I’m on a crusade to empty out all the random dishes of this-and-that in the refrigerator, and that usually leads to a short list of outcomes. We might end up having a “potpourri” night, where nothing really goes together but at least it’s sustenance. Or we might decide we’ve enjoyed the original dishes on their own for long enough, and we quietly turn the dishes out into the trash can, which is wasteful and leaves me feeling unresourceful. And every once in a blue moon, the random leftovers have a common thread and speak to me in a way that leads to a crazy good meal that hardly feels like leftovers at all.
Option No. 3 is on our plate this time, with leftover southern collard greens, a single leftover smoked sausage (infused with Texas Pete flavor), some crumbs of ghost pepper potato chips and too many half-used chunks of cheese in the deli drawer.
Kicked-up mac and cheese, baby. The sausage is cooked in smoke, so it has a nice firm texture, easy to cube and fry in a skillet until crispy. I’m inspired to add the collard greens because of a trip Les and I made to NYC in late 2018, and we took the subway up to Harlem for dinner at The Red Rooster, owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. He has a popular dish on his menu called “mac and greens,” featuring (you guessed it) cooked collards.
We were lucky to get a table at Red Rooster during the holiday season. All of New York was bustling, and the restaurant was lively and loud and fabulous. I ordered Poppa Eddie’s Shrimp & Grits, which was like a rich and flavorful gumbo served over creamy cheese grits. Les enjoyed the Hot Honey Yardbird. Yes, it was half a chicken, and yes, he finished the whole thing. But the restaurant staff told us, by far, the most popular menu item was the mac and greens, so we ordered it as a starter to our incredible meal. It was so crazy good, and I can’t explain why it has taken me until now to create my own version of it at home.
This is another perfect example of Comfort du Jour—a classic comfort food elevated with unexpected ingredients, and, as a bonus in homage to my frugal grandmother (and role model in all things kitchen-y), this one happens to empty out a bunch of leftovers to boot. Oh, this is gonna be fun!
I haven’t made mac and cheese since my first blog post back in April, so it’s definitely time. If you missed that post, you can check it out now, but I’ll offer a quick refresher course on making the star of the dish, which is the bechamel-based cheese sauce.
For starters, get some American cheese for the melting quality that cannot be matched with only block cheeses. The rest of the cheese is best freshly grated rather than pre-shredded in a bag. We are looking for extreme creaminess, and if you have an immersion blender, pull it out of the cabinet because that is my secret weapon for the silkiest, creamiest cheese sauce in minutes. Ready?
6 oz. orrechiette* (I had half of a 12 oz. box)
3 Tbsp. each butter and flour
1 3/4 cups whole milk (2% would be OK, but less rich)
5 oz. American cheese (the kind you get by the pound in the deli)
6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded* (most of a regular block)
A few twists of freshly ground black pepper
1 cup leftover cooked collard greens, drained if resting in liquid)
1 leftover “Texas Pete” smoked sausage*
Leftover crumbs from the bottom of a bag of Ghost Pepper potato chips from Trader Joe’s (c’mon, you have this, don’t you?)
Orrechiette is a small pasta shape, and I happened to have a half-box of it. Its name translates to “little ears” in Italian, and it can easily be swapped out for another small shape of pasta, such as elbows or rotini—essentially, you want a shape that will grab hold of your delicious cheese sauce. I’ve noticed that the popular pasta shapes have been in scarce supply, which makes this a fun time to try new ones!
I had cheddar in abundance in my deli drawer, but of course any cheese that melts well would work. Most of the time, I gather up all the scraps and bits and throw them in—it’s why my mac and cheese is hardly ever the same twice.
The smoked sausage was a lone straggler from a meal Les had grilled up a few nights before. Smoked sausage has a really firm texture (think kielbasa), and this one in particular was seasoned before smoking with Texas Pete sauce.
Here’s a visual run-through for you. Because it was leftovers, it made enough to feed the two of us for dinner, with a bonus portion of mac and greens without the sausage.
- Melt butter, cook flour until bubbly, add milk and whisk until smooth. Melt American cheese into the sauce and whisk until smooth. Add grated cheddar, whisk until smooth.
- Use immersion blender to emulsify cheese into an ultra-smooth mixture. Season with smoked black pepper.
- Cut smoked sausage into bite sized pieces, cook in small hot skillet to crisp up the edges of the sausage.
- Cook pasta to “early al dente” stage. It will soften further in the oven with the cheese sauce. Add finished pasta to cheese sauce, add cooked collard greens and stir until evenly combined.
- Layer mac & cheese in ramekins with the crispy sausage bits, top with crushed potato chip crumbs. Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and top is lightly browned with crisp edges.
I made ours in individual serving ramekins, and put the rest in a small casserole we can use for lunch sides later in the week.
From the oven, the mac and cheese is hearty and satisfying, with an ultra-creamy sauce and occasional bites of crispy smoked sausage. And the savory collards add another level of flavor, not to mention the nutritional value they bring to the table.
Now, if I could only plan ahead to come up with these exact leftovers, because I sure would like to make this dish again. Of course, who knows what will be taking up space in the fridge next week.