Truffled Lobster Macaroni and Cheese with Panko, Pancetta, and Chive Crust

DSCN5234 When it comes to cooking, I’m a creature of whim.  I often ask Clayton what he wants for dinner, but unless he says something that *I* actually want, too, I rather flippantly dismiss it.  Considering the quality of the items I generally produce, however, he has little room to complain.  But today’s suggestion –  in his simple terms, “a mac n’ cheese; you know, something warm” – actually did resonate with me, and my mind clicked into gear and rattled quickly through its catalog of flavors until settling quite quickly on a combination of lobster, and unctuousness, and crunch, and cream, and a dash of green.  Hence: tonight’s silky sweet truffled macaroni and cheese, studded with tender poached lobster meat, and crispy on top with crumbled pancetta and bread crumbs and chives.  And, since I could, I served it up in two searing hot iron skillets, which kept the sauce bubbling hot from bite one to bite last.  As the days grow shorter and the air cooler outside here in New England, so does the appetite reach for comfort food that warms from within.  This fit the bill just right.

DSCN5225

Truffled Lobster Macaroni and Cheese with Panko, Pancetta, and Chive Crust

meat from 1 1/4lb lobster, just barely poached (about 1 cup)
6-8 slices thinly sliced pancetta
2 cups (uncooked) elbow macaroni
1 tbs butter
1/2 tsp minced garlic
2 cups cream
1/2 lb white American cheese
1 tbs white truffle pate
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup snipped chives

DSCN5223Poaching a lobster is easy: just chuck your bug in a large enough bowl or pan, then pour boiling water over it.  Let it sit for a few minutes, then remove from the bath.  Twist off the arms and claws, and chuck them back into the water while you remove the tail and leg meat with shears.  Then cut the claws and arm meat out, setting all the sweet quivering pinkness into a bowl before throwing into the fridge until you’re ready for it.

DSCN5226In a large skillet, pan-fry the pancetta until it is brown and crispy, removing the slices to a paper plate when they’re done to drain.

DSCN5227Wipe the pan pit with a paper towel, and set it back over medium-high heat.  Chuck your breadcrumbs in, and toss them over the heat until they’ve turned golden brown.  Set aside, off the heat.

DSCN5228After cooking the elbow noodles in a deep saucepan according to the package directions, return the drained pan to the heat, melt the butter, then add the cream and cheese – which can be cubed or shredded.  A big fat helping of crushed black pepper is a good idea too.  Whisk constantly, until the cheese is fully melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy.

DSCN5229I was given this little pot ‘o gold by a good friend for my birthday back in August, and I’ve had the pleasure of using it a few times.  All one needs is a tablespoon of this super concentrated umame bliss to infuse any dish with the essence of truffle.

DSCN5230Add the drained, cooked noodles to the sauce, stir well. and then heap a  spoonful of mushroom caviar into the mix and stir well some more.  Fold in the the lobster meat, which should be cut into small bites, and split the pasta into two cast iron skillets.  Crumble the pancetta over the top, the sprinkle the breadcrumbs over that, before smattering the dish with snipped chives and throwing in a 350° oven for 10 minutes.

DSCN5231When the edges are bubbling, it’s ready.

DSCN5233Succulent, buttery lobster… rich, hearty truffle… creamy white percolating cheese sauce, and tender al dente noodles, encrusted with crisp unctuous Italian bacon, toasted crunchy breadcrumbs, and the sweet snap of snipped chives.  Clayton didn’t expect anything this good when he thought about mac & cheese this morning, but he’s damn happy this is what he ended up tucking into tonight.  He’s smiling sweetly right now, washing the dishes while I type, already nostalgic for the deliciousness that just filled his being with pasta and cheese.  I’ve made lobster mac before, but this one, so far, has been my best.

Rainy Day Macaroni and Cheese

Oh my, but today was a wet, cold, gloomy, and miserable day.  It wasn’t stormy or anything – no driving rain – no whipping winds — but those things at least make a rainy day exciting.  Instead, it was just miserable.  Not my mood, mind you, which was fine – but the grey chilly day didn’t make walking around in it enjoyable at all.  What better on a crappy cold day than a steaming hot bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese?  Why, nothing.  Nothing at all…

Rainy Day Macaroni & Cheese

2/3 cup elbow noodles (cooked in boiling, salted water for 2 minutes less than the package directions suggest)
3 oz sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup milk, plus more as needed
1 tsp flour
2 tbs butter
garlic powder, paprika, sea salt, black pepper
1 slice white bread

This is the most basic homemade mac & cheese I make.  OK – scratch that: it’s more basic when I just use pre-made breadcrumbs, like the Panko I found right after I finished making my own.  No matter — making these breadcrumbs was essentially like making the same piece of toast twice.  I chuck a dry piece of bread right on the rack in my oven set on 400°.  I flip it a couple times until it’s nice and toasted – like 4 minutes total.

Like so.

Using my box grater, I pulverize my toast into rough crumbs.

Then I toss them with 1 tablespoon melted butter, and a dash each of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika.

Then I spread them out on a lined cookie sheet, and put them back in the oven for another 4 minutes.  I give them a good stir before setting them aside while I finish the macaroni (the noodles for which I’ve already cooked…).

After I drain the pasta from the pot, I return it to the heat (set on medium), melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in it until frothy, and add my flour.

I whisk this together until well incorporated, and bring it to a golden foam – thereby making a roux.

I transform my roux into the bechamel, a mother sauce, by adding my milk, which I whisk in nicely and bring to a gentle thickening simmer.  Finally, I transform the bechamel into mornay sauce by adding most of my cheddar cheese (reserving a tiny bit for garnish) and blending well until melted.

I add my noodles back to the pan, and stir everything well, setting it on low and cooking it through for a few minutes until steaming warm.

With a crunchy breadcrumb topping, a sharp cheddar cheese sauce, and tender toothsome pasta, this is the perfect quick and simple macaroni and cheese after a long day trudging through cold damp fog banks and spitting rain.  I dig into my bowl with gusto, and finally feel the chill in my bones being chased away…

Creamy Curry Cheese and Macaroni with Langostino Tails and Black Truffle Oil

Macaroni and cheese: are there any other three words that go together better?  Is there any other phrase more evocative, anything else that inspires in each and every person an urgent yearning for whatever sinful, pseudo-sexual gastronomic glut the dish means to them? Tonight, to me it meant succulent, tender, mouthfuls of sweet seameats, and creamy stringy scented cheeses, and crispy crunchy crust.  Paired with a sexy simple arugula salad with parmesan croutons, and dabbled with fragrant, earthy, and enlightening black truffle oil, this Sunday night dinner is elegant and hearty, soulful and seductive, and exactly the adornment our peaceful, productive weekend deserved.  Welcome, Monday: we’re ready for you.

Creamy Curry Cheese and Macaroni with Langostino Tails and Black Truffle Oil

12 oz Trader Joe’s frozen langostino tails
4 oz fontina cheese
4 oz cheddar cheese
heavy cream
2 tbls butter, divided
1 white onion, 1/2 diced, 1/2 thinly sliced
flour
nutmeg
chili curry powder
2 cups uncooked fusili pasta
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
fresh grated parmesan cheese
fresh arugula
an excellent EVOO
a high quality white balsamic vinegar
sea salt
cracked black pepper
black truffle oil, for garnish

Trader Joe’s came through: their 12 oz bag of frozen langostino tails are an excellent alternative to lobster, but more indulgent than shrimp.  I’d also use crawfish tails; or Maine shrimp, since they’re so tiny and sweet, and so unlike their bigger, brinier, ubiquitous tiger cousins.  See how sweet and pink and plump they are?  I defrost them, rinse them, then drain them over a screen set over a bowl, to separate all the liquids from the meat.

Since I only have one suitable pan (my Ikeawok), I start with my breadcrumbs, which I can set aside for use later.  I melt a tablespoon of butter of medium high heat until just turning brown…

  I throw my panko breadcrumbs, about 1/2 a cup, into my hot butter, and toss in my wok…

… until all the crumbs are uniformly toasted.  I remove them from the pan, setting them aside on some parchment paper, where I flavor them with salt and pepper, until I need them later.

Along with fontina cheese, I have a nice mild Wisconsin cheddar.  I shred about 4 packed ounces of each onto a plate.

OK, I shred about 6 oz of each; Clayton is on the prowl, and he pinches when (he thinks) I’m not looking.

Along with grated nutmeg, simple salt and pepper, and a dash of chili curry powder, these are the spice components of my sauce.  To me, the best macaroni and cheeses are the simple ones: firm pasta, flavorful cheesy sauce, and a crisp crust.  The addition of too many flavors and veggies just mucks up perfection.

 But the addition of  1/2 a white onion, nicely minced, is a must — shallot would do nicely, too, or garlic.  In this case, we went simple…

… and sweated and softened the minced onion (about 1/2 cup) in a tablespoon of sizzling (but not browned) melted butter.

After a moment, I add a tablespoon of flour to the sizzling butter, and stir well to make a roux.

Finally, I add my cream, and bring this to a simmer to thicken.  See how the butter-sauteed onions float to the top?  They will be tender little bursts of flavor on the tongue later in the meal.  Stir well, and thicken over medium heat.  My pasta is cooking on the back burner, and will be ready in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, I throw my cheese into the sauce, and…

… I briskly whisk over medium heat to melt and blend.

I add my just slightly undercooked pasta to my cheese sauce, and blend well.  I then add my drained langostino tails, mixing well, and simmering until heated through.

Finally, I spoon my sauce, seafood, and noodles into buttered 8oz ramekins.  I sprinkle a healthy portion of my breadcrumbs over the top of each dish, then place in a 350° oven to bake through for 15-20 minutes.

For the last five minutes, I put a cookie sheet, lined with parchment paper, and mounded with fresh shredded parmesan cheese, into the oven to make some cheesy croutons for a simple, snappy, arugula, onion, salted kumato tomato, EVOO, and white balsamic vinegar salad to serve on the side.

Right before service, I dribble some black truffle oil, a delicious gift given to me by my close friend and superpartner, Tom, over the top of my bubbling baked crispy topped macaroni and cheese.  My salad is fresh and light and sharp, topped with a wafery salty savory parmesan cracker, the perfect compliment to my rich, fragrant, slightly hot and wonderfully spiced creamy macaroni and cheese, studded as it is with sweet, briny mouthfuls of tender langostino tails, and topped with just the right buttered toast texture.  Clayton and I dig in with abandon: our noses fill with the umame aroma of melting cheese, our mouths with the gooey heat of pasta cream, and our brains fire synapses hard-wired to supreme excitement and titillating pleasure.  Thank you –  gods of the heath, spirits of the kitchen – for introducing cheese to pasta, and letting them  make their particular brand of love on the porcelain pillow of my plate: it is beautiful.

Creamy Curry Cheese and Macaroni with Langostino Tails and Black Truffle Oil

Weeknight Wondermeal: Pasta con pepe e caciotta al tartufo

Oh it is so ugly outside.   I’m so doggedly tired of slogging through rushing rivers of slush, teetering over shifting tectonic plates of glacial sidewalk ice, and slipsliding down MBTA stairwells onto slick platforms thick with impatient, pushy, and padded-with-winter-wear people.  I couldn’t even spare the effort to make it to the grocery store, even though Clayton and I walked by it on our way home from Harvard Square.  Both of us were too weary to be hungry; all we had in sight was our wee warm house, and our comfy couches.  But after an hour of warming up and relaxing, we realized we needed to eat – but we had little to nothing in the house.  BUT — little to nothing in Lolita’s kitchen means at least enough to throw together this easiest of simplest of delicious-est dinners!  All you need is a nice pantry, a commitment to heavy cream, butter, and a nice, fine, hard, laced-with-black-truffle pecorino romano cheese.  A few scallions don’t hurt, but aren’t strictly necessary.  This is a riff off of Batali/Bastinach’s (mother & son) Spaghettoni Cacio e Pepe, which Clayton and I enjoyed at eataly in December.  If we hadn’t been weighted down with our luggage (we were on our way out of town), and if the place hadn’t have been so overcrowded, we would have sat at the bar to watch the cooks work, so I rather made up the technique, in the hopes I’d capture their tender but toothsome pasta’s texture, and the silky, gentle, classic, effortless simplicity of their sauce.  Perhaps mine came out a bit heavier, but I think I caught the spirit — and we certainly enjoyed the post-supper satisfaction.

Pasta con pepe e caciotta al tartufo (a very fancy name for a simple but sophisticated light macaroni and cheese)

1/2 lb pasta – make it a good quality, sauce-lovin’ variety
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup pecorino romano cheese flecked with black truffle (black truffle salt or black truffle oil or, of course, shavings of fresh truffle will work here, too)
sea salt
cracked black pepper
sliced green onions (optional)

I bought these beautiful squiggly things (fuselli, I think) at the Salumeria the last time we were there, and have been waiting to use this other half package.  It was the perfect serving for two.

I dump the pasta into salted boiling water for about 12 minutes.  I usually take a noodle out at the 10 minute mark to see how cooked it is, and then adjust my cooking time based on that.  It’s not rocket science, but it can be intuitive.

Using my netspoon, I fish out my al dente pasta, and dump the noodles into my pan, where my butter has been melting over medium heat.

I toss everything well…

… add my cream, and simmer…

… and I add my cheese, and simmer, until my sauce is the thickness I want.  If I want to thin it some, I add a bit of my pasta water, and stir well.  At the last moment, I add some sea salt and a hefty serving of cracked black pepper, until it tastes real durn good.

Once my water was a’boilin’, this took 20 minutes to get to my table.  Springy, firm but tender pasta, draped lightly with milk and umame cheese, speckled with grains of pepper and green onion rings.  This is warm, elegant, simple, yet transcendent.  This is basically a macaroni and cheese, but is also oh so much more.  I can see how these flavors come together in rural farmhouses all along the Italian peninsula; the yield from a healthy cow, foraging pigs digging local truffles, a backyard garden — that’s all one needs.  And I see why it makes its way to the poshest gourmet experience in Manhattan, and why it cost $14 a plate for what I was able to cobble together from stuff in my fridge: because it is sinfully delicious, and decadently alluring – like a nymphette to Humbert Humbert, or mature women swooning over Justin Beiber or Robert Pattinson.  Since making it to either Italian farmstead or NYC hotspots is unlikely for me these days, thank goodness for Whole Foods.  I hope one day to experience the former, but am damn happy to enjoy the latter… especially since I stocked up before the dreadful cold wet night we’re having now.   Ahhh…. comfort.  Celebrate warmth: eat hot food.

Pasta Con Pepe E Caciotta Al Tartufo

Redfish (and Mac and Cheese)

Today’s catch from our half of a half share of the Cape Ann Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery was redfish.  Redfish?  Is that, er, like cod?  Because I was all steeled up to try my hand once again at filleting a cod, which last time I did passably well.  Clayton and I did passably well.  It was a joint effort.  The word “joint” does appear in disjointed, after all.

Anyway – redfish.  And not just one fish — there were 6 fish in my bag.

Whoa.  I went downstairs and tried to woo my neighbors with some, but alas – they were not home (or they were hiding.  I suspect they sometimes hide…).  So, starting with the biggest fish, we dove into the act of gutting them, cleaning them, and cooking them.  (We thought, heh heh, here’s the CSF getting back at everyone bitchin’ about it being a cod club last year, by throwing us lots of littler fish we now have to, like, *totally* yank the innards out of and everything.  Suddenly, filleting a cod seemed like a walk in the park…)

The dude in the truck who thought I’d cut in line (when I hadn’t) was very instructive about what to do; his schpeil was concise and effective.  He said to watch for the spiny parts of the upper dorsal fin, which – if they pierced my skin – would hurt for quite some time.  Given the state of my mandolin-sliced right-ring-finger-tip, I did not wish to add more injury to my injuries, so I appreciated that tip.

He also said to clip off the fins with some kitchen shears.

And then to slice from the anal cavity (! of course I knew fish, er, flush, but I suppose I rather thought their anatomical exit avenue would have a different appellation than, er, ours) which he helpfully pinky pointed out, through to the jawline.

Then scoop out the guts.  As Castle watched, I slipped my surgically gloved right hand up in there all gingerly like, trying to sort of pluck out the organs with dainty femininity. Clayton wisely bucked up, reminded me of his redneckedness, and the quite literal school of catfish he’d gutted on the crickside in his kuntry youth, and flicked the knife through the next fish’s cavity with dexterity, and out slid all the messy bits.  Got it.  I did two, and he did two, and by the end of the massacre we both felt pretty darn rad.

Dude also said to rinse them very very well, which we totally totally did.  Oh, and scale them, which Clayton totally did.  As to cooking ‘em, that I had to figure out for myself.

My surgical glove didn’t withstand the entire snipping, gutting, cleaning exercise, but it’s really not my whole hand that’s an issue here; it’s only the tip of my ring finger on my right hand.  So I cut a finger off the glove, wrapped it around my wound’s wrapping (which has to stay in place until tomorrow), and then snapped a fresh new hair tie around the base to hold it on.  Perfect!

In my experience, the simplest preparation for seafood is the best.  The CSF sent a recipe along with today’s email, but I had no time to stop at the market, little inclination to drag several pounds of fish into Whole Foods anyway, and I didn’t want to drown the flavor in onion, celery, and other stuff.  And I thought I had some stuff at home (which I , er, didn’t, actually), but ultimately I figured I could pull something together (which I, er, did, quite nicely).  I had two choices and 4 fish, so I did ‘em both: I baked two, and I pan-seared two. To bake, I kept the heads on my fish, slathered them and the large ceramic baking dish I placed them on, with EVOO.  I then sprinkled each side with chunky sea salt and crushed black pepper, and shoved some sliced onions into the cavities.  I didn’t have lemon, which I thought I did.  Oops. Place into a preheated 400° oven, and roast for 20 minutes.

For the other two fish, I lop off the heads, and lay into a hot pan with sizzling oil.  I shake the pan regularly, to keep the fish from sticking to the pan.  After 8 minutes, I carefully flip the fish, and sear on the other side.

The baked fish was the hit of the night; after 20 minutes, I was easily able to lift the crusty roasted top fillet off the bone, then lift the skeleton off the fish, and then slide a spatula under the remaining fillet to layer it upon the plate.  With a little more practice, I daresay I could get all the bones, but this time we did miss a few, so we had to chew carefully.  The pan-seared fish did not fare as well; the skin stuck to the pan, and the spines from the dorsal fin broke off into the searing fats, so I couldn’t really use it as I’d hoped to make a fried caper sauce.  And, since I had very little butter and no lemon, I really didn’t have what I needed for that sauce besides the capers anyway.  In the long run, it was no matter; the baked fish was meaty, rich, full-flavored, and very very satisfying.

I whip up a quick macaroni and cheese as a side dish (all I had was cheddar cheese, rigatoni, 1 tbs butter, and some heavy cream), and slice through a few fresh pickles as a sharp garnish.  My fish is smooth, savory, fatty, and firm, and the pasta and pickles are perfect partners.  Another adventure in cooking, and another great meal.