This time of year, I starting shifting how I cook. Cocktail hour on the porch requires a jacket and shoes, and something delectable baking in the oven is nice when we finally wander back into the house. We go from grilling and salads to something along the lines of comforting cheesy casseroles with combos of pasta, veggies and whatever protein is close to hand.
This past weekend, the protein was chorizo. Chorizo is sausage, Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican in origin. There are different characteristics for each, but here in the states, the Mexican influenced variety is probably most common. Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find outside areas with a large Hispanic community, but that has changed, and now you can find it nearly anyplace. It is spicy, but not searingly so, and it just has lots of nice warm flavors. It is particularly good in macaroni and cheese, where the creamy sauce creates a perfect balance of flavors. The Mexican variety is usually not cooked in the casings, but is instead removed and crumbled up as it cooks. That certainly works well in this dish, because you hit a nice chunk of the spiciness in every bite.
I have a particular fondness for macaroni and cheese, because it is the first meal I ever remember making all on my own for our family. My Mom handed me her recipe, showed me where the ingredients were, and went back to tending one of the seemingly endless stream of little brothers who came long after my sister and me. [that is good grammar, which in this case is the opposite of birth order] In the intervening years, I have come up with a killer succession of macaroni and cheese variations, and this is one of my personal favorites.
- 6 ounces ziti or penne pasta
- 8 ounces Mexican Chorizo
- 1 large stalk celery, diced
- ½ large sweet red pepper, seeded and diced
- 4 ounce can whole green chilies, drained and diced
- 1 or 2 good sized garlic cloves, minced
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 scallions, both white and green parts sliced
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 2 cups 2% milk
- ½ teaspoon salt
- fresh cracked black pepper
- 4 ounces extra sharp Cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces smoked Gouda cheese
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water, about 75% of the recommended cooking time – you want it to be very al dente, or it will overcook later on.
- Drain pasta well and dump into a buttered 3 quart casserole dish.
- Remove Chorizo from casings and saute until done, but not crisp, stirring to break it up as it cooks. Drain and reserve any drippings in the pan and add the chorizo to the pasta in the casserole dish.
- Place 2 tablespoons of the reserved drippings from from the sausage back in the saute pan, and add the celery, red pepper, chilies and the garlic. Season with a sprinkle of kosher salt. Saute about 5 minutes, stirring often enough so it cooks evenly.
- Remove from heat, and stir in the sliced scallions. Add to meat and pasta and stir to combine everything.
- In the same saute pan, melt the butter, and whisk in the flour, keeping over low heat – stir and cook for about 1 minute.
- Slowly add in the milk, then the ½ teaspoon salt, plus a few grinds of pepper, raise heat a bit, and stir and cook until hot and thickened.
- Stir in the cheese and remove from heat when about half of cheese is melted. Continue to stir off the heat until cheese is fully melted.
- Stir in the cumin and paprika – taste and add salt if needed.
- Fold cheese sauce into the ingredients in the casserole dish.
- Use a damp paper towel to clean edges of dish so that the drips don’t burn in the oven.
- Bake in the oven, at 350º, for about 40 minutes, until very bubbly with a nice crusty edge all around. Cool for a bout 5 minutes before serving.
Now Martha Stewart, who I am sure has minions to do her dishes, would have mixed this all up in another bowl and then poured it neatly into the casserole dish. I have no minions, so I mix it right in the casserole, and then use a damp towel to wipe off the sauce that ends up all over the edge, so that it doesn’t burn and become part of the molecular composition of the dish, entailing a bunch of scrubbing. Again with the no minions thing.
Serve along with some warm crusty bread, green salad and maybe steamed broccoli or roasted winter squash. You can fit more on your plate if it is by itself though. Just sayin’.