MMMac & Cheese

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You know, it's probably because I am currently on a "severe caloric restriction program" that everywhere I turn I am incessantly reminded of one of god's gifts to mankind and maybe my most favorite food item on earth: cheese. Perhaps it's the universe's way of reminding me that patience is a virtue, gluttony is #3 on that chart I don't like to look at, and everything should be appreciated in moderation (yea, right). Well, the wise sage who wrote those things probably didn't understand the love contained in a small bite of artisan chevre, the unending pleasure in the sharpest of blues, and the unconditional love of a true cave-aged gruyere. I can assure you that they didn't have a wheel of Mimolette in their fridge left over from a photo shoot, either. Why else would they say such hateful things?

It wasn't an article in January 4th's edition of the New York Times entitled ""The Winter Cook: Macaroni and Lots of Cheese" that led me to jump the dietary ship. It wasn't my co-worker telling me that she's perfected the perfect crunchy topping on her homemade mac and cheese. Folks, the reason I'm sure to put those lost pounds back on is really all Martha's fault. Yes, THAT Martha.

This morning while enjoying oatmeal WITHOUT anything and a banana I turned to page 26 of Martha Stewart Living and read an article on cheese. Oh Martha, aren't you cute standing there in front of that counter of cheese, those wedges and slices screaming out to me saying "EAT US MATT! WHO CARES IF YOU'RE FAT - YOU ARE MARRIED AND WE'RE SO CREAMY!". Yes! Martha, I'd love to hear about you devouring "an entire wedge" of Mimolette while you were a young lady traveling in Paris. Sure, I'd like to read about the proper ways to serve cheese while I consume a vegan breakfast at 7am. Go ahead, add insult to injury, I certainly don't mind.

That's it. As of today I'm letting that glorious piece of cheese come out of my fridge and shine like the superstar that it truly is. I'm going to enjoy it for all its worth - in multiple servings, even. I'm going to put on sweat pants and jump into a big, warm comforting bowl of mac and cheese, and I will bury my face in it unashamedly. I will rinse my lips with a good red wine and sleep like a baby, diet be damned.

Mac & Cheese with Parmesan Crumb Topping
It was a surplus wheel of Mimolette that led to the creation of this recipe last year. Yes, it has an insane amount of cheese– invite the family over. Mimolette, the French cheese produced in Normandy, is basically a mature Edam. Nutty, rich, fruity, it gets its color from a natural dye known as annatto.

Ingredients:
1 lb macaroni
12 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 sprig of fresh thyme
4 1/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 lb Mimolette cheese, shredded
1/2 lb Grafton 4-year aged cheddar, aged
For the topping:
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Method:
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the macaroni. Cook until tender and drain well. Heat the oven to 375 degrees and butter a 9x13-inch baking dish.
2. In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat and then add the flour and thyme, stirring constantly. Slowly whisk the milk into the butter and flour until smooth and blended. Raise the heat to medium high, whisking constantly until boiling. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes until thickened, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Remove the thyme sprig and pour the sauce into a large bowl. Add the shredded cheese and stir until it begins to melt. Add pasta and toss together, then pour the entire mixture into the baking dish.
4. Toss the breadcrumbs and parmesan with the melted butter and spread over the top. Bake about 40 minutes, until sizzling and lightly browned.


Confessions of a Saltoholic

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A heavyweight in the annals of food history, the tiny little element known as sodium chloride has played a valuable role in culture and societies the world over. Ancient Chinese folklore tells of the discovery of salt, it's been valued by ancient Hebrews and Greeks, used as currency by Romans, and been the subject of countless tales and fables.

Our bodies need it, animals (man included) crave it, plants use it, too. But the pleasures it brings to the palate can't be ignored, either. Salt not only enhances the food we eat (not to mention preserves them), but it also intensifies their flavors, oftentimes suppressing unpleasant flavors like bitterness. It can balance a recipe, make things sweeter, create a contrast and oftentimes tone down something that may be too sweet (cake frosting immediately comes to mind). Without salt things just don't sparkle. Or at least that's how my tongue sees it.

Salt comes from two sources – the land and the sea. Most of the salt on the market today is mined, coming from large deposits left by dried and evaporated salt lakes throughout the world. Table Salt, a refined salt with additives (such as sodium iodine) as well as other ingredients to keep it free flowing, is widely used in cooking and flavoring. Kosher salt, with its additive-free coarse texture, is used by some Jews in the preparation of food and by those who prefer its large texture and crunch. Rock Salt is less refined as other salts, often leaving many impurities behind, not to mention that greyish-blue hue. Sea salt is the result of the evaporation of sea water, a time consuming method used throughout history (and also my personal favorite).

Much to the disappointment of my mother who strived for balance in all things, I am a bona fide big-time Salt Freak. I travel with my own, make sure I keep my stash with me at work, and have enough in my kitchen to preserve a herd of animals. Not satisfied with just one variety, my pantry is full of red salt from Hawaii (the clay from the earth in which its harvested imparts a bright red color), Australian salt harvested from 5 million year old lakebeds, American pacific sea salt smoked over alderwood, Welsh salt harvested from water from the Menai Strait, and Bali sea salt that's smoked over coconut shells and kaffir lime leaves. Not to worry Mom, I'm making sure that I don't enjoy them all at one time.

Below are four of my favorite recipes that feature salt as an integral part of the dish. All are relatively easy, but make sure you use a high quality salt. I think it makes all the difference in the world.



Salt-Crusted Rockfish with Arugula

This recipe comes from Chef Jose Andres. I've substituted trout on a few occasions, it's just as delicious. And anything with arugula (also known as rocket) is a-ok in my book.

Rockfish:
1 (3-pound) whole rockfish, scaled, with fins removed (known in Spanish as Besugo)
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 pounds coarse sea salt
Water, as needed
Freshly ground pepper, as needed
Arugula: 
Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, as needed 
1 pound arugula 
Fleur de sel, garnish

Make the Rockfish: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a bowl, combine the rosemary, thyme, and salt with enough water to form a paste. Spread a layer of the salt paste, about half of it, on the bottom of a baking dish. Place snapper on top of the salt paste. Carefully spread the remaining salt paste over top of the snapper, being careful to cover it completely. Bake fish for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the arugula: Heat a small amount of the olive oil in a skillet over high heat. Quickly saute the arugula until wilted. Sprinkle with salt, to taste, and set aside.

To Serve: Break the salt crust along the sides. Remove the upper crust from the fish taking care to keep the crust whole. (If you break the upper crust or crack into the fish from the top, the fish will turn out salty.) Gently remove the fillets. Arrange the arugula around the edge of the platter and drizzle the fillets with olive oil and season with pepper. Sprinkle fleur de sel over the top.



Lemongrass Lemonade

Ever since discovering this recipe I have a hard time going back to standard lemonade. The addition of the pinch of salt make this drink sparkle.

1 cup sugar
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised slightly with side of knife and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 cups water
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
pinch of sea salt
2 cups ice
1 lemon, thinly slices

In a small saucepan, combine sugar, lemongrass pieces and water; bring to a boil and stir to dissolve sugar. Lower heat and simmer 20 minutes. Remove syrup from heat, let it rest for about an hour. Strain it into a glass pitcher. Just before serving, add the lemon and lime juices and salt to syrup mixture. Stir well and add ice. Garnish with lemon slices.



Preserved Lemons

It seems many food bloggers I read are enchanted by this recipe; after I made a few batches I can see why. With its endless uses, this Moroccan recipe is packed with flavor, and the syrup tastes heavenly in a Bloody Mary. Not that I drink them alot. Yea, right.

5 lemons
1/4 cup sea salt (more if needed)
1 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
4-5 coriander seeds
4-5 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Quarter the lemons and place them into a large non-reactive bowl. Mash sea salt into the flesh of each piece, releasing a bit of lemon juice. Once you've done this to each piece, layer the mashed lemon pieces into a sterilized mason jar with the other ingredients. Top with extra salt if desired. Once sealed, let the lemons cure in a dark place, turning daily to mix the ingredients. The lemons should be ready to go after 30 days. To use, rinse the lemon under cold water, discarding the pulp and flesh. Preserved lemons will keep for up to one year.



Lemon Rosemary Salt

To me this is the perfect condiment. It's lemony, herby, salty and delicious. Great on roasted chicken and a natural on lamb. I dig it on popcorn, too.

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons very finely minced lemon zest
2 tablespoons sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients thoroughly and enjoy.


Food & Growing Up

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I love food. I love everything about food. It's what I do.  It's who I am.

Growing up Mexican in Texas, I developed a passion and appreciation for food, realizing that the kitchen was indeed the center of the house.  It was the center of our house.  To my family food meant love, and sitting down to a meal was a way to share and connect with each other. It's a philosophy and tradition that I still hold dear today.

I owe my palate and passion for culinary adventurousness nature to my mother and father.  Being first generation Americans connected us to old tastes and traditions of Mexico, but it also made for a delicious culture clash of ingredients, methods and stories. It wasn't unheard of to sit down to a dinner of corned beef and cabbage with a side of beans and rice, and I've learned that anything–from a frankfurter to peanut butter and jelly–always tastes better wrapped in a tortilla.

I thank my beautiful mother for teaching me what fresh produce, meat and seafood is all about, and shunning processed canned and overly manipulated foods packed with sugar and salt.  I like to think her culinary artistry has genetically trickled down in some way to me (as the oldest of 13 children she knows her way around the kitchen, and her days in catering and as a chef only prove this).  I thank my wonderful father for his love of cheese, and it's also a reason why at any given moment you'll find no less than six types from all over the world in my fridge.  And while I still can't do it quite like he does, he also taught me how to grill.  I doubt I'll ever reach his level of mastery.

Mom and dad, if you're reading this, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be myself on every level and to gorge myself at every turn...and, for creating a home filled with endless love, sweet music and spicy enchiladas.  I love you both more than words can possibly express.


About me

  • I'm Matt Armendariz
  • From Los Angeles, California
  • A man with a passion for good food and a wonderful life with a dash of irreverence. Read at your own risk. Advertising director by day, wino by night. All photos on this site by Matt Armendariz.
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