Keeping Cozy: Tex-Mex Mac'n'Cheese

In my ongoing quest to a) keep our teeth from chattering in our 66-degree house, b) get something for dinner on the table at a reasonable hour and c) use up whatever leftover bits and bobs are left in the fridge before they spoil, I'll often resort to a casserole or stir-fry that will be quick to prepare and (hopefully) delicious.

And when you're in the middle of a pandemic and can't pop out to the store to pick up some ingredients on the fly to make a special dish, it's especially necessary to be creative with what you've got on hand. Which is where casseroles or stir-fries come in handy, since they cover all the food groups—starch, veg, protein—and are warm, belly-filling and can be zhooshed with spices, herbs and condiments to tickle any palate.

Which brings us back to me standing in front of the fridge with the door open (forgive me, Mom) and rummaging through shelves and bins. A hunk of cheese, half an onion, some poblano peppers that didn't get used for tacos the other night, a half pound of hamburger that was getting to the use-it-or-lose-it stage, plus a half package of cream cheese, some frozen corn, and leftover roasted tomatoes from a soup—another favorite absorber of leftover ingredients.

From scanning the heap on the counter, I could have made my mom's "goulash," basically a hamburger noodle casserole with corn and tomatoes for the base and chile powder for some zing. It would have taken care of most of the pile, but I was in the mood to try a variation on an old fave—which, to be honest, has more than once gotten me in trouble, as in "well, this is interesting but please never make it again" comments from my family.

But, glass of wine in hand, I forged ahead nonetheless and commenced chopping and frying and stirring and finally put it all in the oven. Promising aromas began wafting out, heads (including that of the dog) popped out from around corners with quizzical expressions, and finally the pot was placed front and center on the table, all crispy and golden and smelling amazing.

Moments later, it seemed, it was all gone, down to the last kernel of corn. 

Tex Mex Mac'n'Cheese

For the meat mixture:
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 lb. hamburger, or Tolucan chorizo
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 large or 2 medium poblano peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. frozen or fresh corn kernels
1 tsp. oregano

For the sauce:
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 c. milk
4 c. sharp cheddar cheese, grated*
4 oz. cream cheese
1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce
1 tsp. salt plus more to taste

For the casserole:
1 lb. dried pasta
1 c. whole roasted tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
1/2-1 tsp. chile powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°.

Bring large pot of salted water to a boil.

Place large frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the hamburger and brown, breaking it up into small bits. When it is completely browned, add onions and sauté until tender. Add chopped peppers, corn and garlic and sauté until tender. Stir in oregano and keep warm over low heat.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente.

While pasta cooks, melt butter in medium-sized saucepan. Remove pan from burner and add flour, stirring until the mixture is smooth with no lumps. Place saucepan back on burner and cook on medium heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add milk gradually, stirring/whisking until thickened, then add cheese in handfuls, stirring until melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste. (The sauce should be slightly saltier than you'd normally make it, since when combined with the pasta it will tend to make it taste less salty.)

When pasta is done, drain and put back in pasta pot, add cheese sauce and stir gently to combine. Add meat mixture, drained tomatoes and chile powder and stir. Transfer to baking dish. Bake 30 minutes.

* I like a couple of sharp cheddars made locally, and recommend Face Rock Aged Cheddar and TMK Creamery Cheddar. Also Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar and Organic Valley Grassmilk Cheddar are excellent.

On Stage: Creamy Spring Pasta with Asparagus and Fennel

Cooking is saving my sanity these days. Yes, making three meals a day for a family can also be drudgery, but I can't help getting excited when I scan what's on offer at our farmers' markets or my local greengrocer. In this transition between spring and summer, we've still got spring delights like local asparagus, spring onions, fennel and favas until summer squashes, luscious berries, tomatoes, peaches and the rest of summer's bounty step on stage.

I've been loving our mild spring weather that has allowed for roasting chicken in the oven and making soups on the stovetop, but hasn't precluded grilling outside or (distanced) happy hours in the back yard with friends. (Expect a separate post on outdoor happy hours in a pandemic, including appetizers and drinks!)

In this crossover season between spring and summer I find that I'm still craving comfort foods, so I started casting about in my mental recipe box while rummaging through the refrigerator. With asparagus and fennel in the veg bin, a creamy spring pasta seemed like it might hit the "warm and cozy" button but still promise some springy pizazz in every bite.

Quick to make and startlingly delicious, with a minimum of fuss (or chopping), it was super satisfying and gave me options for making it again with seasonal vegetables to come. A glass of crisp rosé alongside, and my sanity was intact, at least for one more day.

Creamy Spring Asparagus and Fennel Pasta

For the sauce:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. flour
1 c. milk
1/4 c. stock (chicken or vegetable)
2 oz. cream cheese
1/2 c. parmesan, grated, plus more for serving
Zest of one lemon

For the pasta:
1 lb. dried pasta
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
1 lb. asparagus, sliced in 1-inch pieces
1 c. slivered fennel
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 green onions, sliced crosswise into 1/8" slices
1/2 c. parsley

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil.

For the sauce, heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat, whisk in flour until smooth, return to heat and cook for one minute. Whisk in milk and stock until slightly thickened. Add cream cheese and parmesan and stir until smooth. Stir in lemon zest and reduce heat to warm.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and boil until al dente.

In a large skillet heat the oil for the pasta until it shimmers, then add onion and sauté until translucent.  Add asparagus pieces, fennel and garlic and sauté until tender. Stir in green onions. Reduce heat to warm until pasta is done.

When pasta is done, drain and put back in its pot. Add vegetables, cream sauce and parsley and stir to combine. Empty pasta into serving dish and sprinkle with some of the extra grated parmesan. Serve.

This would also be terrific with fava beans and peas, or in a month or so you could make it with zucchini or yellow squash and peas. The possibilities seem endless!