Maren Caruso Photo
Kale on top and in the middle adds a grown-up bite to a children’s classic dish. The photo and recipe are from “Mac & Cheese, Please!” by Laura Werlin.
Several years ago, an effort was afoot to get children to eat more vegetables by hiding them in their meals. Pureed zucchini in the pizza sauce, mushed-up broccoli in the spaghetti — you get the idea. Controversy ensued, with many nutritionists opining that it makes more sense to introduce children to vegetables out in the open, rather than trying to sneak them into kids’ food. As a “movement,” it apparently faded away.
I thought of these efforts while contemplating a plate of macaroni and cheese — and kale. The recipe is from “Mac & Cheese, Please!” by Laura Werlin, and no one could mistake it for typical kiddie food. Kale, fontina cheese, cayenne and nutmeg give this down-home dish a distinctly sophisticated treatment.
Werlin unapologetically adds “grown-up” ingredients — smoked blue cheese, fennel, andouille sausage and truffles, to name a few — to many recipes. I hope there are many sophisticated children out there who appreciate such flavors, but if yours aren’t among them, rest assured that Werlin includes lots of variations that will appeal.
It’s tempting, when perusing newly published cookbooks, to ignore a small volume that touts “50 Super Cheesy Recipes.” But Werlin is not someone to ignore. In 2000, she wrote the groundbreaking “The New American Cheese” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), which spotlighted the then-nascent artisan cheese movement in the United States. Her next book, “The All American Cheese and Wine Book” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2003), won the prestigious James Beard Award. But this expert on artisan cheese and fine wine has also directed her talents to books on grilled cheese and, now, macaroni and cheese. She even includes Velveeta in one recipe.
Macaroni and cheese: Call it comfort food. Call it easy. Call it supper. Please, call me to the table when it’s served.
Zesty kale two ways and fontina mac & cheese
Yield: 6 servings
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to coat dish
1 tablespoon plus 1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
8 ounces cavatelli pasta (or small shell pasta)
12 ounces curly-leaf kale
¾ cup coarsely chopped yellow or red onion (about ½ medium onion)
1 medium clove garlic, peeled and minced
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 ounces Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan) cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2½ cups whole or reduced-fat milk
½ cup heavy cream
12 ounces fontina cheese, coarsely grated (about 4 cups)
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat the inside of an 8-inch-square baking dish with olive oil. Set aside.
Fill a large pot with water and add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil and add pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until pasta is tender but firm, about 8 minutes. Drain.
Remove stems from the kale. Cut 4 whole leaves into quarters and set aside. Coarsely chop remaining kale. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium. Add onion and cook 5 minutes, or until soft. Add chopped kale and garlic. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the kale is tender (5 to 7 minutes). Stir in pepper flakes and ½ teaspoon salt and set aside.
Place quartered kale leaves in a small bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, ½ cup Pecorino Romano, salt to taste and pepper. Set aside.
Using the same pot in which pasta was cooked, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high. Slowly whisk in flour and stir constantly until a paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring 1 to 2 minutes, until the mixture starts to color and smell a bit nutty. Slowly whisk in milk, cream and remaining ¾ teaspoon salt. Cook until the mixture starts to thicken and is just beginning to bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add 3 cups fontina, the remaining ½ cup Pecorino Romano, cayenne and nutmeg and stir until the sauce is smooth but not too runny. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If too soupy, continue cooking until it thickens.
Add pasta and chopped kale mixture and stir to combine. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup fontina on top. Distribute quartered kale leaves over the top. Place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.
Recipe from “Mac & Cheese, Please!” by Laura Werlin (Andrews McMeel, 2012).
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.
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