I've had a rough few weeks, which I normally hesitate to say knowing full well that there are people that endure far more on a daily basis than me. My sister-in-law, who passed away a few weeks ago after a seven year battle with cancer, was one of them. One often hears about the "cancer battle" but when you really break down the number of surgeries, rounds of chemo, followed moments of normalcy, rays of hope, all to be taken down by another wave of bad news, do the words actually start to hold their appropriate weight.
We also, as some of you know, recently moved from Boulder, CO back to our home in Princeton, NJ after a two years away. All I can say is that transitions, happy or not, are hard on the soul.
In this house, we were all in need of some major comfort food.
So imagine my surprise when I came across a huge display of hatch chili cheddar cheese at my local (NJ) Whole Foods. I viewed this as a sign, you see, because hatch chilies are to Colorado (and the southwest) what tomatoes are to New Jersey. You can't go near a farmer's market or even grocery store in late August without the incredible smell of fresh hatch chilies roasting. There is always, always a small crowd gathered around the hand-cranked barrel roaster waiting for their little ziplock bags of goodness. These chilies are unique in that they are particularly fragrant and herbaceous, with just the right blend of smoke and spice. Now pair that with some creamy cheddar and you've got yourself a whole lot of comfort in my opinion.
The chili mac and cheese happens also to be the perfect side to all things barbecue. I lightened things up a bit by using non-fat milk which may have gone completely undetected had I not made mention. If you can't find the hatch cheddar, not to worry. You can substitute freshly roasted hatch peppers or even use the canned version which are pretty readily available.
I say make a dish of this smoky, creamy dreamy mac and cheese and share it with someone you love. In my world, that's the beauty and power beyond the obvious purpose of food.
hatch chili mac and cheese
1 lb shaped pasta
2 1/2 c shredded hatch chili cheddar*
2 1/2 c shredded cheddar
4 T butter
1/4 c + 1 T flour
1 T dijon mustard
2 T smoky chili powder/spice mix (I used Red Rocks Hickory Spice Seasoning from Savory Spice)
3 cups non-fat milk
1 1/4 c panko breadcrumbs
salt and pepper to taste
*OR 1/2 cup of chopped roasted hatch chilies (if using canned, drained) and 5 cups total of aged cheddar.
Preheat oven to 400º
Start a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta until still a little firm. Drain and place in a casserole dish.
Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan over med-high heat. Add the flour and whisk together until a loose ball starts to form.
Add the milk, making sure to scrape all of the pan to get any pockets that may be hiding on the bottom/side. Continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Once your sauce has thicken properly, add the mustard, season with salt and pepper.
Taste and check for seasonings add 1/2 of your chili spice mix and taste again.
Add 4 cups of the cheese (2 c hatch + 2 c aged) and whisk until smooth over medium heat.
In a separate bowl, combine the panko, remaining cheese and spice mix.
Mix the cooked pasta with the cheese sauce and spread the panko/cheese topping over the dish.
Cook for about 30 minutes until browned and bubbling.