By Jessica Roy This past week, I've been feeling a little nostalgic, and found myself really craving a bowl of my favorite comfort food from my years spent out in the wild West. There is a strange and oddly magnificent restaurant called Le Bistro Montage, aka The Montage, tucked away in an industrial district of Portland, Oregon.
The Montage, once the Royal Hotel, exudes a mysterious ornate elegance outfitted with dim glory lighting. The menu is comprised of a somehow harmonious blend of Italian American pasta plates, Southern comfort food, and modern takes on NO-LA style Creole and Cajun classics.
My absolute favorite thing to order was always the Tomato Garlic Pesto Mac and Cheese. It was creamy and cheesy and luxuriously rich but cut with sweetly acidic tomato and fresh basil. The unwritten rule was always to make sure to leave leftovers, because the servers were also skilled in tinfoil origami, and would wrap your take-away in a whole roll's worth of some sort of sculpture. I somehow almost always got a snail, possibly a squirrel, with a really ornate curled tail.
Since I didn't exactly have time to jump a jet over to the West Coast Portland, I got to work in my own kitchen to recreate my own version of the macup Perfect for sharing, this bubbly warm casserole is a gift from the pasta gods this time of year.
Of course, I've got a few chef tips to share with you to make your meal prepping a breeze. The base to the cheese sauce is a classic béchamel, which is one of the French mother sauces. It is quite simple, and made from a roux (flour and butter cooked together), and milk, gently simmered and stirred until thickened to "nappe," or when the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Shredded cheese is stirred in over low heat until smooth.
The pesto for this particular recipe does not include any cheese, since it is to be mixed in with the aforementioned cheese sauce. Cook the pasta -- my preference is shells or large elbows -- just to al dente, or slightly underdone (about 2 minutes prior to the suggested box instructions), since the whole dish will be baked again. Always save some of the starchy pasta cooking liquid to stir into your sauce as it adds some nice body and helps the sauce cling to the macaroni.
To make ahead, simply assemble the entire recipe, but don't bake in the oven until you're ready to use it. Wrap and refrigerate, and bake according to recipe directions until brown and bubbly. If you're choosing to freeze the whole pan, put the whole thing into the oven, covered in foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until the center is heated through. Remove the foil, and broil on high for 3-5 minutes until brown and bubbly.
Tomato Basil Pesto Mac and Cheese
1 lb. macaroni, cooked al dente (according to package instructions)
1/2 cup starchy pasta water, reserved from cooking the pasta
For cheese sauce:
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. all purpose flour
2 cups milk, at room temperature
Tiny pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once it's foamy, stir in flour until smooth and pasty.
Reduce heat to medium-low. Pour in the milk one cup at a time, and whisk or stir until smooth. Stir in a small pinch of nutmeg, just a dab on your fingertip, and salt.
Add shredded cheese, and continue stirring until sauce is smooth. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as desired.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling salted water until just tender (al dente). Strain the pasta from the water (reserve 1/2 cup), and then place pasta into a casserole dish that has been coated in non-stick spray or a small amount of olive oil. Set aside.
3 Tbs. roasted nuts (almonds, cashews, pine nuts etc.)
2 cloves garlic
2 cup fresh basil, packed (reserve a few leaves for garnish)
1 tsp. lemon juice
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes in olive oil (jarred)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
Pasta water from above
Put the roasted nuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until finely ground. Add the basil, lemon juice, olive oil, sundried tomatoes, and salt and pepper, and pulse in one second increments until blended into a paste.
Stir the pesto mixture into the warm cheese sauce, along with starchy pasta water (from cooking) until fully incorporated. Taste the sauce, and season with additional salt and pepper as desired.
1/2 cup shredded parmesaon cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
Freshly torn basil
Pour the cheesy pesto sauce over top of the macaroni in the casserole dish, and press half of the diced tomatoes into the top. Spread both of the shredded cheeses over the top, covering the entire dish. Bake uncovered, at 375 degrees F. for 20-25 minutes, or until cheese is browned and bubbly.
Sprinkle remaining diced tomatoes, and freshly torn basil over the top of baked mac and cheese before serving.
Jessica Roy is a specialty chef and caterer, food writer and chef instructor, and owner of Shiso Kitchen in Somerville, where she teaches classes. Follow her at http://blogs.lowellsun.com/yourpersonalchef.