Mac and Cheese, Part One

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This post was originally supposed to be called “Mac and Cheese, Three Ways” – but it was getting so long that I cut it in half (stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow).  My sister and her husband had their first baby a couple months ago, and while I tried really hard to come up with some creative ideas for freezer meals, I had a difficult time getting past everyone’s favorite comfort food. So I decided if I couldn’t be original, I would be excessive instead: I stocked their freezer with, among other things, three different macaroni and cheese casseroles for the first few post baby months (they may have only lasted a few weeks). Number three was the one I was most excited about (more on that tomorrow), but I decided to start with a Barefoot Contessa classic. (Coincidentally, Ina’s new cookbook comes out today – it’s called “Make It Ahead” – and while I’m pretty excited about it, I’m not sure that there’s a better make ahead recipe than this mac and cheese).

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Much like last week’s lasagna, I’m not sure that macaroni and cheese is fancy enough to warrant it’s own blog post. However, up until a couple years ago, my grandmother was the only person I knew of who made mac and cheese that wasn’t from a box (that list has now expanded to my grandmother, my friend Lindsay, and myself).  So I’m posting this relatively basic recipe in the hopes of inspiring those of you who haven’t yet realized how easy and delicious homemade mac and cheese can be.  Don’t be intimidated by the béchamel – it used to really scare me, but it’s so easy. SImply melt your butter, add some flour, pour in the milk, and whisk whisk whisk.  It will take a few minutes to thicken up, but once it does you’ll feel like Julia Child. Add salt and pepper, and nutmeg to taste – I usually add whatever the recipe calls for (because I’m a rule follower), but I know a lot of people don’t care for nutmeg in a dish like this so feel free to use less or none at all.

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Add the cheese to the béchamel while it’s still hot and let it melt.  (If I could only give you one tip for making this recipe, it would be to buy your gruyère at Trader Joe’s – it’s literally half the price of any other store. A second tip would be to use Tillamook extra sharp for your cheddar, yum.)  Combine pasta and sauce and scrape into your prepared baking dish. See, it’s really so simple. And so delicious – you’ll never make mac and cheese from a box again. Not that you ever did.

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Ina wants you to make homemade bread crumbs – which are super easy, but I often don’t have bread on hand so I like to use good store bought breadcrumbs or panko. I like to toast mine on the stovetop beforehand (with a little olive oil or butter), but it’s not a necessary step by any means.  If you want to make your breadcrumbs from scratch, cut the crusts off of five slices of bread (or a hunk of baguette) and process in the food processor until the pieces are the size of small crumbs (duh).  Mix the crumbs with melted butter and then sprinkle on top of the casserole before baking.  Casserole can be prepared ahead of time and then baked before serving, or baked and frozen for tired moms and dads to defrost and reheat as necessary.

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One year ago: Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

Mac and Cheese, previously: Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese

Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, from Barefoot Contessa Family Style

Ingredients:

Kosher salt
Olive oil
1 lb. elbow macaroni or cavatappi
1 quart milk (4 cups)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all purpose flour
12 ounces gruyère, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or less, to taste)
4 small tomatoes, sliced (optional – I skipped this step)
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs, fresh (5 slices bread, crusts removed) or store bought breadcrumbs or panko

To Make:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle olive oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add pasta and cook according to package directions (on the shorter side if they give you a range; you want the noodles al dente as they’ll continue to cook in the oven). Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan (don’t let it come to a boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. While whisking, add hot milk (slowly) and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the gruyère, cheddar, one tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of pasta (if using). Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, combine with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on top (I like to melt the butter in a frying pan, add panko breadcrumbs, and toast before topping the casserole with them). Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and casserole is browned on top.  

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Barefoot Contessa’s Cream of Fresh Tomato Soup

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So I know we’re still at least a month too early for soup season, but since August is the height of tomato season I figured now is as good a time as any to share this recipe. I was first introduced to this soup by my friend Lindsay, so I need to give her some credit for it. When we were roommates in college, I used to cook more than Linds – and even for a number of years after college, her cupboards/freezer usually consisted of cheerios, red and black licorice, and lean cuisines (and the fridge was usually empty – I think she ate her cheerios dry). Once she got married, remodeled her kitchen, and stocked said kitchen with all sorts of registry loot, however, she turned into this amazing gourmet cook. Coupled with the fact that she has a much more adventurous palate than I do, this means I can always count on her for some fun new recipes. And ever since she introduced me to this soup, I’ve had multiple requests (and repeat requests) for it from pretty much anyone who tries it.

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I picked these tomatoes from my parents’ backyard – they’re literally ripening faster than they can eat them/give them away (what I would give for a full sun deck to grow my own!!). Everything else you can get at Trader Joe’s. Tomatoes go in seeds and skins and all – you don’t even have to peel the carrots.

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The best part about a puréed soup is that you don’t have to worry too much about dicing your veggies too perfectly – just give them a rough chop and toss them in the pot.

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Ina would love it if we all used homemade chicken stock, all the time, but that usually doesn’t happen (read: never happens) for me.

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Such a tiny bit of cream (I use half and half), it hardly counts. And who doesn’t love an immersion blender?!? Vitamix also works great here.

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In a perfect world, this soup would be topped with prettier homemade crostini – but Dave’s killer bread is so much better for us than baguette, right? Any homemade crouton or crostini really does make for a yummy topping, though – at least until its actually soup season, and we can just eat it with a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cream of Fresh Tomato Soup, from the Barefoot Contessa

Serves Six

3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped red onion (1 large/2 small)
2 carrots, unpeeled and chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic (approx. 3 cloves)
4 lbs vine-ripened tomatoes, coarsely chopped (approx. 5 large tomatoes)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup packed chopped fresh basil, plus julienned basil leaves for garnish
3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream
Croutons or crostini, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onions and carrots and sauté for about 10 minutes, until very tender. Add the garlic and cook for one minute longer. Add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato paste, basil, chicken stock, salt and pepper and stir well. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes.

Add the cream to the soup, and then process through a food mill (Ina’s suggestion) or purée with an immersion blender (I do it this way since I don’t have a food mill, and it turns out just fine – you could use a blender or a food processor as well if you don’t have an immersion blender).

Serve hot, with julienned basil leaves and croutons/crostini.  Enjoy!!