Monday, February 15, 2010

Day 336 - Slow-Roasted Tomato Slices, Macaroni and Cheese, and Lemon and Olive Relish

It's Valentines Day! And what's a single guy to do on Valentines Day but throw a dinner party for other fabulous single types!

Tonight's roster includes Jeff and Martha regulars: Marcy, Ryan, and Tracy C. And on the menu, the greatest comfort food of them all...

Slow-Roasted Tomato Slices (p. 390)

This is sort of a weird name for tomato slices that are roasted for 20 minutes, especially considering that there are other tomato-roasting recipes in the book that roast for six + hours. I'd vote to change the name of this to "Quick-Roasted Tomato Slices."

Unlike the other recipe, these tomatoes are sliced thinnish and are cooked at a relatively high temperature (400°) minus garlic. Otherwise, the ingredients and flavors and results are very similar.

My question is - if you can get similar results with the 20 minute version, why would you opt for the six hour version? I thought these slices packed the same kind of super-tomato-ey punch that the other ones did, along with that nice olive oil/thyme marriage. I think I'll opt for this recipe, if I want roasted tomato in my life again.

As for roasted tomatoes on top of mac and cheese, I'm suspicious. It doesn't seem like an ideal match, but I'll wait until it's all done, and then I'll weigh in.

Jeff: A
Martha: A (although now I want to go back to the six hour recipe and give Martha an A- for making me work so hard for it)

Macaroni and Cheese (p. 389)

Probably the biggest American "classic" in the book, this is a dish I've never made from scratch, and I couldn't wait to experience Martha's interpretation. My workout buddy Ken had told me about a Martha mac + cheese recipe he'd made which was a big hit (he credits some hidden cayenne), so I had high hopes. This recipe has some hidden cayenne too!

FYI, Martha's serving suggestion for this dish is to bake it in individual serving dishes, but since I don't have the right sized dishes, I took the casserole option.

The first thing I did was grate the cheese. There were so many kinds to deal with, I just wanted to get it all out of the way before I started dealing with what looked like it might be a time-sensitive sauce.

Next, I boiled the pasta. Yes, even Martha uses dry elbow macaroni for this recipe. I followed her instructions to the letter, re: undercooking the pasta, but I was very skeptical. It just seemed way too hard/chewy. Still, I obeyed like a good student.

Starting the sauce with diced onion was an interesting twist. I was talking to Tracy P. on the phone while I was sauteing the onion, and she found it quite distressing that there should be any onion at all in mac + cheese. Purist. She's convinced her kids wouldn't want to eat this, that they're only interested in the Kraft-style boxed version, but I think she's underestimating her kids' palates and I intend to prove her wrong someday! :-)

After the onion is sweated in some butter, then flour is added, cooked briefly, then a bunch of milk is whisked in. Once that's thickened (about five minutes), you add most of the grated cheese and season with salt and pepper and a small amount of both cayenne and nutmeg.

I could tell at this point that the flavors were going to be pretty great, but I didn't want to count my chickens.

I added the pasta into the cream sauce and then poured it all into the buttered 1.5 quart casserole, which looked amazingly measly for a dish that's supposed to serve eight people. Eight side dish portions maybe, but eight entree portions? This casserole looks like it will barely serve four!

Final touches: the rest of the grated cheese goes on top next, then fresh white bread crumbs which have been tossed in butter (I can't remember the last time I bought a loaf of Wonder Bread), and finally, the tomato slices. In the version with individual-sized serving dishes, Martha puts one tomato on top of each serving, making a total of eight slices, but since I had enough tomatoes to completely cover the casserole, I did. (Fifteen slices.) I figured we could peel them off if we didn't like them.

After 25-30 minutes in the oven, it was bubbly and brown, just as Martha predicted.

The verdict? Eight thumbs up, for sure. This is so far beyond Kraft, it's not even funny. The cheese flavors are great - it's a really nice balance with America (sharp cheddar) leading the way, but subtle undertastes of Switzerland (gruyere) and Italy (parm and fontina). The cayenne and nutmeg are indistinguishable yet contribute to an overall awesome taste. The consistency is right on, and Martha's advice re: undercooking the pasta really paid off. This macaroni was perfectly done.

As for the tomatoes, I thought they were a great match, an extra burst of flavor sort of underlining any Italian connection you may have made. Also, the tomatoes were a way of measuring portion sizes. (Do you want one tomato or two?)

Considering that I thought this wouldn't be enough for the four of us, I was amazed how far it went and how much I had left over. The guys each had three tomatoes worth, the girls had two or less. With a total of 15 tomatoes on top, that means this dish makes up five pig-out portions or eight I-can-show-some-moderation portions.

This is a definite home-run mac and cheese - I can't imagine anyone, adult, child, dog, gerbil, not loving this one.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Lemon and Olive Relish (p. 179)

Boy, this one really confounded me on the page. I kept reading this recipe thinking, What is THAT going to taste like? And what would I want to pair it with? I couldn't wrap my mind around a whole diced lemon, chopped onion, olives, lemon wedges, and sugar all wrapped up in one relish.

But then I made it. And amazingly, it works! It's not too sweet, and it's packed with beautifully balanced flavor, a running theme in Martha's recipes.

I'm not sure what the ideal pairing is, but I don't think it's meat or fish. Probably chicken or pork is the way to go. Even though this is in the grilling section of the book, I felt like making poached chicken to go with it, so I did.

A few warnings to those who are making this: Plan ahead. It takes a long time to suprême seven lemons. Also, I think it was a mistake to add all the lemon juice that had collected in the bowl where I was putting the suprêmed wedges. My relish came out a little looser that I would have hoped.

Still, great flavor! Martha scores again!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Also served in this meal, a green salad with fennel, pear, and walnuts, and this Pumpkin Custard, which seems plenty naughty but is actually not as bad for you as you might think.

Until we eat again....


  1. Woo Hoo ! Jeff, this Mac & Cheese is definitely in my near future. I've been craving a homemade Mac & Cheese for about 2 months. I'm going to cave and make it from the book, just like yours in a casserole with the tomatoes. In the 70's my mom used to make a Kraft homemade version with a "real cheese product" called Old English... it had tomatoes on top too and it was great. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Keep it cookin' ~ Dawn ;)

  2. Okay - so I've never been a Mac & Cheese person - mostly from inexperience and leading a sheltered life...then - BAM - dinner at Jeff's and I'm like, "Shovel, please !". Awesome meal all around Jeff - what a great way to spend Valentine's Day ! [ sorry this post is days later ].
    To all you readers out there - you must try this Mac & Cheese - especially if you are trying to impress someone or get them to love you forever ! :-)

  3. Dawn- You will not be sorry you made this mac and cheese. It is failsafe.

    Ryan- Are you trying to tell me that you're really impressed and you'll love me forever? :-)

    Thanks for writing, you guys.