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.

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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