Necessity is the mother of culinary insanity.
So I moved. I live in the city of Chicago, now, in a lovely apartment, with a kitchen that pleases me, in a neighborhood I am swiftly coming to adore. And last night, I did something I rarely do, which was to improvise a completely new dish. I was half-heartedly fumbling through the kitchen for something to make for dinner around 5 PM, and I looked at the contents of my refrigerator:
- A gallon of milk
- half a package of shredded mozzarella from the spinach lasagna I made last week
- approx. 2 oz of red curry paste in a little saran-wrapped cup
- a red pepper
- a bunch of cilantro
as well as a couple of artichokes, some carrots, and some parsnips. I put an artichoke over a steamer (30 minutes) and made an aioli while I schemed (non-franco-traditional. Egg and oil and tons of garlic and some dried tarragon and a little bit of coarse-grained french mustard and salt and pepper, whisked until mayonnaisey). I figured if whatever I made for dinner completely failed, I’d at least have an artichoke to retreat to.
I did this because the idea had already begun to coalesce in my head that a macaroni and cheese dish had to happen, and it had to use the curry paste. And this seemed to me at once a wonderful and a terrible idea. But living in St Louis, the idea of combining thai curries and mozzarella cheese was not foreign to me, and I decided, “To hell with it! LET’S DO THIS THING.” To my surprise and delight, it worked. I think the idea is to make sure not to use too much cheese, or to use any cheese more powerful than mozzarella (an aged provolone would be, I think, a terrible idea in this case).
I didn’t really write down my measurements, but for a 9×13 inch casserole pan, I can give you the approximate amounts.
You will need:
- 2 tablespoons of red curry paste (I use Maesri brand)
- 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- Approx 1 & 1/2 cups milk
- 1 cup shredded cheese
- 1 lb elbow macaroni noodles
- 1 red pepper, diced fine
- 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
- a pot for the pasta, a 2-quart saucepan for the curry-cheese sauce, and a 9X13 casserole pan for the finished dish
Macaroni and cheese, in its most anatomical sense, is just elbow noodles tossed with a sauce mornay, and then baked. Sauce mornay is a béchamel with cheese in it. A béchamel is milk with a roux in it. If these words sound like gibberish to you, don’t worry. I’ll decode them. I’m also being pretty simplistic, but let’s face it, none of us are French hotel chefs, circa 1870, so I don’t think the specter of Escoffier is going to float through my door and begin thwacking me about the giblets with a rolling pin.
A roux: an equal proportion of fat and flour, cooked over low heat to crack open the starch molecules in the flour – a thickener.
A béchamel: a white sauce made by thickening scalded milk with a roux. One of the French Mother Sauces.
A sauce mornay: a béchamel with cheese in it!
So. When you’re making a roux, it’s important to remember to cook the roux over really low heat; this isn’t the sort of thing you can just set up and walk away from – you have to keep your eye on the saucepan, and stir frequently.
Normally, when I make the sauce base for a macaroni and cheese, I start by sautéing the aromatics – the garlic and the shallots. I can’t think of anything more aromatic than sautéing curry paste; it’s how a Real Curry begins, too.
0. Start heating your pasta water – I tend to salt mine pretty heavily, but yeah, do what you like. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. As you make the sauce, cook, rinse, and drain the pasta. Grease the pan.
1. Heat a saucepan and add a little oil – drop your curry paste into it and begin to poke it around with a spatula, let it sizzle for about a minute over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the flour. Stir gently, but assiduously.
2. Eventually, your roux will turn into a sort of thick, bubbly paste. This is good. This is very good. It’ll probably take about five to seven minutes for this to happen. 3. Add the milk. Stir or whisk for many minutes to get the lumps out, and let it cook – don’t let it come to a boil, because you don’t want to make the milk taste funny. It should go from looking like this:
4. Stir in your cheese, and stir gently. Add a little more milk, if necessary (or! oh ho! some pasta water. Added starch and a little bit of flavor.). Cook over low heat until your sauce has reached the desired consistency – thick, but not too thick, and not too stringy, either.
5. At this point, your pasta should be done, and your oven should be preheated (you did pay attention to instruction #0, didn’t you? There’s no reason you can’t cook a pot of pasta while this sauce bubbles away). Mince a red pepper very fine, mix the cheese-curry sauce with the macaroni, and throw in that red pepper, too.
Plop this all into your casserole pan.
6. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool.
Man! You never know what you’re going to find yourself coming up with. The creaminess of the cheese sauce complements the sharp, poky angles of the curry paste, which has these angles of lemongrass and ginger and galangal that poke through. It’s hot, but it’s not Too Spicy. It’s weird! It’s adventurous. But it turned out pretty damned good, if I do say so myself.
Give it a try!