Monday, February 14, 2011

Foods I love, with baked mac and cheese.

Since it's Valentine's Day and all, I thought I'd talk about a few foods that I love.

snow day breakfast

Eggs. I love you always. Scrambled, fried, poached. Cooked with veggies in an omelet, placed sunny-side-up or over-easy atop a pile of anything edible, dropped into a bowl of soup for a rich, velvety touch.

avocado + toast

Avocado on toast. Now to be clear, I love avocados in any form. But I think it's safe to say that only true lovers of the avocado can love it in its simplest form, piled and smeared onto a piece of toast, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Like butter, only better.

mac + cheese

And baked pasta. Lately, the everyday toss-some-pasta-with-tomato-sauce-and-call-it-dinner just isn't enough for me. Yet I haven't had the energy to cook up some elaborate pasta dish, with long lists of ingredients that take hours to chop and roast and simmer.

The happy medium, I've found, is baked pasta. It turns the everyday pasta into something a little more special -- slipped into the oven to bubble in a bath of cheese and sauce, a topping of bread crumbs and extra Parmesan forming a crusty, golden-brown layer, cutting through to reveal hot, cheesy, comforting pasta that's far from your everyday and yet still simple enough to make after a long, cold day in dead-of-winter February. Yes. Now that's love.

mac + cheese

This particular baked pasta is perhaps the ultimate of all baked pastas: mac and cheese. I took the classic a step further for Murdo's and my tastes, adding prosciutto, peas and onions. Because that's how we show our love around here -- by making those foods that are "just the way you like it," that put a smile on your face when leaning over your bowl, and in the end, have you sitting back and rubbing your belly and just loving life in general, and the good food and good people that come along with it. Those are the best, really.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Baked Mac and Cheese with Prosciutto, Peas and Onions
(adapted from Tyler Florence, via Delish)
As always, please don't take my measurements too seriously. I made this dish a week or two ago, and didn't write anything down, so I can't really be trusted. But go with your own tastes and gut, and the results will be delicious. This mac and cheese is so yummy and easy, it's sure to become a regular around these parts.

1/2 pound pasta (I used penne, but I think any tubular shape will do, even the classic elbow macaroni)
olive oil
4-5 ounces prosciutto, chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
3/4 cup frozen peas
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
3 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
bread crumbs

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, and add onions. Cook onions until they are soft and have a nice brown color. I forget how long this takes, but it's several minutes, at least. Add garlic and prosciutto and cook a few minutes longer. Add the frozen peas until they are just heated through, then salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk, and continue whisking vigorously until the mixture is thick and frothy. This takes about 8-12 minutes. Be patient.

Stir in all but about 1/2 cup of the cheddar cheese and continue to cook, stirring to melt the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cooked pasta and prosciutto mixture, and stir to combine.

Transfer to a baking dish coated with cooking spray, and top with remaining cheddar cheese, then top with Parmesan cheese and fresh bread crumbs (Or use plain bread crumbs from a canister. I won't judge you, because that's what I did, too.).

Bake for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.

(Serves 4)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

No Recipe Hash Browns.

Remember that last post about summer? And I asked if we were there yet?

Ha. We are far, far from it.

Here is the nice thing about blizzards: Being inside. Especially when inside involves a fat brown cat, a fireplace, movies checked out from the library, and hash browns.

I've been making these hash browns a lot lately, without any real thinking -- just grabbing the ingredients, eyeballing measurements, telling doneness by the texture of the potatoes and the sizzle of the pan. I've been needing this. Not just the hash browns, but the whole process of making food from the senses, without following any directions. Because honestly, I'm getting sick of recipes.

Sometimes they just get in the way, I think. Making long grocery lists every week. Having to stop what I'm doing every few minutes to double-check measurements. Dirtying up way too many cups and spoons. Burning the onions because I spent too much time reading the next step. I started following recipes more closely when I got into counting calories and losing weight for various reasons (a trip to Mexico, a wedding or two, my own self-esteem). And now, two pants sizes smaller, and I'm tired of reading recipes. I'm ready to start cooking again, my way.

And it started with hash browns, which we've been eating around here for breakfast and for dinner. With eggs and with sandwiches. On Sunday mornings and on snowy weeknights. While other recipes are tried once and tossed, these hash browns are made over and over again, using nothing but sight, smell, touch, and feel. And taste, of course.

hash browns

No Recipe Hash Browns
I will, of course, continue to follow recipes, because I'm really not cool enough to make up all of my own dishes. But a recipe should be more of a guide, to be adapted to the cook's tastes and instincts. Below is not a real recipe. It's just how I cook hash browns.

potatoes, whatever kind I have, as many as I can eat
green pepper, or red pepper, or no pepper
garlic, lots of it
olive oil and butter, or just butter

Chop up those potatoes in equal size pieces. Drizzle olive oil in a hot pan over medium heat, and add the butter. Toss in the potatoes, spread into a single layer, and don't touch them for five minutes. They'll start to sizzle and whistle and brown in the pan.

While I'm waiting, I chop up some onions and peppers.

Give the potatoes a good toss, then spread in a single layer again. Don't touch for five minutes. Add salt and pepper. Maybe even some seasoned salt.

While I'm waiting, I'll smash and mince the garlic. I use a lot -- about 4 big cloves. I love garlic.

Toss the potatoes again. They should be getting pretty brown. This is when I like to push them to one side of the pan, add my onions and peppers and garlic to the other side, let everything cook for a minute or two, then toss and let it all get good and brown for five minutes or so.

I know it's done when I pluck a potato (or two or three) from the pan with a wooden spoon, place it in my mouth , and it's just how I like it.