Sheet pan mac & cheese the gift that keeps giving

I was looking for something different to try this week and that’s when a new message popped up. My brother Nate came through out of the blue with a mac and cheese recipe for me.

Sheet pan mac and cheese ingredients.

It turned out that the gift of a new, fun recipe just when I needed it came about because he had bought his wife Monique a birthday present of the delightful-sounding book “Bread, Toast, Crumbs” by Alexandra Stafford. BTW, Happy Birthday, Monique!

While I just used the image my brother sent me for this post, it definitely sounds like the type of book that belongs in my kitchen, as I love carbs and crumbs. My test with mac and cheese was mostly positive, if not perfect.

Despite my pronounced love for crumbs, I must have accidentally added more than the recipe, or perhaps because there was a note in the text to another page for homemade crumbs, I ended up with an over-abundance. Don’t get me wrong, the crumbs *tasted* great, but they were a bit overwhelming versus the mac and cheese.

But for that error, I only blame myself and my lack of owning the book.

I also failed to purchase more parchment paper after using it up for last week’s ratatouille, which may have contributed to a drier and darker mac and cheese, though the latter didn’t bother me at all and the former also probably an error I made in adding too much of the mac, defying instructions.

If you’re sensing a theme, it’s that in cooking there’s always a balance between trusting your gut and trusting the expert recipe; and, in this case, I erred toward my own opinions and judgment. But I won’t disavow my gut altogether. There’s some logic in what works for my palate and some room for error in how an item cooks in my oven, but this time, not so much.

Even though my attempt didn’t turn out perfectly, I had no problem eating it as leftovers throughout the week, and I’m adding the book to my cart right now.

So many crumbs. Yet, so much deliciousness.

Here’s what I did (or, more accurately, what I should have done):

Ingredients

  • 12 oz. elbow macaroni (I used 16 to use up the whole box, but in hindsight, it would’ve been better with less)
  • 1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter, divided
  • ¼ c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 2 c. store-bought bread crumbs (The recipe called for 3, but also apparently how to make them homemade. Since 3 c. was too much, I’d go to 2 c. but I left all else for the crumb mix the same as the recipe called for, because delicious flavor!)
  • ½ c. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (I used much more because I love garlic, but add to your tastes)
  • 5 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella, diced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

Heat oven to 425 degrees, and bring a large pot of water (salted if desired) to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook to al dente for 5 minutes. Drain but don’t rinse, and set aside.

In the same large pot, melt half the butter over medium high heat. Add the flour, a little at a time, whisking constantly, and continue to stir for about a minute. Add the milk, and 2 c. water, continuing to whisk to ensure nothing is stuck to the bottom. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes (mine took longer than the recipe stated, closer to 30 than the 20 in the recipe) until the mixture is thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and add more salt or pepper to taste.

In a medium bowl, melt the remaining butter. Then, add the bread crumbs, parsley, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

In the pot with the sauce, add the Parmesan cheese (I left a little for topping but it’s optional), and then add in the macaroni. Stir until cheese is melted and mac is coated.

Line the bottom of a large rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper (optional but recommended), and spread the mac mixture on top. Add the mozzarella cubes evenly throughout, and then top with the bread crumb mixture, and any leftover Parmesan.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the crumbs are golden and the mac mixture is bubbling. Remove from the oven, let cool for 10 minutes, and enjoy!

Important addendum:

My delightful brother sent the important context for the missing page with the note on bread crumbs. Mystery solved!

Anyone can cook ratatouille

I’ve loved Pixar’s “Ratatouille” since it first came out and I saw it in theaters. But it’s a movie that’s only grown on me since then.

Of course, I’ve come to love cooking even more, so that’s no surprise, but it’s really the movie’s messages that have grown in importance to me.

There is the message (*spoilers ahead*) from the critic at the end of the movie that “Anyone can cook,” which isn’t to say that we can all be great chefs but a great chef can come from even the humblest of beginnings.

But if I’m honest, it’s the message from Remy walking away from his dad to pursue his passion despite his family’s wishes that really gets me.

Screenshot from IMDB.

I won’t get overly sappy here, but I’m coming up on a year since leaving journalism, and that scene has been making me think and challenging me to move forward. That’s no less true of our current political climate as we approach another election. Things can change, as long as we decide to step up.

So, to readers, please vote and convince your friends and family to do the same. And, to myself, who voted last weekend, I am reminded to step up and try to help bring about that change by working for it.

Now, I’ll step off my pedestal and get back to my recipe.

Sheet pan ratatouille ingredients (please note, this is way too much to fit on one sheet pan).

I’m embarrassed to say how many years I’ve wanted to make the eponymous ratatouille from the movie, and I finally did it during my year of casseroles. And while it did not achieve the picturesque quality of the movie, it was a delight.

I thought it could be replicated on a sheet pan, albeit a smaller amount, and I was not wrong. However, I did buy way too much of the required vegetables, and so I had to make it on several sheet pans over multiple days. And yet, I’m not complaining.

I tried a few different methods to see what would work best — sauce on top, sauce on bottom, baked at a slightly lower temperature, and came up with what is my favorite. It’s also pretty easy, to boot, except the slicing, but it’s made easier if you have a mandoline slicer.

It looks classy, but it’s also easy and delicious.

Here’s what I did (using the best version of my tests):

Ingredients

  • About 2 small summer squash, sliced ⅛ to ¼ inch thick
  • About 2 small zucchini, sliced ⅛ to ¼ inch thick
  • About 2 medium Chinese eggplant, sliced ⅛ to ¼ inch thick
  • About 3 medium Roma tomatoes, sliced ⅛ to ¼ inch thick
  • Salt, to taste
  • Olive oil, for coating
  • 1 jar (16 to 20 oz.) arrabbiata sauce
  • Basil, to taste
  • Thyme, to taste
  • Minced garlic (I used dried), to taste

Directions

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Spray or brush olive oil on a large sheet pan (about 15 ½ by 12 inches)

Pour the sauce on top of the oiled pan, enough to coat but not necessarily using it all. Place a layer of vegetables on top of the sauce, slightly overlapping like shingles, and in any pattern you like — I did a row of each except tomatoes and put tomatoes on top but do whatever makes you happy.

Oil the top of the vegetable layer and add some thyme, basil, and minced garlic. Add another layer and repeat with the oil and herbs and garlic. If there’s still room, you can add a third layer (with oil, etc. on top) but my edges are not high so two layers was about all I could handle.

Top with parchment paper.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes until the vegetables are cooked, with some browning around the edges (trust me, it tastes delightfully smoky). Serve with more sauce, if desired, and enjoy!

Spicy, saucy salmon

If there’s one thing that everyone knows goes with Buffalo sauce, it’s salmon.

OK, wait, that’s not right. And yet, oh my goodness, the combination deserves to be in the same realm as chicken wings. That’s a daring statement, and even I won’t pretend that Buffalo chicken wings can be replaced.

But if you like spicy sauce and something different, this is the recipe for you.

Buffalo salmon ingredients.

If you are skeptical, I understand. I was once among you. My sweetie suggested it several years ago, and I said only I was willing to try it. Salmon was one of the few fish I enjoyed (at the time), and I love Buffalo sauce so much I made it into a deviled egg recipe.

When I took my first bite, though, I was sold. It’s been a staple ever since, and even something I’ve made to impress my foodie family.

Besides tasting great, it’s a simple recipe: few ingredients, hard to mess up, and frankly, the veggies I added could have been anything that you have on hand or suits your tastes. I chose green beans — to ring out the summer season — and a bell pepper that was a leftover garden item from a friend. I didn’t even add anything to them, just the oil the covered the pan.

I served it alongside a pre-made mix of rice and grains to make it a fuller meal, but again, the salmon is the real star so serve it with what seems to fit and whatever makes you happy.

Flaky, spicy, yummy.

Here’s what I did, following a long ago Gourmet recipe:

Ingredients

  • 4 salmon fillets, preferably with skin on
  • 5 T. unsalted butter
  • ¼ c. hot sauce (I prefer Louisiana)
  • ⅓ c. panko crumbs
  • 1 T. vegetable oil, plus more for coating
  • 1 bell pepper, optional for adding vegetables (or pick what you prefer)
  • 12 to 16 oz. green beans, optional for adding vegetables (or pick what you prefer)

Directions

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

Lightly oil a large sheet pan (large if adding vegetables, smaller will work if not). Melt butter in a small bowl (I just nuke it but you can do it in a small saucepan), and add hot sauce. Set aside ¼ c. of the mixture. In a separate small bowl, mix the panko with the 1 T. oil.

Place the salmon skin side down on the sheet pan, and brush on the remaining sauce. Pat on the panko evenly across the salmon fillets.

Add vegetables, if using.

Bake for 16 to 20 minutes until the panko is golden and the fish is cooked through. Serve with the set aside 1/4 c. sauce on the side and a grain mixture, as desired, and enjoy!

Everything’s better with bacon

I have been considering making Chex Mix as a recipe all year, but I really had nothing to add, and I really, really didn’t want to buy three boxes of Chex, only use a bit of it, and besides, it’s easy to find already made.

So, I was super excited to find a unique snack mix that was easier and seemed just as tasty as Chex Mix. Plus, it had bacon.

I found it sifting through a recent Food & Wine, and was inspired to try it from my earlier adventure making bourbon pecans. This, likewise, has a mix of sweet, salty, and a bit of spicy that I would have thought wouldn’t work until I tasted it myself. I was less worried this time since I already knew the flavor combination worked for my palate.

Bacon pineapple snack mix ingredients.

But I admit it was a little different mix of flavors: bacon, pineapple, peanuts, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a bit of cayenne made up the bulk of the ingredients. I shared the recipe with friends and found it to be a positive response overall, though the bacon appeared to be the favorite.

I had even gotten lax on checking — and blindly followed the recipes timing suggestions — and the mix was burnt in places, particularly the pre-cooked bacon. And still, it was a hit. Turns out burnt bacon is still bacon. (Don’t tell, it was also turkey bacon.)

Otherwise, I was just glad not to have three leftover boxes of Chex. So, this is one I’ll definitely be making again when I’m looking for a fun homemade snack mix.

This mix is so good that even being slightly burnt can’t ruin it.

Here’s what I did, mostly following the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 8 slices of bacon (It called for thick slices but I used Applegate turkey bacon that is thinner, so that would explain the burning, so check often as the mix nears final baking time.)
  • 3 c. lightly salted roasted peanuts
  • 1 bag (6 oz.) dried pineapple wedges
  • 3 T. sesame seeds (I mixed black and regular because I thought it looked nicer but you can use what you have on hand.)
  • 1 T. soy sauce (We had regular on hand but low-sodium is called for.)
  • 1 T. honey
  • ¼ t. cayenne pepper (I never measure)
  • Tiny pinch of salt (I feel like it was unnecessary with all the other salt ingredients but I added a small amount anyway because I was caught up following the recipe and not thinking.)

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put the bacon in a single layer on a rack set over a sheet pan. Bake for 30 minutes until the bacon is crisp. Drain on paper towels and let cool slightly and then tear into ½-inch strips.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together peanuts, pineapple, and sesame seeds. Add the bacon pieces when it’s ready. Then, add the soy sauce, honey, and cayenne. Stir well to combine. Spread on the same sheet pan (I added a little oil, since I used turkey bacon), and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring once halfway through. Add a titch of salt, let cool, and enjoy by the handful!