TTT- Tuesday’s Tasty Tip with Chef David Hall

Kid Friendly Dishes Adults Will Enjoy

It is sometimes hard to get kids and adults to agree on foods to eat, especially when both are picky eaters (and yes, adults can be picky eaters). Today I am offering two recipes that not only kids and adults will enjoy, but are versatile as well. These include Mac & Cheese and Spinach Cakes.

Throw away those little boxes of overpriced pasta with the cute little packets of cheese dust. Not only do they taste nasty, but offer nothing but a little convenience. Many restaurants offer variations on this classical dish, and for good reason. When starting with quality ingredients and a Béchamel sauce for its foundation, it is hard “mess up” this recipe.

So what is a Béchamel sauce? It is simple a dairy-based sauce consisting of a white roux (equal parts of flour and fat for a thickener), milk and a few herbs and seasoning whisked in. Melt cheese into the béchamel sauce and you have just created a Mornay sauce, if you are using Gruyere cheese. Pour this over cooked pasta and bake. Try the recipe below as a starting point. Mac & Cheese is what I call a “blank-canvas” dish because there are so many potential variations one could create.

Ingredients

1/2 pound elbow macaroni (any size will do)
3 T, unsalted butter
3 T, flour
1 T, powdered mustard
3 C, milk
1/2 C. yellow onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. paprika
1 large egg
12 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Topping:

3 T, unsalted butter
1 C, breadcrumbs, crushed Rice Crispies, or other cereal for a crunchy topping.

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cook the pasta to al dente in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Do not overcook the pasta. If you have gone beyond al dente, start over, or else your Mac & Cheese will be a cheesy mush.

Make the béchamel as follows. Melt the butter in pot. Whisk in the flour and mustard, keeping it moving for a few minutes, but not long enough to brown the flour. We are making a white roux, not a blonde or brown roux. Slowly, while whisking, start adding the milk until incorporated. Do not pour it all in at once or you will have those pesky lumps. Add the onion, bay leaf and paprika, then simmer for ten minutes and remove the bay leaf. Your béchamel is complete.

Temper in the egg by whisking the egg and SLOWLY pouring the béchamel into the egg. If you add it too quickly, you will have scrambled eggs. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese. Season with salt and pepper, but go light on the salt because cheese can contain a significant amount of salt. Fold the cooked macaroni into the mix and pour into a casserole dish lubricated with butter or non-stick spray. You don’t want anything to stick to the casserole dish, because you want it to go directly into your mouth. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese. For the topping, simply melt the butter in a sauté pan and toss the bread crumbs to coat them. Layer the bread crumbs on top the macaroni. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow it rest for a few minutes before serving, so it can “set” and firm up a bit.

Now for the variations. Instead of using butter in the roux, try bacon fat which adds a wonderful flavor. Consider using various cheeses and blending them. It is the proportion of cheese to pasta that is important. Let’s not forget our friend, MEAT. Mac & Cheese is delicious with bacon, ham, prosciutto, not to mention mushrooms, green onions, shallots, asparagus and, well you get the idea. Don’t get stuck on elbow macaroni. I have used spaghetti and baked it into unique forms for presentation.

Top each serving with something that brings color to each serving, such as capers, olives, diced red bell pepper, a sprig of parsley, dill, or other herbs. Use your imagination!

Now for the Spinach Cakes (call them green cookies if you like, to entice the little ones).

Ingredients:
2 – 10 oz. pkg, frozen spinach, thawed and chopped
2 T, unsalted butter
½ onion, finely minced and sautéed
4 eggs, beaten
1½ C, breadcrumbs (for gluten-free, use crushed Rice Chex)
1 C, grated parmesan cheese
1 t, Italian seasoning

Procedure:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sauté the onions until clear. Place the thawed and chopped spinach in cheese cloth and squeeze the majority of the moisture out of the spinach. Mix with the remaining ingredients. Form patties about ½” thick and about 3” in diameter. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Back for about 10 minutes, then turn and bake for another 3. Remove and allow to rest. Eat while warm.

Variations: Consider the any of the following optional ingredients: crumbled bacon, garlic, thyme, cayenne or chipotle. Substitute the onions with shallots. Try topping the cakes with a second cheese and melt under the broiler. One of my favorites is to substitute the English muffin with a spinach cake when making eggs Benedict, sort of a Benedict Florentine. Lastly, you can add some mushrooms to the mix and make mushroom spinach patties as a substitute for the beef patty on hamburgers, with bacon and cheese of course.

Versatility in a recipe can make menu planning for the family much easier, keeping both the adults and kids’ palates happy. Just because a dish is humble, Mac & Cheese doesn’t mean it cannot be a gourmet’s culinary delight and visual work of art.

Try these recipes, then go to the Thyme for a Chef Facebook page and let me know how your family liked them.

Until next time, blessings.

Chef David Hall, CGC
Thyme for a Chef

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