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Monday, November 14, 2011

macaroni and cheese with cauliflower


the end of the produce box business

Three years ago, with my farmer friend Arthur, I started up a year-round local produce box business—otherwise known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Our aim was to fill the local demand for boxes of produce, but to use as many Alaskan vegetables as possible. We were competing with a company who flew their boxes up from Washington, and their produce came from all over the world.

Our business was a success in some ways, but a struggle in others. We had wonderful, supportive customers, and it was great to work with Arthur. My husband Dan pitched in, and we had a great crew of packing and delivery guys. But the challenges of getting produce from Outside when our supply of local Alaskan vegetables dwindled were often maddening—not to mention expensive.  And there were so many variables beyond our control.

If you want to read a more complete explanation of why we decided to call it quits at the end of the summer, you can visit our Glacier Valley Farm CSA website. Suffice it to say that although we were sad to have to stop the service, it has also been quite a relief to all of us. Arthur’s Glacier Valley Farm is thriving, and he is selling local produce out of a renovated barn next to the highway to Palmer. Dan and I are back to just owning one business, Rise & Shine Bakery, and we are happy that our lives are simpler now. We have more time for ourselves, and to spend with our daughter Meredith. And I have time to try new recipes and write a post now and then!

As the end of the summer approached, I knew that I wouldn’t be getting my usual two boxes of produce each week from our CSA business. I had to get busy stocking up for the winter! I prepped, blanched and froze gigantic amounts of broccoli and collards, and put up a fair amount of peas and cauliflower, too. Then, after I had brought home six more gigantic heads of cauliflower from the farmers market, I realized that I was starting to run out of freezer space. And I had the perfect recipe to make with my cauliflower: a macaroni & cheese recipe by Mark Bittman that used pureed cauliflower instead of the usual béchamel-based cheese sauce to bind everything together.  I didn’t have the recommended Gruyere cheese (just cheddar), and as usual, I changed up the recipe here and there to make it a bit healthier.

I launched into the project with gusto—I think I ended up making a sextuple batch (I did have six giant cauliflowers, after all), which filled up every baking dish and bread pan in the house. I put them all in the ‘fridge overnight. At the time of making the mac & cheese, I had already bought way too many other vegetables at the farmers market, and I was trying to get them all cooked and eaten. I didn’t have room in my menu plan to even try the cauliflower mac & cheese. So into the freezer they all went. Tasting them would have to wait for another day, after the farmers market was closed.

You might have already read my precepts for cooking for and eating out of your freezer: NEVER freeze anything you don’t love. You won’t be tempted to thaw it out and eat it later, and it will just languish in your freezer, taking up space and making you feel guilty every time you see the label. Better to feed it to your neighbors, or your dog, than put it in the deep freeze. So I admit to feeling a little trepidation when I froze all that mac & cheese, using a recipe I wasn’t familiar with, and then not even tasting it first. But after all, I had all that cauliflower! And how could I go wrong with mac & cheese? Still, I was nervous to try it.

For the last several weeks, we have been living out of the freezer, slowly making our way through the frozen bounty. And I have good news: the macaroni & cheese tastes great! What a relief. It’s lovely, rich and creamy, but healthy and full of vegetables at the same time. It’s great comfort food!

macaroni and cheese with cauliflower

Adapted from a Mark Bittman recipe in Runner’s World.  Make a double batch of this and freeze it in bread pans. After it has had time to mellow in the fridge, the flavors are even better.

1-1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 large cauliflower, cored and cut into 1-inch florets
8 ounces whole-wheat elbow macaroni, or spirals
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar—or maybe a bit more
1-2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
3 or 4 cloves (or more, to your taste) of roasted garlic (optional—see recipe below)
sea salt or kosher salt and black pepper
¼ to ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 to 1-1/2 cups freshly ground whole-grain bread crumbs

1. Heat oven to 375° F. Boil a pot of salted water.
2. Cook cauliflower in boiling water until quite tender—probably 15 to 25 minutes.
3. While the cauliflower cooks, grind your bread slices in your food processor. Combine the crumbs in a small bowl with the Parmesan cheese and set aside.
4. Scoop the cauliflower out of the boiling water and put it in the food processor.
5. Cook pasta in the boiling water until tender. Drain it, then put pasta in a large bowl. Grease a nine-inch square baking dish, or a couple of bread pans. 
6. Process cauliflower with stock, mustard, nutmeg, optional roasted garlic, salt and pepper, working in batches if necessary. Taste the puree and make sure there is enough salt and pepper and mustard. It should be quite well-seasoned, since it will be flavoring the pasta, as well.
7. Pour sauce over the pasta, sprinkle the cheese in, stir to combine, and spread evenly in the prepared dish(es).
8. If you’re going to freeze some of it, make it to this point, then cover and freeze.  If you’re making the dish from frozen, make sure to give the mac & cheese plenty of time to thaw—it takes a long time.
9. Cover the pan with foil and heat for 30 minutes or so, testing with a knife or an instant read thermometer in the middle of the dish to make sure the casserole is hot all the way in the center. When the dish is piping hot, spike the heat to 450 degrees, cover the noodles with the breadcrumbs and Parmesan, and put the dish back into the oven, uncovered, until the bread crumbs are browned—5 to 10 minutes.

roasted garlic and garlic oil

This is actually how I make my olive oil infused with roasted garlic—and the by-product is the “roasted” garlic—which is actually poached in olive oil, but even sweeter and more tender than roasted. If you’d rather roast your garlic in the oven, wrapped in foil, I’m sure you have a recipe in a book already, but this method is much easier, and yields garlic that is sweet and soft and luscious, plus garlic oil has a wonderful, mellow flavor that is intensely garlicky at the same time.

several heads of garlic, cloves separated and peeled (I just buy a bag of peeled garlic cloves from Costco, but 3 pounds of garlic might be more than you want to handle.)
olive oil (you don’t need extra-virgin olive oil for this—the garlic imparts so much flavor that you can use regular olive oil)

1. Put all the whole peeled garlic cloves in a heavy, lidded pot. Cover the garlic cloves with olive oil.
2. Bring the oil and garlic to a simmer over medium heat. Give the garlic a stir, and then turn the heat down to the absolute lowest possible heat, cover the pot, and simmer just at a bare bubble. Stir the garlic occasionally and continue to cook until the garlic cloves are completely soft and tender, and you can easily squish one against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. This will probably take an hour or more, but check after 45 minutes.
3. Uncover the pot and let cool. Strain the garlic from the oil.
4. The garlic can be used in any recipe that calls for roasted garlic. You can freeze the garlic indefinitely (I keep it in pint-sized canning jars in the freezer), and just take the cloves out as needed.
5. The oil can be used to roast any vegetable—broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, green beans, turnips…  you name it! Or just dunk your toast in it. Keep it refrigerated. It’ll solidify in the refrigerator, but just scoop out a spoonful and let it come to room temperature.


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