Italian Mac n' Cheese
I am always amazed at how many restaurants offer Macaroni and Cheese on their menus. Granted, local restaurant versions are usually made with fancier ingredients such as Lobster Mac n’ Cheese but still it’s based on the comfort food that many of us ate as children. Whether you’re a fan of the old fashioned Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, or Annie’s brand, they are usually made with small tubular pasta and laced with cheddar cheese. Creamy, gooey and comforting.
The word macaroni (“maccheroni” in Italian) means elongated pasta, not necessarily hollow tubes although pastas such as elbows, rigatoni and pipette all fit the description. Macaroni and Cheese purportedly originated in Great Britain where they also make a sweet version containing milk and sugar, called “macaroni pudding.”
It’s easy and cheap to make your own version as long as you select the right cheese. To make a creamy dish, you have to pick cheeses that will melt. Please don’t go anywhere near American cheese or Velveeta as they aren’t actually real cheeses at all but are made from milk, water whey and a bunch of chemicals. That’s why they are referred to as a “cheese product” and not an actual cheese.
That said, there are a lot of delicious melting cheeses to choose from. Heralding back to the British origins of the dish you can always choose cheddar but could also use mozzarella, gruyere, provolone, taleggio, raclette or my current favorite: fontina.
I think of Macaroni n’ Cheese the way I think of stir-fry or even pizza – a great way to get rid of those little extras hanging around my fridge. That’s how I came up with what I call Italian Mac n’ Cheese. I needed a quick substantial supper but hadn’t planned anything in advance.
As I always have dried pasta on hand, I rummaged through my fridge and pantry and came up with some sliced salami, a jar of marinated artichokes and cheese. Luckily, I had recently bought a small package of fontina which I knew would melt into the perfect sauce. I use canned coconut milk but you could substitute half and half. The artichokes add a bit or tang to the recipe and the coconut milk gives a silky texture with less chance of curdling than if you use half and half. To liven up the flavor I added some grated parmesan to the milder fontina cheese. I always have some sliced meats in the fridge or freezer. My favorites are from Dietz & Watson – no antibiotics or nitrates or nitrites.
ITALIAN MAC N’ CHEESE
3 cups uncooked elbow pasta (or other small tubular pasta)
3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 can (13.5 oz.) coconut milk (or 1½ cups half and half)
½ teaspoon Italian herbs
½ teaspoon dried mustard powder
Snipped chives (optional)
8 ounces (½lb.) fontina cheese, coarsely shredded
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, divided (or Pecorino Romano)
1 jar (12 oz.) marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
3 oz. sliced salami, cut into thin strips
½ cup Panko breadcrumbs
Olive oil spray, for baking
9” x 13” baking dish
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spritz your baking dish with a little olive oil spray.
Cook the pasta according to package directions until just al dente. If you prepare the entire package you’ll have a bit of plain pasta left over to use for another recipe.
As the pasta is cooking make your cheese sauce. In a medium frying pan heat the olive oil or butter over low heat. Add the flour and stir constantly to make a light roux. Let the flour cook for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and coconut milk, and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, stirring often. The sauce will begin to simmer.
By this time the pasta should be done. Drain it, reserving about ½ cup of pasta water. Let the pasta remain warming in the pot while you finish the sauce. Remember – you’ll only need about 5 cups of cooked pasta for this recipe.
Add the Italian herbs, mustard powder, chives, fontina and only ¾ cup of the parmesan to the pan. Return the pan onto low heat and cook until the cheeses are fully melted. Add the jar of marinated artichokes and salami strips and stir well to combine.
Pour the sauce onto the pasta and stir well. Put the pasta into the prepared baking dish and top with the panko and the remaining ¼ cup of parmesan cheese. Carefully spritz a little additional olive oil spray on top.
Put the baking dish into the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Turn the oven up to broil for an additional 3 minutes to get a nicely browned top. Serve immediately.