Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spinach and Artichoke Mac and Cheese with Bacon

I do not find mac and cheese boring.  Not at all.  I love cheese, and I love pasta, and I love the comforting, creamy, and ultimately benign flavor and texture profile of mac and cheese.  But some people might find it boring, bite after creamy bite.  If you happen to be one of these people, but you still enjoy cheese and pasta, this is the recipe for you.  I think the title essentially speaks for itself: Spinach and Artichoke Mac and Cheese with Bacon.  Despite the fact that it is loaded with spinach, I am not going to try to sell you on it being healthy.  It is most certainly not.  It is loaded with cheese, and peppered with bacon.  However, I will say that I think this recipe would be a great candidate for whole wheat pasta; however that still won’t make it healthy.  So, if you are counting calories, either stop that nonsense, or close your web browser.
This is a pretty basic mac and cheese recipe (roux-based béchamel sauce, melted cheese, pasta), but the flavor gets elevated by shallots and a little garlic, as well as some nutmeg, the meatiness of bacon, and the heft of the spinach and artichokes.  This recipe is very user friendly: it calls for frozen spinach and canned artichokes.  No blanching, chopping, and scrapping out furry chokes required.  I will say that you should not under any circumstances rush while you are draining the spinach.  Squeeze it, squeeze it, then squeeze it some more.  Nothing is worse than watery frozen spinach (is anyone else gagging, or is that just me?).  The cheese selection in this recipe is a perfectly balanced combination of Monterey jack and parmesan.  Jack is creamy and mild, and melts languidly into the sauce; the parmesan adds a lip-smacking savory quality.  And the best part is that they are used in equal amounts.  Parmesan cheese is a common addition to mac and cheese, but not usually in this quantity, which allows it to really assert its presence.  The other great thing about this recipe is that is it broiled, rather than baked.  Personally, I think baking macaroni and cheese is playing with fire.  First you slave over your cheese sauce, coming up with the perfect consistency, and then you let it mingle in a hot oven for 45 minutes, which completely changes the texture, often to a more grainy consistency, rather than its original unctuous luxuriousness.  So, my suggestion, is to generously top that sucker with shredded cheese, and throw it under the broil (observing with a hawk’s watchfulness so it doesn’t burn, and possibly rotating it every minute or so), which will allow for a golden, melted top, while maintaining the creamy, saucy interior.      
Spinach and Artichoke Mac and Cheese with Bacon (adapted from Taste and Tell):

Yields 6-8 servings

1 pound penne pasta
4-5 slices bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 shallots, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chicken broth
3 cups milk
1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained thoroughly
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, chopped
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon hot chile flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey jack, divided
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan, divided


-          Preheat the broiler. Coat 9x13 baking dish with nonstick spray.

-          In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta about 2 minutes less than the package directions call for; drain well.

-          Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the bacon and cook until brown and crispy, about 6-8 minutes. Reserve 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings.  Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate; set aside.

-          Heat olive oil and bacon drippings in a medium pot over medium low heat. Add the shallot; season with a pinch of salt, freshly ground pepper, and chile flakes.  Cook until it has softened and is translucent (about 4-5 minutes).  Add garlic and cook for one minute.

-          Whisk in the flour until lightly browned, about 1-2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the chicken broth and cook, whisking constantly, until incorporated, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in the milk and nutmeg and, while whisking, bring to a simmer. Add the spinach and artichokes, and stir until the sauce has thickened and the vegetables are heated through, about 2-3 minutes; season with salt and pepper, to taste. Stir in 1 cup Monterey jack and 1 cup Parmesan until smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

-          Stir in the penne and bacon.  Turn on a low flame if necessary to get all of the ingredients heated through.

-          Spread the penne mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining pepper jack and Parmesan.

-          Place into oven and broil for 3-4 minutes, or until golden brown.  Serve immediately.


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