Baked Mac n’ Cheese with Pancetta and Broccoli.

Guys, our comfort food days are numbered.

Fall and winter (and in Park City, spring) are the chilly, bundle-up months that make it completely acceptable to spend an entire snowy day in slippers. You are drawn to the kitchen, spending hours preparing casseroles and stews and muffins – really, anything to be closer to the warm stove and have the oven on all day. Soon, it will be a new season. Eating outside will become the norm. The Farmers Market will dictate which fresh recipe to try. There will be a lot of veggies and herbs and lightened-up versions of everything. Bikini season approaches, after all.

But not yet.

One of my very favorite comfort foods is a homemade baked macaroni and cheese. I require nutmeg and toasty browned breadcrumbs. Remember when I made the healthy mac n’ cheese dish? Um, this isn’t that one. I made my mom’s tasty recipe this week, with a few tweaks. I added pancetta and broccoli and tried my luck with gluten-free pasta.

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Project Reduce Gluten has been totally manageable. There’s a TON of stuff that naturally just doesn’t have wheat flour in it, and so many substitutions on the market today for people with dietary issues. Problem? Those substitutions are generally not yummy. Don’t make me talk about the pizza again. I’ve been dying for a big bowl of pasta, so when I saw the description on the bag of brown rice pasta, I figured I’d try it.

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(Side: I offered to make traditional noodles for John and do individual servings of the dish, but he wanted to be a trooper with me. Love him.)

Pay attention, because this is going to happen fast. The recipe is just so easy! Get your oven going at 350 degrees. Swirl a teeny amount of oil in a pan and brown up a handful of lovely pancetta (bacon works well, too).

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While the pancetta was sizzling away, I chopped up about a half of an onion and prepared some broccoli into bite-sized florets.

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I dropped the broccoli into a pot of boiling water, just for a minute or two, to lightly cook it (barely) and bring out the color. The broccoli immediately went into a little ice bath to stop the cooking process. I kept the water boiling for the pasta.

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The pasta has a unique cooking method, which admittedly left me doubtful of the outcome. I poured the bag of pasta into the boiling water, let it cook for just two minutes, then turned off the heat, covered it, and let it sit for 15 minutes before draining. Weird.

While the pasta, um, cooked (?),  I shredded a big pile of sharp cheddar cheese. I usually also incorporate some shredded gruyere, but  my market was out of it. I had time to give Cholula a new toy (with 18 separate squeakers in it). She was very excited and played us a squeaky tune for the rest of the night.

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With my mix-ins on standby, all that was left was the sauce. I drained most of the pancetta drippings and added a little smidge of butter. Into the pan went the onion, and I sautéed it until it was getting soft. To make the sauce get thick, it needed…(cue ominous music)…a handful of FLOUR. Don’t worry. It’s Project REDUCE Gluten, not Project You’ll Die if You Eat Gluten.

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After a couple of minutes in the pan to cook off the flour-y taste, I poured in some milk and let it bubble and thicken up, stirring often.

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Next came the star: the CHEESE. I turned off the heat and stirred the cheese/milk mixture until everything was smooth and melty. Then I added crushed red pepper, some garlic powder, and nutmeg. Gotta have nutmeg.

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I drained the strange-colored pasta-imposter, popping a piece into my mouth. Al dente. Pasta-flavored. This could work, you guys. I poured the cheese sauce into a bigger pot and added the pasta, then the broccoli, then the pancetta.

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Once it was all stirred together, it went into a baking dish. A generous sprinkling of Italian breadcrumbs (also not gluten-free, but elimination is not an option.) and we were ready to bake.

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Thirty minutes later, the breadcrumbs were browned and delicious. Look at that crust on top!

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Sometimes I serve a salad with mac n’ cheese. Tonight, it filled a bowl and was accompanied by a gluten-free buttered bagel. (Side: Udi’s bread products are GF and really good.)

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Does this bowl scream COMFORT FOOD, or what? The pancetta gives it a salty bite, and the barely-cooked broccoli retained a bit of crunch for tasty texture. The pasta itself was actually great- John thought so, too. Maybe it’s because it was covered in cheese. Thank you, cheese.

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It’s hard to beat a great baked mac n’ cheese. Comfort food only works part of the year- a hearty, cheesy casserole doesn’t work as well in summertime. I’ll dream about it in August, when turning on the oven is forbidden.

I may have dreamed about it last night… because I had leftovers for breakfast.

Baked Mac n’ Cheese with Pancetta and Broccoli

You’ll need:

  • 2 cups pasta of your choice
  • 1 ½ cups broccoli florets
  • 5 ounces chopped pancetta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • Handful of flour
  • 1 ¾ cup milk
  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • Garlic salt and white pepper to taste
  • Italian breadcrumbs

Cook pasta according to package directions, leaving it just under al dente. Drain and set aside.

Brown pancetta in oil over medium heat. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels. While pancetta is browning, bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop broccoli florets into the water and cook for less than two minutes. Remove florets with a slotted spoon and place into a bowl filled with ice water. Drain the broccoli and set aside.

Drain all but 1 tablespoon of drippings from the pancetta pan. Add the butter. Sauté the onion until softened. Sprinkle in the flour and cook for two minutes, stirring. Add the milk and cook over medium low heat until bubbly and thickened.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the cheese until melted. Add the garlic powder, nutmeg, and crushed red pepper. In a large bowl, combine the pasta, pancetta, broccoli, and cheese sauce. Pour into a baking dish.

Sprinkle a generous amount of breadcrumbs over the top of the pasta/cheese mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. You may need to switch on the broiler to get the top to get really browned and delicious. Go back for seconds and it makes a delicious breakfast. YUM!

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