The first thing that Joel and I did together that could be classified (however questionably) as a date involved sitting at his kitchen table for 6 or 7 hours stuffing envelopes. Not exactly romantic in the, ahem, classical sense. In fact, I’m still trying to sort through exactly how he convinced me that that would be a worthwhile use of my day. But, it did give us plenty of time to talk, and talk and talk and talk. About literature, our personal histories and scandals, politics, friends, hopes and aspirations.
He learned about me that I have trouble telling apart left and right, probably due to a brain lesion that I somehow acquired without even realizing it. I had to use this to justify the fact that I accidentally put the stamp in the wrong corner of a stack of something like 100 envelopes.
I learned about him that he considered himself a connoisseur of macaroni and cheese.
In fact, he explained, he was a member of a gourmet macaroni and cheese appreciation club. Never mind that the sum total of club members was limited to himself and two other friends with whom he had once had a conversation about the love of “gourmet” mac & cheese.
I use quotations because I next learned that, in club lexicon, the definition of gourmet included boxed Annie’s mac & cheese, as long as it had tomato pieces added to it. The addition of bacon ratcheted it up even another level on the gourmand scale.
I, always looking for ways to identify and connect, shared that I sometimes liked to add avocado pieces to my mac & cheese, along with a lot of freshly ground black pepper.
And so, it was decided at the end of our long adhesive and address label filled day, that we would eat Annie’s macaroni and cheese, with tomato and avocado, for dinner. And some Ben & Jerry’s for good measure.
It was simple – er, I mean gourmet – but it felt like a special moment for all of its low-key-ness, its comfortable familiarity.
And a number of years later, well here we are.
So, mac & cheese, with lots of goodies thrown in, has a special place in my heart. I imagine it has a special place in many peoples’ hearts. But, I have a different sort of soft spot for it.
Yet, I rarely make it. Sometimes we bring a box of Annie’s, a tomato, and an avocado on hiking trips, but that’s about it. And, I never make it from scratch. Much to my dear husband’s deep chagrin. So, when I told him the other day that I had decided I was going to make mac & cheese, his face lit up like a football stadium on game night. Apparently it was about time!
This pasta, I must admit, is kind of the antithesis of a light meal, part of why I haven’t made something like it before. Cream, cheese, bacon, all in one decadent bowl. But, now and then, that’s just what you want to help you turn the page on a miserably busy and cold week. Also, it was the other contribution that I had declared, in snap decision mode, that I would make for the Gojee bloggers potluck (And actually, starting on Thursday, January 26, check out other potluck dishes fellow gojee contributors shared. Go to gojee.com and enter “gojeepotluck” into I Crave. You can also follow #gojeepotluck on Twitter.).
I guess it’s not technically mac & cheese because there is no mac. In the place of small elbow noodles I used orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta, because I love its texture. I threw in some peas that I had leftover from making curry, and the peas nestled into the pasta, creating the effect of a bowlful of oysters each hiding a brilliant spring green pearl.
The sauce, while not skimping on the cream by any means, stays vibrant with the help of some lemon zest and garlic. Another little secret is the pinch of curry powder, something I learned from a friend that she uses in all of her gratins. You don’t taste curry powder, it just makes the cream taste even richer and more like itself. And who is going to object to that? Then, generous handfuls of sharp Parmesan and mellow Fontina, melt into the sauce as it’s tossed with the pasta, so that it blankets everything.
The pancetta (or bacon), while flagrantly gilding the lilly, also adds a breathy smokey quality and makes the dish a little reminiscent of spaghetti a la carbonara, another indulgent pasta favorite. A final handful of mint at the finish lends an almost sophisticated herbal note in what is otherwise an eminently, and delightfully, regressive dish.
As we were eating it, I asked Joel what his favorite mac & cheese was, and he said “this one!” I chose to accept the full weight of the compliment. There was just one problem though, he added. What? There’s no tomato. I reminded him that tomatoes aren’t in season, but apparently that matters not when crafting the perfect cheesey pasta experience. So, add them if you will, but I think I’ll take it as is.
Creamy Orecchiette with Peas, Pancetta, and Mint (serves 4-6)
- 10 slices of pancetta or bacon
- 16 oz. orecchiette, or other small pasta
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 rather large garlic clove, or two smaller cloves
- 1 tsp. fresh lemon zest
- a pinch of curry powder
- 1 1/2 cups frozen baby peas (or fresh, if you have them)
- 1 cup shredded Parmesan
- 1/2 cup shredded fontina
- salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
- In a large frying pan, fry the pancetta or bacon over medium heat until crisp. Set aside on a paper towel lined plate to drain, then cut into small pieces.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. One minute before the pasta is ready, add in the peas.
- While the pasta is cooking, put the cream, garlic, lemon zest, and curry powder, plus a pinch of salt into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and simmer for three minutes. Remove from the heat.
- When the pasta and peas are cooked, drain them. Toss the pasta, peas, cream sauce, and the shredded cheeses together until the pasta is well coated (I always have some trouble with cheese clumping on my wooden spoon, but with enough scraping it off and stirring, these things tend to work themselves out!). Stir in the pancetta (bacon). Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Right before serving, stir in the mint. Serve!