|The almighty mac n' cheese - this time with pumpkin! - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
Cold weather cooking is the best kind, because it's always full of rich smells and flavors of things slowly simmering on the stove or slowly baking away in the oven. For the dinner we had planned, I wanted it to be a total harvest-themed meal, with a winter salad tossed with pears, pecans, dried cranberries and blue cheese; a creamy macaroni and cheese made with roasted pumpkin; a chicken flavored with rosemary, sage and sweetened with marsala; then to finish, a rustic pear crostata.
Spices take on double duty, hopping across the Mason-Dixon line of sweet and savory, especially ones like nutmeg and cinnamon. I love how a good pumpkin pie isn't all sugar, and that you can taste a bit of the squash, married with all the added spices. So I got all Dr. Moreau in the kitchen, hybridizing the spice and flavor of pumpkin pie with macaroni and cheese. Not as weird as you'd think, it was quite tasty. I've been on a steady kick of roasting sugar pumpkins and other squash. The trick of shoving the whole squash into the oven for about twenty minutes at 375 degrees, just to soften slightly, has made it much easier for me to halve them without worry of personal injury. Seriously, doing a Norman Bates on a large squash can be hazardous to the squash-killer's health! So the pre-softening helps, then you can halve it, remove the seeds and let the oven finish the rest of the roasting. I'll do several at a time to try and be more energy conscious about the oven. I'll scoop out the roasted squash and freeze it for later use. I've gotten to be pretty good at recognizing the color and texture of frozen squash, because for all the preparation I do, I neglect to label anything, and our freezer just looks like we're obsessed with quarts of plain yogurt. Dear Santa: for Wasabi, a lifetime supply of Sharpie markers. Stat.
|Cold weather comfort dinner at home with friends - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
The pumpkin macaroni and cheese gets a nice, light sweetness from the roasted pumpkin. Additional sweetness and texture is added with the help of caramelized onions and diced apples. I know -- is this mac n' cheese or a pie? You often see recipes of apple pies with cheddar cheese mixed in the crust, so cheese and apple are no stranger to one another, and when you cook with apples, it's not overly sweet, especially if you're using tart Granny Smiths. I think our tastebud brains get a little tastebud brain-washed by processed fruit products and baked goods, which add a ton of extra sugar to make it abundantly clear it's dessert. So, hey, go crazy. Add an apple into something!
|Dish up - chicken with mushrooms, herbs and marsala - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
The main course was just a chicken broken down into all its edible pieces -- I'm weird that way, I don't like cooking the whole thing, I like breaking it down like Kid N' Play, and cooking the parts accordingly. I just had a small fryer chicken, whose parts were salted and peppered generously before being put into a hot pot to brown up. I wanted a nice sear of crispy skin, locking in all the moisture. I didn't cook the chicken all the way, just wanted to get some color, then set the birdy aside to deglaze the pot with marsala. I added aromatics like diced onion, garlic and chopped sage and rosemary. I threw in halved mushrooms and let everything simmer and cook off some of its liquid before nestling the chicken parts back in, covering the pot and shoving into the oven to finish. Sort-of chicken marsala? I guess that's the best way to describe it. I just love the combination of sweet marsala wine with flavors like rosemary and sage, which can pack quite a punch -- they balance out nicely. It's like all the flavor-kids meet up in the park and plays nice... right before you eat them!
|Pear crostata, my favorite lazyman dessert - Photo by Wasabi Prime|
As for dessert, pear crostata was an easy thing to make. Flat rolled-out dough, layering of sugared fruit, fold up the edges, and bake. No pie dish needed and who cares if it looks like someone ran over Grimace with a steamroller -- it's rustic. I've been making a lot of pies lately, what with the holidays, and most recipes for pie dough gives you two rounds. I tend not to do the lattice top, so that just means: two pies. Boo-hoo, right? It's still pears aplenty in season, and since apples were in the mac n' cheese, I thought pears would make for a great dessert. They're creamy, the sweetness is more complex, and it just sounds more fancy when you make a pear dessert. And that's all that matters when it comes to desserts -- it sounds fancy. Secret of Life = Revealed.
|Wham, Bam, thank you for dessert, ma'am - Photos by Wasabi Prime|
The dinner was really nice. Holiday season of good cheer, but no holiday meal pressure to make something over the top. Lots of food and quality time with friends we hadn't seen in a while. It's a couple who's always so good to invite us over and we were overdue to return the favor. It was also a good night to sample beers -- they're a couple who does a bit of homebrewing and were the ones who taught Mr. Wasabi how to start brewing his own beer, also known as, the filling of our garage with mad scientist equipment. If you are a homebrewer or live with one, you know what I'm talkin' about -- can I get an a-men, sistahs and brothas??
But to the real matter at hand -- Wasabi's gonna lay some knowledge down on your cranium. What-what? Aw yeah, so here's the recipe for a pumpkin macaroni and cheese:
Ingredients for the Sauce:
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
4-5 cups whole milk, warmed
1.5 cup pumpkin puree - from a can is fine, just make sure it's not sweetened!
2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
pinch of cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
Ingredients of Chunky Goodness:
2 large onions, thinly sliced (about 2-3 cups' worth)
1 large apple, peeled, cored and diced (about 1 cup; can be any apple, but Fuji is really nice)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 pound medium-sized shell pasta or 1 pound of small elbow macaroni
1 cup of panko bread crumbs to top before baking
Caramelize the onions first, they take the longest time -- ake a large pan and set to medium high to melt the butter and start to cook down the onions. Stir constantly, moving them around in the pan; they'll wilt, turn translucent, and start changing color. When they start to brown slightly, drop the heat to medium-low. You want to slowly caramelize, not burn them. When they're evenly browned, add the apples in. You just want to reduce some of the liquid in the fruit, no need to brown them. When they're slightly softened, remove from heat and set this mixture aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Set a large pot of salted water on the stove, set to high heat. When it's boiling, add the pasta. Cook until still somewhat firm, a little more than al dente. The baking will finish it off, and it will continue to absorb the flavors of the sauce.
To make the sauce, put a medium sized, uncoated pot on the stove, set to medium. Melt the butter down and sprinkle in the flour. Mix well, making sure all the flour is coated in the butter, resembling a light paste. Use a whisk and slowly drizzle in the warm milk, whisking vigorously to make sure there are no lumps. Keep whisking until all the milk is incorporated and the sauce is smooth, this may take a few minutes. Then slowly add the shredded cheese, one small handful at a time, continuing to whisk, ensuring it melts evenly. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the nutmeg and cinnamon. Taste to see if it needs salt or pepper. Carefully scoop in the pumpkin puree and mix until it's fully incorporated. The sauce should be thick, but not stiff, as it will need to coat the pasta evenly -- add more milk to loosen.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked pasta and onions with apple, and carefully fold in the sauce. Gently mix, so you don't break up the pasta, it just needs to be coated and the apple and onion distributed. Pour the mixture into a large baking dish and sprinkle the top with panko crumbs. Place the dish into the oven to bake, until the top is browned, about 15-20 minutes. You can also refrigerate the mixed pasta and sauce, if you're making it a day ahead, and then bake in the oven to finish and brown.