Thursday, February 25, 2010

Outrageous Macaroni & Cheese - Aspen Style!

Macaroni and cheese is like pizza. Even when it's not that great, it's still pretty good. But when it's really good, it can be on another level!

My early introduction to macaroni and cheese was humble at best. Like most people, I grew up with the boxed variety that still stocks many a pantry. I honestly didn't know that you could get it any other way. While my Mom made many things from scratch, including bread and cakes, homemade macaroni and cheese just wasn't in her culinary lexicon and I was fine with that. As a kid I hadn't yet learned to appreciate the beauty of quality ingredients made into something from scratch and I certainly wanted nothing to do with macaroni and cheese of the homemade sort. It had to be psychedelic orange powder or nothing! Admittedly in my teen years I experimented with that NASA-like vacuum pack of "cheese sauce" that you squeezed over shell-shaped pasta (don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about!) and it was of great debate between my sister Adrienne and me which was actually the "best" brand of macaroni and cheese. She swore by the NASA-like squeeze packet and I held on stubbornly to the neon Cheeto powder of my childhood. Even at 14-years old I was slightly creeped out by a packet of "cheese sauce" that needed no refrigeration and could undoubtedly outlive me. The expiration date was printed right there on the shiny foil packet and this was at a time when I was still grappling with the incomprehensible idea of partying like it was 1999!

Fast forward to a few years ago on my first visit to Aspen Colorado. I was at Jimmy's Restaurant for the second time that trip and stumbled upon the "Jimmy Mac" on the bar menu. This wasn't just any old macaroni and cheese. This macaroni and cheese had the genius addition of bacon and jalapeño. That was all I needed to read. For me the math is simple: Bacon + Cheese = NIRVANA. I was IN! Needless to say this was some of the best macaroni and cheese I'd ever had the pleasure of eating. Eating? Who am I kidding? More like bowl-licking devouring! It was piping hot, served in a generously sized gratin dish with beautifully browned melted cheese on top and studded with salty bits of crispy bacon and green flecks of jalapeño for kick. The menu lists this delicacy under the category of "Sides to Share." Let me tell you, there wasn't much sharing going on. In fact, I think we ordered more for the table! I literally dreamed about Jimmy Mac that night and returned to Jimmy's a few more times to greedily consume more before my trip was over.

Jimmy shares several of his famous recipes on his restaurant site, including the Jimmy Mac. Before I knew that though, I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen creating my homage to his culinary revelation and I think I've come pretty close. In fact, I think Jimmy would be proud. In a recent Facebook exchange he humbly referred to the Jimmy Mac as a "Reese's Peanut Butter Cup accident that just happened to hit a perfect combo." Perfect indeed, Jimmy.

In fact, it's on another level!

Outrageous Macaroni & Cheese with Bacon & Jalapeno
(My Take on "Jimmy Mac")

Serves 8 to 10

1 pound large elbow macaroni
1 quart whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups Gruyere, grated
2 cups extra-sharp aged Cheddar, grated
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2
jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
Panko Bread Crumbs, for topping

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions. Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, being careful not to boil it. Melt the butter in a large (4-quart) pot and add the flour. Whisk over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to cook out the raw flour taste. While whisking, add the hot milk and bring to a boil, cooking until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the Gruyere, cheddar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in the
jalapeño and bacon and fold in the cooked macaroni. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Top with panko bread crumbs. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is evenly browned on the top.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Baja-Style Fried Fish Tacos

t's threatening to rain again, and weirdly I'm not craving slow cooked stews, or big bowls of chili. All I can think of is summer food, namely Baja-style fried fish tacos. If you've never had a fish taco the way they make them in Baja you don't know what you're missing.

Okay, admittedly I’ve never been to Baja. But taco stands that serve Baja style fish tacos are a staple in Southern California these days. I swear you can almost imagine yourself standing on the beach in San Felipe when you eat these. Served with an icy cold Mexican beer, there is nothing better.

Serves 4


1 cup pale beer

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 pound boned, skinned white fish (cod, catfish, halibut)

24 warm corn tortillas
1/2 head shredded cabbage

Lime wedges


½ cup good mayonnaise
2 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder, or to taste

3 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded, finely chopped

1/4 cup small white onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 jalapeño, seeded, finely chopped

Juice of 2 limes

Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

In a bowl, whisk together flour, salt and cayenne pepper. Whisk in the beer, blending well, making sure there are no lumps. Batter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter. Rinse fish and pat dry. Cut into 2-inch pieces.

Heat a large, heavy bottomed frying pan or Dutch oven with enough vegetable oil to create a 1-inch depth. Heat the oil over high heat to 375 degrees on a deep fry thermometer. Dip fish pieces in beer batter and lift out, draining briefly. Gently slide coated fish into oil, a few pieces at a time. Adjust heat to maintain oil temperature. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Remove fish to a paper towel-lined platter using a slotted spoon or Chinese strainer. Continue until all fish pieces have been fried. To assemble, stack two tortillas in your hand. Add a few pieces of fish, chipotle sauce, pico de gallo and top with shredded cabbage. Spritz with a squeeze of lime, fold in half and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Valentine's Day 101: Heating It Up in the Kitchen! Guys, I'm Talking to You!

Men who cook are like…the new trucker hat!
Remember those? Only, they’re not as likely to go out of style any time soon. So fellas, if you’re the type that follows trends and the only thing you’re used to making for Valentine’s Day dinner is a reservation, pay close attention! I’m only going to say this once. There is nothing sexier than a man who cooks. Did you catch that? There’s no better aphrodisiac than a meal made with your own hands, in your own kitchen for your special someone, or even your sort-of-special-someone. It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t cook. I’ll get to that in a minute with a sort of cooking MapQuest. What you cook doesn’t have to be all fancy-pants and towered high on an oversized white plate with dribbles and dabs of esoteric sauce, garnished with white truffles imported from Italy that cost more than one month’s rent! Don’t be ridiculous. But if you want to score major points in the romance department, get yourself into the sexiest room in the house. No, not that one! The kitchen! You heard me. Now that you’re there, take a look around. You can do more in this room than take a swig from the milk jug or crack open a beer, you know. It’s here that you’ll find everything you need to create the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner.

It’s a well-known fact that no holiday strikes fear into the hearts of men like the one that falls on February 14th. It’s like a romantic landmine. It comes around every year, inevitably, like another birthday you’d like to forget, or tax day. The date seems to leer at you from the calendar, following you like the eyes of a creepy old painting.

Valentine’s Day seems to whip people into a panicked, frenzied search to find love (or at least lust) by the time the bell tolls. Last year, about this time, a female friend called me in a sheer panic. With the 14th fast approaching she was starting to exhibit the signs of delirious desperation. The kind I’d previously seen only in Survivor contestants after 39 days on the island! She was going on and on about not having someone “special” in her life and lamenting that she was going to die all alone. She’s 29. She started wailing on the other end of the line, “Why? Why am I single and everyone else has someone? Why?!” She sounded not unlike Nancy Kerrigan in that infamous knee whacking incident. Clearly this is why caller ID was invented. I think about breaking up with her for a minute and we’re not even dating.

Depending on where you are on the dating/relationship ladder, Valentine’s Day presents a certain conundrum. If you’ve been together for a year or more, you call each other boyfriend/girlfriend or you live together, it’s a no-brainer for you. Skip to the next paragraph. On the other hand, if you’ve only been dating for a few weeks or months, haven’t yet said “I love you,” or still aren’t quite sure how to refer to each other in public, you have to make the perilous decision of exactly what, or what not to do for this expectation filled holiday. Roses are good, albeit a little cliché. If you do opt for roses, do you send the red ones and risk scaring her, or the yellow ones and risk offending her? It’s too much pressure! The answer is simple. Cook her dinner at home! If you think about it, it’s perfect. No pressure to pick the right restaurant or jockeying for a good table. No valet or parking hassles. It’s original, it’s less expensive, it’s more personal, and even if you screw it up completely you’re still a hero because you made the effort. Everyone loves a man who cooks! Worst case scenario: you blow the whole thing, call for take out and crack open that great bottle of wine you were going to serve with dinner.

Now, back to that “but I can’t cook” thing you’ve been telling yourself for so long. Relax! I’m here to help you. If you fall into the majority of the XY-chromosome set, most of your meals probably come in take-out containers or are heated in a microwave. Not the best way to impress your date. There’s a saying: “If you know you’re going to get wet, you may as well go swimming.” Good advice and if you’re with me on this culinary journey so far, you’re gonna have to take the plunge. The first step is deciding on a menu. You’re in luck because I’ve done the work for you. I’m going to walk you through a meal that’s as simple to prepare as it is elegant to serve. It’s an updated riff on classic steak house fare. If your date has a moral issue with red meat, simply remind her of this axiom, “If God didn’t want you to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them out of meat.” If that doesn’t work, dump her. The second step is making yourself a detailed list before you head off to the grocery store. That way you don’t get distracted and end up falling back on items that require a microwave as their primary cooking method. The third step is to get organized. Set the table in advance, don’t forget those well placed candles, and read the recipes all the way through before you start cooking to make sure you have everything you need. I know this whole cooking thing may be unfamiliar territory, but don’t let that deter you. If you follow this simple game plan and simple recipes, you’ll end up looking like a very sexy, very romantic, culinary rock star. Minus the trucker hat of course.


White Cosmopollitan

Warm Spinach Salad with Red Grapes & Pancetta

Pan Seared Filet Mignon with Blackberry Cabernet Sauce

Mashed Potatoes with Chives

Roasted Asparagus

No-Bake Chocolate Pot de Creme

1 day ahead: Make the Chocolate Pot de Crème and the Blackberry Cabernet Sauce. Clean and trim the asparagus.

2 hours ahead: Prep the ingredients for the spinach salad and have everything ready to go.

1 hour ahead: Make the mashed potatoes. Keep warm in a heat-proof bowl, covered with foil over a pot of gently simmering water. Open bottle of wine.

20 minutes before dinner: Start searing the steaks, drizzle the asparagus with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Start the music. Light the candles. Shake up 2 White Cosmos.

10 minutes before dinner: As the steaks are resting put the asparagus into the oven to roast. Gently reheat the Blackberry Cabernet sauce. Make the warm dressing for the salad.

The moment of truth: Draw the curtains, toast your special somebody and just remember, I told you so. Happy Valentine’s Day!

White Cosmopolitan

This is a fun twist on the Cosmopolitan, or “Cosmo” as the cool people call it. I use Rose’s Sweetened Lime juice in this recipe. If you prefer your drink less sweet and more tart, feel free to use the same amount of fresh

Serves 1

3 ounces good vodka
3 ounces white cranberry juice
1 1/2 ounces Rose’s Sweetened Lime Juice
1 1/2 ounces Triple Sec
Fresh raspberries, for garnish

Pour the vodka, cranberry juice, Rose’s lime and the Triple Sec into a cocktail shaker. Tumble in a handful of ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled martini glass and float a raspberry on top.

Warm Spinach Salad with Red Grapes & Pancetta

This salad, with its Italian pancetta, pine nuts and red grapes, is perfect for a romantic dinner. The only thing to remember here, and it’s not a big deal, the salad must be tossed with the dressing at the absolute last minute before serving. Having said that, the dressing only takes a few minutes and the ingredients can be prepped well in advance.

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 pound baby spinach leaves, cleaned & drained
1/2 cup pancetta, cubed
1/4 cup raw pine nuts
1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup seedless red grapes, halved
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese shavings

Place the spinach in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, cook the pancetta in a medium saute pan over medium heat until just starting to crisp. Remove the pancetta from the pan and drain on a paper towel. Don’t drain the fat from the pan! Add the pine nuts and cook for about 1 minute, until they begin to toast. Add the onion and the grapes to the pan, cook 1 minute more. Pour the dressing into the pan and bring to the boil for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and pour over the spinach. Toss well, garnish with Parmesan cheese shavings.

Pan-Seared Filet Mignon with Blackberry Cabernet Sauce

There are those who would argue a good steak needs no adornment and I tend to agree. But, this sauce is sophisticated and unexpected. All I can say is, give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.

4 (8ounce) filet mignon steaks
2 tablespoons good olive oil
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2/3 cup beef stock
2/3 Cabernet Sauvignon
3 tablespoons seedless blackberry preserves
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
A handful of fresh blackberries, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Pat the steaks dry with a paper towel and season generously with salt and pepper. In a heavy, ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Sear the steaks, on 1 side only, for 2 minutes until the meat begins to caramelize. Resist the urge to touch or poke at the meat so that caramelization actually has the chance to occur. You want your steaks to have that perfect contrast in texture, seared and crusty on one side, tender and juicy on the other. Without flipping the steak, transfer the pan to the oven and roast for about 7 minutes for medium rare (or when a meat thermometer registers 135 degrees.)

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine beef stock, Cabernet Sauvignon and blackberry preserves. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and allow the mixture to reduce by half. The sauce is ready when it becomes slightly thick and syrupy and can coat the back of a spoon. Season with pepper, but taste before adding any salt because canned stocks and broths tend to be a bit salty. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.

When the steaks are done, remove from the oven and allow them to rest loosely tented under a piece of aluminum foil for about 5 minutes. To serve, drizzle the blackberry cabernet sauce over the steaks, scatter a few blackberries on the plate and unleash the carnivore within.

Mashed Potatoes with Chives

I know it seems weird to give a recipe for mashed potatoes but there are as many ways to make them as there are to peel them. Speaking of which, I don’t peel mine. Partly out of laziness, but mostly because I love the flavor and rustic texture the skins give. I mash these by hand with an old-fashioned potato masher, just like grandma used.

Serves 2

Kosher salt for potato water
4 large Yukon Gold potatoes
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, or to taste
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
¼ cup chopped chives

Scrub the potatoes and cut into rough and tumble chunks. The idea is to cut everything roughly the same size so they cook at the same time. Place in a large stock pot or Dutch oven and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and generously salt the water. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until fork tender. Drain the potatoes and tumble into a large bowl. Add butter, a generous scoop of sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Mash the potatoes to desired texture with a potato masher. Stir in the chives and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Roasted Asparagus

If you’ve never tried roasted vegetables here’s your chance. You’ll never want to eat them any other way.

Serves 2

1 bunch of asparagus
Good olive oil, for drizzling
Kosher salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Wash asparagus and pat dry with paper towels. Trim the woody ends and place asparagus in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes until crisp-tender. Serve immediately.

No-Bake Chocolate Pot de Creme

This dessert is as easy as instant pudding, but so much more sophisticated. The recipe makes enough for 4, technically. But then we’re treading dangerously close to “dainty portions” territory. I usually opt for elegant coffee cups, in which case you end up with two reasonably generous portions. I’ll leave it up to you.

Serves 2 (see above)

2/3 cup whole milk
1 egg
Pinch of kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 ounces good quality semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup lightly sweetened whipped cream, for garnish
Fresh raspberries, for garnish

Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until just below boiling. In a blender combine egg, salt, sugar, vanilla and chocolate until smooth. With the blender running, carefully pour in the hot milk and process until smooth. Pour the chocolate mixture into the serving cups, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. Top with whipped cream and garnish with a few raspberries before serving.