Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Cheesy Pasta Bake
When I was kid, one of my mom's staple meals was Macaroni and Cheese.  Whose family Didn't have that as a familiar staple meal?   Oh, you?  Well, okay then.  Anyway, I liked my mom's mac and cheese with grated cheddar and elbow macaroni pasta, baked in the oven in a large, old Pyrex bowl.  I looked forward to diving into that browned, cheesy crust......until she began placing canned red beets atop the mixture;  the sweetness messed up the entire cheesy balance.  For years, after I'd grown up and moved away to school, I avoided that once wonderful mac and cheese, but a few years ago, when Rachael Ray began inspiring me to learn how to cook (see my bio for that story, if you're so inclined), I learned that the good old staple could be made in myriad ways, each one a pleasure unto itself.  Here are two of those recipes, with some variations for your culinary pleasure.  Enjoy!

1 box of elbow macaroni, rotini, rigatoni or penne rigate
1/2 white or yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced or finely chopped, 1/4 separated
2 tabs butter
2/3 cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons olive oil, separated two-and-one
1 large link Smoked Kielbasa
fresh ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups Mozzarella cheese
1 cup Fontina cheese
1 cup Ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
 Panko bread crumbs
Non-stick spray (or, use evoo or butter to coat the baking dish)

***I also enjoy Sicilian Garlic Jack, Smoked White Cheddar and Gruyere, and if I am feeling a little south of the border, I like to add Oaxaca (Mexican Mozzarella...sooo good!)***

**As far as meats go, I am not above browning a pound of hot Italian sausage, a large link of "Soyrizo" (soy chorizo, which is great because it is low in oily fat), a few slices of bacon, or even regular old hot dogs.***

*I really love to add herbs, such as cilantro or basil (with Italian sausage), as well as onion and garlic.  I use onion and garlic in just about everything except peanut butter and jelly.  Hmm, might have to rethink that one. In addition, I love the tangy taste of roasted green chiles (Anaheim or Poblano, or pickled Jalapeno).*

#The spices I use vary as much as the cheeses do, in  my recipes.  I seldom add salt, because I always salt my pasta water.  If I am adding a meat, I will not add salt, except to the water, because the meat will have a sodium content. However, I often use black pepper, chipotle powder, coriander, and dried or fresh oregano and sage.#

What you will need in your kitchen:
1 large high-sided skillet
1large sauce pan
1 large pot
1 strainer
1 wooden spoon 
1 large heat resistant spatula
1 large baking pan or glass baking dish (about 9 x 13)
1 large cheese grater
Measuring spoons and cups
2 cutting boards/chopping blocks
2 sharp culinary knives
1 medium sized bowl
What to do:
Chill your cheeses in the freezer for fifteen minutes before you grate to firm them up.  Mozzarella and Fontina are soft cheeses, as is Sicilian Jack, and chilling them allows for easier grating. Add about four to six cups of water to the large pot to boil for the pasta.  Preheat the oven to 405-degrees. Meanwhile, finely chop the onion and garlic, and separate the garlic.  On an additional cutting board, cut the Kielbasa into halves, then quarters, about a quarter to a half inch thick.

Add a tablespoon of evoo to the large high-sided skillet and two parts of the fresh, finely chopped garlic.  Heat over medium heat, add the kielbasa, saute' for five minutes over medium-high heat, then add the onion.  Saute' until the onions soften and become partly translucent. Allow to cook for ten more minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally to even the browning crust on the Kielbasa.  Remove from the pan and pour into the strainer to drain off the extra oil and fat.  

Liberally salt the pasta water when it boils and add the box (about a pound) of the pasta you have chosen to the water.  Be sure to stir with the wooden spoon every couple of minutes to prevent the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Cook until just before al dente, or, just before it is fully cooked, and save about half a cup of the pasta water at the end.  

Remove the Kielbasa from the strainer and place it in a bowl, and set aside.  Remember to save about half a cup of the pasta water before dumping the pasta into the strainer.  
Meanwhile, in the saucepan, add two tablespoons of evoo, two tabs of butter, and the remaining garlic, the spicy brown mustard, and the oregano.  When the butter has melted and the garlic begins to sizzle, add  part of the buttermilk (or, whatever milk you prefer) and the flour.  Stir the flour into the mixture with a little cracked black pepper.  You are making the Roux.  When the flour has cooked into the mixture, add the rest of the milk and half of the cheese, including the Ricotta.  Stir in the cheese with the spatula.  When the first half has melted thoroughly, add the next half and stir in until it melts. 

Spray the baking dish or bowl with butter or evoo on a paper towel, or, be all new-age-y and spray the baking dish or bowl with non-stick cooking spray.  Using a large spoon, add about a cup of the al dente pasta to the baking dish along with about two large spoonfuls of the pasta water you have set aside.  Pour the rest of the pasta from the strainer into the large sauce pan with the cheese and thoroughly incorporate the pasta into the cheesey mixture.  Pour that mixture over the pasta in the baking dish or bowl.  Smooth the mixture over with the spatula or large spoon.  Sprinkle the top with the Panko bread crumbs.  Drizzle the Panko with evoo and place it into the oven.  

Bake for about twenty minutes, or until the crispy crust is golden brown.  Remove and let sit for about fifteen minutes so the cheese can set.  Serve in bowls alone or on plates with a salad.  I like to add a little Tapatio sauce over the top, which adds a tangy kick!

Serve and Enjoy!!!