Comfort and Virtue

It couldn’t have been easier to decide what to blog this week. There was a runaway winner, in that I only made one meal that wasn’t sandwiches. I made it twice, and we ate it for four dinners, two breakfasts and at least two elevenses. I’d hate to have to label this an official food rut, but truthfully, I might just make it again before the week is out. What is this meal so worthy of singular devotion? Well, it’s macaroni and cheese with salad. Try not to hate me for my blinding inventiveness.

They don’t call me umami girl for nothing (and by “they,” of course, I mean “I”), and typically I prefer mac and cheese that’s a little more gnarly and pungent and adulterated. I like to push my bechamel just shy of the breaking point with onions and herbs and sharp, sharp cheeses, because where’s the romance in comfort food that isn’t a little passive-aggressive? (More on this one day soon.) This week, though, the doctor ordered true crowd-pleaser mac, impossible to screw up, guaranteed to disappear from the plate of a sick kid, and with just enough of a hint of complexity to keep the adults happy. We funked up the salad to keep it real, and the balance turned out to be just what we all needed.

Umami dreams are made of these....
Umami dreams are made of these….

Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound elbow macaroni
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour
4 cups whole milk
8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded, divided
8 oz. white American cheese, sliced at the deli and chopped
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper
*     *     *

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Cook the macaroni al dente according to package directions.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large dutch oven. When it has just melted, add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute. Add the milk, cold, all at once, and raise the heat to high. Stir the mixture almost constantly as it comes up to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the sauce from the heat and add about 3/4 of the cheddar, all the American, the mustard, the nutmeg, and a good pinch each of salt and pepper. Stir to combine and thoroughly melt the cheeses. Add the macaroni and toss to combine.

Pour the macaroni and cheese into a 9 x 13 inch casserole (or you could bake it directly in the dutch oven, if you prefer). Sprinkle the remaining shredded cheddar and the Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, and bake for 30 minutes, until bubbly and browning on top.

Fennel, Orange and Olive Salad

For the vinaigrette

1 Tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
A good pinch each of salt and pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
*     *     *

Combine the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in the bottom of your salad bowl and whisk to combine. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking to emulsify.

For the salad

About 10 leaves any type of lettuce, torn into bite sized pieces
1/2 a small fennel bulb, sliced crosswise as thinly as possible
10 green olives stuffed with pimentos, sliced crosswise into 3 slices each (possibly fewer olives if you’re not an umami freak – I don’t have a lot of perspective on this issue)
A bit of red onion, sliced very thinly
1 navel orange, peeled and sectioned (watch a silly video on how to do this below)
*     *     *

Add all ingredients to the salad bowl and toss just before serving.

How to section an orange, by (Look at the sections starting at 1:14 and 1:52.)