11 March 2011

Standbys and novelties [pasta and noodles edition]

As I've mentioned before, I like to mix it up in the kitchen. One day dinner is a reliable standby like pizza or roast chicken. Another day it's something new and different. . . riskier, but also more fun.

These days, the "new" dishes come frequently from Asian cuisine. I did not eat much Asian food growing up, but have discovered that I like it a lot. In fact, while Jared and I were on our honeymoon in Charleston, the best restaurant we ate at was Basil, a Thai place. (That sentence was syntactically awkward. Oh well. I don't feel like revising it.) Around here, we've enjoyed trying different things at the Vietnamese restaurant Rice and Noodles. I think Sakura is next on our list.

At home, I have played around with a few cookbooks and visited a few websites, trying Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese dishes. It has resulted in some successes and some flops. (Sometimes we disagree on whether a recipe was a success or a flop. Individual tastes differ . . .) The other day I made a sesame soba salad that I loved. The husband did not approve, but that just means I got to eat it all for lunch the next day. Last night, on the other hand, I tried Vietnamese noodle bowls (from a cookbook, not the linked website, but the recipe is very similar). I used beef left over from a roast earlier in the week, and marinated it with some chicken broth, lemongrass, cilantro, and fish sauce. Along with the sliced beef we had shredded carrots, sliced green onions, sliced cucumbers, chopped cilantro, and of course nuoc cham. We both really liked it, so I can see a lot of rice noodles in our future.

So much for the novelties. Now for the standby: baked macaroni and cheese. This stuff is fantastic. You can put in anything you want, it's incredibly filling, and the leftovers reheat perfectly. Oh, and if you make a double recipe you can freeze half for later. I love freezer meals. (I love cooking too, but some days it is awfully nice to pull something out of the freezer!) Because you can riff on the recipe with whatever's in the fridge, it needn't get boring. I make it pretty often.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese
(originally from Smitten Kitchen, with my edits)

1/2 lb. smallish pasta (shells or rotini are good)
3 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup flour

3 cups whole milk

3 cups shredded cheese*

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
spices to taste**

2-3 cups "add-ins"***

plain or seasoned breadcrumbs


1) Preheat oven to 375. Grease a 2-quart casserole dish or a 9x9 glass baking dish. Get a large pot of water boiling for your pasta.
2) If your "add-ins" need to be cook, start them first. Then you can let your sausage fry, spinach wilt, and mushrooms brown as you make the cheese sauce. (If the "add-ins" are done before everything else, that is fine. Just take them off the heat once they are fully cooked.)
3) Now, about that cheese sauce. Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and whisk well. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook butter-flour mixture, whisking frequently, for several minutes. This is your roux, which will thicken the sauce.
4) Add milk to roux a little bit at a time, whisking briskly after each addition to avoid clumping. Keep adding the milk and whisking until it is all smoothly incorporated. Bring milk to a low boil, whisking occasionally. Turn heat down to low, add cheese, and stir until completely melted. Add salt and seasoning to taste. Let sauce simmer and thicken until your pasta is ready.
5) Add pasta to boiling water and cook according to package directions. If I am putting broccoli into the macaroni and cheese, I add washed, chopped florets to the boiling pot 4 minutes before the pasta will be done. Then the broccoli can cook along with the pasta. No extra pan!
6) Drain pasta (and broccoli, if using) and shake dry. Return to large pot; pour in cheese sauce and your prepared "add-ins," and stir to combine completely. Pour into prepared dish and sprinkle breadcrumbs on top.
7) At this point you can cover the macaroni and cheese with foil and bake immediately: 35-40 minutes will get it bubbling and golden. Let it sit a few minutes, then serve. If you prefer, however, cover and refrigerate the dish until dinnertime. A chilled dish will take longer to heat through, more like 45-50 minutes. But this is a great meal to make ahead.

*Half mild and half sharp is a good rule of thumb. Cheddar, Parmesan, monterey jack, pepper jack, farmer's, and mozzarella have all found their way into my macaroni and cheese at some point. It's all good.
**Black pepper, cayenne, thyme, oregano, basil, garlic powder, etc.
***Have fun here. Sausage, tuna, roast chicken; onions, shallots, mushrooms; red peppers, spinach, broccoli. I almost always add onion and some sort of vegetable.

{image credit: Tony DeFilippo on Flickr}

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