September 24, 2015

Stovetop Mac n Cheese

Anyone in a 5 mile radius knows that there is a plague making its way through campus, and I've been stuck with it for about a week now. People have made a game out of people coughing in lecture since it's impossible to go 10 seconds without hearing someone hack up a lung. It's pretty gross world outside, kids, and that means it's time for comfort food.

My floormates are convinced that our dining hall makes fantastic mac n cheese, but I just don't get it. It's often dried out and crusty, and I like mine gooey and creamy, a.k.a. stovetop mac n cheese It's a five-ingredient masterpiece that is better than the box and perfect for chilly fall weeknights, especially if you're sick and craving easy comfort food. Since I realize that some people like baked mac n cheese with crisp, buttery breadcrumbs, I included a variation below for that as well.

One of the reasons why I like this recipe is because it's so simple. Why labor over mac n cheese from scratch if the box is right there? Luckily this recipe is almost as easy, and you get to eat your favorite (*REAL*) cheese instead of the neon orange powder, which will be phased out to a more "normal" color in 2016. You can pick any cheese or combination of cheeses you want, as long as you have at least one good melting cheese in there. Cheddar is my go-to, but you can add or swap pepperjack for a spicy kick, or American or Velveeta for an extra-gooey bowl. Parmesan and/or gruyere are great for adding complex, nutty notes, and fontina or brie would add a lovely richness. Try talking to the people at your grocery store's cheese counter for advice on flavor combinations.

Contrary to what most Wisconsinites would like to think, you do need to add a little more than just cheese to your mac to make the perfect mac n cheese. No matter how good at melting your cheese may be, it just won't have the creaminess of a good mac n cheese unless you make a bechamel sauce as a base, which just involves making a quick roux and adding some milk.

A roux is a mixture of fat and flour. My fat of choice is butter because it imparts such a great flavor. I add the flour to the hot butter and whisk it until thick and golden. This is a blonde roux since I want a mild flavor, which means avoiding excessive browning. When the roux is done, I take it off the heat and slowly whisk in the milk. It's going to get really, really thick and then start to thin out, but it is crucial that you stir in the milk slowly to avoid lumps. I'll say it again--DO THIS PART SLOWLY UNLESS YOU WANT LUMPY MAC N CHEESE. Once you have a perfectly smooth, velvety bechamel, stir in your mountains of grated cheese and whisk until smooth again. Grating your cheese (or breaking it into small pieces if it's too soft to shred) makes it melt faster, which means you can eat sooner.

I hate to write about the pasta as an afterthought, but I'm pretty sure everyone has cooked pasta at some point in their life. Heat some water to a boil, add lots of salt (but no oil), and cook your pasta until al dente, especially if you want to bake your mac n cheese later. Drain it and save some of the water for the sauce if you want to thicken it up a bit. Adding starchy pasta water is a much better idea than throwing in raw flour.

Finally, you can bring everything together by dumping the pasta into the sauce and pouring the whole thing into a bowl just for you. Well, maybe not, but at least give yourself more than the stingy scoop the dining hall employees give my friends and I. If you want to bake your mac n cheese, spread it into a glass pan (preferably with ~2" tall sides to contain it), top with panko crumbs and/or more grated cheese, and bake until golden and bubbly at around 375. You can also stir in bacon, other meats or sausages, fresh or roasted vegetables, more cheese, or whatever else you have on hand. My ideal ratio is 40% cheese, 40% bacon, and 20% pasta, but you do you.

4 Cups Milk, Warmed
6 T Butter
1/2 Cup Flour
1 1/2 lbs Pasta
4 Cups Shredded Cheese (Cheddar, American, Pepperjack, Parmesan, etc.)

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly until lightly browned, about 4 minutes, and remove from heat. Slowly whisk in the milk and season generously with salt and pepper. Return the pot to low heat and cook until thickened, about 4 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to package directions.

Meanwhile, whisk the cheese into the bechamel. Drain the pasta, stir into the sauce, and serve immediately. To bake, see directions above.

Serves 6
Recipe Adapted from Chow

September 8, 2015

Buttermilk Roasted Chicken with Gravy

It turns out that pretty much every freshman at UW is jealous of my dorm this year. It's basically like living in a hotel, and the best part is that there's a kitchen on every floor. Yep, I just have to walk 30 feet and I'm at the stove, with the exception of having to walk uphill both ways to the bus stop and wait an hour to get on a bus to get groceries and then having to rent a bunch of kitchen equipment from the desk downstairs. In other words, it is actually possible to cook in my dorm this year, but I have to keep things really simple. That's good news for you guys because you get delicious recipes with minimal equipment and prep time, like this fantastic roasted chicken with gravy.

What makes this chicken so perfectly juicy and tender is the buttermilk, which is why it's first in the name of the dish. I found out the hard way this summer that buttermilk isn't exactly common outside of the south, but it's definitely worth searching for. The acidity breaks down the meat and imparts an incomparable tenderness to the cooked meat. You know how all good fried chicken starts with buttermilk? Well now all roasted chicken does, too.

I season the buttermilk with a variety of spices. Other than the gravy, this is what brings the flavor, so be generous and alter the proportions to fit your taste. I let the chicken sit for a few hours to make sure it soaks it all up; anywhere between 2 hours and overnight is fine but I find that 3-4 hours is best. It's long enough for the buttermilk to work its magic but fast enough that I can devour the chicken asap.

I know I called this dish roasted chicken, but I still like to dredge it in flour and sear it in a skillet first. This gives me an extra crispy skin and makes sure there are plenty of drippings to make the gravy. My two favorite parts of this dish are the skin and the gravy, so I think it's worth the extra step. The key to that extra crispy coating is patting the chicken dry after it sits in the marinade. I don't want a breaded and fried chicken thigh (even though those are equally tasty), just one with a thin, crackly coating.

Once the chicken is seared off and in the oven, it's time to make the gravy. I would eat salad all day if it were socially acceptable to use this stuff as salad dressing (can we please make that a thing?). I finally fulfilled a southern rite of passage this summer by figuring out how to make the perfect gravy, and I'm here to tell you all the tricks.

It starts with a roux, a mixture of fat and flour that works as a thickening agent. I use the chicken drippings since they have so much flavor and I already got that pan dirty, and I stir in about 1/4 cup of flour. You have to ballpark basically every ingredient here, but it's fairly forgiving and you'll get the hang of it soon. I try to use approximately the same amount of flour as drippings, and 1/4 cup is usually fairly accurate. I whisk the roux over medium-low heat for a few minutes until it's thick and bubbling, then I gradually whisk in chicken broth until it reaches a good consistency. It's usually around 2 cups, but that depends on how much roux there is, how long you cook it for, and how thick you want it. The key is to add the broth very slowly and whisk it constantly to avoid lumps. At some point--once the gravy is thin enough to permit it--I throw in some fresh herbs for flavor, since everything can always use a little rosemary.

To bring it all together, I top the crisp, juicy chicken with the savory gravy and serve it immediately. I love it over grits or mashed potatoes, but any neutral starch and/or roasted vegetable would go very nicely. Aside from the marinating time, this is ready in under half an hour and requires only a bowl, a skillet, and a baking sheet, making it a perfect weeknight meal for any kitchen, even crappy dorm ones.

8 Chicken Thighs
3 Cups Buttermilk
2 T Season Salt
2 T Garlic Powder
2 T Onion Powder
1 T Paprika
2 tsp Pepper
1 tsp Cayenne
1/2 + 1/4 Cup Flour
2 Cups Chicken Stock
1 Sprig Rosemary
2 Sprigs Thyme
2 T Butter

Trim the fat from the chicken thighs. Whisk the buttermilk, season salt, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, pepper, and cayenne together. Add the chicken, cover, and refrigerate for 3-4 hours.

Season 1/2 cup of flour with additional salt and pepper. Heat some oil in a large skillet. Heat oven to 375F.

Pat the chicken dry and dredge in the flour. Sear the chicken in batches in the hot pan until golden brown on each side; transfer to a baking sheet and roast in the oven until cooked through, about 14-16 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the remaining flour to the chicken drippings on low heat. Whisk constantly until darkened and thick, about 4 minutes. Toss in the rosemary and thyme. Gradually add the chicken stock, whisking constantly, until the gravy coats the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper, whisk in the butter, and serve over the chicken.

Serves 4-6