Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mac 'n Cheese

Last year a friend of mine passed away.  He had had a long battle with cancer, and he didn’t win.  He had been instrumental in starting a monthly luncheon at our casting club, so a number of friends gathered together to have a luncheon to remember him.  It was a simple affair and very appropriate for his memory, and that day I found out macaroni and cheese was one of his favorite foods.  Now each time I have mac ‘n cheese I think of Burt.

I don’t care what you call it—Cheese and Pasta, Cheesey Pasta, Pasta Casserole, Macaroni and Cheese—it’s still just Mac ‘n Cheese.  But the ways it can be assembled is endless, and I’ve yet to find one I don’t like (although there were some I questioned).  There is something about pasta and cheese that borderlines perfection.  It can be as simple as two or three ingredients and a few minutes worth of work, or as complicated as working a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded in the dark.

I grew up eating the stuff out of the box, and I still like it, and I don’t apologize for liking it.  But sometimes I get out the Rubik’s Cube and a blindfold and turn off the lights in the kitchen.  That’s how I came up with the recipe for Pasta Medley with Five Cheeses, Oysters, and Caramelized Shallots.

Pasta Medley with Five Cheeses, Oysters, and Caramelized Shallots

Makes 24 servings

    6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish       
    6 slices bacon                                                 
    4 1/2 cups sliced, large shallots                               
    8 cups fresh spinach, washed, stemmed, and coarsely chopped    
    24 to 30 jumbo pasta shells                                    
    8 ounces small spiral pasta (rotini)                           
    8 ounces miniature cheese ravioli or tortellini                
    12 ounces penne pasta or elbow macaroni                  
    1 1/2 cups half and half, or more if needed                    
    1/3 cup heavy cream                                            
    3 teaspoons hot sauce (such as Tapatio)                        
    1 1/2 cups (packed) coarsely grated Gouda cheese or Edam cheese
    1 1/2 cups (packed) coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese 
    2 tablespoons all purpose flour                                
    1/4 cup Pernod or Herbsaint                                           
    24 shucked medium oysters, reserve liquor for another use      
    2 cups (packed) coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese           
    2 cups crumbled soft fresh goat cheese or shredded mozzarella  
    2 cups medium cheddar cheese                                   
    2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley or chervil          
    1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon                     
    Coarsely ground black pepper                                   
    1 1/2 cups Japanese panko                                      

Note:  The volume of the pasta medley varies according to the brand of pasta used.  If more pasta is needed, add about 4 ounces of small to medium size shell pasta.

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Butter two 9x13x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dishes.  Melt 1 tablespoon butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat and add bacon slices.  Cook until crispy; remove from skillet, and drain on paper towels.  Without draining the skillet, add the spinach (in batches if necessary) and sauté until wilted, about 3 minutes.  Remove spinach and set aside in a small bowl.  Add remaining butter to the skillet, then add shallots; sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook 5 minutes, stirring often.  Reduce heat to medium.  Cook, covered, until shallots are deep brown, stirring often, about 6 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook jumbo pasta shells in large saucepan of boiling water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and place in a large bowl.  Reserve pan.

In the same pan (or another), cook spiral pasta in boiling water just until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and place in a separate bowl from the pasta shells.

In the same pan (or another), cook ravioli or tortellini in boiling water just until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and mix together with the spiral pasta.

In the same pan (or another), cook penne or elbow macaroni in boiling water just until tender but firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain well and mix together with spiral pasta, and ravioli or tortellini.

Bring half and half, cream, and hot sauce to barely a simmer in same saucepan over medium heat.  Toss the Gouda cheese and the extra-sharp cheddar cheese and flour in medium bowl to coat; add to half and half mixture.  Whisk in Pernod and continue whisking until sauce is smooth and just returns to simmer, about 3 to 4 minutes.  If sauce is too thick, add more half and half by tablespoonfuls up to 1/2 cup.  Mix into a large bowl with the combined pastas leaving the jumbo shells aside.  Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the pasta mixture into 4 parts, and spread 1 part of the pasta mixture evenly in each of the prepared dishes.  Stuff 1 oyster in each jumbo pasta shell and place a single layer of the stuffed jumbo shells into each dish (spaced evenly, 12 to each dish), then distribute the sautéed spinach evenly into each dish.  Top with the Monterrey Jack cheese working some of the cheese into each of the jumbo shells with the oyster. Then spoon remaining pasta mixture over the oysters, spinich, and cheese.  Top evenly with shallots, finely crumbled bacon bits, then the goat cheese, the medium cheddar cheese, and the parsley and tarragon.  Sprinkle with coarsely ground black pepper to taste, then top evenly with panko.  Bake until heated through, about 18 to 20 minutes.  If needed, place in broiler for 1 to 2 minutes to lightly brown the top.  Remove from oven and place on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  Serve hot.  Serving size approximately 3 inches by 3 inches including 1 oyster.

Rockefeller never had it so good.

Note:  If the oysters are to be omitted, just leave them out and change the Gouda to a smoked Gouda or smoked cheddar.

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