Today marks the last of the Christmas holidays in our household, as it is the Epiphany (or Three King's Day as we say,) & that means the tree comes down tomorrow before every last needle falls to the floor & completely carpets our hardwoods in a messy winter wonderland way. But before that happens & the post-holiday blues can take hold, we've had a flurry of celebrations to attend--last night, Ken's company party, tonight, the Spanish Table's annual shindig, & in between, a Seattle food blogger round-up organized by Keren Brown (a.k.a. the Frantic Foodie on Seattle P-I's Reader Blogs.) Dios Mio, that's a lot of eating!
Staring blurrily at the fridge this morning in my bathrobe, I tried to get a grip on how I was going to accomplish a blogger-worthy dish in the next few hours with ingredients I had on hand, despite the fact that I had stayed up until 2 am the night before thumbing through cookbooks until I couldn't hold my head up. I was up against a few challenges--for one, we live in a culinary no man's land, where the only two grocery stores within a reasonable walking distance have opened & closed within a year of existence, and the next nearest grocery would cost me at least a half hour round trip; secondly, I truly believe that you have to be hungry for anything that you're about to make or else the dish is sure to fall flat, and nothing I had picked out the night before had any fervid appeal.
So with those factors muddling in my cook's brain after opening & reopening & opening the fridge again as if a magical ingredient would suddenly appear in the butter tray, lo & behold I came upon a startling answer to my cook's dilemma--Spanish macaroni & cheese--hallelujah! BUT, I was going to have to come up with my own recipe, and quick, a risky venture when making a first impression on the blog squad.
When the Spanish Table was in its old location, there was also Margot, a quick-witted sarcastic Capitol Hill hipster who blessed us with a brief stint in the deli by keeping our staff & lunch regulars well-fed and entertained during her tour of duty. She was famous for telling customers things like, "If you really wanna be Spanish, you would just nail that chorizo to your wall!", but remains legendary for her Spanish macaroni & cheese which she managed to make with only a microwave & soup cooker in our bare bones kitchen. The staff would always fight about the order of lunch breaks on those M & C days, and Margot was forced to make one batch of her crack-mac for the customers & a separate cazuela's-worth for the staff as none of us could keep ourselves from eating less than two to three helpings. In fact, there came a time that Margot pulled the plug on our noodle-loving staff & went back to only feeding us a dozen variations on lentil soup in order to lower our growing cholesterol intake. "It's for our own good," she reasoned with us gently like some sweet Jewish grandmother, knowing full well the powers that her dish contained.
On my recent trip back to NYC, Ken & I peered inside the foggy windows of a crowded smallish restaurant on a leafy street of the East Village painted nearly the color of Kraft macaroni & cheese. Inside, we saw looks of elation on the faces of people digging into their mini cast iron skillets while we had reservations to keep at a far fancier dining spot... "It's all mac n' cheese!" we squealed in front of S'Mac which indeed serves eleven different kinds of macaroni & cheese, from the Gruyere with slab bacon, the Brie with roasted figs, & the Manchego with fresh fennel. And so it seems, everyone loves a good mac n' cheese--why not elevate it in a humble way?
I owe Margot for the inspiration, but feel proud that I pieced together my own version for the blog potluck just in time as it got some rave reviews from the likes of Keren, Italian Woman at the Table & blogger Paul Redman, a chef instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle. Not only did today's gathering inspire me to keep up with writing in 2008, but to venture past the constraints of cookbooks & create more original recipes that reflect the experiences of what I've learned by taste & smell, from the dinners I've enjoyed in life's travels to experiments in our own little kitchen in Skyway: a truly exciting endeavor on the road to really being a chef, not just a good cook.
Saffron Fideos con Chorizo y Piquillos en Cazuela (Spanish Macaroni & Cheese)
1 lb fideos (the elbow macaroni-like variety)
3 Tbs butter
1/4 cup flour
4 cups milk
2 pinches saffron threads
2 cups grated sheep's milk cheese (like Manchego)
1/2 a small onion, minced
6 oz Spanish-style chorizo, minced
1 jar piquillo peppers, cut into strips width-wise
pimenton, for finishing
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.
Boil the fideos in salted water according to the package directions or until al dente. Saute your minced onions in butter over medium heat in a saucepan until softened, about 5 minutes.
In the meantime, warm the milk with the saffron on a gentle heat.
Whisk the flour in with the onions, stirring constantly for 5 minutes, then quickly add the warmed milk & whisk vigorously. Keep at it until the sauce has thickened & reduced but is not completely stiff, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add more milk if necessary.
Take off the heat & mix in the chorizo, cheese, piquillos, & season with salt to your liking. Add your fideos, transfer mixture to a buttered casserole & bake approximately 30 minutes. Sprinkle the top with pimenton & dig in!