Sweet Potatoes with Sage Butter Crumb Topping

I’ll admit I have never been a huge fan of sweet potatoes myself.  I have found a few ways that I do consider them edible, but the bottom line is that they will probably never be a favorite food of my own.  However, I know that lots of people are crazy about them and they are a very popular side dish, so I wouldn’t think of hosting Thanksgiving without serving them.  I know a lot of people like to serve them with a sweeter topping like brown sugar or marshmallows but I prefer the savory route, so I tried this version with a sage butter crumb topping.  It was a really big hit and several of the guests declared it as their favorite dish of the whole meal.  Even I thought they were decent, so I guess that’s saying something.

Of course, looking at the recipe again, I am reminded that the potato puree can be made up to two days in advance and topped with the bread crumb mixture just before baking.  I’ll have to add that to my advance prep timeline

Sweet Potatoes with Sage Butter Crumb Topping
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2 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
10 tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1-2½ tbsp. minced fresh sage, divided
1½ cups warm milk
Salt and pepper
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs

Combine the sweet potatoes and Yukon gold potatoes in a large stockpot.  Cover with water, season with salt, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and continue to boil until the potatoes are tender, 10-14 minutes.  Drain well and mash potatoes with a ricer or an electric mixer.  In a saucepan, melt 8 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 7 minutes.  Remove from the heat and mix in 1-2 tablespoons of the sage.  (I prefer to go a little light on the sage.) Mix the sage-butter mixture and the warm milk into the potatoes; mix well to blend until smooth.  Transfer the mixture to a 2-quart casserole dish.  At this point, the potato mixture can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375˚ F.  In a small bowl, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.  Mix in the remaining ½ tablespoon of sage and the bread crumbs; season with salt and pepper.  Toss well to combine.  Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the sweet potato mixture.  Bake uncovered until golden brown and bubbling, 30-40 minutes.  (Cover loosely with foil earlier if breadcrumbs brown too quickly.)  Serve warm.

Source: Martha Stewart

Cilantro Lime Rice

As much as I love the traditional Mexican rice and refried beans that are often served alongside Mexican food, sometimes it is nice to change it up a bit.  Recently I made these shrimp enchiladas, an old favorite I just can’t get enough of.  Instead of refried beans, I made these spicy citrus black beans, and instead of Mexican rice, I made this cilantro lime rice.  This was a great variation on a theme and the citrus flavors paired well together.  Another perk of this recipe in my mind is its simplicity.  If a side dish is complicated, I’m not likely to make it, especially when the main dish is fairly involved (as with enchiladas).  This is as simple as cooking the rice, blending up the cilantro-lime mixture, and stirring it all together.  That’s the kind of side I can handle!

Cilantro Lime Rice
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1 cup long grain rice
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons water, divided
½ tsp. salt
½ cup fresh cilantro
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped

Combine the rice, 2 cups water and salt in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, stir briefly, cover and reduce the heat to low.  Let cook, covered, until the water is absorbed and rice is fluffy and tender, 16-18 minutes. (Cooking time can vary depending on the brand of rice.  Check the package directions.)

While the rice is cooking, combine the cilantro, lime juice, olive oil, garlic and 2 tablespoons water in a blender or food processor.  Blend until smooth.  Stir the mixture into the cooked rice and fluff with a fork.

Source: adapted from My Baking Heart, originally from Everyday Food, April 2008

Cherry Tomato Salad

I always love it when I expect a recipe to be great, but it still manages to exceed my already high expectations.  This dish was sure to be a winner.  Ripe, juicy cherry tomatoes with crisp cucumbers and crumbled feta cheese – all things I love, and commonly known as ingredients that “go” together.  I mainly made this just as an alternative side dish to the usual green salad that we have so often.  I actually loved it so much, it outshone the main dish that I served it with.  It was equally delicious as leftovers the next day.  The original recipe calls for kalamata olives, but I omitted them.  I like olives in some contexts, but in this case I was happy to let the fresh produce shine through and not be overpowered by the strong, briny flavor of olives.  Simple, healthy and bursting with flavor, this salad is welcome at my table any day and will surely be making many reappearances on our menu.

Cherry Tomato Salad
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2 pints ripe cherry tomatoes, quartered (about 4 cups)*
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
½ tsp. dried oregano
1 medium shallot, minced
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Ground black pepper
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced into ½-inch chunks
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
1-2 tbsp. fresh parsley, minced

*Halved grape tomatoes would also work

Combine the tomatoes, salt and sugar in a medium bowl; toss to combine.  Let stand for 30 minutes.  Transfer the mixture to a salad spinner and spin until the seeds and excess liquid have been removed, about 1 minute.  Stir to redistribute the tomatoes during spinning as needed.  Return the tomatoes to the bowl and set aside. (If you don’t have a salad spinner, put the tomatoes in a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and gently shake the bowl to remove the excess seeds and liquid.) Strain the tomato liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a liquid measuring cup, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible.

Combine ½ cup of the tomato liquid with the garlic, oregano, shallot and vinegar in a small saucepan set over medium heat.  Simmer until the mixture is reduced, about 6-8 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.  Whisk in the oil, and season with pepper to taste.

Add the cucumber, feta, dressing and parsley to the bowl with the tomatoes.  Toss gently and serve.

Source: The Way the Cookie Crumbles, originally from Cook’s Illustrated

Summer Strawberry Salad with Poppy Seed Vinaigrette

It took me a long time to genuinely like salad.  This is in large part due to the fact that growing up, “salad” in our house consisted of iceberg lettuce (yuck) topped with sliced carrots (double yuck).  That’s it.  No wonder I never wanted anything to do with it.  Thanks to the brilliance that is Caesar salad, I eventually came around to the concept in general, but even still my taste for salad is typically more traditional.  Usually green lettuce topped with various other vegetables, maybe croutons and even cheese if I get really crazy.  The idea of fruit on a green salad  is one that did not sound appetizing at first, but after having a strawberry-balsamic type salad at a friend’s house several times, I realized that it can actually be a pretty tasty combination.

Last summer I saw this salad on the menu at Panera, but never got around to trying it.  When I was planning the menu for our recent 24, 24, 24 party, I was trying to think of a salad that was a little more exciting than the usual tossed green salad, and this immediately came to mind.  The poppy seed vinaigrette was quick to mix up with ingredients I already had on hand, and I really enjoyed the flavor.  It’s slightly creamy but has a nice citrusy bite from the orange juice and apple cider vinegar.  And it turns out that fruit topping a green salad can actually be pretty delicious.  Such a mix of gorgeous colorful fruit is pretty hard to resist.  (By the way, thanks to my friend Shanon for the beautiful plating job!)

Summer Strawberry Salad with Creamy Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
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For the dressing:
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
¾ cup sugar
2 tbsp. minced shallot
¼ tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. salt
6 tbsp. light mayonnaise
3 tbsp. freshly squeezed orange juice
6 tbsp. vegetable oil
1½ tsp. poppy seeds

For the salad:
Romaine lettuce, washed and dried
Strawberries, hulled and sliced
Mandarin orange segments
Fresh pineapple, cubed

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the vinegar, sugar, shallot, dry mustard, salt, mayonnaise and orange juice.  Process to blend well.  With the feed tube open and the processor on, add the vegetable oil in a steady stream and continue processing until incorporated.  Add the poppy seeds and pulse briefly just until blended.  Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the salad, chop the lettuce into bite-size pieces.  Plate individual servings of the lettuce in salad plates.  Top each serving with strawberries, blueberries, mandarin oranges and pineapple cubes as desired.  Drizzle lightly with the poppy seed dressing and serve immediately.

Source: salad inspired by Panera, dressing from Jamie Cooks It Up

Aligot (French Mashed Potatoes)

The first time I saw this recipe, I pretty much just breezed right over it.  After all, mashed potatoes are something I’ve never used a recipe for.  I make them as I go along, not measuring anything, and seasoning to taste.  They are always wonderful – why bother with a recipe?  I don’t remember what caused me to give these a second look but clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention the first time.  These aren’t just mashed potatoes.  These are ooey gooey cheesy mashed potatoes, with Gruyere for crying out loud.  In any case, I decided these would be the perfect side dish for the garlic rosemary roast chicken, and I was right.

This recipe was surprisingly easy to make with the help of the food processor.  Plus, I get such a kick out of shredding cheese and things with the food processor – it never fails to amuse me!  I normally don’t have much patience for involved side dishes but this one was pretty low maintenance, and the end result was completely worth any extra effort this required compared to my regular mashed potatoes.  I mean, mashed potatoes that can do that kind of stretching are a very good thing in my book.

Aligot (French Mashed Potatoes)
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2 lbs. Yukon gold potatoes (about 4-6)
1 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1-1½ cups whole milk
4 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded
4 oz. Gruyere cheese, shredded
Ground black pepper

Peel, rinse, and chop the potatoes into ½-1 inch chunks.  Place the potatoes in a large saucepan or pot, and cover with water, salting lightly.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to a simmer over medium-low and cook until the potatoes are tender and easily break apart when poked with a fork, about 15-20 minutes.  Drain the potatoes and transfer to the bowl of a food processor.  Wipe out the pan for later use.

Add the butter, garlic, and salt to the potatoes in the food processor.  Pulse until the butter is melted and incorporated into the potatoes, about 10 brief pulses.  Add 1 cup of the milk through the feed tube and continue to process until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 20 seconds, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Return the potato mixture to the now empty saucepan and set over medium heat.  Mix in the cheeses until completely melted and incorporated, stirring frequently.  The mixture will be thick and elastic.  If the mixture is too thick or difficult to stir, add the remaining ½ cup of milk a little bit at a time until the texture is loose and creamy.  Adjust seasonings as necessary with salt and pepper.  Serve immediately.

Source: adapted from The Way the Cookie Crumbles, originally from Cook’s Illustrated

Shrimp, Feta and Fresh Herb Mac and Cheese

Ever since discovering my love of Greek food last year, I have been all about feta cheese.  I like it on salads, I love it with shrimp – I just think it’s great.  When I ran across this version of mac and cheese that featured feta, I was instantly a fan.  The combination of the shrimp, lemon zest, and fresh herbs made for a unique spin on mac and cheese that sounded just perfect.  This was just as good as I was expecting, and I think the flavors make it ideal for spring.

I made  a few small changes to suit my own preferences, including reducing the amount of milk to produce a cheesier sauce and chopping up the shrimp so there was some in almost every bite.  I also decreased the amount of lemon zest because zesting two whole lemons just seemed like overkill, and I thought the lemon was still quite prominent even with my change (but in a good way, not a pucker-your-lips way).  Delish!

Shrimp, Feta and Fresh Herb Mac and Cheese

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1 lb. pasta shapes
1 lb. raw shrimp (31-40 ct.), peeled and deveined, cut in half (if desired)
10 oz. feta cheese, crumbled and divided
Zest of 1 lemon, divided
½ cup Panko breadcrumbs
2 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped, divided
5 tbsp. butter, divided
4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
2 tbsp. fresh dill, chopped
8 oz. Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 2 cups)
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Cook the pasta until al dente according to the package directions.  Drain well; set aside.  Add the raw shrimp to the warm pasta and toss together.  The heat from the pasta will partially cook the shrimp.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400˚ F.  In a small bowl, combine a handful of the feta, a pinch of the lemon zest, the panko, 2 teaspoons of the parsley and 1 tablespoon of the butter, melted.  Toss with a fork to combine; set aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat.  Once the butter is melted, whisk in the flour  to form a paste.  Cook 1-2 minutes, whisking constantly, until light golden brown.  Whisk in the milk.  Continue to heat the mixture, stirring frequently, until it bubbles and thickens, about 5 minutes.  As soon as the sauce has thickened, remove from the heat and stir in the remaining feta, Gruyere, remaining parsley, remaining lemon zest, dill, salt and pepper.  Pour the mixture over the pasta and shrimp; toss well to coat.

Transfer the mixture to a lightly greased 2½ or 3-quart baking dish.  Sprinkle the breadcrumb-feta mixture evenly over the top.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, until lightly browned and bubbling.  Remove from the oven and let cool 5-10 minutes before serving.

Source: adapted from The Perfect Pantry via the 30 Days, 30 Ways Mac and Cheese Blog

Spring Green Risotto

I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to like this meal.  In general I enjoy risotto, and I like most vegetables, but something about the combination of ingredients in this dish made me unsure whether we would really like it or not.  I decided to just go for it because if I know one thing, it’s that Ina almost never lets me down.  I’m so glad I trusted her this time around because I was completely wowed by this dish.  The combination of all the fresh vegetables with the lemon zest and black pepper gave this a complex flavor that was just fantastic.  And the brilliant addition of a bit of mascarpone cheese to make an ultra creamy risotto – why have I never thought of that?  I think I’ll apply that to more risottos in the future.  I think this would be the perfect addition to an Easter meal if you decide to stray from the usual ham/potatoes/green veggie spread.  If I were hosting this year, it would most definitely be on my menu.  We ate this as a main dish but it also makes an elegant side.  Also – huge progress here, even Ben the supposed pea hater liked this.  Win!

Spring Green Risotto
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5 cups chicken broth or stock
1½ tbsp. olive oil
1½ tbsp. unsalted butter
2 shallots, minced
3 cups chopped leeks, white and green parts (about 2 leeks)
1½ cups Arborio rice (medium grain rice)
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 lb. asparagus (thin spears preferable), cut into 1-inch pieces and tough ends discarded
10 oz. frozen peas, thawed (or 1½ cups shelled fresh peas)
1 tbsp. freshly grated lemon zest
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. pepper
2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese (cream cheese is a fine substitute)
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
3 tbsp. minced fresh chives

In a medium saucepan, heat the chicken broth or stock over medium heat until simmering.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, keeping the stock warm.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat until the butter is melted.  Add the shallots and leeks to the pan and sauté for 5-7 minutes, until tender.  Add the rice to the pan and stir to coat well with the oil and butter, cooking for about 1 minute.  Add the white wine and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until most of the wine has been absorbed.  Add the chicken stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring almost constantly and waiting for the stock to be absorbed before adding more.

Meanwhile, blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water for 4-5 minutes, until crisp-tender. Drain and rinse immediately with cold water to stop cooking.  (If using fresh peas, blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes as well.)

When the risotto has been cooking for 15 minutes, add the asparagus and peas to the risotto.  Stir in the lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Continue cooking and adding stock, stirring almost constantly, until the rice is tender but still firm.  The entire process should take about 25-30 minutes.

When the risotto is done, remove the pan from the heat.  Mix in the lemon juice, mascarpone, Parmesan and chives.  Stir until the cheeses are melted in and the risotto is creamy.  Serve immediately with additional Parmesan, if desired.

Source: adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics by Ina Garten

Baked Oven Fries

Oven fries may seem like a simple side dish that just about anyone could whip up with no problem.  At least for me, this was not always true.  I have made baked oven fries many times in the past and they were always okay, but they weren’t “Oh my gosh, I love love love them” good.  A large part of this was due to the fact that they had a mushy texture.  If you’re aiming for a half decent substitute for real French fries, chances are you aren’t going for mushy.

I learned the trick of soaking your potato wedges in water before baking the fries and that definitely helped with the texture, but they still weren’t perfect.  Well, leave it to the brilliant people of Cook’s Illustrated to perfect the technique because now I have the kind of baked oven fries that I’ve been dying for.  These are so great that they have caused me to put burgers on the menu several weeks in a row, just so we could have them again.  Of course they can be eaten with more than just burgers though – and they should be!

If you’re interested in winning a free copy of this cookbook I’ve been spending so much quality time with, here’s your chance!   Leave a comment on this post with the answer to this question:  What dish or meal do you love enough to put it on your menu weekly?

The Rules: One entry per person, will ship to U.S. residents only.  Commenting will close on Saturday, February 27 at 10:00 pm, EST.  One winner will be chosen at random and announced next week.  Good luck!

Baked Oven Fries
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3 russet potatoes (about 24 oz. total), peeled and cut lengthwise into even sized wedges
5 tbsp. vegetable, canola or peanut oil, divided
¾ tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

Preheat the oven to 475˚ F.  Place the potato wedges in a large mixing bowl.  Cover with hot water; soak for 10-30 minutes.  Put 4 tablespoons of the oil onto a heavy, rimmed baking sheet.  Tilt the sheet side to side to evenly coat the pan with oil (a pastry brush can also help with this).  Sprinkle the pan evenly with the salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Drain the potatoes.  Spread the wedges out on layers of paper towels or on clean kitchen towels.  Pat dry with additional towels.  Wipe out the now empty bowl so it is dry.  Return the potatoes to the bowl and toss with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil.  Arrange the potato wedges on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer.  Cover tightly with foil and bake for 5 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake until the bottoms of the potatoes are spotty golden brown, 15-20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet after 10 minutes.  Using a metal spatula and tongs, flip each potato wedge keeping them in a single layer.  Continue baking until the fries are golden and crisp, 5 -15 minutes.  Rotate the pan as needed to ensure even browning.

When the fries are finished baking, transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to drain some of the grease.  Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.  Serve warm.

Source: adapted from The New Best Recipe by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated

Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad

I have discussed my love of Caesar salad before.  This is nothing new.  Similar to my penchant for any double/triple chocolate overdose anything, I’ll try almost any variation of Caesar salad, and chances are I’ll be happy with it.  This isn’t the first Caesar recipe I’ve posted, and it probably won’t be the last, but I must say this is my current favorite.  I think Caesar dressings I’ve had in restaurants all lay somewhere on a spectrum.  Some are more of a lighter, oil-based dressing similar to a vinaigrette, while others are creamier (what I consider a more traditional Caesar).

This one is on the creamy side of things, with mayo taking the place of the raw eggs used in a more traditional Caesar dressing.  I’m not against using raw eggs, but I love this version because I can make a batch or two of the dressing and keep it stored in the fridge with no worries.  Making your own croutons is a must – they are so easy, and so delicious.  You can play around with the seasonings to suit your tastes.  I’m embarrassed to admit how often I used to buy the bagged Caesar salad kits, but I’m proud to say I haven’t bought one since discovering this recipe.  This will definitely help save some money in the grocery budget!  This recipe makes plenty of dressing and croutons so you have them leftover for a quick side dish, or another main dish if you add some chicken.

Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
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For the croutons:
6 slices sandwich bread (or an equivalent amount of baguette slices, about 12-15)
3 tbsp. olive oil OR 3 tbsp. butter, melted
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried parsley
Kosher salt

For the dressing:
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1-2 anchovies, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the salad:
Romaine lettuce
2-4 chicken breast halves
Shaved Parmesan cheese

To make the croutons, preheat the oven to 300˚ F.  Cut the bread into 3/4-inch cubes and place in a medium-large bowl.  (Trim the crusts off if you wish – I prefer to leave them on.)  Combine the olive oil or butter, garlic powder and dried parsley in a small bowl.  Stir together to blend well.  Pour the mixture over the bread cubes and toss gently until evenly coated.

Transfer the bread cubes to a baking sheet, spreading them out into an even layer.  Sprinkle with kosher salt.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Check to see if the croutons are golden and crisp.  If not, toss lightly and bake up to 15 minutes more.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Transfer to an airtight container until ready to use.

To make the dressing, combine the lemon juice, water, garlic, mayonnaise, Parmesan, anchovies and pepper in the bowl of a food processor or blender.  Blend until well combined and completely smooth.  Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Wash and dry the lettuce leaves, removing the greener leafy portions if desired.  Chop or tear the lettuce into bite size pieces and place it in a large bowl.  Season both sides of the chicken breast halves with salt and pepper. Cook the chicken on a grill or grill pan, until golden and cooked through.  Remove the chicken pieces to a plate, tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, add salad dressing to the lettuce (a couple tablespoons at a time) and toss to coat.  Add more dressing as desired.  Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and slice diagonally into long pieces.

Portion the dressed salad into serving dishes.  Top with homemade croutons, grilled chicken pieces, and Parmesan shavings.  Serve immediately.

Source: salad adapted from The Parsley Thief, croutons from Savory Sweet Life

Spicy Mac and Cheese

A few months ago I was contacted by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board about participating in the launch of their Macaroni & Cheese blog in celebration of National Cheese Lover’s Day.   Hello!?  Of course I was interested!  How could I resist such an offer?  I have always loved cheese, and most of my favorite foods are very cheesy.  And, one of those foods just happens to be macaroni and cheese.  Many food bloggers have been involved to compile 30 days worth of mac and cheese, and each has developed a recipe featuring a different cheese.

I was happy when I learned that my featured cheese would be Colby jack, because it is our standard in the house for snacking and such.  I knew immediately that I wanted to attempt a spicy variation of mac and cheese, and Colby jack fit well into that plan.  I typically prefer to use more than one type of cheese in the cheese sauce for the sake of variety and more depth of flavor.  This time around I decided to use mostly Colby jack, with some pepper jack for spice and sharp cheddar as well.  To add to the spiciness of the dish, I sautéed a mixture of finely chopped jalapeno pepper, roasted red pepper, and onion, and mixed this into the sauce before baking.  Finally, I mixed some cayenne pepper into both the cheese sauce itself and the bread crumb topping for an added kick.

I was absolutely thrilled with how this turned out.  In fact, I think it’s my new favorite mac and cheese.  I’ll always love a traditional version as well, but I think the added spice of this one just makes it more appealing to me.  The cheese sauce was creamy and the vegetables added great flavor, but thanks to fine chopping and sautéing there were not noticeable chunks affecting the texture of the dish.  Overall I would call this mild-moderately spicy, which is what I was going for.  Our whole family loved it.  It was also delicious reheated as leftovers later!  The amount of spice can be easily adapted to suit your preference by adding more or less jalapeno and cayenne pepper.

Check out the Macaroni and Cheese Blog for the rest of the 30 days of mac and cheese entries.  I can’t wait to see all the wonderful variations – and of course, try many of them!

Spicy Mac and Cheese
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4 cups pasta shapes (I like cavatappi)
1/3 cup onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup roasted red pepper (jarred or home roasted), finely chopped
1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely minced
6½ tbsp. butter, divided
4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
2½ cups milk
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. onion powder
¼ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
8 oz. colby jack cheese, shredded
4 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded
4 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz. baguette or crusty Italian bread, torn into large chunks

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  When the water boils, cook the pasta according to the package directions.  In the meantime, melt ½ tablespoon of butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, red pepper and jalapeno to the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally until fragrant and tender, about 5-7 minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat.  Once the butter is completely melted, whisk in the flour.  Cook the mixture, whisking constantly, until it turns a light golden brown color and begins to foam, about 2 minutes.  (Be careful not to burn!)  Whisk in the milk until well blended.  Cook the mixture, whisking or stirring frequently, until it begins to bubble and thicken, about 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to medium-low.  Whisk in the spices.  Add the cheeses to the mixture and whisk until completely melted and well incorporated.  Remove the mixture from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 375° F.  Grease a 2-quart casserole dish.  Return the drained pasta to the large pot.  Add in the cooked vegetables and the cheese sauce, and mix until well blended.  Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole dish.

Use a food processor to pulse the bread into coarse crumbs.  Transfer the crumbs to a small bowl.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and toss with the bread crumbs.  (I also mixed in a dash of cayenne pepper.)  Sprinkle the crumb mixture in an even layer on top of the pasta.  Bake for 25 minutes, or until the mixture is heated through and the topping is golden brown.  Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Source: Annie’s Eats original

Full Disclosure: I received compensation from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for my groceries and the time spent on this project.