greenbeanWhen we decided to do our Fakesgiving dinner, we spent an afternoon looking through our foodie magazines for side dishes that would go with our smoked turkey.  We wanted variations on traditional dishes – basic mashed potatoes and green bean casseroles just wouldn’t do.  And we definitely wanted foods with big flavors.  Not surprisingly, we found everything we were looking for in the November issue of Food + Wine Magazine.

mac-and-cheese-prepSure, they had a “Thanksgiving Planner” with three complete menus and more than a dozen recipes, but where’s the fun in that?  Instead, we found ourselves drawn to three recipes from other articles in the magazine.  From an article on ‘upcycling’ (a fancy way of saying ‘using scraps instead of throwing them out’).  From a piece on Cook Here and Now in San Francisco.  And from a writeup of a Spanish-influenced Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Philadelphia chef Jose Garces.

The first of the dishes, a macaroni and cheese dish using manchego cheese and the green tops of leeks, immediately caught our eyes (what can I say, I’m a sucker for mac and cheese).  The recipe looked easy enough, if a bit rich, and we knew we would already be using leeks in one of the other dishes we were planning.  I love it when a plan comes together…

Preparations, photos and judges’ reactions after the jump.

chopping-leeksCareful observers of that first prep photo will notice that I was working with only nine fingers on this recipe, having done a number on my right pinkie while carving a pumpkin the night before.  Thankfully, the recipe didn’t call for much beyond some initial chopping and then some regular stirring.

The first step was to prepare the leeks.  If you’ve ever worked with leeks before, you know that they tend to be about 50 percent dirt because of the way their concentric stalks grow out of the ground.  I’ve read several methods for cleaning leeks – slicing them lengthwise and running water along the length of the stalk to flush out the dirt, submerging them in an icewater bath and swirling them to get the water flowing between the layers, holding them upside down and shaking vigorously (kidding – if cartoons have taught us anything, all this releases is pocket change).  For this recipe, I decided that I was going to cut the leeks right at the spot where the whites become green (normally the top of the useful part of the leek) and then rinse everything under running water.  This allowed me to clean out the whites without slicing through them and to get the greens separated and cleaned without too much trouble.  From there, it was a simple matter of thinly slicing the tops from the three leeks I was working with, creating little green ribbons that looked like an oversized chiffonade.

The tough leek tops went into a saucepan with two tablespoons of butter, to be cooked until they became nice and tender, about 25 minutes.  They required very little attention other than the occasional stir to make sure they were cooking evenly.  While that was happening, we prepared a pound of elbow macaroni, making sure to pull and drain it while still al dente.  Overcooked pasta is a definite no-no here at Capital Spice, and we figure that baking the pasta in the final step would further soften the elbows, so we weren’t worried about it being too tough.

grating-manchegoThe most labor-intensive component of the recipe is the cheese sauce, which required two steps that both demanded steady attention.  First, ten ounces of manchego (a nutty, mild Spanish cheese) fell at the hand of our Microplane grater.  Believe me, working with one injured digit I was all too aware of the possibility that I would slip and take a layer of skin off of another finger, so I was VERY careful.  Thankfully, the cheese shredded without incident.

With the cheese prepped and the leeks simmering on the stovetop, it was time to make the base for the sauce.  As you may have already guessed, this is a recipe that would be right at home in Paula Deen’s kitchen – so it was time for more butter and plenty of heavy cream (which we used in place of the whole milk or half-and-half that the recipe called for because we were using it in other recipes, as well).  Two tablespoons of butter and three of whole wheat flour were whisked into something resembling a roux before I added in three cups of cream and brought the whole thing to a bubbling boil.  As easy as that sounds, the important thing was constant stirring, both to incorporate the butter and flour into the milk and to prevent it from getting that disgusting skin on the top when it boiled.

When the cream mixture was thickened slightly – after about five minutes – I added in about two-thirds of the grated cheese in handfuls, whisking all the time to help it blend in more quickly.  I think we benefitted from the super-fine texture of the cheese (we’ve got one of the smaller Microplanes) because it melted into the base almost immediately.  A quick taste, some salt and pepper, and we had a super-rich, super-cheesy sauce.

We assembled the dish in the early afternoon, combining the softened leek tops and the macaroni with the silky cheese sauce in a large mixing bowl before pouring it into an oven-safe casserole dish.  A sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese and a few shakes of some bread crumbs (which I made and had been saving in the refrigerator ever since we had a whole loaf of bread go stale on us a few months back) on the top, and we were ready to pop it in the oven.  We set it aside and concentrated on some of our other dishes – most notably the turkey.

mac-and-cheeseAbout half an hour before we were ready to eat, it was time to pop the sides into the oven.  We were cooking two other dishes that required a higher oven temperature than the mac and cheese called for, so we figured it could cook for less time than Food + Wine’s recipe called for.  We also opted to forego the broiler step, counting on the bread crumbs to provide the crisp crust that a few minutes under the broiler would accomplish.

Turns out we were right on both counts.  We ended up with a macaroni and cheese that was rich and cheesy, without the heaviness that you sometimes get from this traditional comfort food.  The green crunch of the leek tops added color, texture and flavor to the dish, turning it into a real star – there were seconds all around, and leftovers were in short supply at the end of the evening.  Though a bit too indulgent for a place in our regular recipe rotation, this is definitely a special occasion dish that we’re going to try to work into our families’ holiday plans.  And we are definitely going to hold this in our back pockets should we be pressed into pot luck duty anytime soon.

Check out Food + Wine’s website for the full recipe, and take a minute to look over the Grace Parisi article that it came from, as well.  Her other tips include suggestions for upcycling brownie scraps (not a problem in this house), carrot tops, broccoli stalks, mushroom stems and even potato peelings.