Monday, December 22, 2008

Foods of Arctic Blast

 As I write this, we are in our 8th straight day of The Arctic Blast that set in last Sunday, Dec. 14th.  Snow flurries, freezing rain and wind that is common enough during Pacific Northwest winters for a day, two at the most, has dug its heels.  Last week a recurring back injury kept me out of work for 2 days, so I've really spent the better part of the last week indoors, with my cat Louise and my dog Victor.  And my 42 inch LCD flatscreen television and many episodes of The Rockford Files.  But hey, I started this blog! 

Naturally, I've done some cooking.  I made what is quite possibly the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies I've ever encountered, and I've developed my very own.  This is better.  I made meatballs (defrosted from a batch I made the week previously).  I made a vegetable curry.  I made a warm kale and potato salad with feta (instead of Parmesan) and tahini that wasn't good until I mixed with rice and chicken stock the next day.  I made some nachos, and I made a great root vegetable, mushroom and barley soup, with bacon, which made it complete (added fresh mushrooms to the recipe and had no potatoes or lemon. Really good). 

Tonight what I thought was going to be regular old chili turned out to be one of the finest casseroles I have ever put together.  Casseroles are a much maligned food, for no good reason other than they're stupidly good, always.  Whether it's ziti with sausage, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella or tamale pie made with all Kraft products, chances are you're going to clean your plate.   My friend Storm shares this and he's frequently emails me tipsy missives from his explorations in The Bake.  Currently, we are both fascinated with making chilaquiles as a casserole. 

Whenever I have a cold, I crave macaroni and cheese, despite the obvious drawbacks associated with dairy and mucus production.   I'm on my 6th day of cold.  And a snow day like this naturally calls for ski-lift chili; mildly spiced ground beef with onions, beans and a tomato base. I started the day off thinking I would stick to chili, but the inspiration for a casserole seized me and would not let go. 

I cooked off some pintos and started browning ground beef in a skillet.  When it was nearly cooked I added onions and then garlic, followed by cumin, chile de arbol, and some mysterious chili powder that I think in fact is Korean and not spicy at all.  I had half a can of El Pato jalapeno salsa left and added that, along with some crushed tomatoes.  Now, I feel the need to say this is not how I make real chili.  Real chili involves roasting and toasting and pureeing, slow cooking and usually no tomatoes.  But in this case I want something less complex and more acidic to cut through the pasta and cheese that I have decided to envelop the chili.  

I made a bechamel and used a little white wine, this time to cut through the heaviness of the meat.  The only cheeses I had were some jack (nachos), some Parmesan and a heel of a hard stinky cheese leftover from a party.  The pasta was salad macaroni from a jumbo bag leftover from Half & Half days.  After the pasta was cooked I tossed it with about 3/4 of the cheese sauce.  I layered half the pasta in the bottom of a casserole, then a layer of meat, then the remainder of the pasta.  Poured the rest of the sauce on top and baked in a 400 oven for 30 minutes until the dish was bubbling and the bechamel layer was brown in spots.  The result? Surprisingly, and delightfully, much more like a pasticcio than your run-of-the-mill chili mac casserole.  I'm not the biggest fan of cinnamon with my meats, but the cumin and mild chile give the beef enough spice to keep it interesting.  The beans, which don't belong in pasticcio, macaroni and cheese OR chili con carne, were cooked perfectly and provided a nice texture balance between the meat and the pasta.  This is quite possibly one of the best casseroles I've ever made and it shall now be known as...
Mexi-Pasticcio Bake
for the chili
1 cup pinto beans
bay leaf
1 lb ground beef (or grind it yourself)
1 small onion or 1/2 large onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp chile de arbol or 1/4 tsp cayenne
2 tsp. mild ground chili (Ancho, California) 
1/2 can El Pato Jalapeno Salsa 
1/2 can crushed tomatoes
1 can crushed tomatoes 
2 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Having soaked the beans, place in a saucepan with the bay leaf and bring to a boil.  Skim the scum and cook at a simmer until beans are cooked about 30 min.  Or cook your beans however you prefer, even if that means opening a can. 

In a wide, heavy skillet, brown the ground beef, breaking up with a wooden spoon.  If the meat is very fatty, drain it before adding onions. Cook the onions in beef until they become translucent and then add the garlic.  You don't need a lot of heat and you don't need to watch the skillet too closely.  When that becomes fragrant, give the meat a good grinding of black pepper.  Move the meat to one side of the skillet and move the skillet so the empty part of the pan is under fairly high heat.  Add the cumin and chile powders and stir, toasting the spices a little.  Add the oregano and combine with the meat.  Add the tomatoes and eventually the beans.  Cook this mixture in its entirety for about 10 minutes, letting most of the juices cook off. Taste for salt and spice.  
for the Pasta and Bechamel
10 oz pasta (macaroni, ziti, penne,etc...)
 2 c. milk
1 1/2 T. butter
1 1/2 T. flour
salt, pepper, nutmeg
2 T white wine
2 T minced onion
8 oz grated cheese (preferably a mixture of some mild and interesting flavors)

Cook the pasta to al dente.  Heat milk in a saucepan or microwave until hot.  In another saucepan, melt butter slowly and add flour.  Stir this roux for about a minute--not long, and add the hot milk, whisking constantly until bechamel is thick.  Add wine and onion and continue to cook at a low heat, adding salt pepper and just a teesy bit of nutmeg to taste, about 4 more minutes.  Stir in the cheese and take off the heat. Combine the pasta with most of the sauce, reserving about 1 cup for the top.  Preheat your oven to 400.

Oil a 9x13 pyrex dish and pour half the pasta in the bottom.  Spread the meat on top, and then finish with the rest of the pasta.  Spread the rest of the bechamel over the top of the dish and bake, uncovered for 30 minutes until browned and bubbling.    Should be served with a salad but if you're snowed in I'm guessing you might be out of greens by now.   

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