Thursday, July 5, 2012

Vegivore Eats | Farmer's Market Mac & Cheese

It starts with a bechamel -- warm milk thickened with cooked butter and flour, whisked constantly by the cook patiently awaiting the magic about to happen.  Spices and seasonings are added, then grated cheeses.  A moment later the most richly intense cheese sauce ever is finished. Combined with parboiled pasta and the week's farmer's market haul, and after a sprinkle of bread crumbs and a relatively quick turn in the oven, it's ready: completely heavenly macaroni and cheese.

Crunchy and creamy, as good cold as it is hot, and blissfully reheat-able -- there is nothing not to love here.

With bathing suit season and higher temps upon us, I know, I know, it's not fair to post this recipe!  I wouldn't call it healthy or light, and does require some attention and time in the warm kitchen  -- but the recipe will accommodate most any vegetable (the fresher the better, as with any ingredient), substitutions and experimentation are encouraged and it's a good gourmet go-to for any mac and cheese aficionado. I need to twist your arm!

serves 4 
(or 2 if you're anything like my boyfriend and I)

The stars of today's recipe:

fat n' luscious shell peas (Dick's Market Garden, Lunenberg, MA) and brilliantly sunny golden zucchini (Hutchins Farm, Concord, MA)


2T butter, divided
2 slices bread
1 clove garlic
1T olive oil 
1 1/2T butter  
1 1/3c whole milk (plus extra to thin sauce), room temp
1/8c flour
1/2T kosher salt (plus extra for crumbs and pasta water)
 1/4t ground nutmeg
1t hot sauce
1/2t smoked paprika
1/4t black pepper
1t dried (or 1/2t fresh) oregano
1 2/3c grated white cheddar (the sharper the better), divided
1/2c cubed Gruyere cheese
1/4 lb pasta (shells and spirals work best)
fresh vegetables -- approximately 2 cups -- small dice, ribbons or grated

First, spray an 8x8 pan with PAM.  Set aside.

Then, make your bread crumbs.  Preheat the oven to 350.  In a food processor, buzz together 1/2T of the butter, the garlic clove, the bread slices and the olive oil, til fine.  Pop in the oven on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet and bake til crispy, stirring around occasionally, about 15 minutes.  
Set aside to cool, keep the oven on.

Parboil your pasta -- this means to cook as usual, except for a shorter amount of time (it will finish cooking in the oven).  I usually aim for half the time indicated on the package.  
Set aside.

Warm the milk in the microwave for 30 seconds.  In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Gradually whisk in the flour and cook the resulting roux for about a minute 30, stirring constantly.  Add the warmed milk in splashes, whisking vigorously.  At first it looks/sounds like you've done something very wrong.  You haven't, keep stirring.  When all the milk is in, simmer for about 8 minutes, stirring often, until thickened and starting to bubble (don't boil, though!).  Turn the heat down to low, and quickly add the salt, nutmeg, hot sauce, paprika, pepper and oregano.  Then stir in 1 1/3 cups of the cheddar and all the Gruyere.  If it comes together as a giant ball of cheese, simply add extra warm milk a splash at a time until the desired consistency is reached.  I usually need 2-3 splashes.  
Set the sauce aside.

Now, address your farmer's market goods.  Many things will need a quick cook-through before heading into the casserole.  I used shell peas, which needed a quick shock, but I grated the zucchini -- the smaller, delicate pieces didn't need any pre-cooking.  If you have greens, this really depends on the thickness we are talking -- baby spinach wouldn't need pre-cooking, Swiss chard would.  As logic would dictate, smaller, uniform pieces will cook more quickly and evenly (and be easier to eat).  In general, use your judgment.  Would you eat the vegetable raw or only partially cooked?  You might have to in the end, so consider this!

When your vegetables are ready, it's time to put together the casserole.  
(Gently reheat your sauce if it's gotten gluey, and) Add your pasta and vegetables to the cheese sauce and mix gently, then pour out the pan into the prepared baking dish.  Top the mixture with the remaining 1/3c grated sharp cheddar, then with the bread crumbs.  Bake uncovered in the still-heated oven for about 30 minutes, then cool 5-10 minutes in the pan on a wire rack before serving.  Serve with kosher (or garlic) salt and cracked black pepper over the top.

PRO TIP: make this recipe gluten-free by using rice bread, flour and pasta (my clients prefer Food For Life, Gluten-Free Pantry and DeBoles brands, respectively, found at Whole Foods or Harvest Co-op).