Mac 'n' Cheese

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Mac 'n' Cheese

OK, Mac 'n' Cheese is a misnomer, but I wanted the title to fit in the table of contents. The full name of this dish would be, I guess, "Chicken & sun-dried tomato meatballs, whole wheat orecchiette, wilted chard, gruyere mornay."

I was in my yoga class yesterday and suddenly had a strong craving for macaroni & cheese.
My parents also just gave me the Kitchenaid Food Grinder attachment for Christmas, and I wanted to use it.

I decided, for some reason, to make this hugely elaborate meal. The mac 'n' cheese part would be orecchiette -- because that shape, it obviously holds the sauce well -- and a straight-up mornay sauce (which, as that Wiki link will tell you, is just a bechamel with grated cheese.)

Then, meatballs. At first I thought chicken, but then, maybe it would be too lean. Then I thought, duck. But Lulu convinced me that duck and cheese was probably not the best mix, both being so heavy. She suggested chicken with sun-dried tomato.

By the time I did my shopping it was 10pm. Yes, I started to make this entire thing from scratch at 10pm. Yeah. Good scheduling, huh?

I started by taking the chicken thighs I'd bought and skinning and boning them. This is harder than I thought. Connective tissue -- what a pain! I finally thought to use my kitchen shears and it sped things up a lot, but it still took the better part of an hour.

Chicken Thigh Meat

Into the grinder it went, about 3lbs chicken meat with 3oz sun-dried tomatoes. This food grinder is no joke. It works very well. It made short work of the chicken and even the whole dried tomatoes. I ran the mixture through three times to get it very smooth, and it came out well.

I added two eggs, salt, pepper, some oregano, and a shake of panko to absorb a little moisture, mixed it up, and shaped it into about 1.5" meatballs. Voila. Just like cookies from a bowl of cookie batter, I got far more meatballs than I had guessed from the volume of meat in the bowl.


Oh yeah, one more thing. Cooking with chicken in my kitchen has become a kind of dangerous undertaking, because early on I fed my cats the hearts of whole chickens and scraps and whatnot as I worked, and so they can smell this stuff, even raw, even from the next room. And they want it, bad.

Weirdo the Cat

That was basically what I saw when I looked down at the floor the entire time I was cooking.

At this point it's probably about midnight. On to the pasta. I've never made orecchiette before, and it took a while to find a way to shape it that was reasonably fast. I ended up rolling the dough into 1/2" diameter logs, slicing those logs into about 1/8" thick slices. Then I'd take a slice, hold it between the thumb and index finger of both hands and turn it, pinching, to make it into a kind of hollow dome. Then I'd press the convex side of the dome against the tip of one pinky finger and, with the other hand, pinch it down to form the depression.

That might be hard to follow in words. Sadly, I didn't record a video of it. Then again, it took forever and they only look OK, so it's not a technique I necessarily want anyone else to use.


In particular, I don't know how commercial orecchiette are made to have the kind of shaggy texture on the outside. I wish mine had that.

Orecchiette take a long time to make by hand, longer than any other pasta I make. (Ravioli probably take longer, but armed with the French Laundry technique for agnolotti, I will never make ravioli again, so that's moot.)

By now it's maybe 2am. Time for the sauce. Not much to this; it's the Joy of Cooking Bechamel (melt butter, whisk in flour, add milk, toss in onion, cloves, bay leaf, cook until thickened, strain) with a bunch of grated cheese thrown in. I got a good sharp Gruyere.

Gruyere Mornay

Finally, ready to assemble it all. I fried the meatballs lightly in my lovely cast-iron skillet, and at the very end, threw in some strips of chard to let them wilt with the leftover heat in the pan. It was approaching 3am, so I cut the meatballs in half to speed their cooking. Gimme a break, I was starving and tired.

Meatballs and Chard

Ready for assembly. In went the pasta, tossed with the chard, topped with the meatballs, and a good spoonful of sauce.

Oh my God, this was good. I know, I'd been cooking for 5 hours and was probably delirious and so hungry a running shoe would have tasted good, but still, this was fantastic. I took a bite and couldn't help myself, I started laughing with glee just a little at how good it was.

The sun-dried tomato in the meatball is genius. Credit to Lulu for that. The chicken thigh meat has enough fat that they're not dry, but is certainly not as fatty as beef or pork or duck. The oregano is a nice complement. The whole wheat in the orecchiette helps them stand up to the other strong flavors well. The chard is just the right amount of punctuation. The mornay, I mean, it's a gruyere mornay, thick and creamy and delicious, at once coating the mouth and stinging the tongue. Everything in this dish is excellent on its own, and it all combines especially well.

Mac 'n' Cheese

Giggling quietly like a crazy person, I ate it all, and then sat in my bar stool, eyes closed, rocking gently forwards and backwards like some kind of trauma victim. Then I hunted down my only friend still online that late just to tell her about the food I made and how good it was. I know, what a tease. In my defense, I wasn't thinking so clearly by then.

Clean Plate


At January 4, 2008 8:55 AM , Blogger Darius Kazemi said...

Hah! Hardcore, man.

At January 4, 2008 12:03 PM , Blogger Kristine said...

I would need a snack to sustain me through the cooking process for that.

Good work crazy man. That looks GOOD. Can I come over for leftovers :)

At January 4, 2008 12:46 PM , OpenID hustlerofculture said...

you are so cooking in my kitchen the next time you're in town!

At January 6, 2008 1:00 AM , Blogger Joanne said...

Mac & Cheese & Meatballs! Sounds like a winner! Great Winter food post.

At January 6, 2008 2:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

first time looking thru your site. you are certainly no slacker on the cooking side or the blogging side. this is beautiful. i feel like you could quit your job and get paid for this somehow!! i love that you add your kitties in here too! very exciting. cant wait to read more.

At January 7, 2008 5:31 PM , Blogger Roberto N. said...

I once saw Batali make orecchiette with a blunt table knife. He'd scrape the little balls of dough and obtain the "scraped" look on them. Kinda like making cavatelli.

At January 7, 2008 8:42 PM , Blogger Katia said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At January 7, 2008 8:44 PM , Blogger Katia said...

Wow...every time I visit I am more impressed than the time before. What a beautiful and satisfying meal!

p.s. Sorry about the delete, but I had a typo and I'm OCD! ;)

At January 14, 2008 1:29 PM , Blogger Shannon said...

Forming the orecchiette isn't really that hard (but it's still time consuming, since you have to form every piece): take your small piece of dough, rub it thin against the board with your thumb, then pick your thumb up and flip the ear inside out. It's the rubbing that gives you the rough texture on the outside.

Looks like a really yummy dish.

At May 27, 2008 6:28 PM , Blogger Amanda said...

Just found your blog. Wonderful! I feel better about spending an entire day (in daylight, well except for the first pre-dawn bit) cooking for 6. It's awesome that you did this for yourself!!!


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