Writing about what feeds me.

Tried and True: Jalapeno Mac’n’Cheese (variation)

During my visit to Ottawa this past week, I offered to cook for my good friend, Shayda, in exchange for all the times I had sent her pics of my cooking during one of her many nearly-starving, food-deprived med school studying sessions.  After asking her for any particular cravings or suggestions, she (not surprisingly) said “your jalapeno mac’n’cheese”.

Since I’d made it not long ago for my roommates back in Montreal recently (but not to my particular liking), I was willing to give it another go and try to “redeem” myself.  This time, however, I decided to shop carefully and specifically, thoroughly inspect Marc’s spice cabinet to see what I was working with in advance, and complete a full mise-en-place before actually cooking.  In order to not get carried away and focus on just one dish, I decided to add chicken breasts and broccoli in this version of mac’n’cheese in order to make a more or less ‘complete’ meal.

NOTE:  I listed all ingredients that I used precisely below even though I might have used other ingredients in the past.

full jalapeño, minced
1/2 med onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 Tbl unsalted butter
approx. 3 cups white sharp cheddar, shredded
approx. 2 cups gruyere, shredded
approx. 1 cup or more jalapeno monterey jack, shredded
(reserve some of sharp cheddar and jalapeno jack to sprinkle on top)
tricolor rotini (4 & 2 cups)
broccoli florets (cooked 2.5 cups during last 3-4 min of boiling 2 extra cups of rotini) …microwaved about a cup more

approx. 2 cups chicken breasts (cubed),
seasoned lightly, i.e. no precise measurements, with…
– paprika
– cayenne
– sea salt
– pepper
…and then sauteed (somewhat undercooked), removed from heat and drained.

2% milk (1 cup)
almond milk (2 cups)
3 heaping Tbls flour

1/8th tsp:
– mustard
– cayenne
– cumin
– nutmeg
1/2 tsp smoked paprika/rosemary blend (had salt, onion and some other ingredients as well)
ground S & P to taste

minced (end of) white bread for bread crumbs


– Boil 4 cups of pasta about 1 or 2 minutes less than directed on box, drain and set aside

– Come to realize this is not enough pasta and boil 2 cups more, adding broccoli florets in during the last 3-4 minutes of boiling

– While water boils and pasta is cooking, prep and cook the chicken as directed above.  Set aside.
– Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
– In a very large pan or pot, heat 2 Tbls butter and sautee onions and garlic for a few minutes.

– Add jalapeños and continue to sautee at medium to med-hi a bit longer, but do not allow to burn or brown.
– Carefully add approx. 3 heaping Tbls of flour, stirring and un-clumping.
– Slowly add milk while whisking and allowing mixture to thicken.

– Slowly add almond milk, one cup at a time, whisking at the same time.  Once you have a thick, creamy sauce, this is your bechamel.
– Whisk in spices and add S&P to taste; keep saltiness of cheese in mind before going crazy with the salt.  I often wait till after cheese is added.
– Bring heat down to a simmer (or, you can sometimes even turn off the heat entirely) and add cheeses one at a time while stirring and whisking.  Save some cheese to sprinkle on top later.  Taste and adjust seasoning (e.g. salt) accordingly.
– Shut off heat, add pasta, broccoli and chicken.  Mix well.

– Butter a 3-4 Qt. baking dish and pour mac’n’cheese mixture in.  Top with remaining cheese.
– Melt (microwave) 2-4 Tbls of butter in a bowl and add minced bread or breadcrumbs.  Stir well and sprinkle buttered breadcrumbs over top of mac’n’cheese dish.

– Bake in oven for 25-30 minutes.  It is best to have the bottom of your oven lined with aluminum foil in case the cheese drips over.  If you haven’t done this already, just place a large baking sheet on the rack below to catch any cheese drippings.
– When done, mac’n’cheese should be browned a bit on top.  Remove from oven and allow to settle for about 5+ minutes before serving.

* Some notes about the cheese sauce:
I have made this dish so many times and in so many ways.  Certain variables will yield a different consistency of cheesy/creaminess every time.  Those variables include the brand or types of cheese, the exact amount of cheese you use, how big your pasta is and how many other ingredients you have in the dish to “soak” up the cheese sauce.  If you find that, after adding the cheese, the sauce is too thick (this is a matter of preference, really) slowly add a bit of milk.  Just be careful not to pour in a whole extra cup right away; add a little at a time while you are whisking or stirring the cheese sauce.  Many recipes I have read recommend that you warm the milk first before adding.  I have not noticed a difference between doing so and not, so that is up to you.

UPDATE (03.21.12):
Made it yet again for some friends as a part of a “thank you” dinner, along with  the maple salmon.  This time there were a few modifications…

* No chicken this time; made me realize that the seasoning (cayenne and paprika) from the chicken actually contributed to the overall taste of the dish
* Large shells instead of tri-color rotini.  While I prefer the fact that large shells hold more cheese, I just really like the vibrancy that tri-color rotini brings to the dish – in taste, texture and appearance.
* 3 cups of 2% milk, yielding a much richer and creamier cheese sauce (Careful! It drips all over your oven!)
* Old french bread crumbs and lots of it, giving the top of the mac a crunchier texture
* Sliced jalapeños adorning the top and sides of the dish – for aesthetic value and a little more kick with each bite!



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