Broccoli Mac and Cheese
I can’t believe I’m saying this because I know it’s going to come around to bite me, but I might actually like winter. Right now, at least. Kasia’s biggest complaint over the weekend seemed to be a cold nose, and perhaps mine has reached its peak seasonal numbness. Sure I’ve been sick for several weeks and my skin hasn’t seen the light of day in months. And, true, I got pelted in the face with sideways sleet yesterday. I know it’s going to get colder (high of 10 degrees F on Friday, for instance). I’m just saying, I feel, perhaps, ready for it.
My mom was born in Peoria, and her family, like many from the Midwest, fled Illinois for the mountains and sunshine of LA in the forties after WWII. My grandmother was a painter and fell in love with the striking pastels of the western landscape. (She also wanted to get my grandpa away from his drinking buddies, though apparently that plan backfired when the loneliness of a new place set in.) And I certainly can understand the allure of the west; there just isn’t much nature in Chicago, and I often find myself craving it. In LA, streets have to go around hills and canyons; there’s a constant struggle between the built land and the natural environment. But here, the landscape has been completely conquered. This is why, I think, the weather has become such a character to me. It’s the only wild thing to contend with.
I find myself thinking more about gray in Chicago than I ever did anywhere else. There are layers upon layers of it: cement, slush, trucks, steel, eroded bridges, potholes–and not much to break it up. The first few years here, the grayness got to me completely, and I could hardly bear it by March. It’s also when I started cooking really intensely. I’ve always cooked, since my first house in college. But something about the Midwest winter and the combination of factors that brought me here made the kitchen my haven. Cold outside, warm oven inside. Exasperating life, delicious kitchen.
Mac and cheese is one of those meals that is a haven in and of itself. This version is so packed with flavor–shallots and garlic flavor the roux, broccoli parboils in the water before the pasta, so it infuses the pasta with tastiness. It’s a comforting, indoor, winter food. (Plus, it has veggies so it’s…good for you.)
At a lecture last week, the poet Susan Stewart talked about the difference between art and craft, and suggested that a thing is a work of art if the maker enters the project without knowing exactly where it will go. The sense of indeterminacy. Cooking seems to skirt the line of both. My favorite thing about cooking is improvisation. The longer I work at it, the more confident I am in experimentation–which is how I get to most of my recipes. But ultimately, you know what you want to come of the project; there are familiar shapes and tastes that it needs to resemble. You want the carbs and cheese to offer a certain nostalgia, maybe a sense of home. You have certain expectations for the dish. But you want surprises. You want it to smell good and feel good and excite your mouth. You want it to scream Look at what I can do! What I can taste like! I’m not sure if it’s art, but it is a small piece of excitement at the end of a day, especially a cold, gray one.
Broccoli Mac and Cheese
2 heads broccoli, chopped
1 lb. short pasta, I used shells
1/2 stick butter
2 shallots, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and diced
salt and pepper
3 tbsp. flour
1 c. milk
1 brick havarti, shredded
4 oz. cheddar, shredded
breadcrumbs and parmesan for top
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Parboil the broccoli for a minute and remove from the water with a strainer. Add the pasta to the broccoli water and cook until very al dente. Strain and set aside.
Over medium heat, melt butter and saute shallots and garlic with a bit of salt and pepper until they are soft and transparent. Add the flour and mix well. Whisk in the milk until all the lumps are combined and there’s a creamy texture. Add the shredded cheeses and just melt.
In a dutch oven or a very large casserole dish, combine pasta and broccoli. Pour the cheese sauce over it and combine thoroughly. Top with breadcrumbs and parmesan and bake for 35 minutes, until bubbly and browned on top.