Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Firsts: Bechamel Sauce and White Pizza

As I mentioned in my last post, I didn't make any resolutions to be healthier in 2011, or try new things in the kitchen.  December is predictably busy and full of celebration, but January can bring almost anything.  This year, it's been more packed with events and dinners than in the past, which has given me the opportunity to experiment with food.

Davy decided we should use the fresh mozzarella and basil we had leftover from our party to make a white pizza (pictured).  I'm a huge fan of red sauce, and have never attempted my own white pizza, but still thought his idea was promising.   

We started by making flavored olive oil with a few pieces of wild boar sausage and garlic, and spread it over the crust.  Some of the garlic made it in with the oil, but we removed the sausage.  Then we layered sliced tomatoes, the mozzarella, torn basil leaves, and red pepper flakes.  

I would happily add this, or a variation of it, to my pizza rotation.  One major difference I noticed between this pizza and our standard, red pizzas was that the crust of the white pizza soaked up the flavors of its toppings a lot more.  The spicy, garlicky oil was infused into the crust after a few days, and the flavor was more pronounced when we ate the second half of the pizza.

My other kitchen first was a Greek macaroni and cheese dish with bechamel.  Normally when I make macaroni and cheese, it's more of a baked casserole, and much lighter than the versions served in restaurants or mixed with a bechamel sauce.  I can't remember where I got the recipe, but it was first published in Saveur.  

Ultimately, my dish ended up being a little less Greek than the original, but it was still decadent and interesting.  I decided to omit the bread crumbs to eliminate some of the butter, and used Pecorino Romano in the bechamel, because I didn't have time to hunt down the Greek cheeses in the recipe.  Davy isn't a fan of dill, and I don't always enjoy it either, so I decided to leave that out as well.  Otherwise, I followed the instructions closely and was very pleased with the results.  The velvety bechamel sauce was subtly sweet and spicy because of the cinnamon and nutmeg, the browned feta on top made each bite a little tangy, and there was enough spinach to add freshness.  

I probably won't go out of my way to try other macaroni and cheeses with bechamel, but I would definitely make the Greek Mac and Cheese again.  The leftovers were delicious for several days, and, just as with the pizza, I was able to add another new method to my kitchen repertoire.   

Greek Mac and Cheese

6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Kosher salt, to taste
8 oz. hollow pasta, preferably elbow macaroni 
1/4 cup flour
3 cups milk
4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 12 oz.)
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
8 large shallots, finely chopped
16 oz. baby spinach
8 scallions cut into 1/4"-thick rounds
1 3/4 cups crumbled feta (about 8 oz.)

1. Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until cooked halfway through, about 3 minutes. Drain pasta, rinse with cold water, and set aside. 

2. Heat remaining butter in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Still whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in milk and cook until sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon, 10–15 minutes. Remove pan from heat. Stir in pecorino, cinnamon, and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper; set béchamel sauce aside. 

3. Heat oven to 350°. Heat oil in a 5-qt. pot over medium heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring often, until soft, 3–4 minutes. Add spinach and scallions and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in the reserved béchamel sauce and the reserved pasta and transfer mixture to a 9" x 13" baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with the feta. Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

SERVES 8–10 (or more)

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