Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

Experimenting in Mac and Cheese

I am kinda obsessed with Mac & Cheese, okay I’m totally and madly in love with it. It’s my absolute favorite dish and I never tire of it. In fact, it would be my last bite before I die or at least I would hope so. I could eat it every day period.

My obsession with Mac & Cheese started with the “shells and cheese” my Mom used to make for me. We lived overseas part of my life and it was hard to come across good cheese. So Mom and I would stock up on boxes and take them back with us. I’m not talking about the blue box either, it was important that the cheese was already smooth, even if it was imitation cheese. Since then, I order it whenever I see it on the menu, I have tried recipe after recipe with all sorts of combos of cheeses, milks, pasta styles and butter or margarine and finally I found a recipe that has become my go to recipe. Now, I sometimes follow the recipe to its exact ingredients and sometimes, I change up the cheeses or type of milk. I always use butter! It’s constantly good and I have yet to find a combo that has failed me. My Mac & Cheese recipe comes from Ina Garten Barefoot Contessa’s Family Style cookbook.


Cook Time: 35 minutes  Yield: 6 to 8 servings

  • Vegetable oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni or cavatappi
  • 1 quart milk
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 12 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups)
  • 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 pound fresh tomatoes (4 small)
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don’t boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish.

Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.

Note: To make ahead, put the macaroni and cheese in the baking dish, cover, and refrigerate until ready to bake. Put the tomatoes and bread crumbs on top and bake for about 40 to 50 minutes.

For this experiment and in celebration of my friend Jeanine getting her personal training certification (ironic, i know, but it’s one of her favorites too), I used some fancy cheeses! Okay, I didn’t plan ahead and had little time, so I didn’t have time to get tomatoes from the grocery store. Typically I use whatever cheeses are in the fridge and this time Jeanine is one lucky lady! From my fridge, I opted for Gruyere, Cantalet and Gouda from my favorite cheese shop – Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. To keep it somewhat healthy I did use whole wheat fusilli pasta and 1% milk. But don’t worry I still used real butter! For breadcrumbs, it’s good to use fresh or even panko breadcrumbs but I used my breadcrumbs. I keep a bag of breadcrumbs in my freezer that consists of leftover breads, cracker crumbs, ground in a food processor. I draw from that bag whenever a recipe calls for breadcrumbs. It’s a tasty blend and easy!

I have a particular fondness for harder, more mature cheeses. I think it’s gotta do with the fact my parents always took me to dinner parties as a kid and I spent evenings chatting with older folks. I appreciate experience. These cheeses are complex and flavorful, ripe with experience. My kind of people, my kind of cheese! I digress.

I mixed everything as the recipe calls for (or so I thought) but after I blended the pasta and the cheese mixture together; I realized I forgot to add to the flour to the cheese mixture before pouring it into the pasta. So I added the flour a little bit at a time as I stirred the pasta and cheese together simultaneously. You don’t want to add it all at once or it will clump up. Thankfully the cheese was still hot so the flour blended in nicely. For the breadcrumb topping, I melted the butter in the saucepan I used to make the cheese mixture and quickly added the breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs not only soak up the delicious melted butter but any leftover melted cheese. Yum! Of course then spread the breadcrumb mixture across the mac and cheese in the pan. I won’t be baking this until tomorrow so its sitting wrapped in my fridge as I type. It will be enjoyed with a nice glass of red and after a toast to Jeanine’s success as a personal trainer!


A Moroccan Meatless Monday

For us carnivores the idea of going meatless and doing it on the regular basis, like every Monday, can sound lame. Or so I thought. I have been going meatless a lot lately and I have to say that when I do actually eat meat, I appreciate it more, I savor each bite, each juicy meaty morsel. I could never be vegetarian or vegan because I love meat too much but I definitely enjoy the health benefits of eating meat less.

For those who are flirting or have fully embraced going meatless on Mondays, here’s a recipe that I found years ago that I absolutely love! Unfortunately, I don’t know the original author of this recipe. But I do make variations based on the original recipe quite a bit. It’s vegetarian, even vegan and its fantastic! My full-pledged carnivore eating boyfriend requests it regularly, it’s that good. Plus the recipe makes two servings, perfect for a Meatless Monday evening!

Moroccan Chickpea and Couscous Stuffed Peppers

2 Large Red Bell Peppers
2 tsp Olive Oil
4 Garlic Cloves, minced
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Ground Turmeric
1/2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
1 1/3 cup drained canned Chickpeas
3/4 cup Vegetable Broth
1/3 cup uncooked Couscous
3/4 cup Currants
2 Tbsp Hot Mango Chutney

Cut Bell Peppers in half lenghwise, discard seeds.
Arrange halves in 9 in pie plate and cover with plastic.
Microwave the halves for 5 minutes and drain liquid.
Heat oil in saucepan over medium heat and saute Garlic for 2 minutes.
Add Cumin, Turmeric and Cinnamon for 30 seconds.
Stir in Chickpeas and broth, bring to a boil.
Stir in couscous and then remove from heat.
Cover and let stand for 5 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
Bake in over for 15 minutes at 350F.

Once out of the oven, spread each pepper with the Hot Mango Chutney. I usually add more than 1/2 Tbsp per pepper, because I love the stuff.

I have changed this recipe up by using different grains like quinoa, golden raisins instead of currants (though currants are my fave) and by adding more protein with nuts – I’ve added pecans, walnuts and pistachios.


Mastering the Art of Paella

My friend Anu made this amazing Paella that my boyfriend still talks about to this day. Not only is he a wonderful cook but a humorous writer and a talented photographer, so I asked him to write about his experience with Paella….

“Even before Arati (that’s his lovely wife) and I went to Spain in April 2010, I had been a serious fan of Spanish food, wine, and lifestyle (call me a Spanophile). Last year I learned that every November since 2003 the Paella Lovers United (PLU) group in Austin had been holding a paella cookoff and competition. So going to Spain, one of my goals was to taste the real deal, deconstruct it and bring back some of the authentic ingredients.

From what I’ve read online and learnt in Spain, the very original paella was actually a land (turf) meat dish with rabbit and snails – basically stuff farmers could find easily in the countryside. Then other meats like chicken and duck were introduced. Later on seafood started being substituted by the Valencians and today most people think of paella as a seafood dish.

After coming back with somewhat smuggled paprika and saffron from Barcelona, I put together a team of cooking fans from my work to compete in the PLU competition. Our name? La Bomba –  a combination of the name for the Spanish rice used for paella (Bomba) and one of the  finest LDP movies ever (La Bamba). Our friend who is a brilliant designer and a screen printing enthusiast, Mari, came up with a t-shirt logo that would sum up our recipe strategy – we are going old school, baby!

La Bomba team logo designed by Mari DiGiovanni.

Our recipe strategy is to go traditional style with land meats – specifically, rabbit, duck, Spanish chorizo and pork (pork belly). Since I’ve been back from Spain, we have practiced numerous times. The first time we cooked it, we went seafood style on a small 14” pan and using risotto rice (almost blasphemous, but we were desperate) – it turned out very delicious.

First attempt: seafood paella on a gas grill – delicious! (Photo: Anu Saha)

The times after that, it has been on a giant 22” pan on an open wood fire with meats instead of seafood.

The main things you have to focus on are the following:

–  Rice:  Gotta use bomba rice – no substitutions.  The ratio is always 3 cups stock to 1 cup rice.

–  Meats:  I pick up what I can at the farmer’s market (Kocurek Family has awesome pork belly).  Rest I get at Central Market.  I never said this was going to be cheap.

–  Sofrito:  It’s a mixture of grated tomatoes, grated onions, garlic and olive oil cooked down to almost a paste and is the main flavor base for your paella.

–  Soccorat:  The hardest thing to perfect.  This is the slightly burnt but deliciously crispy layer that forms at the bottom of the pan – highly prized bites.

–  Paprika:  Use only nice smoked Spanish paprika.  It will cost you a pretty penny, but totally worth it.  I got mine from the Central Market bulk foods division.

–  Pan:  It’s not too expensive to get a 22” (~$55) or 13” pan (~$19) from Sur La Table or

–  Heat:  Outdoor grill/firepit with wood or wood charcoal.  I use a mix.  While a gas grill or charcoal brickets may seem like a convenient shortcut, avoid the temptation.

Speaking of ‘convenient shortcuts’, there are enough Rachel Rays and Sandra Lees on TV to show you how to trivialize, butcher and drive into extinction hundreds of years of culture and tradition by taking yumm-o shortcuts – I ain’t doing it. My mama cooks the real deal, and I will do all I can to keep those amazing recipes alive. I can understand using canned stock instead of making your own – but there’s a line. [Stepping off my soapbox now].

Now for more of the actual cooking. This recipe is for a 22-inch pan. I’ve learned to cook like my mom, so pardon the lack of precise (or any) measurements.

–  4 lb tomatoes, grated – keep all the juices

–  2 medium white onions, grated – keep all the juices

–  8 cloves of garlic, minced

–  1 (2- to 2 1/2-lb) rabbit, cut into bite-size pieces

–  1 good sized duck leg cut into bite-size pieces and skin scored

–  ½ lb of pork belly, cut into bite-size portions

–  2 links of Spanish chorizo (no preservative ingredients), sliced into disks

–  1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads

–  Spanish extra virgin olive oil, enough to cook with

–  Spanish smoked paprika

–  Salt

–  Black pepper

–  1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch strips

–  1 lb long beans

–  1 jar/can of Spanish red peppers

–  5 cups of bomba rice

–  15 cups of low sodium chicken  broth

–  Lemons, for garnish and topping

Cover all the meats with some paprika, salt, pepper and olive oil and let sit in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Get the fire going and start heating the pan on the grill. Start browning the duck with the skin side down and then turn them over. You are just looking for a good crisp skin and not trying to cook all the way. Barely crisp the pork belly because it’s most likely already a cooked or smoked meat. Similarly brown the rabbit pieces and chorizo. At this point, you should see a lot of rendered pork and duck fat. If you throw any of this delicious tasting God’s gift to mankind away, I *will* unceremoniously unfriend you on Facebook. Now is a good time to sautee any garnishing vegetables, like long beans, strips of red bell pepper, etc. Remove the meats and sautéed vegetables off to a side dish.

Now for the sofrito. In the fat in the pan, add just a bit of olive oil (please don’t call it “E-V-O-O”). Then add the grated onions (including the juices) first and keep them moving all around the pan. You want the onion to start reducing and slightly caramelizing – this should take about 8 minutes. Now add the garlic and grated tomatoes (again, with the juices), salt and some paprika. Mix it up well and keep it moving all around the pan, trying to reduce the liquid down. You can also add about half a jar of the Spanish red peppers now. In 15-20 minutes, it should start becoming a dark reddish brown paste with no liquid present. This is your sofrito – the flavor base for your paella.

Sofrito in its last stage. (Photo: Anu Saha)

In the meantime, in a small bowl, crush the saffron with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in a bit of the broth you have heating in the stock pot.

Next add the rice and mix it up well to coat all the grains with the sofrito. Mix in the meats back in at this point to also to get coated well with the sofrito. Then slowly pour in all the broth (which you should keep heated in a stock pot on the stove – never add cold stock to a hot pan of rice). Also pour in the saffron infused broth at this point. Channel your inner mason and carefully spread out the rice and meats evenly all over the pan. You won’t be able to see anything under all that broth, but have faith in your zen as you go all Japanese sand garden on this beast.

The whole thing should start coming to a slow simmer at this point. Let it sit and don’t touch it or disturb it! You want the rice to have an al dente feel to it – soft outside with a slightly firm bite to it. It should not be creamy like a risotto but not too dry. So try to keep some extra stock around to add if the rice doesn’t cook through.

After all the liquid disappears (around 15-20 minutes) give it some more time and start checking around the center and the edges for the soccorat. I like to put my nose just above different parts of the paella to try to smell that slightly burnt caramelized aroma of the soccorat.

Once you have confirmed some decent soccorat-ization, top with the beans, peppers, etc and take it off the heat. Dig in! I like to add a bit of sea salt and squeeze a bit of lemon after I serve myself some paella on my plate. And of course, get a glass of some good Spanish red wine.

Done! Have fun w/ the garnishes. (Photo: Anu Saha)

Our Spanish Wine (Photo: Anu Saha)

If you can serve this with a side of grilled and charred green onions and asparagus accompanied by a home-made romesco sauce, someone will ask you to marry them.”

(Photo: Mari DiGiovanni)

Want to try delicious paella cooked by 30 different teams, including Anu’s team La Bomba? Head on over to Paella Lovers United and buy a ticket for the November 6th, 2010 cook-off.

I love the summertime..

Oh how I love summer – the sounds of blues on the green, the waves splashing on the beach, the smell of Coppertone as it hits your skin, drinking a cold beer while toobing down on the river, eating ice cream sandwiches as it melts between your fingers, the smell of grilled meat during a bbq. I love it all …well except for the blistering heat in Texas. When summertime comes it’s as though certain fruits and vegetables ripen in flavor and taste better. Notice how tomatoes have more flavor and watermelon taste sweeter? Summer is their peak season and truly the best time to have them.

I decided to treat my taste buds to these summertime flavors with Whole Foods’ Lunch Express class: Summertime Garden. The menu featured Heirloom Tomato, Avocado and Watermelon Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette; Saffron Rice Salad with Shrimp, Haricot Verts, Dolce Peppers and Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette; and Madeleines with Rose Scented Cream for dessert. Our teacher, Wes Mickel, was AWESOME! In the mix of demonstrating each dish, he shared facts like there are at least 400 varieties of tomatoes, how to purchase the right tomato, how to pickle onions, the differences between a green bean and a haricot vert or that you can keep vinegar for years! He also introduced me to the dolce and lipstick peppers. I am still amazed at the extensive variety of vegetables out there in the produce universe!

Heirloom Tomato, Avocado & Watermelon Salad w/ Sherry Vinegar

We started with the heirloom tomato salad. It was one of the best salads I have ever had, up there with the wedge salad from Perry’s and a few others. Such a simple salad made with a few ingredients was full of savory bites of sweet yellow watermelon, ruby red heirloom tomato, ripe avocado glazed perfectly with a dressing of sherry vinegar, olive oil and fresh cracked pepper. The sea salt on the heirloom tomato reminded me of summers spent in East Texas visiting my Grandmother and eating tomato slices during lunch. When finished, I literally wanted to drink the remaining dressing on my plate or slop it up with my index finger. But I refrained.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try it at home:

Heirloom Tomato, Avocado and Watermelon Salad with Sherry Vinegar (serves 4-6, but really I could eat the whole thing)

3-4 small heirloom tomatoes, cored, ripe, juicy and cut into thin wedges

1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into small cubes

1 cup yellow or red seedless watermelon, cut into small pieces

1 avocado, cut into small cubes

1/4 cup mixed herbs, cut small (basil, parsley, tarragon, mint, chives and cilantro all work well)

1 tsp toasted coriander seeds, roughly ground

1/2 cup Sherry vinegar

2 Tbsp sugar

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt and fresh cracked pepper

In a small sauce pan over medium heat, reduce the Sherry vinegar and sugar until it has reduced to about 1/4 c. Allow the reduction to cool.  In a bowl, combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon and avocado with 1/2 the herbs, ground coriander, 1 T extra virgin olive oil and a light seasoning of salt and pepper. Place all the contents on a serving platter or individual plates and finish the salad with a splash of the sherry vinegar reduction, the remaining herbs and salt and fresh cracked pepper.

Saffron Rice Salad with Shrimp, Haricot Verts, Dolce Peppers & Smoked Paprika Vinaigrette

The second course was the saffron rice salad with shrimp. During the demonstration, Chef Mickel explained how to pickle the remaining red onions and extend the life of unused vegetables. Apparently you can pickle anything with 1 pt sugar and 2 pt vinegar and keep it around for a month or so. Duality noted! As I consumed the second salad of the day, I noticed how the shrimp worked nicely with the smoked paprika vinaigrette and saffron rice. Though I really enjoyed this salad, I was still thinking about the first.

Madeleines with Rose Scented Cream

The last course was the madeleines. Unforunately this course was a bit disappointing. The madeleines came presented deliciously and I couldn’t wait to sink my folks into them. I found them dense and chewy. I was surprised since Chef Mickel used a workout analogy about the dough. Working the dough = working your muscles. You must allow the dough to rest or the dough will shrink during baking resulting in tough and chewy madeleines. Looks like someone didn’t let my madeleine dough rest enough leaving my jaw a little sore. And to continue this downer moment, I didn’t get enough of the rose water flavor but what I did expect since it only called for a tsp. But I did enjoy the vanilla bean paste. I had no idea it existed and will keep it in mind for future baking projects.

Despite the disappointing dessert, I ended up waddling out of my cooking class, which is a good sign that I enjoyed myself. I am already planning my next class at the culinary center – Healthy Tex-Mex, I’m highly suspicious…

Whole Foods Culinary Center –