No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off, 2011

No Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-offAs with most epic battles, it all started with two guys kicking dirt on each other. Somehow I got stuck in the middle, and innocent (okay, not so innocent) bystander.

I posted a link to a macaroni and cheese recipe to a friend on Google+ (the geeky version of Facebook). There was a bit of debate regarding the need for bacon, and amazement that Paula Deen’s recipe didn’t include mayonnaise (everything else she makes does). The Man got involved, being a back seat driver to my online conversation, and offering the opinion that his version was the best ever, end of story. That was the equivalent of a woman asking her friend to hold her purse and her earrings. The gloves were off.

Seeking further advice on the topic, I switched to Facebook and invited my foodie friends to weigh in on mac & cheese. I was surprised that everyone seemed to have the opinion that their mac & cheese was better than anyone else’s, and IT WAS ON!

Apparently there are very strong feelings about a dish that is basically noodles and cheese and a few other things. Screw politics and religion. Bring up mac & cheese among foodies and you’re going to have an argument on your hands. I suppose it’s because this is one of the most popular comfort foods in the US.

There are variations of macaroni and cheese around the world, including Switzerland (Älplermagronen, which includes potatoes), and the Caribbean (called macaroni pie). Even the French have a version, although they tend towards a traditional mornay sauce rather than our wacky cracky American cheesiness. And as always, the Italians take credit for inventing the whole concept.

Even among our friends, there was a vocal disagreement about what ‘real’ mac & cheese was. What shape pasta? What types of cheese? How many extra ingredients could go in before it was no longer mac & cheese? So many people were in on the pasta scuffle, we had to formalize the date and time, and fortunately friends at Loosey’s arranged for us to use the bar for neutral ground. The date was set for October 9th. A month of trash-talking, spying, comparing cheeses, and testing recipes gave way to the No-Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off.

Seventeen versions of macaroni and cheese arrived to fight it out. There were a few ‘classic’ styles, but the rest were an amazing variety of flavors and ingredients, proving it’s not just cheese and noodles. Once the judges had waded through them all and gone into a back room to deliberate (and possibly throw up from that much mac & cheese), they arrived at winners for the veggie category and the carnivore category. And the best-in-show overall crown went to a version that incorporated lobster bisque into the cheesiness.

Of course the feeding frenzy after the judges were done was just as much fun. Competitors and bystanders devoured the entries, sharing foodie notes, drinking beer, and slowly clogging their arteries in a convivial atmosphere. Eventually everyone had to sit down or go home for a nap. That’s a lot of carbs and dairy.

The casserole dishes were barely being scraped clean when conversation turned to the next cook-off. The what? Yep, the general populace wanted another food fight. Sometime around the holidays. So stay tuned to see what the next competition is about. I’m thinking pie. I like pie.

Many thanks to Loosey’s for becoming our Mac & Cheese Thunderdome. 🙂

[Girl21]

Stuffed Mushrooms, Easy Appetizer

Easy Stuffed Mushrooms

There’s that classic movie moment where a guy is shooting a gun and runs out of bullets. He looks at the gun as it goes ‘click’, and then proceeds to throw it at the guys rushing him. And we all know that is a stupid move. That is me with these stuffed mushrooms.

When The Man gets home from work late and he’s starving, I try to have something for him to snack on if dinner isn’t completely ready. I can hear his stomach rumble as he casually saunters into the kitchen under the guise of seeing what’s for dinner, his eye on the tortilla chips. I usually pull the mushrooms out of the oven and wave them at him with the same unrealistic hope as the guy that throws his gun when he runs out of ammo. It’s more nutritious than chips, and it keeps him busy trying to eat something delicious but super hot.

The fun thing about these mushrooms is that you can get creative and change the stuffing depending on what you have on hand. And you can make as many or as few as you need. And they are super easy to prepare.

I use baby bella mushrooms (immature portobello), but you could get away with any of the small capped mushrooms that have a thicker flesh and cup shape. Clean them and gently remove the stem. Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil into a baking dish, and sprinkle that with garlic powder, Italian seasonings, and black pepper. Carefully set the mushrooms top down in the oil so they are nestled together, then salt and pepper them again. I like to put a few drops of lemon juice into each cap, a sprinkle of more Italian seasonings, then a small chunk or sliver of fresh garlic.

If you have the pre-crumbled blue cheese, you can put a few good size chunks of soft cheese into each cap, or any kind of softer cheese would work nicely. Then on top of each little cup, lay a slice of melty cheese just to generally cover the top. Sharp cheddar is a standard, but if I have a gouda, I like that best. A little more garlic powder and pepper on top of the cheese, and maybe a dusting of parmigiana or pecorino. Pop that into a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the caps look a bit wrinkled from the moisture baking off. Let them cool before tossing them at the hungry people rushing you for dinner.

Mushrooms are a good source of protein, as well as a few other vitamins and minerals. And then when you add good stuff like garlic, you’re practically a health-food nut when you eat these. (Keep telling yourself that!) Plus these are fast and easy but look great as an appetizer or finger food.

Instead of lemon juice and garlic, try a base of tomato sauce (great if you’re already making pasta for dinner), pesto, or even a touch of ginger and thinly sliced apple (omitting the Italian seasonings and garlic for more pepper and lemon juice). I’ve put in thinly sliced fresh spinach, olives, fresh basil, caramelized onions, or even a few drops of hot sauce or mustard depending on the flavors of the main dinner menu. And of course you can play with the cheese options. Because cheese is always welcome.

They do store and re-heat well but are best served fresh out of the oven to a hungry audience. Have a peak in the package when you’re buying them so you don’t get the huge ones that will cause some poor sod to look like a trout while trying to eat the whole thing though.

[Girl21]

Chèvre, a.k.a. Goat Cheese

Chevre, aka Goat Cheese

Leave it to the Welsh. Their version of goat cheese is called Pantysgawn. (Say it out loud if you have to.)

Chèvre is goat milk cheese. Many cultures have their own version of goats cheese because, let’s face it, humans and goats go back a long time. Because of the many different ways of turning the milk to cheese, there are many variations in consistency and flavor. Thus you have the above Welsh version of the cheese. Another cousin which is quite popular is feta, a Greek combination of goat and sheep milk made into a dense block.

Goat milk is much more popular worldwide than cows milk because it’s more accessible and keeps longer without refrigeration. It’s also closer to human milk than cow milk is, so easier to digest for children, the ill, and the elderly. And those of you with lactose intolerance make note of this because you’ll be much better off if you fall off the wagon with goat or sheep (milk products, I mean).

If the accent over the e didn’t give it away, chèvre is the French version of fresh goat cheese. It’s soft and bright white like cream cheese, but dry like a very smooth ricotta. Except for the mild furry, barnyard flavor that is the cornerstone of any goat cheese flavor curve, chèvre is quite mild. It is rich without being buttery, and has a fresh, grassy flavor profile that makes it ideal for including with other delicious foods rather than on its own. It is a pacifist in the cheese family. It just wants everyone to get along.

A favorite way to elevate chèvre is to mix it with seasonings and spread it on some lovely rosemary bread from Uppercrust. It’s handy that you can get just the right size slab of chèvre at Uppercrust (in fact you can get it pre-seasoned, but we prefer our version because it has so much flavor). It’s best to make this a few hours before you intend to use it so it can marinate and release the flavors. Take a lush slab of the chèvre (about 8 oz. give or take), and add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of a general Italian seasonings. And the key is at least four cloves of fresh garlic, pressed. Simply stir to combine well and refrigerate for a few hours.

Instead of just slathering it on bread with the finesse of a fifteen-year-old learning how to use cologne, try slicing the rosemary bread pretty thin and toasting it in the oven for a few minutes before spreading the chèvre on the warm bread. Try adding some marinated asparagus or very thinly sliced gouda.

You can also slice chèvre and bake it on the bread, with a sprinkling of oil and seasonings. It can be tricky since goat cheese doesn’t melt much, but it does get toasty and dry. Try it fresh and plain on a spinach walnut salad, or even with pears and apples. It compliments foods with mild but persistent flavors without overwhelming them.

It’s a lot of fun to experiment with chèvre as an alternative to cows milk cheeses. French chèvre is somewhat easy to find and is available under many names because there are many regionally protected varieties. Besides feta from Greek tradition, you could find goat cheese from several other origins such as Norway, China, and Australia… and of course the Welsh always have Pantysgawn.

[Girl21]

Vegetable Risotto, A Labor of Love

So much of the cooking I do is rushed, at the end of the day, tired, almost in a panic. A mad attempt to get a balanced meal together in the least amount of time. And it can’t taste too bad or be similar to anything else I’ve made in a week or so. This is the curse of two workaholic foodies living together.

It’s a very rare occasion I have the luxury of time and energy to focus on cooking. I fantasize about this while at work or rushing around on errands in the steaming sauna that is Florida. Not a mojito on the beach. Not a massage at an alpine resort. A few hours in my kitchen to actually cook at a normal pace. It is my meditation time. My yoga.

I recently committed to learning how to make risotto well and properly. The Man had been talking about it for weeks on end, and I his craving set off my craving. The style I am most drawn too includes a lot of ingredients and is filled with vegetables. It appeals to my fascination with one-pot meals. It’s not difficult, but it’s time consuming.

There are three stages of this, and it took me about two and a half hours last time I made it (two and a half lovely hours of peaceful meditation in my kitchen). Stage one is the broth. Stage two is the cutting and prepping of the ingredients. And stage three is cooking the rice.

Broth

You’re going to need about 4 cups of broth. If you don’t feel up to something fancy, you’re welcome to simply start with the prepackaged veggie bullion cubes. I usually add veggies to this broth, in a small pot on a back burner (it will simmer gently until you start making the rice, so keep it low and active).

Chop into big chunks an add to the broth: 1 big carrot, 3-4 stalks of celery, 1/2 onion, 3 cloves of minced or pressed garlic. I also add 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, black pepper, a touch of dried red pepper flakes, and a tablespoon of olive oil. Let this simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the large veggie chunks and leave on very low heat while you start on the rice.

Prepping Ingredients

There’s a lot of cutting, peeling, and dicing involved here. I like to do this all at once and then separate the ingredients by when they’ll be needed so I don’t get my timing off. The Man says this is my German side coming out–the need to be organized and punctual in the kitchen. I hate when I’m still dicing something while something on the stove is swiftly overcooking. So I’m listing the ingredients here and grouping them by when they need to go into your big sauce pan.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup rice (tradition calls for arborio, but valencia is much more affordable)
8 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup vermouth
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 cup mushrooms (baby bella preferred)

4 cups broth (from above)

1 cup kale, finely chopped into ribbons (about three big leaves, spine removed)
2 cup broccoli florets
1 large carrot, chopped small

1/3 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/3 cup grated hard cheese (pecarino romano suggested)
1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Cooking the Risotto

It seems so much more complicated than it actually is. I find it very relaxing if I’ve prepared all of the ingredients already, since it’s just a long process of being here now. Keep your eye on how it looks and you’ll be fine. Once you’ve done it the first time, you won’t even need the instructions to the recipe. Just the list of ingredients.

You’ll need a large sauce pan with a heavy bottom, or a wide, deep frying pan. (I adore my 12″ Green Pan for this. We got our single pan at Target to try out the new greener non-stick surface, and it’s been great to work with.) Heat up the oil, and toss in the onions and salt over a medium heat. Cover and stir occasionally until the onions are glassy but not browning yet. Then you’ll add in the rice, garlic and pepper. Stir this occasionally also until it is well mixed up and starts to get a little toasty brown color on the garlic and onions, but not the rice.

Pour in the vermouth (yes, you can use regular white wine if you like, but vermouth has a slightly earthier flavor to it usually), and the celery and mushrooms. You’ll want to stir this up until the moisture is evenly blended throughout. Lower the heat to a medium-low heat, and keep the rice stirring every few minutes until the liquid is cooked off. You’ll see the rice is starting to get a bit gummy.

Once your vermouth has cooked off, you’re going to pour a little more than 1 cup of the broth you made into your pan and stir it into the rice. Cover it and stir every few minutes until the liquid is absorbed. It’s going to be sticky now. Pour in another cup or more of the broth, and repeat the cover/stir treatment until the liquid has been absorbed again. This should take about 15 or 20 minutes each time.

Now one last time, pour the last of the broth (should be about a cup and a half) into the rice and stir. But before you cover it this time, cover the rice with the kale, broccoli and carrot. Now put the lid on and the veggies steam for a few minutes before stirring them into the rice and broth. You could use practically any veggies for this as long as they aren’t too soggy (like tomatoes), and are cut so they cook uniformly. There’s nothing like raw potatoes mixed with mushy broccoli, so chop your veggies with cooking speed in mind.

As soon as the last of the broth is being absorbed, and your green veggies look bright and just perfectly crunchy/cooked, turn off the burner and add in the finely chopped parsley and the cheese. Stir it all up and cover to give the cheese a minute to get friendly with the rice. Usually you would just use a hard cheese for this, like parmigiana or romano. (We used some Spanish roncal sheeps cheese, which is strong and delicious in risotto.) I think using just a little softer cheese adds a touch of richness and flavor, so I like to include feta or gorganzola as well. But you can easily leave this off. I don’t know why you would, but you could.

Risotto is a great side dish, but adding the veggies like this makes it a meal in itself. You could bring this to a pot luck dinner. Reheat it for leftovers. Or just stand there with a few friends and forks and eat the whole thing while talking in the kitchen. It pairs perfectly with wine, but choose a simple table red rather than something with a big flavor that will compete for attention. We also like to make a delicious spritzer of limeade, ginger ale, fresh mint, and muddled berries (from frozen) that goes well with this at dinner parties. With or without vodka, of course.

[Girl21]

Roquefort: Cheese of the Angels

Roquefort Cheese

As a general rule, something moldy and smelly should not be put in one’s mouth. We all know this. It’s wired into our little lizard brains at the base of our spinal column. Moldy, stinky food brings digestive problems that were once blamed only on a plague from god himself.

But at some point someone decided to try rotten dairy products, and discovered it can be quite yummy and only cause a bit of wind that helped to keep the body lice under control. Those wacky, backwards Europeans. I mean, in the middle east they were inventing religious squabbling and perfecting the art of crucification, and the French were eating moldy cheese and reciting poetry to their favorite sheep.

You are free to click through to read more on the history of Roquefort cheese and how the original mold was grown and introduced to the sheep milk curds. I’m not going to turn you off the cheese until after you’ve tried it and fallen helplessly in love with it.

Roquefort is a blue cheese, and it is one of France’s first regionally protected foods (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) that they got on the list because it’s so freaking good. This means it can only be made in the Roquefort region, and the ingredients are very specific. In fact, even the breed of sheep that can produce the milk for it are limited to three (although they used to add some cow or goat milk, they’re not even allowed to do that anymore). The reason I bring this up is to reassure you that although this moldy, stinky cheese looks a bit suspect, you’ve nothing to be afraid of.

We were taken aback the other day to be at Uppercrust and find an almost bare cheese cabinet. The Roquefort called out for us though, and we liberated her (along with a cheddar and a specialty cheese). This was a smallish wedge of Société, and not inexpensive. But I promise you this is worth every penny.

I served this and the cheddar, each gently sliced into chunky slabs, along with a rosemary batard, a sliced granny smith apple, and some kalamata olives. We opened up a bottle of red wine (Our Daily Red, to be exact). This was easily one of the best meals I’ve had in six months. I am not exaggerating.

The Roquefort is a creamy blue cheese. Although it has a distinct salty, nutty flavor, it has a lovely sweet undercurrent and a clean finish. Keep in mind, a little goes a long way. Tear a piece of bread and top it with a small chunk of Roquefort and the flesh of a kalamata olive. Nothing fancy. When you wake up from your drunken food stupor and find the plates are clean and the wine is gone, you’ll thank me for suggesting one of the most perfect things you’ve ever put in your mouth.

If you’re still afraid of this cheese, it has one of the highest levels of glutamates in almost any food. This is an amino acid important for learning and memory. Be smart. Eat your stinky, delicious cheese!

[Girl21]