18 July 2011

Wild America

Los Angeles has much more wildlife than most people (even Angelenos) would believe. I see raptors at least a couple times a week on light poles overlooking the freeways; deer, rabbits, and rattlesnakes are commonplace in the hills; raccoons wander along the sidewalks at night; I once even saw a brief glimpse of a coyote slinking through the trees by the side of the road.

This, though, was nothing short of exceptional.

wild america!

Mike's photo isn't the best, to be sure; that's what happens when shooting through a screen door in need of a wash. That, viewers, is a full-grown Red-tailed Hawk ... sitting on our fence, not 8 feet from the door. Presumably he decided that our bird feeder, which draws dozens of songbirds throughout the day, was a good little snack bar for him—and personally, I'd be happy to lose a few finches if I got to see a hawk up close more often.

In food news, I'm still scouring the market every week for ever-elusive Blenheim apricots (I still haven't made any jam this summer), and quite possibly eating my weight in pasta.

A couple months back, two of my favorite bloggers proclaimed a shared dislike for macaroni and cheese. Everyone's tastes differ, to be sure—after all, I won't get within ten feet of any cooked broccoli if I can possibly avoid it—but what shocked me more than anything was their shared complaint about how greasy macaroni and cheese is. Setting aside the terrible, junky, non-greasy wonder that is Velveeta mac 'n' cheese, and politely ignoring the terrifying Tang-colored powder that accompanies the boxed stuff, I've been making homemade macaroni and cheese for years without a spoonful of grease in sight.

crusty cheese

I may have a place in my heart for cheap boxed macaroni (along with ramen noodles, probably my favorite junk food), but for years I had wanted a good homemade recipe: something to make when going to a barbecue or craving bubbling brown cheese. When flipping through an issue of Bon Appétit several years back, I found a possible candidate, but I decided to make some changes.

Several months later (after all, how often can a person make macaroni and cheese?) I proclaimed it finished. The base is simple enough—provolone and sharp cheddar cheeses blended into a roux flavored with onions and garlic—but a dash of Spanish smoked paprika and a handful of chipotle chiles add a smoky, spicy kick. I like to top it with fresh buttered bread crumbs, but it's equally good (and crustier, to boot) when naked on top. No matter what you do, you won't have any puddles of grease.

no grease!

Smoky Chipotle Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from Bon Appétit's recipe here

As is, the recipe is not particularly spicy; if you like spice, note that a vinegar-based hot sauce (we like Secret Aardvark's habañero sauce) is fantastic stirred into the served pasta.

Also, this makes a pretty big batch; if I'm not making this to take to a party, I use one 8 inch square dish and two small-ish soufflé dishes, freezing the smaller dishes unbaked and without bread crumbs. When you're ready to eat them, they can be baked as below, increasing the baking time as needed.

1 pound elbow macaroni
2 cups chopped green onions, lightly packed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1 very large or 2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup flour
4 cups whole milk
1 pound extra-sharp cheddar, grated
8 ounces provolone, grated
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon pimentón de la vera (Spanish smoked paprika)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3-4 chipotle chiles in adobo, minced (from one small can; I use Embasa, a readily available brand)
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste; optional)
1 ½ cups fresh bread crumbs (optional)

Cook the macaroni in boiling salted water until just barely al dente; drain and mix with the green onions and fresh oregano in a very large bowl; set aside, loosely covered.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Using the same large pot, heat 6 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened but not browned, 6-8 minutes.

Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, 2-3 minutes more. Gradually whisk in the milk. Increase the heat and whisk constantly until boiling. Reduce heat again and simmer until slightly thickened, 2-5 minutes - be sure to stir regularly to avoid letting the milk burn. Add the cheeses, seasonings, and chipotles; stir well and cook until cheese is all melted, 2-3 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Pour the sauce over the pasta and mix well. Mound into on 9x13x2 pan or one 8" square pan and two approximately five inch soufflé dishes.

If covering with bread crumbs, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Toss the bread crumbs until uniformly coated with butter, then sprinkle over pasta (note: if freezing, I recommend leaving off the bread crumbs). If freezing, wrap the dish(es) with plastic wrap, then foil.

Bake, uncovered, until heated through and brown & bubbly on top (about 1 hour; 1.5 hours if frozen).

Serves at least 12


  1. This looks positively delicious. I will start making homemade mac and cheese for my son, and I even heard about Marc Bittman's recipe that incorporates pureed cauliflower, which if my memory serves, you ARE a fan of cauliflower. (Your dislike of broccoli surprised me!!)

  2. Oh my word. This looks like the ultimate mac and cheese. It's my absolute go-to comfort dish. Last time I put tiny nuggets of chorizo in amongst it. That was pretty good too (but I think the smoked paprika is a much more elegant way to go). Nb, just discovered your blog and I adore it. Thank you for a lovely half hour of escapism as I trawled the archives!