The Pork Whisperer

Everything seemed to go wrong today.

I woke up late and left the house with my shirt on inside-out and backwards.  At work, I had to explain to a roomfull of managers how I joined the rare fraternity of people who can truthfully admit to losing two hundred-thousand pounds of hydrogenated beef tallow.  Once back at home, I realized I had guests coming over for dinner and lacked not only clean dishes, but all of the ingredients for the evening’s meal.

You know, the meal I have never prepared before using ingredients and methods I am not entirely comfortable with?  With a recipe written out for three point three times as many people as would be visiting?

And yet, it was one of those examples whereby the gentle application of pork product makes everything all right.

Anyway, dinner tonight came courtesy of Bon Appetite Magazine, which I have a lot of respect for.  I can always count on recipes being clearly written and well tested.   The article was about the “Staff Meal,” the dishes that resturants regularly serve to those who cook, serve, and clean up after you.

I have to admit that I’ve lost some faith in homemade Mac and Cheese.  After a while it all tastes the same… grainy cheese sauce, overcooked pasta, no texture.  While sometimes comforting, it often just leads to sorrow, if not gastrointestinal lactic distress.

This one was a little different.

First, it stayed creamy.  Even after baking, it maintained that right consistency. Even after it cooled, it was still creamy.  I think this was both due to the marscapone and the shape of the pasta.  Orecchiette can cup a bit of sauce within the “ear,” so that you seem to get a bit of sauce in every bite, whereas elbow pasta just never delivers.

Second,  The blend of cheeses rounded out the flavors nicely.  There was the salt of the parm, the smoke of the cheddar, and the sweet of the marscapone.

Third, duuh.  There is pancetta.

It boggles the mind to think that if a resturant’s staff eats this well each night, how out of this world must the actual food taste.

This version of the recipe is roughly halved from the magazine.   I kept the full clove of garlic, most of the milk, and I upped the meat content slightly, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who knows me.  I also cooked the meat at a lower temperature, allowing the fat to render and form some of the roux base.

Also, one note.  Like any baked thing, it behooves you to let the dish sit for a few minutes before digging in.  This is doubly true with a “topped” mac and cheese like this one, because the dish relies in part on a texture contrast beteween the pasta/cheesey goodness and the topping.


Mac and Cheese With Pancetta
(Adapted From Bon Appetit Magazine, September 08)

5-6 T butter
3 oz pancetta, chopped
1/2 C diced onion
1/2 t crushed red pepper flake
1 clove garlic
3 T all-purpose flour
2 C whole milk
1 1/4 C sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 C good-quality Parmesan
4 oz mascarpone cheese
1 C Panko
8 oz orecchiette, slightly undercooked, drained and cooled.
Preheat oven to 350.

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter and toss into the panko until crumbs are evenly coated. set aside.

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet or sautee pan over medium heat.  Add the pancetta, and sautee until crisp and the fat renders into the pan. Remove the pancetta and set aside.  Add onion, garlic and red pepper and cook until onions are translucent.  Add enough additional butter so that you have about 3 tablespoons of fat in the pan.  Add the flour and stir one minute.  The pan will smell nutty.

Slowly whisk in the milk.  Simmer until the mixture starts to simmer but isn’t quite boiling.  It should be thick enough to coat a spoon thickly.  Turn heat down to low and whisk in the cheeses.  Add the pancetta.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour your cooked pasta in a 9×9 baking dish.  Cover with the sauce and shake until well-distributed.  Add the panko-butter topping.

Bake for 30 minutes or until top is golden brown.  Allow to cool on the counter for 15-20 minutes before serving.