightly undercooked.  Drain off all water through a colander, sit one minute and toss in a bowl with the black truffle oil.  Reserve.

Combine shallots, bacon, garlic, and olive oil in  4-qt. pot and cook slowly for 10 minutes using low heat.  Add the flour, raise heat to medium and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Temper in the heavy cream and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 10 minutes on low.  Add in the herbs and seasonings.  Stir in 3 c. of White Cheddar until smooth.  Add in the truffle scented pasta and stir until evenly combined.  Divide into individual shallow baking dishes (welsh rarebits) and top with the pecans and the shredded medium cheddar.

Bake for 10-15 minutes until bubbly and slightly browned on top.

Serves 4.

Before…
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And after…
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Notes:  I made this dish sometime early last spring.  Clearly, I was still in my "yellow stage" with my little camera.  Good thing we learn a bit as we proceed, isn’t it?  Moving right along, I used a convection setting, and used yellow sharp cheddar instead of white.  Also, the medium cheddar was apple smoked.  I figured the bacon was, so why not?  And I also omitted the bread crumbs.  I’m not much of a fan of bread crumbs on the top of baked food for some reason.  It never really seems to add very much, and if the addition is about adding color, cheese dishes always brown nicely, so I don’t see the point.  This recipe was not bad.  The truffle oil was highly noticeable, and I would have wondered what the flavor was had I not known.  I haven’t eaten truffles often enough to be able to adequately describe their flavor.  Even now, it reminds me more of garlic, and I think that must be one of the "natural" flavorings in my bottle of oil.  I wonder if I made the recipe again with garlic oil instead of truffle oil what the difference would be.  The smoked cheddar flavor also stands out in this recipe, but the flavors work well together.  I did not use the pecans called for, although after eating it, know that I would have liked them in this dish.  People enjoyed this dish, but there were no raves.

Luxurious Four-Cheese Macaroni & Cheese

Ingredients
kosher salt
3 c. whole milk
4 T unsalted butter
1 med onion, finely diced (about 1 c.)
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce; more to taste
freshly ground black pepper
5 oz. Gruyere, coarsely grated (about 1-3/4 c. lightly packed)
1/2 lb. blue cheese (such as Maytag Blue), crumbled
1 lb. dried penne rigate pasta
1 T finely grated lemon zest
11 oz. Monterey Jack, cut into 1/2-in. dice (2 c.)
1/2 c. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 T fresh thyme leaves
2-1/2 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated (scant 1 c.)
3/4 c. fresh bread crumbs

Directions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Put a large pot of well-salted water on to boil.

Heat the milk in a small saucepan over med-low heat to just below a simmer.  Remove from the heat and cover to keep hot.  Melt the butter in a med saucepan over med-low heat.  Add the onion and bay leaf.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.  Gradually whisk in the hot milk, bring to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, whisking frequently, until thickened and smooth.  Season with 1 tsp. salt, the nutmeg, the Tabasco, and pepper to taste.  Remove and discard the bay leaf.  Stir in the Gruyere and blue cheese.

Cook the pasta in the boiling water to al dente, following the package directions.  Drain well and return to the pot.  Toss the lemon zest and half of the Monterey Jack into the pasta while it’s still hot; add the cheese sauce and quickly toss to combine.  Stir in the parsley and thyme and transfer half of the pasta to a large (3-qt.) shallow casserole or lasagna pan.  Sprinkle with the remaining Monterey Jack and half of the Parmigiano; top with the remaining pasta.  Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano and the breadcrumbs.  Bake until bubbling and golden, 50 to 60 minutes.  Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 8.

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Notes: This obviously was an incredibly rich dish.  I began to have difficulty when it came to adding the last cheese — the Jack at 11 oz.  Although I estimated that amount in cubes and was prepared to put it in the dish, I ended up only adding half the amount.  The blue cheese stood out the most.  I wasn’t surprised.  And although good, I ended up confirming overkill on the cheese in this recipe.  The parmesan wasn’t the least bit noticed.  The recipe is huge and would server more than eight in my opinion.  It is so rich, a smaller serving was perfect — a lot of flavor goes a long way.  Serve it with a good salad and you’ll be fine.

Conclusion?  The biggest difference between these two versions of mac-a-cheese is the whole cheese sauce component.  In the second recipe, it’s quite the undertaking and I began to wonder if it would all fit in the pan!  It’s fun to try a spin on a dish that is an old family favorite, but it just isn’t my mom’s mac-a-cheese.  These dishes are both worth trying, and each is good enough to consider as something a bit more fancy than usual.  But cut back on the size of the second recipe.  It goes a very long way.  Your arteries will thank you.