Last month, a food fracas broke out over a new hot-button topic: macaroni and cheese. We won’t go into the unsavory details here, except to say that some powerful media pundits disagreed about whether it was proper to serve the dish at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Regardless of your political leanings, if you’ve ever visited a school cafeteria, picnic or pot-luck dinner, someone has offered you mac and cheese. Most often, it’s a side dish among several accompanying an entrée.
But cookbook author Lukas Volger suggests something radical: Make macaroni and cheese the main attraction at the meal.
The Brooklyn-based Volger is the author of Vegetarian Entrees That Won’t Leave You Hungry. On a recent visit to Charlotte, he demonstrated just how beguiling a dish mac and cheese can be. His version is rich with goat cheese, fresh mushrooms and minced herbs, and it’s topped with homemade bread crumbs (recipe ‘below the fold’).
Volger terms it a “flavorful main course that fills the center of the plate.” But guests seemed a little skeptical at first. After all, this looked nothing like the familiar, blue-boxed, quick dinner Kraft introduced in 1937 and sold by the millions. (That product, by the way, now has its own Facebook page with more than 560,000 hits.)
Volger doesn’t proselytize. He doesn’t need to. People who said they were too busy to stop slowed down to chat when the author put a plate in their hands. A man from D.C. talked a bit about life in Charlotte. Two women heading for the door turned around for a taste, then lingered to discuss Cuban oregano and other ways to make a dish distinctive.
Like the iconic bagel or barbecue, mac and cheese is something tangible we can defend when we think someone is attacking our tastes, our beliefs – or our identities. But it doesn’t have to be.
This is because it’s hard to hurry, and even harder to quarrel, when you have a plate of good and beautifully prepared food in front of you. This season, no matter which holidays you celebrate, make some mac and cheese, and make it as humble or elegant as you wish. And simply serve it forth.
Keep reading for a recipe for Mushroom Macaroni with Goat Cheese. mmmmm…
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 shallots, minced
- 8 ounces (230 g) cremini or white button mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 6 ounces (170 g) shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) full-bodied red wine
- 2 cups (230 g) elbow macaroni
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose fl our
- 2 cups (475 ml) reduced-fat milk (1% or 2%)
- 6 ounces (170 g) creamy goat cheese
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2/3 cup (80 g) toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade
- 1 teaspoon olive oil or melted butter
- 2 ounces (60 g) Parmesan cheese, grated (1/2 cup)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Grease a 3-quart casserole dish or 9 x 13-inch baking dish.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, deep sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. When the foaming subsides, add the shallots and sauté until just beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat up to high. Pour in the wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon or spatula. Continue cooking until the liquid is reduced by half. Remove from the heat.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until just barely al dente. Drain and rinse under cold running water to halt the cooking.
- Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Sprinkle the fl our over the butter, whisking constantly to evenly distribute the fl our, and continue to cook, still whisking constantly, until the mixture is a shade darker and smells nutty, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to break up any lumps. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens and has the consistency of glue, 8 to 10 minutes total. Remove from the heat and stir in the goat cheese, rosemary, 3/4 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper. Combine the mushrooms and sauce, then gently stir in the macaroni.
- Put the bread crumbs, olive oil, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and mix gently until well combined.
- Pour the macaroni mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Scatter the bread-crumb mixture evenly over the top and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until bubbling at the edges and a knife inserted in the center comes out hot to the touch. Serve hot.
Leftovers: Stored in an airtight container, this dish will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator and 1 month in the freezer. Preparation and Cooking Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Toasted Bread Crumbs
Makes 2 Cups (240 g)
- 8 slices stale but still pliant bread
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C).
- Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a food processor. Pulse until the bread is broken down into crumbs. Toss the crumbs with the olive oil, then spread them on a baking sheet.
- Bake, stirring frequently, for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the baking sheet immediately; left on the pan they’ll continue to cook and might burn.
Leftovers: Stored in an airtight container, bread crumbs will keep for up to 3 months in the freezer. Preparation and Cooking Time: 25 minutes
Recipe from Vegetarian Entrees That Won’t Leave You Hungry, copyright © Lukas Volger, 2011. Reprinted by permission of The Experiment Publishing. Available wherever books are sold, $17.95.