Warm and Gooey Caramelized Fennel Mac and Cheese

I am type-A. I can admit it.

I like to be organized. I like when things go according to my meticulous and fastidious plans. I get really frazzled when they don’t. Every once in a while, things work out fabulously in the end, despite all the upheaval.

Like this caramelized fennel mac and cheese I made for dinner.

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True to my type-A personality, I plan dinner menus by the month, including writing grocery lists for each bi-monthly shopping trip at the beginning of the month. I had bookmarked and planned to make caramelized fennel pasta from Mark Bittman’s cookbook. I shelled out some serious coinage for organic fennel. It sat in my fridge for like two weeks. Every time I’d plan to make it, something would come up. When I did finally get around to beginning to make it, I had used up all the other ingredients I needed for the recipe. I was planning to make a batch of pasta dough for when I made the original recipe. But life happens and I didn’t have time. The only dried pasta I had in my pantry was macaroni and lasagna. It just wouldn’t be the same dish with macaroni instead of long pasta. So, I turned it into mac and cheese. Boom.

I had no idea, not having had much experience cooking with fennel, but it caramelizes much like onions do. And when you caramelize it, the flavor mellows out and becomes buttery and sweet. No zing that I was expecting.

I decided the mellow sweet flavor would pair perfectly with nutty and salty parmesan. I added some shredded monterey jack because it is more melty and gooey than parm, and has a mild taste. I didn’t want a cheese that would outshine the fennel. The whole dish took about an hour, start to finish. You could chop up the fennel ahead of time to save a good chunk of minutes.

Carmelized Fennel Mac and Cheese (serves 4)

  • 1 fennel bulb with stalks
  • 1 Tb extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 Tb butter
  • pinch of each salt and sugar
  • 2 Tb butter
  • 3 Tb flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 oz dried macaroni
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded parmesean
  • 1/2 cup shredded monterey jack cheese
  • 1/3 breadcrumbs

Heat oven to 400. Cook the macaroni until al dente. Meanwhile, put a large skillet on medium heat. Melt the 1 1/2 Tb butter and add the oil. Chop the fennel bulb and stalks (discard the fronds) into half inch slices. Add to the skillet. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and sugar, and stir to coat. Saute for a few minutes until the fennel begins to soften. Turn the heat up to medium high. Stir frequently to keep it from burning. After a few minutes, the fennel will begin to caramelize and turn golden brown. Once it gets to the desired “browness”, remove the skillet from heat and set aside. In a medium sauce pan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter on medium heat Sprinkle the melted butter with the flour and mix until it is completely incorporated into a roux. Cook the roux for a minute or two longer, stirring to prevent it from burning. Slowly pour in the milk and whisk to break up the lumps. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and let simmer a minute or two until it thickens. Add 1 1/4 cups of the shredded parmesan and 1/4 cup of the monterey jack cheese, and add the spices. Stir well until the cheese melts. Taste and adjust seasoning. In a large bowl (or the pot you boiled the pasta in), mix the pasta, caramelized fennel and cheese sauce. Stir to coat everything evenly. Pour into a buttered 8×8 or 9×9 baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs and remaining parm and jack cheese. Bake covered for 15 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes until the cheese is browned and bubbly on top. Enjoy!

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This was so good that I scrapped the Mark Bittman recipe. It’s a nice way to fancy up to plain ol’ mac a cheese.

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PROJECT RECIPE: Crunchy Black Bean Tacos

Any time I see the words crunchy and cheese in the same sentence, my stomach starts growling a little. So you can see why I pinned this recipe on Pinterest for Crunchy Black Bean Tacos from Endless Simmer. Let’s just get it out of the way: These. Were. Amazing. They did not disappoint my cheesy crunchy cravings.

Seriously. This is for real. I’m usually kinda passive about pushing recipes I try in PROJECT RECIPE, but these crunchy cheesy tacos warrant agressive action. Click the link. Print the recipe. Make these tacos!

IMG_3828 PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Def a keeper! Gawd, these were so tasty. I could’ve eaten them all, but I held off at two. Actually, they were very fililng. All that healthy bean fiber. Good stuff. Also, they were pretty quick to make. Which was clutch since I had to work late, and was starving when I got home. I had them on a plate in about 30 minutes, but it would’ve been quicker if I would have cut a few corners.

How I changed the recipe: I substituted a few things to give these my own spin. I used green onions because I didn’t have any red onions and I had a bunch of green ones that needed used or I would have to throw them out. I also used coconut oil instead of olive oil because I thought it would give them a nice sweet flavor. Which it did, and that mixed nicely with the smoked paprika I substituted for regular. Smokey sweet crunchy goodness. I also just used regular monterey jack instead of pepper jack.

The one thing they were missing was something spicy. Next time, I’ll add a dash or two of cayenne pepper when I add the other spices.

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A pastry cutter was perfect for mashing up the beans with the onions and cilantro.

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Literally, the hardest thing about making these tacos was flipping them. It was a little unwieldy to do it carefully without burning my fingers or spilling out all the filling. The second hardest thing was waiting for them to get done.

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This may be the best recipe I’ve made in PROJECT RECIPE. I’m not even exaggerating. They were that good. You definitely need to try these. The Hubs is not a big fan of black beans, but he’s out of town for work. I think he might actually  like these, though. Seriously, they’re spicy, cheesy and crunchy, and totally addictive. I cannot wait for lunch, just so I can have the leftovers.

PROJECT RECIPE: Kale and Spaghetti Squash Gratin

Last week, a good friend (Hi, Tiff!) sent me several winter squashes. Luckily, I was planning to make this recipe for Kale and Spaghetti Squash Gratin, so the timing was perfect. This recipe was one I had printed a while back, and put in my binder. I found it on Pinterest, but I can’t find the exact pin now. (I thought Pinterest was supposed to keep us all organized…) However, here is a link to the same recipe on a different website.

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This bad boy was pretty big!

This recipe would be a great way to try spaghetti squash for the first time if you’re new to it. I was unsure of spaghetti squash the first time I tried it, so I used copious amounts of butter and cheese. You put enough butter or cheese on anything and you could eat it. That’s my belief, anyway.

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The aftermath. Scrape all the “meat” out of the skin using a fork. It comes out pretty easily.

This is a vegetarian recipe, so it’s perfect for Meatless Monday.

PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Keeper. After a couple times, I get tired of eating spaghetti squash like, well, spaghetti. I’ve only ever eaten it with sauce on it–usually pesto. This is a nice way to mix it up. It kinda resembles rice in this gratin recipe. It’s a great way to use up a large spaghetti squash, especially for “first timers.” This could be your gateway recipe for spaghetti squash. It reheats nicely, too. The leftovers were just as yummy as the original meal.

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How I changed the recipe: I used a chopped kale “salad” mix that had shredded red cabbage and carrots in it. It was a nice addition. I think if I make it again and use a bunch of kale, I will add some veggies like carrots and cabbage to it. It made it really pretty actually. I also threw in a handful of chopped arugula because I had some leftover from another dish. It added a nice little bite of flavor to it. I also used 1/4 cup more cheese. More cheese is never a bad thing. You could change up the ingredients, like using fontina or monterey jack instead of parmesan. Both would be more gooey than parm. Also, I think carmelized onions would be great mixed in this.

I still couldn’t get the Hubs to try it. He’s not a fan of spaghetti squash. He’d grabbed dinner on his way home Monday, anyway. I think he might like it as a cheesy gratin dish, though. Who doesn’t like cheesy gratins? And this is a nice way to use up a big spaghetti squash.

PROJECT RECIPE: Mushroom Stout and Goat Cheese Potpie

I love this time of year for so many reasons, but mostly because it means the return of comfort food! I mean, sure, you can eat hearty casseroles and soups in the summer, but they just aren’t that appetizing. When the air gets a little crisper and the leaves start to fall, I cannot wait for the return of casseroles, soups, mac and cheese and pot pies!

Stout is one of my favorite kinds of beer (they are all pretty much my favorite, actually). I don’t really drink it in the summer much for the same reason I don’t eat heavy casseroles. But now, I’m finding my way back to the stout section in the beer aisle. And when I saw this recipe for Mushroom Stout Goat Cheese Potpie on The Beeroness’s Blog, I was curious. Throw in some goat cheese, and I was sold!

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PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Keeper! When I took the first bite, I was a little surprised. You can really taste the flavor of the beer, and I wasn’t really expecting that. I wasn’t sure I liked it, but after a couple bites, I decided I definitely did. It was just a little unexpected that the flavor came through so strong. Granted, I did replace the vegetable stock with beer, so maybe next time I won’t do that. The whole dish came together really quickly–perfect for a cold wintery weeknight dinner.

How I changed the recipe: I halved it. Because I halved it, I replaced the vegetable stock with beer because I didn’t want to waste it (Isn’t that usually the part of the recipe where you just finish drinking it? But I’m counting calories now.) I also used a black lager instead of a stout because that’s what I had at home. I also made it in a pie dish instead of individual bowls. The recipe doesn’t specify how long to bake it, but I baked it for 20 minutes, and the crust was perfectly flaky and golden brown.

This dish was meatless, but honestly, you wouldn’t notice. It was packed full of vegetables and the dark beer and mushrooms gave it a nice roasty beefy quality. I served it with some mashed potatoes, which made it a really hearty fall dinner.

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Bring on the comfort food recipes, it’s fall!

By the way, I’ve written about The Beeroness’s recipes on PROJECT RECIPE before. She’s got a cookbook now. You should def check it out. I haven’t yet, but I’m planning to. I absolutely love the blog.

I mentioned I’m counting calories. According to my Lose It! app, this recipe (with the modifications I made) was 376 calories per serving. That’s pretty good considering how hearty and comfort food-y it was.

PROJECT RECIPE: Bean and Beer Chili

I’ve mentioned how much I love the blog, Thug Kitchen, here before.

It’s so funny. Probably because that’s how I sound in my head. In my inside voice.

When I read through this recipe for Bean and Beer Chili a couple weeks ago, I knew it was destined to be a “Meatless Monday” meal. And this past Monday was the first day that actually felt like soup weather in a long time. Score!

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This chili was so tasty and chock full of veggies. It passed the test of the carnivore palate of the Hubs. And really, there are so many veggies in it, there’s no room left for meat.

PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Keeper! It was nice to change up our usual chili recipe. We’ve been making it the same way for years. Now we have a meatless version that doesn’t use vegetable juice (full of sodium). It’s a totally clean eating version. Except maybe for the beer.

How I changed the recipe: I used a whole beer, plus a half cup of water, and omitted the vegetable stock. I did this because I opened the beer for the 1 cup the recipe calls for, and it was really late, and I didn’t want to drink the rest or waste it. So I just dumped the whole thing in. It was a Magic Hat Howl black lager, by the way. You understand now why I didn’t want to just dump it out. That would be alcohol abuse. I also didn’t put in optional hominy or corn. I could have, but it seemed pretty chunky already when I got to that step of the recipe. I also made it in my crockpot instead of on the stove top. It worked just fine. I even used dried kidney beans, instead of canned. No problema!

I make awesome cornbread. (I also toot my own horn from time to time.) Seriously, I look for reasons to make it. It was perfect crumbled up with this chili scooped over it and topped with a little cheese.

This recipe is just in time for soup weather and football tailgates. I would recommend it for vegetarians or carnivores alike! I might even make it for a tailgate and see if anyone notices there is no meat in it. I’ll bet they don’t. I’m definitely going to keep it in my rotation to mix up an old comfort food routine for chili night at our house.

PROJECT RECIPE: Chicken Pot Pie Soup

*I finally got the pics to upload. Enjoy!

I love pot pie. Who doesn’t? Seriously, show me one person who doesn’t.

I found this recipe for Chicken Pot Pie Soup on the Chez Us blog, and I was sold. Except instead of using chicken, I had something else in mind for this recipe.

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Remember last spring when the Hubs killed that turkey? I had about a pound of diced thigh and leg meat in the freezer that was begging to be used in soup or somthig. That big tom was a little tough. Wild turkey seems to be a little drier and tougher than Butterball. Soup is the perfect way to use it.

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PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Keeper! The Hubs and I agreed that this soup is pretty much just like eating pot pie. Except it gets to the table quicker. This was a great weeknight meal. The only thing that would have made this better is if it would have been soup weather. It is still a little warm for soup around here.

How I changed the recipe: I used turkey instead of chicken, obviously. Also, I added some extra spices: thyme and a little garlic.

I met Denise and Lenny, the adorable couple behind Chez Us last fall at the Mixed Conference. They are going to be hosting a session again this year at Mixed Con. Seriously, click the link and get your tickets now! You will not regret it. Not only do you get sessions chocked full of food blogging tips and advice, you get the most awesome swag bag, and you get to network with some truly wonderful folks who all share the same passion as you–food!

What foods do you refuse to eat?

Everyone has some food that they just won’t touch under any circumstances. For me, I don’t like anything with buffalo sauce on it. It reminds me of when you throw up in your mouth a little bit. My sister-in-law gags at the sight of mayonnaise. My dad won’t touch chicken. Some of us are definitely more picky than others.

Today, I read this piece by Barry Estabrook Civil Eats entitled “Five Things I Will Not Eat.” Except in his case, it’s not just because he doesn’t like the taste of these foods. Estabrook gives about a paragraph’s worth of reasoning for his decision to swear off each food item, and none of his reasons were particularly news to me. I think everyone should have some serious reservations about eating these things.

In case you didn’t read the story, the five foods he refuses to eat are ground beef from the grocery store, salad greens in plastic bags or clamshell containers, bluefin tuna, out-of-season tomatoes and farmed salmon.

For instance, recalls and e. coli outbreaks associated with ground beef have been widely reported in recent years. I’ll never forget the chills that ran down my spine when I read about Stephanie Smith, the 22 year-old dance instructor who was left permanently paralyzed after eating part of a hamburger tainted with e. coli. The hamburger in question was a frozen patty from a local Sam’s Club. That could have been anyone in my family. It could have easily been one of my nieces, who likely would not have survived the episode. Like in other recent outbreaks of illness associated with tainted food, the responsible company, Cargill in this case, settled with Ms. Smith, but many would say it was “too little too late.” It seems ground beef recalls are becoming the norm. Just Google “hamburger recall” and you’ll get hundreds of hits, many from the past few weeks.

I’d like to say I never eat hamburger that I don’t know where it came from, but I do from time to time. It’s hard to go to a cookout at someone’s house and decline a hamburger without getting the third degree. I do try to limit actually eating grocery store hamburger, though. When possible, I volunteer to bring the hamburger (and I know the farmer and the butcher it came from) and I volunteer to “man” the grill. The problem with grocery store hamburger is that it can be composed of hundreds of different cows from around the world. The burger that Stephanie Smith ate was from cows from at least three countries. Also, cooking burgers to 160 degrees will kill e. coli, but you’re basically left with a chewy, charred lump of something that used to resemble meat. I’m always amused that some restaurants ask how you would like your burger cooked when you order one. Please, for your own safety, do not ever order a burger any way except well-done. (Steaks are different.)

I do frequently buy pre-washed salad greens in bags or plastic containers. I will definitely reconsier that in the future. Estabrook explains these containers are perfect for encouraging bacteria growth, as it takes very little heat, even sitting out of refrigeration for a short time, to raise the temperature inside the bag to a level that would allow bacteria to grow rapidly. I did stop buying alfalfa sprouts at the store for this reason. I used to not wash them since they were “pre-washed” but I decided that is way too risky. I can’t believe I ever did that. Estabrook recommends buying lettuce by the head and cutting it up yourself for a salad. And that’s sound advice since that is often cheaper and only takes a few extra minutes. Besides, presumably this lettuce would last longer than the bagged stuff since that was probably picked more than a week before you actually buy it.

Reading this article got me thinking what foods I would say I never eat. There are a number of foods that I really try my best to avoid for some of the same reasoning Estabrook does.

The top of my list is soda. I quit drinking it a few years back and haven’t looked back since. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was a diet soda junkie, but more and more evidence is mounting that it’s worse for you than regular soda. And even that isn’t great for you. I’m all for having a treat occassionally, and if an ice cold Coke is what turns you on, by all means, indulge. But our country’s soda habit is taking a huge toll on our overall heath, and I hate that it’s the drink millions of Americans reach for several times a day instead of water.

I also don’t eat any kind of processed meat like lunchmeat or hot dogs. A while back, the Hubs and I started trying to pack our lunch more rather than buy lunch every day, in an effort to budget our money better. Cold cut sandwiches are an easy staple for brown bag lunches, but the Hubs is at a higher risk for colon cancer. Eating processed meat increases your chances of colon cancer, and I don’t think that’s a chance I want him to take. It’s just something that we cut out, and I haven’t really missed them. I have eaten hot dogs about three times in the last three years, and that’s plenty enough for me.

Also, like Estabrook, I don’t eat seafood that isn’t sustainable, like bluefin tuna or farmed salmon. Many of our fisheries are in serious trouble because of overfishing and pollution. A lot of health advice encourages us to replace red meat with fish because it is such a lean and healthy protein, but there isn’t enough fish and seafood on the planet for everyone to add more of it to their diet. Better advice is to observe Meatless Monday for your health. I have the Monterey Bay Aquarium app on my iPhone, which I’ve written about before. You can check seafood to see if it is a good choice, when you are either in a restaurant or at the seafood counter at the grocery store. You can consult the website, or there is a pocket guide you can carry with you, but really the app is the easiest thing to use. Check it out.

Because every post should have a picture… Here’s one I took a few weeks back for something else I was going to post about. Why does this steak rub contain partially hydrogenated soy bean oil? That’s a fancy word for transfat. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years–definitely avoid transfats. They are super bad for your heart.

Why in God's name is "partially hydrogenated soy bean oil" in steak rub?

Why in God’s name is “partially hydrogenated soy bean oil” in steak rub?

There are dozens of things you can buy at the grocery store that are bad for you and you shouldn’t eat, but it’s almost impossible to adhere to a perfectly heathy diet all the time. That’s just life. Somebody is going to offer you some pizza at some point, you’ll be in a hurry rushing from one kid’s activity to the next and have to grab a fast food dinner, or your coworkers will inevitably buy a supermarket cake to celebrate a birthday. But if you try to generally avoid just a few bad things, you’ll be healthier than if you didn’t pay any attention to what you eat. For example, you could cut out junk food from vending machines, or try to cut soda, or fast food. It’s a process that takes baby steps over a period of time. Each little step is a step in the right direction though.

So, let me know in the comments what food you don’t eat and why, or if there is something you’d like to try to cut out but haven’t had the motivation yet.