WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — It’s a little surprising to think of macaroni and cheese, that humble childhood dish, as the darling of the foodie crowd. But the cheesy, decadent favorite is popping up on restaurant menus everywhere, from Michael Mina’s swanky bistros to Pican’s stylish Southern table, as an entree, a side dish or — in the case of one new Oakland, Calif., restaurant — nearly the entire menu.
Needless to say, this isn’t your mother’s macaroni and cheese. But it probably bears a closer resemblance to something your grandmother or even your great-grandmother would make. These versions are created from scratch, with intriguing additions, such as truffle shavings and herbs, and cheeses that include high-quality cheddars, Gouda and Parmesan. And, most notably, there’s nothing neon orange about them.
Comfort food comes to the fore every time the going gets rough, says food writer and inveterate restaurant goer Marcia Gagliardi, who turned her dining expertise into a book, “The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco”, earlier this year.
San Francisco’s Blue Plate mixes Spanish Drunken Goat cheese into theirs. Berkeley’s FIVE does an orzo version with tomato jam. And the Midnight Moon Mac ‘n’ Cheese at Sonoma’s Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar adds wild mushrooms and a porcini crust.
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The James Beard Award-winning Mina has featured mac and cheese variations at many of his restaurants -- a roster that includes four in San Francisco, including RN74 and his soon-to-reopen eponymous bistro. A truffled version with sauteed chicken breast and rosemary appears on the current menu at San Jose’s Arcadia, and Mina is constantly reinventing his basic recipe, which gets extra sizzle from garlic, thyme and a nicely aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.
There was never any question about including a variation on Pican’s menu.
The recipe LeBlanc and his executive chef, Dean Dupuis, created for their quintessential Southern restaurant gives a nod to California flavors as well.
“For me, Pican is about family — and marrying the South with California,” says LeBlanc. “If you’re going to do mac and cheese, it can’t be the standard macaroni and cheese. We decided to do it with smoked Gouda, and that turned out to be a hit.”
Pican’s “Pedestrian Mac and Cheese” also includes a sharp white cheddar, garlic, shallots, generous lashings of hot sauce, and a not-exactly chic secret ingredient.
Velveeta, LeBlanc says, “is the best thing to come along since white bread.”
MICHAEL MINA’S MACARONI AND CHEESE
½ pound elbow macaroni
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons canola oil
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 yellow onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, smashed
10 fresh thyme sprigs, plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 pound or
1 ½ cups Parmigiano-Reggiano or Asiago cheese, coarsely grated
1. Cook the macaroni in lightly salted boiling water for about 8 minutes until tender, but still firm. Drain well and set aside.
2. Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-low flame in a high-sided saute pan. Add the sliced onions, garlic, and thyme sprigs. Saute for about 5 minutes, until the onions are transparent. Add the remaining butter and flour, stirring to combine.
3. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. When the stock begins to bubble, whisk the cream into the sauce and gently simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot and place over medium-low heat.
4. Add the cheese and whisk until it is completely melted. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the cooked macaroni, stirring to combine. Before serving, mix in the chopped thyme.
Courtesy Chef Michael Mina
PICAN’S MAC ‘N’ CHEESE SAUCE
Makes 5-6 cups
1 quart heavy cream
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon salt
2 garlic cloves, smashed
½ shallot, sliced
3/4 pound Velveeta cheese
1/4 pound sharp white cheddar cheese
1/4 pound smoked Gouda
2 ounces Parmesan Macaroni pasta, cooked in boiling, salted water, then drained well.
1. Warm the cream with the nutmeg, dry mustard, hot sauce, salt, garlic and shallots over low heat.
2. Still over low heat, gradually add the Velveeta and cook until completely melted.
3. Add the other cheeses and let melt. Taste and adjust seasoning. Strain sauce, then toss with cooked, drained pasta to taste.
Courtesy Michael LeBlanc, Pican, Oakland
CLASSIC EXTRA-CHEESY MACARONI AND CHEESE
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups whole or low fat milk
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard, optional
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg, optional
Pinch fresh black pepper
3 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar, divided
½ cup grated Parmesan, divided
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a medium, heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and whisk until smooth. Cook 2-3 minutes, whisking frequently. Slowly add milk, whisking vigorously. Lower heat and simmer 7-8 minutes, whisking frequently, until creamy and smooth. Add 1 ½ teaspoons salt, the mustard, nutmeg and black pepper.
2. Remove from heat and add 2 ½ cups cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Whisk until cheese melts and the sauce is smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. It should be salted well, as the sauce flavors the macaroni.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 2 tablespoons salt, and boil the macaroni according to the package directions. Drain well, return to the pot, then toss with the sauce until thoroughly coated. Pile into a 13- by 9-inch baking dish or four 6-inch cast-iron skillets. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining cheeses.
4. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and toss with breadcrumbs; distribute over the macaroni. Bake until topping is browned and the macaroni hot, about 20 minutes. Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Variations: For a smoky green chile version, add 1 drained 4-ounce can diced mild green chiles before you put the macaroni in the baking dish. Mix 1 teaspoon smoked paprika with the crumbs and butter.
For the “tuna melt” version, substitute 1 cup grated Havarti or Fontina cheese for 1 cup of the cheddar when you make the sauce (you’ll still need a total of 3 cups cheese plus the ½ cup Parmesan). Add two drained 5-ounce cans tuna and 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest to the macaroni before you put it in the baking dish.
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