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Macaroni and cheese comprised a large part of my childhood eats. And chances are, if you were born in America, the stuff made its way to your dinner table (or couch) every once in a while. Little wonder it’s long been the reigning king of weeknight meals, backyard barbecues, and church potlucks. After all, there is pasta and cheese involved.

Here recently in Nashville, we’ve had the unique joy of 60 degree mornings. Just yesterday, I stepped out for a walk and found myself in need of a sweater. It got me thinking of fall. In turn, it got me thinking of all kinds of warm, rich, comforting foods. At the top of the list was mac n’ cheese. 

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While mac n’ cheese is certainly a stalwart offering in the American comfort food canon, it’s been around in some form for quite a long time. In fact, the Forme of Cury, a 14th century English cookbook had a recipe for something called makerouns (as in macaroni), a casserole of hand-cut pasta with butter and cheese. For your fascination, I’ve included the recipe in the original middle English below:

“Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth.”

While I have a special place in my heart for Velveeta Shells and Cheese, the recipe I’ve included below hearkens back to the middle ages. In other words, this dish is not for the faint of heart. It is, of course, creamy and decadently rich. But standing at the forefront is a bold, earthy funk, thanks to the clothbound and washed-rind cheeses. Yes, you could certainly substitute these for a mild, classic cheddar. But if that’s the case, save yourself the time and trouble and let Velveeta do the work.

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For those of you still with me, tantalized by the prospect of something funky and intense, I salute you.

14th Century Mac n’ Cheese

Ingredients:

3 cups shells or conchiglie pasta, uncooked

2 oz tallegio cheese

3 oz Neal’s Yard clothbound cheddar

4 oz cave-aged Gruyére

1 cup milk

3 tbsp flour

2 tbsp butter

1 cup bread crumbs

black pepper

Before we begin, fill a large pot with hot water and place it on the boil. Season generously with salt.

To make the bread crumbs, I suggest using rustic, days-old bread. If you’re in a pinch, toast up whatever bread you have under the broiler and then throw it into a food processor. Or, if you want to keep it even more rustic, chop it finely with a knife. I can’t stress just how delicious the bread crumbs are in this dish.

Today, we’ll be making a béchamel sauce. If you’re a Southerner, I’m talking about gravy. All of those intense cheeses need a form of transport. And by adding them to a cream sauce, they’ll melt down and effectively cover every nook and cranny of the pasta. So, the béchamel.

In a medium-sized pan, melt your butter on medium heat. To the butter, add the flour and stir to mix well. This is a roux, and it serves to thicken sauces, gravies, soups, etc. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, until the color just begins to change and it smells like roasted almonds.

A little at a time, we’ll add the milk to the roux. Have a whisk ready so that you can incorporate the milk into the roux. You don’t want any lumps. Little by little, add the milk, whisking gently but constantly, until a gravy forms. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer.

As the béchamel simmers, let’s cut the cheese. Consider this practice for what might come hours after eating this dish. For the softer tallegio, which might not cut well, don’t worry about it. Be sure to reserve a small handful of cheese, which will be used later to melt onto the top of the pasta. Raise the heat slightly and pour the cheese into the béchamel a little at a time, stirring well to incorporate. Lower the heat once again, being sure to stir occasionally.

When the water boils, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and pour into a mixing bowl. Pour the cheesy béchamel sauce over the pasta and stir so that the pasta is completely coated.

Turn on the broiler to its highest setting. Into small ramekins, place a generous amount of the pasta and cheese mixture (it should rise well above the rim of the ramekin). Layer the reserved cheese on top of the pasta and cover generously with the bread crumbs. Place the ramekins on a sheet pan and place them under the broil. Let cook until the bread crumbs begin to darken and char and the cheese begins to bubble and crisp.

Though you may sense a strong and immediate urge to dip your face into the ramekin, allowing a molten-hot, rich, creamy cheese-lather to drip down your chin, it’s better to wait a minute or two.

For the full effect, this 14th century mac n’ cheese is best enjoyed while wearing a woolen cloak and complaining of chills and fever.

Enjoy.

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Hard to believe, but this is the first dessert recipe I’ve ever posted. Up until recently, I was staunchly opposed to writing about sweets. Something about it seemed almost gimmicky. In truth, I’ve never been, by any means, innovative when it comes to making desserts (unless you count the time I tried to surprise my wife by making a cake, substituting olive oil for butter and cherry juice for granulated sugar–I’m sure you have a good sense of about how successful that was).

But before you start calling me a sell-out, complaining that this cookie post is a cheap way to garner millions of views on Pinterest, just hear me out. I’m doing this because I love you.

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What I’m trying to tell you is that I’ve found the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe. This is probably the moment where you begin to wonder how many times you’ve heard such an empty promise. I understand your reservations and your doubts. Your fears and your tired years of longing. I too have been let down by many a cookie recipe. Like bad relationships, a lover’s empty promises (“baby, I’ll be so good to you”), once I warmed their dough in my oven, I saw them for what they were all along: fakes, phonies.

Most were on the cake-y side of the spectrum, like little chocolate chip muffin tops. Others, meanwhile, could have been suitably repurposed as hockey pucks. With cookies, it’s all about the texture. And that’s why, when I came upon David Lebovitz’s recipe for Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies and found them to be everything I could ever want in a cookie, I had to share them with you. The salted butter, which has become ubiquitous in recent years, adds to the savor of these cookies, but it’s the technique and preparation that elevate them to celestial climes.

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The Recipe

Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies (from David Lebovitz)

Ingredients:

4 ounces salted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

1 1/3 cups coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate

1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped

In a large bowl, beat together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until smooth. If you don’t feel like using a stand mixer, a spoon works just fine. Now beat in the egg and the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, and salt.

Stir the flour into the beaten butter until you no longer see any dry bits of flour. Now stir in the chocolate and the toasted nuts.

Form the batter into a somewhat circular disc, wrap it in plastic, and let it chill in the fridge. Lebovitz suggests to let it chill overnight, but I’ve found that an hour in the freezer works just fine.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Lebovitz suggests shaping the dough into “rounds about the size of a large unshelled walnut,” but I must admit that after searching back in the vault of my subconsciousness, I held no memories of mid-september days, crouched down on sodden dirt beneath a black walnut tree, filling up pails of the smoky, meaty fruit.  And so, for your sake, dear reader, I’ve used a US quarter cent piece for scale because, unfortunately, our society has become more familiar with the specific size and weight of currency than of the fruits of nature.

Alas.

Place the mounds on the baking sheet and flatten them just so the dough is even and no longer domed. Bake the cookies on the center rack of the oven for 10 minutes. Halfway through, turn the baking sheet so that every cookie bakes evenly. After ten minutes, remove them from the oven. With a spatula, gently flatten them and place them back in the oven.

Let them cook about 3 minutes more. But keep a close eye on them. Once they are a light golden brown, remove them from the oven and take them off the hot baking sheet. Flatten them lightly once again, and resist your urge to eat two or three right out of the oven.

I know we all understand the joy of a warm cookie, but my wife, who is something of a sucrose connoisseur, introduced me to well-chilled chocolate chip cookies. After some time in the refrigerator, the butter and sugar firm ever so slightly and the cookies take on an almost caramel-like chewiness. Think about that for a minute.

You’re welcome.

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Let me start with some honesty: my wife’s eating habits are by far more nutritious and healthy than my own. If I lived alone, I would be a very unhealthy man. I would make very poor choices. I would not clean my room. This becomes strikingly and (sometimes) sickeningly obvious when she’s traveling and I’m at home.

Take her recent trip to Switzerland, for example. While she hiked the alps, drinking in the beauty of the landscape and dining on fresh vegetables and grains, I was at home, trying to think of new and different ways to cook organ meats. And though I spent some time working on a peasant’s version of foie gras (basically, smooth chicken liver pate cooked down with shallot and–because I did not have any cognac–you guessed it, bourbon), I was completely contented with a very large plate of fried chicken livers dipped in sweet ketchup and washed down with some cheap, very cold beer.

But because Raquelle is not always traveling, we find ourselves bumping heads over what we should cook, or buy at the grocery, or eat out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some kind of infantile weirdo who refuses to eat anything that is not either fried or called a “Chick’n Tend’r.” I eat my greens. I have a garden. I do yoga. I know what spirulina is.

What I’m trying to say is that dinners at our house are about compromise. If I can’t convince my wife that we haven’t had burgers in a long time (and so it wouldn’t be that bad to indulge ‘just this once’), we have to find a way to come up with a meal whose healthfulness doesn’t detract from it’s deliciousness. In other words, a vegetable stir-fry is great, so long as I’m allowed to use soy sauce for seasoning and toasted sesame oil for some ‘oomph.’

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Recently, she made a very simple soup from coconut milk, broccoli, onion, and finely chopped hot pepper. She had picked up the recipe from 101 cookbooks, a very beautiful and extensive food blog with lots of good ideas on how to cook grains and greens. I must say that I watched in doubt as the soup cooked on the stove, a stockless broth, comprised of nearly 4 cups of tasteless tap water. I expected it to be thin, lacking in complexity, in dire need of salt, oil, anything…but I was wrong.

The coconut broccoli soup was simultaneously rich and light at the same time, like an elevated and complex version of a broccoli cheese soup, sans le fromage, bien sur.  While it was certainly a welcome surprise, it stood in my mind as a kind of first course food. Served in a small ornately beautiful bowl at the beginning of the meal, it would be a sort of prelude to a culinary suite.

But then again, I considered how I could fortify the soup, what I could do to turn it into something more substantially delicious. The coconut milk, of course, was reminiscent of Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Which meant that it could be paired with lemongrass and cilantro and lime. And as for protein, I had seafood in mind: a couple enormous and spicy prawns or soft and sweet seared scallops (how’s that for unintentional alliteration?!). In the end, I went with a beautiful piece of atlantic salmon, seasoned well with salt and pink peppercorn and seared aggressively on both sides.

As for the baby carrots you see below, well, they don’t have anything to do with this dish. They were just beautiful and happened to be posing quite well on the day I was working on this very post. If you can’t stop thinking about carrots now, here’s a thought: roast them in the oven with olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper, and then finish them with good local honey and a generous squeeze of grapefruit or orange.

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Here’s how you make this:

Coconut-Broccoli Soup with Seared Salmon (adapted from 101 cookbooks)

Ingredients:

1 14-ounce can of full fat coconut milk

3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 small serrano chile, chopped

2 stalks lemongrass, stubs removed, split lengthwise

2 teaspoons salt

4 1/2 cups water

3 large heads of broccol, cut into small florets

2 wild-caught salmon filets, about 6-ounces each

2 limes

1 bunch green onions

Put a large pot on med-high heat and into it add a dallop of the thick cream from the top of the can of coconut milk. Once warm, stir in the garlic, onions, lemongrass, chile and salt. Let the veg sauté for a couple minutes until they begin to soften. Now add the remaining coconut milk and the water. For a richer soup, you can decrease the amount of water to 3 1/2 cups. Bring the soup to a boil, then add in the small broccoli florets. Let the broccoli cook just long enough for it to be tender, about 4 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat and let sit.

Meanwhile, heat a good glug of safflower oil in a pan on medium-high. Season the salmon liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. Just before the oil reaches the smoke point, carefully place the salmon into the pan, skin side down. Give it a gentle nudge to be sure the skin doesn’t stick. Let it cook for 4 minutes. After, 4 minutes, turn the salmon and let it cook 4 minutes more. The high heat and the quick cook time will yield a mélange of textures, from salt-crispy outer skin, to soft and tender inner flesh. Once out of the pan, spoon out a ladle-full of soup into the bowl and place the salmon on top. Season it generously with chopped green onion, fresh lime, and spicy red chili oil.

Enjoy!