I haven't cooked anything new in months, hence the complete lack of new recipes on this site. I've been cooking but either they have already been featured here or they were just everyday foods I was eating and not post-worthy, like Greek yogurt with bananas and honey and chopped salads. So two weeks ago I got the sudden urge to cook and to have people over my apartment. I hadn't cooked for friends in ages and decided to invite Brenner, Shannon and Russ over as at one point or another I had mentioned wanting to have them over for dinner. Plus I have a breakfast bar in my kitchen with three stools, so I was limited to three guests at a time.
When I have friends over for people, I like to cook something that can be made in one pan or pot. Like frittatas for brunch or a big hearty stew for dinner. That way people can serve themselves as much as they like and there's enough for seconds or if it's really good, thirds. Plus it's easier for me to manage as I only have to worry about making one large main dish and then can focus on a few sides and desserts.
I was in the mood for a baked pasta dish but an ordinary mac and cheese wasn't going to be special enough for the gang. I wanted to serve something with a little more of a wow-factor but still rustic, homey and comforting. I had seen a pasta al forno (which literally means baked pasta in Italian) made with bright and bitter radicchio and earthy shiitake mushrooms. But the recipe had a whole stick of butter, tons of cream and cheese. I knew there was a better way to make it without sacrificing any of the cheesy goodness.
Here's what you'll need:
3/4 pound of pasta, shells
1 cup of low-fat milk
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of flour
1 cup of sliced shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
1 small head of radicchio (you need 3/4 of it)
1 cup of fresh ricotta
6 ounces of Maytag blue cheese
8-10 ounces of Gruyere cheese
To start off, I needed to make a bechamel. Traditionally it's made with equal parts butter and flour, cooked into a roux with milk whisked in for a white creamy sauce. But I hate butter. I didn't grow up using it and try to avoid eating it and cooking with it. There are some things I just can avoid using it, like baking. But with cooking, I always try to find an alternative. I have seen bechamels made with olive oil instead of butter and that the method I used.
So here's how to do it. Start with 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan and heat it up. Next whisk in two tablespoons of all-purpose flour and over medium heat, cook until you have a nutty brown paste. Whisk the mixture constantly to avoid lumps. Add one cup of low-fat milk, again no need for heavy cream or full fat milk. Keep whisking over the heat until you have a thickened white sauce.
Season this with salt and pepper. Now it's time to add the cheese. To give this dish a complex mix of flavors that would complement the shiitake mushrooms and radicchio, I use Maytag blue cheese, Gruyere and fresh ricotta. Set the sauce aside and cover.
Meanwhile, cook the mushrooms (sliced thinly) over medium heat in a large saute pan with a little olive oil. Wait until they start to turn golden and THEN season with salt and pepper. If you season immediately, the mushrooms will not brown because the salt will draw out the water in the mushrooms. Then add the radicchio. To prep, slice one small head in half and then cut into thin strands. The radicchio is bitter when eaten raw, but develops a nice, sweet flavor when sauteed. Cook the radicchio and mushrooms together, again seasoning with salt and pepper and then add to the bechamel.
Now it's time to assemble the dish. I like pasta shells for this recipe because the curved shape holds the sauce well. Cook in a large pot of salted water but reduce the cooking time by a few minutes. The pasta needs to be undercooked because it will continue cooking when it's baked in the oven. The most common mistake people make when cooking mac and cheese is to cook the pasta fully. The pasta becomes too soft and mushy. It normally takes 12 minutes to cook the pasta shells so I took them out of the water after 8 minutes.
Mix the cooked and drained shells with the bechamel mixture and then pour into a large dish that can be used in the oven. The dish should be greased with a little oil so avoid sticking. Top with a little Panko breadcrumbs and bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes.
I served this with a side of roasted cauliflower with honey and balsamic vinegar and a simple mixed green salad. Dessert was a banana cake with vanilla frosting. Dinner was a hit. We ate all of the food and drank a few bottles of wine and then headed out to burn off the calories. I'd love to have people over regularly and hopefully with the weather finally getting warmer in NYC, that will happen.