cook the book: the family table's macaroni + cheese

About two months ago, we flew back east for the wedding of my husband’s best friend. Andrew (the groom) and Matt (my husband) have known each other since they were in kindergarten. If you ask anyone who knows these two guys well, they would all agree that when Matt and Andy are in the same room- or even on the phone- they kind channel each other. Not in a creepy sort of way, but in a way that is a testament to over three decades of friendship. And their friendship is something special; it's something truly unique. 

Matt and Andy both love music, art, and searching for off-the-grid food spots. They also love road trips, and every summer that we were living in Brooklyn (7 to be exact) they embarked on journeys that took them to places as obscure as Centralia, PA and Morgantown, West Virginia. There was also the summer when they departed for Toronto and changed their voicemail message to inform callers they would be "traveling out of the country" - as if heading a few hours north constituted a major international excursion. They spent time boating around Lake Placid, and in Vermont where it rained non-stop the summer they visited, the two of them camped out at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Store- which happens to be the most popular tourist destination in the state. Let's just say these two have spent a lot of time together and they know each other well. And since I've been in a relationship with Matt since 2002 (yikes, that's 12 years already), I've grown to know Andy too…and I love him just like a brother.

When Matt and I were trying to make this move to Colorado work, Andy let Matt camp out in his apartment. Andy’s kitchen (affectionately dubbed the "K-Room") was where Matt slept on a futon mattress for 8 months as he commuted back-and-forth between Brooklyn (where he was still working as a public defender for Legal Aid) and Denver (where he was applying for jobs). Did I mention that he crashed with Andy for 8 months?! Not many relationships would survive that duration or inconvenience, but their friendship grew stronger.

Anyway, back to Andy’s wedding. He married one of the nicest people I've ever met and their celebration was beautiful. We laughed, we cried, we ate, we danced…and yes, we drank and made toasts well into the late hours of the night (and early morning). When we got back from the wedding I felt homesick. So did Matt. Not for New York City as a place- for my lifestyle doesn’t really jive with the city anymore and I hardly recognize it as the place of my childhood- but for the people, our closest friends. Our relationships that span decades

Back in my Colorado kitchen I decided to make comfort food... and I couldn't think of anything more appropriate than the Family Table's mac and cheese. The Family Table is one of my favorite cookbooks and it's a collection of staff meals from the chefs and sous chefs at Danny Meyer's various NYC restaurants. This pasta dish reminds me of home, good friends and lots of laughter…and I'll have a big pan of bubbly, cheesy goodness waiting for Andy and his new wife Carly when they come to visit us again in Colorado. And I can't wait…

Happy eating,

“The Dish You Love The Best” Macaroni & Cheese
10 – 12 servings

For the Sauce:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup thinly sliced shallots (3-4 medium)
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
2 fresh thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups good quality vegetable stock (the book has a recipe for stock, but I went with store-bought)
3 cups heavy cream
3 cups coarsely grate sharp cheddar (about 1 pound)
1 1/4 cups grated Grana Padano (about 7 ounces)*
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Kosher salt

Butter for the pan
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound penne, fusilli, or other short pasta
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs or fine dried bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Grana Padano*

* The first time I made this I was able to find Grana Padano cheese. The second time I made this dish I couldn’t find any, so I picked up a very good quality Parmesan from Cured in Boulder and it worked beautifully.

TO MAKE THE SAUCE: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the shallots, garlic, 1 teaspoon pepper, and the thyme, and cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.

Slowly add the flour, stirring constantly, and cook for 5 minutes, so that the flour loses its raw taste. Add the stock (very slowly), stirring constantly, then increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil. (If you add the stock too quickly, the roux will break.) Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, so the flavors come together.

Add the cream, bring to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 7 to 10 minutes longer. Strain the sauce into a bowl.

Clean the saucepan, add the sauce, and return it to low heat. Add the cheeses and the mustard, stirring constantly. Once the cheese is completely melted, season to taste with salt and pepper and remove from heat. (You can make the sauce up to 1 day ahead, covered, and refrigerated. Bring it to room temperature and reheat slowly before using.)

TO ASSMEBLE AND BAKE: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 9-x-13-inch baking dish.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add the salt. Add the pasta to the boiling water, stir, and cook until just al dente. Drain well.

Combine the pasta with the sauce and pour it into a baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the panko and the Grana Padano (or good quality Parmesan). Sprinkle it over the pasta. Bake until the top is golden brown and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve (with a smile!).

beet gnocchi with walnut-sage butter (and a few other thoughts)

Last night I poured myself a big glass of red wine, put my feet up on our new ottoman, and wrapped myself in a blanket that my great-grandmother crocheted about 60 years ago. The boys were sleeping and I was ready to catch up on GIRLS. I was up to the 3rd episode of season 2, "Bad Friend," also know as the rave episode. 
It took me back about a decade. For there was  a time, when on occasion, I would wear clothes that were a bit too transparent, dance at random warehouse parties, and surround myself with fabulous gay men (that, thankfully, hasn't changed as much as the other stuff). A day later my friend Richard sent me an email reading:
Just plugged into this show.  
Lena Dunham (Hannah) is like you personified.  
Only younger (sorry).
And that's the funny thing about age- you know it's happening, but you're also sort of thinking no one notices (until an email points it out).  I've spotted a few little lines (they give me character!) and I've been "managing" a few sprouting grays (they're like highlights!). But for the most part, the 37 year old me feels about 24/25 -  give or take. Well, with more confidence,  stable finances, a house and two kids. Right, and reading glasses. Gah! But I still don't really get it. Like, the other day. I went to a bar with some friends and I was carded at the door. Feeling flattered, I immediately said, "Why thank you!" I might have even been blushing. But the doorman dryly replied, "It's policy. We card everyone who comes through the door." Oh yeah, right...sure, that makes sense.
Anyway, I'm trying to embrace the changes (gracefully). Not that there's anything I can really do about the passage of time anyway. There's no way of slowing it down, so best to just enjoy the ride. I've embarked on a new career path (which is completely unrelated to law, hooray!) and I've got a busy life that requires juggling motherhood with my own personal interests. In my down time though, I really do like watching GIRLS...even if it makes me aware that I am (in fact) a little bit older. And on that note, I'm thinking of dying my hair red.
Speaking of red (I'm grasping for a connection here), I throughly enjoyed this beet recipe. 

Notes on the beets: They were sweet and earthy and I would make them again. I made the entire dough recipe, but I used only half of it for dinner and then stored the other half in the freezer (which should be used within a month). My only adaptation was with the butter- I used less than the recipe called for. I topped the beets with some sage, walnuts, butter sauce (not too much) and a dollop of fresh ricotta. Oh, and when I make this again I'll cut the gnocchi into smaller pieces. Enjoy!

Beet Gnocchi with Walnut-Sage Butter (Adapted ever-so slightly from Food & Wine Magazine)
These intense beet gnocchi are eaten in northwestern Italy. They are sweet and earthy and so delicious, they barely need a sauce. When the beet greens are fresh enough, you can add them to the walnut-sage butter.
+ See notes above.
2 pounds medium beets, scrubbed
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup fresh ricotta (8 ounces)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Pinch of nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (3 ounces), plus more for serving
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cubed (I used less, about 1 stick for the entire recipe.)
16 small sage leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Optional: fresh ricotta for topping, lightly sauteed beet greens for topping. 
Preheat the oven to 375º. In a 9-inch square baking dish, brush the beets with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add 1/4 cup of water to the baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Bake the beets for about 1 hour, until tender. Uncover the dish and let the beets cool completely.
Peel the beets and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Transfer the beets to a food processor and puree.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, combine 1 1/2 cups of the beet puree (reserve any remaining puree for another use) with the ricotta, egg, nutmeg, the 3/4 cup of Parmigiano and 1 tablespoon of salt and mix at low speed until combined. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the side of the bowl. Sprinkle on the 3 cups of flour and mix at low speed until the dough just comes together, about 1 minute.
Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead gently just until smooth but still slightly sticky. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Line a baking sheet with wax paper and generously dust with flour. Cut the gnocchi dough into 10 pieces and roll each piece into a 1/2-inch-thick rope. Cut the ropes into 1/2-inch pieces and transfer the gnocchi to the prepared baking sheet.
Lightly oil another baking sheet. In a large, deep skillet of simmering salted water, cook one-fourth of the gnocchi until they rise to the surface, then simmer for 1 minute longer, or until they are cooked through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the gnocchi to the oiled baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining uncooked gnocchi.
In a very large skillet, toast the chopped walnuts over moderate heat, tossing, until golden and fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.
Add the butter to the skillet and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sage leaves and cook for 20 seconds, then stir in the lemon juice. Add the gnocchi and cook for 1 minute, tossing gently. Season with salt and transfer the gnocchi to plates. Sprinkle the toasted walnuts on top and serve, passing grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.

The gnocchi can be prepared through Step 5 and frozen on the baking sheet, then transferred to a resealable plastic bag and frozen for up to 1 month. Cook without thawing.
Walnuts can taste quite bitter when paired with a tannic red wine, so pour a full-bodied white with this dish instead, like an Arneis or a white Burgundy.

...more beet recipes...
casunsiei (beet ravioli with butter and poppy seeds)

beet and pomegranate salad (scroll down to the bottom of the raspberry picking post)

When In Rome: Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper)

I think I've mentioned this before, but there's a Murray's Cheese Bar in my local supermarket! One of my favorite cheese shops from Greenwich Village (which is where I lived during my college years) has a little outpost here in Denver and I've been eating a good deal of high-quality cheese over the past few weeks. Bulgarian Feta, Broncocci, Manchego, smoked Gouda, for example. Anyway, this week I picked up some Cacio de Roma and Pecorino Romano for Cacio e Pepe (literally cheese and pepper), a classic Roman dish. 
The pasta is tasty, its minimal ingredients are simple, and it's easy to make. You can prepare this dish in under 15 minutes. Cacio e Pepe is unpretentious, unambitious, but still entirely delicious. 
Making the ubiquitous Roman dish reminded me of Italy, which is where I vacationed in 2006 during a layover after visiting the Middle East. It was a lifetime ago- before marriage, before Otis, before Theo, and before Colorado... 
On that trip I walked and ate, and the walked some more. The city of Rome is really one of a kind.

I dined at cozy, dim-lit restaurants, but had my fare share of street food too. I ate amazing tiramisu, roasted chestnuts, wonderful bread and drank fabulous wine too. Of course I am a semolina junkie, so I consumed one bowl of pasta after the other. I mean, how could I not? But back to Cacio e Pepe...
The first time I had Cacio e Pepe it was served in a hollowed out Parmesan wheel. I wondered how the wheel was cleaned for re-use and the general sanitariness of it all, but after a bottle of red wine I didn't really care anymore. It was good, good, good. 
I found myself craving it last night after looking through my travel pictures. I had good quality pasta in my pantry, olive oil, freshly cracked black pepper, Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma, thanks to Murray's. Dinner was on. 
So here it is. I promise you that one bite of this will have you conjuring up images of the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica. It's a classic and when it's made right (with high quality ingredients) it's makes the perfect dinner. Bon Appetito!
Cheese and Pepper: Cacio e Pepe 
(Courtesy of Saveur Magazine, from Anya von Bremzen's "Eternal Pleasures," April 2010.)

Serves 4.
Kosher salt, to taste
1 lb. pasta, preferably tonnarelli or thin spaghetti (you could use vermicelli too)

4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste

1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano

3⁄4 cup finely grated Cacio de Roma (some recipes use Grana Padano or Parmesan)

 Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. 
Add pasta; cook until al dente, 8–10 minutes; reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta.  
Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12" skillet over medium heat until shimmering.  
Add pepper;cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. 
Ladle 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet; bring to a boil. 
Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet; spread it evenly. 
Sprinkle 3⁄4 cup each Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma over pasta; toss vigorously to 
combine until sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes, 
adding some pasta water if necessary. 
 Transfer to 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining Pecorino and more pepper.

Pairing Note: A medium-bodied Sangiovese, like the 2005 Brancaia Tre Toscana ($21), 
will complement this dish's peppery notes. — David Rosengarten

Al Di La's Casunsiei (Beet Ravioli with Butter and Poppy Seeds)

I'm fairly certain that I've made my love of beets and poppy seeds known to anyone who will listen. But this recipe takes the cake-- as beets and poppy seeds are used (together!) in this Italian dish called Casunsiei.
I first had Casunsiei (beet and ricotta ravioli with butter sauce and poppy seeds) at Al di La, a pretty amazing (and very popular) restaurant in Brooklyn. The lines were often out-the-door-around-the-corner long, but I didn't care. I lived only a few doors down so I could leave my cell phone number, head back home, start cocktailing and mosey back to the restaurant when I was called. It was pretty terrific if you ask me.
Now I live about 1,800 miles from Brooklyn so if I find myself craving something from home, it falls on me to make it. And that's just what I did with these little jewels.

Last week I bought my body-weight in beets at the farmers market. I sliced them super-thin, carpaccio style, and turned a few into a single portion of borscht. Having a handful of beets left, I thought this would be the perfect meal-- and it would ensure that none my beets would go to waste. I've been working really hard at using all of the perishable produce in my fridge and not letting anything spoil-- even if that means I have to use a particular ingredient a few days in a row. I've tried to convey this no-waste message to Otis who, at almost 3, can probably wrap his head around it. We try not to waste water. We try not to waste electricity. And we work very hard not to waste any food. If we put it on our plate, we eat it. At least that's the theory. We are working on the implementation. 

All this got me thinking about 'bal tashchit'- a really nice Jewish concept that addresses waste. (Don't feel like you have to try and pronounce that one!) 
The prohibition against waste has its origins in wartime-- when it was common practice for armies to slash and burn orchards, trees and the fields of their enemies in an effort to intimidate them. That was considered a big no-no even when soldiers were fighting. In the modern vernacular the term bal tashchit is usually associated with not wasting food, water, natural resources, etc., and it's the bedrock of the modern-day environmental movement. 
The principle is definitely on my mind when I menu plan. I have to confess that it was sometimes a bit difficult for me to use all of the produce I got when I was in a CSA (I was getting what seemed like a hundred kohlrabi bulbs and/or garlic scapes at a time), but this year I've gotten a pretty good handle on it...but it's always a work in progress.
Okay, where was I? Right. Beet Ravioli.

Time is precious during the day so I roasted the beets the night before. I washed the beets, put them on some tin foil, drizzled them with olive oil and sprinkled them with a big pinch of salt and black pepper. Then I closed the foil and put them in the oven.
The roasting, which is completely hands-off time, took about 1 hour and 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Roast the beets until till they are fork-tender. I let the beets cool a bit before adding the remainder of the filling ingredients. Then I put the mixture in the fridge overnight.

Making the pasta dough was really simple. You make a well in the flour, mix the ingredients in by hand, and dust the dough ball with more flour. There is a 30 minute "rest" period, so factor that into your cooking plans. Other than that, rolling the pasta took me under 10 minutes, filling the ravioli was another 5-10 minutes, and I boiled them for 4 minutes. It's not super time consuming, but it does take a bit more time than say, a microwave TV dinner. But I think you'll agree, it's well worth it! Enjoy.
Casunsiei: Beet and Ricotta Ravioli
(Courtesy of Serious Eats, from Al di La, Brooklyn.)
(Approximate) Yield: 2-3 main course servings, 4 first-course/ appetizer portions. 

These are not huge portions, so definitely prepare a first course (summer salad) too.
For the filling:
2 large beets, roasted and peeled (I used 4 medium sized beets)
Bread crumbs, if necessary
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup thick whole milk ricotta, such as Calabro brand
5 ounces (1 1/4 sticks) melted butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 Parmigiano Reggiano
2 teaspoons poppy seeds
For the pasta:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
5 egg yolks and 1 whole egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch of Kosher salt.
Prepare the filling up to one day in advance: process beets pulse until finely chopped but not pureed. If the beets are seeping water, add a small amount of bread crumbs to soak up the liquid. Stir in eggs, ricotta, and 1/4 cup of the melted butter. Season (liberally) with salt and pepper.
In a wide shallow bowl, or directly on a flat work surface, create a well in the middle of the flour. Add the other ingredients into the well. Using your fingers, blend the wet ingredients and incorporate the flour by gradually working in the sides of the well.
When the dough comes together to form a solid mass, knead it for a few minutes on a well-floured surface. When it is smooth and firm, wrap it in plastic and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Dust a pasta roller and countertop with flour. Begin rolling out the dough, gradually setting the roller thinner and thinner until the dough very thin and uniform. (I started on setting #1 and ended on setting #6.)
Fill and seal the pasta with egg wash. Cut the pasta out into desired shapes. Cook in boiling water for about 4 minutes. Gently transfer cooked pasta onto a serving dish. Drizzle melted butter, grated cheese, and poppy seeds over the pasta and serve immediately. You can also dollop some fresh ricotta on top!

Bowls made by Wobbly Plates, by Brigitte Bouquet. I bought mine locally at Hazel & Dewey.

Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield (and Linguine with Lemon, Feta and Basil)

The other day I found myself wanting to leave the city. I didn't want to go too far, so I ruled out Rocky Mountain National Park. I was thinking about the Wildlife Sanctuary which is relatively close by, but decided to save that for a day when we had a few more hours to spare. I remembered that I hadn't been to the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield in quite some time and it was calling me.  
The satellite garden is a nature preserve that has grasslands, blooms and Hildebrand Ranch. The old ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it houses chickens, roosters, goats and ponies. We also met a large toad in the pond. Otis named him Walter. He wanted to "take him" and relocate Walter to our couch. I explained that the toad probably liked his natural environment a lot more than he would our home...and that his mom and dad would miss him dearly if we were to snag him, put him in a paper bag and bring him back to Denver. Otis seemed satisfied with my explanation. Walter was left in the pond. 
The garden is also affiliated with a local CSA  and if I lived a little bit closer I would have signed up for the season. But our long-term plans in Denver aren't certain, and I decided to forgo a CSA membership this year. Instead we will rely on the Denver Farmers Markets for our fruits and vegetables. I'm heading to the markets next week and I'm excited to see what they've got.
Back to the farm...
We spent a good deal of time in front of the chicken coup. Otis decided that this would be a good place to wrestle his baby brother Theo. As you can see from the photos below, the hens couldn't believe their eyes.  
There are lots of picnic benches in the gardens, so next time I'll bring some food and eat outside. And since Chatfield is only 30 minutes away from Denver, I think I'll be going back again soon...

When we got back from Chatfield, both boys feel asleep. It was quiet time in the house and I, not wanting to use all of nap time to cook, decided to make something super-simple that I had seen on Cookstr. And here it is...
Linguine with Lemon, Feta, Pinenuts and Basil (Courtesy of Cookstr, Gordon Ramsay)
The light and zesty flavor of this pasta dish makes it ideal for the summer. It's also quick and easy for supper during the week, because you are likely to have the ingredients on hand.
Yield : Serves 4
1 pound fresh (or 10 ounces dried) linguine
¼ cup olive oil
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Handful of fresh basil, leaves only
7 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Cook the fresh pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water for 2 minutes. If using dried pasta, cook according to package directions until al dente. Tip the pasta into a colander, leaving about 2 tablespoons of the cooking water in the pot.
Immediately return the pasta to the pot and add the olive oil, lemon zest and juice, Parmesan, basil, and three-quarters of the crumbled feta. Toss well and check the seasoning. Divide among warm plates and scatter the remaining feta and the pine nuts over the top. Serve at once.