Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mac it Work

Cooking for guys is always rewarding - they're invariably appreciative, and usually start reminiscing about mom's classic meals and the comforts of home.

But cooking for guys who like Project Runway? It's nothing less than a dream come true.

Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with Tim Gunn. Behold:


The purpose of this dinner at the outset was to celebrate the birthdays of Justin and Blake (Happy 25th, again), and the creation of Zac's blog, Vibe Out (welcome to the blogosphere, again). It turned into just a regular old eat-and-chat, which is completely fine with me. Then Project Runway came on, and we were sucked into the reality-design-show vortex.

Since I was cooking for a group of guys (their gender and age group on the whole subsisting on Bagel Bites and cold pizza), I decided to do a comfort food theme: Herb-roasted chicken, insane mac 'n' cheese, and roasted tomatoes over bitter greens (I'm on a bitter greens kick).

INGREDIENTS:

CHICKEN:
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
2 T. chopped sage
2 T. chopped parsley
2 T. thyme leaves
2 T. olive oil
salt and pepper

TOMATOES:
10 ripe plum tomatoes
1 T. chopped garlic
1 more T. chopped parsley
1 more T. chopped sage
1 more T. olive oil

GREENS & DRESSING
4-5 c. bitter greens (baby arugula/lettuce mix is what I used)
1/4 c. olive oil
juice of two lemons
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
salt and pepper
6-8 oz. pancetta

MAC & CHEESE
1 wedge fontina (about 1/3 lb.), finely grated
1 wedge cheddar (about 1/3 lb.), finely grated
1 1/4 lb. cavatappi pasta
2/3 stick butter
5-6 T. flour
4 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste
bread crumbs (I used Challah bread put in the food processor)

FEARLESS FACTOR: About a 7. Cooking for guys is usually a less stressful endeavor, but these guys (Zac in particular) know good food, and do a pretty good job of cooking themselves. They have also known about my blog for months, so their expectations were high. I didn't want to disappoint them!

Read on to see how it all turned out...

STEP ONE:

Chop the herbs. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.



STEP TWO:

Place the raw chicken in a baking dish. Separate the skin from the meat enough to put some herbs under there, but leave it attached at the edges so it locks in all the juices. Salt and pepper the meat (under the skin), and pour on about 1 tsp. of olive oil. Slide about 1 T. of the chopped herb mixture under the skin. Repeat for each chicken breast. They should end up looking like this:


After it's baked, it will look like this:


STEP THREE:

Boil salted water and cook the pasta until it's al dente. In a large skillet, melt the butter, and whisk in the flour, making a roux. I'm not great at taking pictures of making the roux because it's such a hands-on part of the meal, so I downloaded some pics from the internet and have it pictured step-by-step below.

Step 3A:
Melt the butter.

Step 3B:
Add the flour to the melted butter, whisking it in (no need to don a chef's uniform for this, but if it floats your boat, go ahead).

Here's a closer view of adding the flour:

Step 3C:
Add the milk, whisking it in to remove lumps.

Step 3D:
It should thicken and look something like this:

Once the roux is thick (but not as thick as the above photo), stir in the cheeses (I did this process in two batches, which is helpful especiallf if you don't have a giant pan), and whisk them until they melt and the mixture is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

STEP FOUR:

Drain the pasta, and pour the hot noodles into a 9 X 13" glass baking dish. Pour the roux-and-cheese mixture over the top, smoothing it out so all the noodles are coated and covered. Top the entire thing with the bread crumbs. (I toasted the bread crumbs in a pan with about 1 T. butter beforehand, but that's optional.) Bake it at 350 for about 35 minutes, until it's bubbly at the edges and the bread crumbs are browned.




This is what it should look like after it's baked:


STEP 5:

Slice the tomatoes down the middle and place them in a roasting dish. In a saute pan, heat about 1 T. olive oil and saute the garlic until it's fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the rest of the chopped herbs, cooking for about 1 more minute, then pour the mixture over the tomatoes. Bake for about 35 minutes.

They should look like this after they've been cooked:


STEP 6:

In a skillet, cook the pancetta until it's crisp, and drain the fat. In a bowl, whisk all the dressing ingredients together, pour over the greens, and toss to coat.




STEP 7:
Plate it all up! Place a chicken breast on each plate, scoop out some mac 'n' cheese, and place the roasted tomatoes on top of a pile of greens, topping with a little of the pancetta. Mmmm!

Here's Jess':


THE JUDGES' VERDICTS:

ZAC: That's the best macaroni and cheese I've had in a long time. I really like the tomatoes with the chicken: together, in one singluar bite.
BLAKE: I love the salad dressing with the pancetta. And I like how the mac 'n' cheese is salty AND sweet.
[ME:] That's because I used Challah bread for the bread crumbs, and it's really sweet.
ZAC: I'm glad I know that. Really.
JUSTIN: I wasn't sure about the sin on the chicken, but I think it made it really tender and juicy. I was scared, but it was actually good.
BLAKE: My mom always says that's why she leaves the skin on, but I think is the first time I've see that method actually work.
JESS: You made similar chicken the other night, and it's better this time. What did you do differently?
[ME:] I cooked it on a lower temperature. Last time I cooked it on 375, this time I cooked it at 350.
JESS: It's really good, but I'd like some bread crumbs mixed in with the mac 'n' cheese, not just on top. I think it would add a nice crunchy element.
ZAC: Yeah, more bread crumbs would've been good.
JESS: Your weakness may be salads, but in the category of "cooked salads," which you may have invented, I think you could do some really great stuff.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give myself an 8.5. I'm a bit of a mac 'n' cheese aficionado (it's my favorite food, bar none), and this is by far the best mac 'n' cheese I've ever made. The chicken was really good, too. I agree that it was better than last time. The one thing I regret is roasting the tomatoes: I should've broiled them. I wanted a little caramelization; I wanted them to shrink down, and they more or less just got hot. The pancetta was nice, but next time I'd mix it in with the dressing and toss it with the salad. An element of bright freshness in the salad would've helped too: crunchy fresh carrots, peppers, or cucumber.

And as for Project Runway (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU TIVO'D IT!!!), the finalists are:


Sadly, Chris was Auf'ed. Chris, if you're reading, come on over and let mama cook you some mac 'n' cheese. It'll cheer you right up.

Sigh. But that means I only have to wait 6 days for the Fashion Week finale!

Thanks so much to my wonderful judges!

And thanks for not being as hard on me as THOSE judges!

Thanks for reading! Till next time's fearless adventure...

1 comment:

Betty said...

Why did you wait to make Mac N' Cheese until I was not there to enjoy it? It looks magnificent, my dear.

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