Fourth of July Baked Beans

The Fourth of July conjures very specific childhood memories for me, and baked beans has a major role in that nostalgia. Every year, members of my family on my maternal grandfather’s side gathered at the home of my great grandmother for a reunion-of-sorts picnic and, especially, for fireworks. Grandma Stoney, whose nickname was derived from her married last name, Stonehouse, lived across the street from the community baseball field, and we were lucky to have a front row seat for the excitement of what seemed to me at the time to be an enormous fireworks display. The tiny burg where Grandma Stoney lived put on quite a shindig for Independence Day, including a parade, complete with a marching band and people throwing candy to the kids from firetrucks. Back at Grandma’s house, we amused ourselves by playing croquet in the front yard and taking turns cranking the handle on an old timey ice cream maker. No doubt, my great grandmother felt great joy having everyone there.

What I remember most, besides playing with distant cousins I rarely saw, was the food. Inside the house, every available horizontal surface—and I mean tables, countertops, the stove, card tables and anything else that could be rigged up to hold dishes—was covered with potluck offerings, as everyone in attendance always brought a dish or two to share. It was unbelievable. For me, the best of all was the dining room table, which was always covered from corner to corner with every variety of baked beans you could imagine. Some of the dishes were very saucy, some looked as though they had been dumped directly from a can of Van Camp’s, and others were baked with that delightfully sticky sweet sauce pooled in the corners of the pan. And there were always several dishes of beans topped with slices of bacon. Oh man, how I loved that table!

Bacon is still one of my very favorite ingredients for baked beans, and I’ve paired it here with a favorite flavor of my Upstate New York home—maple. That combination of smoky-salty-sweet cannot be beat, and for me, it’s as much a part of Fourth of July celebration as parades and fireworks.

I don’t need fireworks on the Fourth of July. All I really want is these maple bacon baked beans! YUM.

This time, I made my baked beans from scratch, having soaked the beans overnight and then cooking them until tender before adding the flavorful sauce. But you could absolutely take a time-saving shortcut and use cans of beans. Just be sure you drain and rinse them thoroughly before you begin.


Ingredients

1 lb. dried beans, soaked and prepared for cooking* (see notes)

1 heaping cup thick-cut bacon, cut into cubes

1 sweet onion, sliced or chopped

Sauce:

6 oz. can no-salt tomato paste

1/2 cup real maple syrup

1/4 cup maple-infused balsamic vinegar*

About 20 grinds fresh black pepper

1/2 tsp. chipotle powder (optional)

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder

3/4 cup cold water (added after flavor adjustment)


*Notes

My recipe was made with dried cranberry beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, then drained twice and cooked low and slow until tender. If you prefer, or if you are pressed for time, feel free to use 3 standard cans of cooked beans. Drain the beans and rinse under cold running water, to remove all the “goo” from the cans. Great Northern, navy or white kidney beans (cannellini) would be great.

The maple-infused balsamic is a specialty ingredient, purchased at one of the stores that sells flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. I love this product because it enhances the maple flavor without making it more sweet. If you do not find this maple balsamic, substitute an equal amount of regular dark balsamic vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.


Instructions

  1. Cook beans as directed or rinse canned beans.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add bacon cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon cubes are just crisp. Transfer cubes to a paper towel-lined plate and drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
  3. In the same skillet, saute the chopped onion in the bacon fat until onions are tender and slightly golden.
  4. In a large bowl or measuring glass, combine sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste, then add water.
  5. Layer the cooked beans, bacon and onions in a glass 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Pour the sauce into the beans and give the baking dish a few gentle shakes to distribute the sauce throughout. The beans should be swimming in sauce, as much of it will absorb into the beans during baking.
  6. Bake at 350° F for about an hour, until sauce is reduced to a perfectly rich and sticky mess.
Happy Fourth of July!


“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 1 – “Mystery Meat”)

Planning and living through a kitchen remodel can be stressful business, and my husband, Les, and I are looking for fun ways to distract ourselves from the chaos that will undoubtedly ensue when our remodel begins at the end of summer. We both want to whittle down some of the excess pantry and freezer inventory in our kitchen (and the overflow in the laundry room and the garage) so that we don’t carry it over into our redesigned space. I will admit that I am a bit of a pack rat when it comes to foodstuffs—I cannot seem to resist purchasing unusual ingredients when I see them on a market run. I mean, one never knows when it might be handy to have an extra package of raw cacao on reserve. Or three. Yes, we have a lot of stuff.


Les and I are avid fans of “Chopped” on Food Network, and we play along vicariously, suggesting (OK, sometimes shouting) to the chef competitors how they might use the ingredients in their mystery baskets. We cringe when we see them do something that never ends well, such as putting cooked potatoes in a food processor (instant glue, coming right up!) or repeatedly opening the oven door to see if their dessert still isn’t baking fast enough. We feel the anxiety of the judges in the final seconds, and we often join their chorus, urging the competitors to “just get it on the plate!”

When I casually mentioned to a friend last week that I needed to get creative about using up our own kitchen surplus, she joked that she could imagine me doing my own version of a “Chopped” challenge and scratching ingredients off the inventory list as the weeks wear on for our kitchen work to begin. It was a brilliant idea, and we are off and running with our first episode!

Les and I will not be competing against each other, because we are on the same team. Also, we don’t have multiple cooking stations, ovens and deep fryers, and we certainly do not have a blast chiller or an anti-griddle or a salamander (professional grade broiler oven), as they do on the set of “Chopped.” We do not plan to enforce a time limit on completing the challenge, as our goal is simply to use up our stuff and, of course, eat and enjoy the meals we create through this experience. We are not going to record every moment (you’re welcome), but we will let you in on the fun of the challenge with the unveiling of the mystery baskets we prepare for each other. And, of course, the outcomes.


Before we started our challenge, Les and I established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:

  • Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer. No sought-out, wacky ingredients for the purpose of stumping each other.
  • The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  • Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  • Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  • Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (and we do).

The first challenge was mine. Press “play” on the video to witness the unveiling of my mystery basket. Here we go!!!

I did not expect to feel so nervous!

The mystery meat was easy to identify, once I was able to stop laughing and remove the cover. It was leftover barbacoa, which I made back in February, and five months in the freezer did not do it any favors. It still had plenty of spicy flavor, but the texture was somewhat mushy. To transform it, I would need to combine it with something else, or put it inside something else to make the unpleasant texture less noticeable.

The brownie brittle is a crispy, chocolatey dessert snack that I picked up at Costco. It’s very tasty but in true Costco fashion, there’s just too darn much of it. We have tendency to buy products like this one, and we get bored with it about halfway through. As far as I’m concerned, the brownie brittle is the red herring in this basket. There’s no obvious way to use it, so I’ll set it aside for now.

The butternut squash, as Les pointed out, genuinely has been wearing out its welcome in our kitchen. I bought it near the end of winter, but then I got excited about cooking things for spring and I just kept putting it off. For better or worse, winter squash has a long shelf life. The biggest challenge with the squash is that it’s big, and so there’s a lot of it. My plan to use it up will be to incorporate it into our meal in multiple ways, and I might also try to slip a few pieces to my kitchen assistant, Nilla, who is always on standby and happy to help.


Finally, the poor, sad little apples that have been buried in the fruit drawer for a least a month. They aren’t even the same variety—one Granny Smith and one honeycrisp, although there’s nothing crisp about either of these tired fruits. They won’t mix with the barbacoa, so I will transform them into a dessert, and I’ll use some of the squash in it, too. This is the easiest part of the basket for me. Might as well map this one out; I pulled a box of puff pastry from the freezer (heaven only knows how long it’s been buried in there), and some simple dessert spices.

Add a few spices, some butter and sugar, and this can be dessert.

I cubed the other neck piece and tossed it into the oven to roast, with oil and a little salt and pepper. I love roasted squash, so the hardest thing for me will be not snacking on it while I figure out the rest of the basket. The remaining squash went into a saucepan to simmer until tender, and that’s when the rest of the dish came into focus for me.

Some of the tender squash could be worked into a pasta dough, and it would be a nice color as well as flavor! The barbacoa could be used as a filling for ravioli, but what about my red herring, the sweet brownie brittle? And that’s when it hit me that chocolate is used in mole, and Les always puts a little cocoa powder in a pot of his chili. There it was, I would crush up the brownie brittle and add those dark, chocolaty crumbs to the meat filling! This made sense to me, and when Les took a taste of the barbacoa-brownie brittle mixture, he confirmed it was working. He could taste the chocolate, and said it was good.

The ravioli plan had taken so much attention, I had put the squash and apple tart on the back burner. I thawed a sheet of puff pastry from our freezer, rolled it out to smooth the wrinkles, sprinkled brown sugar and cinnamon over it, then alternated rows of squash and the two kinds of apple, and another sprinkle of cinnamon. Then I folded up the edges, as if making a galette, brushed them with egg white and into the oven.


I also needed a quick sauce to drizzle on the baked squash-apple tart, because it was rather dry and plain from the oven. I melted butter with maple sugar, tossed a small handful of chopped walnuts into it, then more maple sugar and a splash of maple-infused balsamic vinegar. A little bit of tartness is usually exactly what any dish needs to feel and taste “finished,” and both Les and I were sampling this sauce beyond what was necessary. I wish I had made more because it would be great over ice cream. The squash and apple tart turned out tasty, even as leftovers the next evening.

Butternut squash and apple puff pastry tart, with a maple walnut dessert glaze. Winner!

Rolling the pasta didn’t take long (I have been practicing lately and will share more about that soon), and I was thankful to have my ravioli mold to make quick work of finishing that part of the meal. I made an easy “sauce” for my ravioli, using up a half onion from the crisper drawer, the last dregs of a bag of frozen roasted corn, some veggie broth and half and half, and some kind of seasonings but I honestly can’t remember! The finished dish seemed a little boring in color, and everything had a soft texture, so I chopped a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds and scattered them on top. And this one is done.


“Chef Les, I have prepared for you a spiced butternut squash ravioli with barbacoa-brownie brittle filling.
It is topped with a simple roasted corn sauce and caramelized butternut squash, and accented with toasted pumpkin seeds for a little crunch.”



“And that means, Chef Terrie, you have conquered the basket ingredients and chopped your way to victory in the first challenge!”

Will Les have what it takes to do the same? Find out next week, when we unveil his mystery basket ingredients!


Oh, and just for fun, I combined the final 1/2 cup of cooked butternut squash with some rolled oats, brown rice flour, a touch of cinnamon and the rest of the pasta egg mixture. Processed it, scooped it out and baked it up as cookies for my kitchen helper. 🙂 ❤


Coq au Vermouth

Excuse me, where is the umbrella?

I spent two years in French class during high school, and that is pretty much all I remember how to ask—“excusez-moi, où est le parapluie?” I suppose it is a question that would have been essential had I become a world traveler (I didn’t), and in fact it was a common question asked among my fellow French club members when we took our senior trip to Quebec City, Canada—they don’t speak much English there, in case you didn’t know. It rained the entire three-day weekend, but it was still a glorious visit to a city rich with history and speckled with exquisite, copper-roofed buildings.

Spanish would undoubtedly have been a more useful class for me, given the increase of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. since I graduated all those years ago. But there was something sooo sexy about the French spoken word, and well, my best friend signed up for French so I did, too. Our teacher was cool and we got to choose our own names for the class, which was good because there wasn’t a name on the list that was a literal translation for Terrie. My friend Debbie became Christine, pronounced CREE-steen, my friend Christine became Danielle and yours truly selected the name Jacqueline, which was fun to say—zhah-KLEEN, like the French fashion designer who steals Nigel’s dream job in The Devil Wears Prada.

French class was always lively, and we were encouraged to play up the accent and the nasal sound as much as possible. We went through round after round of language exercises, covering the French words for common places, including the bookstore (la librairie) and the library (la bibliothèque) and reciting all the various tenses of the verb words, and for every kind of individual and group instance. For example: for the verb “go,” we would cycle through the French words that meant, “I go, you go, he goes, she goes, we go and they go.” Round and round we went, and after all that repetitious recitation, all I remember how to say is “where is the umbrella?”

Anyway, for me, there is still a lot of mystery and intrigue associated with the French language, and I learned during my short time working in the Pinch of Thyme catering kitchen that if you want people to swoon over food, call it something French! As luck would have it, I do at least remember some of the French words for certain foods, including poulet (chicken), champignons (mushrooms) and carottes (carrots, obviously). I was excited to find this recipe in my most recent digital edition of Imbibe magazine because I have used splashes of vermouth in a few dishes and found it more complex and vibrant than wine, which would traditionally be used for braising chicken in the classic coq au vin. But this recipe was more than a splash, it was a generous amount in a very French-technique kind of recipe.

I could not resist turning this into a Sunday Supper meal, with a side of buttered red bliss potatoes and sauteed spinach, and it was—how shall I say—très délicieux!

This dish was rich and succulent, exactly as it should be. The chicken thighs remained tender and moist.

A word or few about vermouth…

I have known about vermouth for decades, but it has only been the past couple of years that I have become more closely acquainted with it, and today I almost always have a bottle open in the fridge for an end-of-day gin martini. Vermouth is a fortified wine, which means other alcohol has been added to grapes during fermentation, and that results in higher alcohol by volume than typical wine. Any variety of botanical ingredients are thrown into the process as well, including herbs, bitter ingredients, bark, roots and spices. Vermouth may be red or white, dry or sweet or really sweet, depending on its origin and method, and it is commonly used as an ingredient for classic cocktails, including martinis and Manhattans. Vermouth, on its own, is also a popular apéritif (pre-dinner drink) in Spain, Italy, France and my house.

In a literal French-to-English translation, coq au vermouth would demand use of a rooster, but it is not every day that you’d find such a creature in your local market. Large hen thighs is what I used for the recipe, and it was tender, flavorful and oh so fancy. Don’t be intimidated, though, because despite all of the foreign language I’ve been throwing around, this was a very simple dish to make. All you need is a cast iron skillet, chicken thighs, bacon, mushrooms and mirepoix—oops, another French word that is simply a mix of carrots, onions and celery. All that, plus a decent amount of dry white vermouth. Don’t worry, vermouth is easy to find, wherever you might buy wine. To keep the recipe true to its origin, choose a brand from France. I used Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, dry, in the green bottle. 😊

This is one of my go-to vermouth brands for Gibson cocktails:
2 oz. dry gin, 1/2 oz. dry vermouth, shaken or stirred with ice, strained into a cocktail glass and served with a pickled pearl onion.

Inspired by Coq au Vermouth – Imbibe Magazine

Ingredients

3 slices bacon, cut into thin pieces

4 large, free-range chicken thighs (bone-in and skin-on)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 medium onion, sliced or diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into thick diagonal slices

2 stalks celery, cleaned, ribs removed and diced

3 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced

About 1 cup cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters

1/2 cup dry vermouth (extra dry would be fine, also)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

2 fresh sprigs of thyme

2 Tbsp. cold butter

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon


Instructions

Let’s run through it in pictures first, and if you keep scrolling, you’ll find the instructions spelled out (in English), and I’ll also include a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper. Cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and the edges begin to crisp. Transfer the pieces to a paper-towel lined dish, keeping all the bacon grease in the skillet. Arrange the chicken thighs, skin side down, into the skillet. Cook them until the skin is crispy and golden, then turn the pieces and cook the other side about two minutes.
  2. Transfer the thighs to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep them warm. Add the mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery) to the fond (pan drippings) in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and mushrooms, tossing with the other vegetables until slightly browned. Pour in the vermouth and vegetable broth, and simmer for about two minutes.
  3. Return the chicken thighs to the skillet, skin side up. Sprinkle the bacon pieces over the top and lay the whole thyme sprigs in a criss-cross fashion over the combination. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.
  4. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the chicken thighs to a plate. Add the cold butter and lemon juice to the simmered vegetable mixture and stir until it is a rich, luscious sauce. Just before plating, place the thighs, skin side down, into the skillet to drench them in the sauce. Plate the chicken, then spoon the simmered vegetable mixture (a.k.a. mélange) over the thighs.
I love when an elegant dish is this simple!


The end of my kitchen as I know it

My husband, Les, and I gave each other a high five on Wednesday morning, when we signed over a down payment for a shiny new kitchen. It is a big decision to chuck it all and start over, especially with such a hefty price tag. But nobody will be shedding a tear in our house when this kitchen goes. We are hopelessly cluttered, land-locked and in each other’s way. I am exhausted from complaining about our shortage of counter space and storage, inefficient flow that is result of a poor original design (who had the idea to put the refrigerator next to the wall?), and especially the lack of decent light. We have talked and dreamed about doing this for a couple of years, and after our year in lockdown, we finally decided that something had to give.

For me, the commitment to remodel is a personal one, and it is scary. I have been down this kitchen makeover road before, and it did not end the way you see the big reveal in so many HGTV makeover shows. I won’t terrify you with the details, but I will summarize my DIY misadventure this way—remodeling projects sometimes reveal hidden truths to the homeowners, and not only in the form of moldy walls or termite infestations.

In a previous life, I had a vision for restoring the kitchen in a new-to-us-but-chronologically-old home. Along the way, several previous owners had “redone” the kitchen, but not very thoughtfully and certainly not in keeping with the 1927 bungalow’s character. Removal of all the old stuff (including five clunky layers of flooring, which exposed the most gorgeous original antique heart pine) was amusing and liberating, but the installation of our new expectations went off the rails, and just kept going. Much of the trouble could have been avoided, but for my spouse’s loyalty of keeping peace with the contractor, who was a social acquaintance. My desperate pleas for reset fell on deaf ears.

As the weeks morphed into months, I watched in silenced horror as my dream eroded into something more aligned with the contractor’s abilities or undeclared time constraints or perhaps his own vision—I’m not really sure—and my confidence in the outcome quickly followed. It was during this excruciating, exhausting project that I learned two important truths. First, don’t hire a friend to do work on your home, especially if you are emotionally invested in the outcome. Second, a home renovation project can make or break a fragile relationship. Frankly, I think it should be a required exercise for people contemplating marriage. In my case, the “big reveal” was a glaring situation of irreconcilable differences. Of course, dear reader, it was never really about the kitchen. Cracks in any foundation cannot be repaired with a fresh coat of paint.

A few years after my past nightmare project began, I made a clumsy exit from the yet-unfinished kitchen—and also from my marriage. I put down roots in a tiny duplex apartment with the smallest kitchen known to mankind. It was quiet (except when the neighbor was home, which is entirely another story) and I was learning how to be me again. When anxious thoughts woke me up at 3 a.m., I calmed myself by making handmade pasta. Sometimes I had popcorn and wine for dinner, and nobody cared or complained. Other times, I invited friends over and basked in the joy of entertaining, something I loved but rarely got to do during the previous decade. I nurtured a sourdough starter and learned how to make beautiful bread. I got better at smiling and my love for cooking intensified.

Not all was lost, and I was reminded of this by a wise, unexpected philosopher who spoke a wonderfully hopeful truth:

She was right, you know.

Fast forward about two years to a vastly different scene, set in a different kitchen in a different part of town. I had been dating Les for a few months and on one evening, after much laughter and a bottle of wine and cleaning up dishes after a meal that we had cooked together in his kitchen, I felt a shiver run down my spine as my mind’s eye caught a glimpse of the future—it would one day be our kitchen. Don’t ask me how I knew, but two years after that, he became my husband. We have had some good times in this kitchen, and Les and I have turned out some incredible feasts, despite our less-than-fab space.

This kitchen we are giving up has no hold on Les, and I am delighted that we are on the same page with the updates we have planned—new cabinets and countertops, a new layout, better traffic flow and the promise of more storage. And lighting, lots of new lighting. We have replaced all of the appliances within the past couple of years, and we are keeping those. Well, except the microwave. In support of my passion for baking, we will introduce my own special space in a presently unused corner. I am so excited!

The contract we signed this week puts our project into the trusted hands of a reputable contractor whose design partners have helped us select some beautiful materials. We hope that we have designed the perfect solutions to our storage needs and spatial challenges. When the work begins at the end of summer, we will be expelled from the kitchen for about eight weeks, and we are doing some creative planning to make that part of the ride more tolerable and, perhaps, even enjoyable.

And we have a few fun surprises that will involve you, dear reader. Our cabinets are bursting with pantry items that we must thin out—and fast. In keeping with our playful personalities, we are turning it into a game, and I can’t wait to share that with you. Les and I will not break under the pressure of this remodel because we will be having way too much fun!

It’s the end of my kitchen as I know it, and I feel fine.

Our new cabinets are going to look great with my beloved gas range! ❤


South-of-the-Border Crab Cakes

We are on a bit of a Southwest/Mexican kick at our house recently, and there are two likely reasons. First, it’s grilling season, and we enjoy cooking outdoors where it is already hot rather than heating up the house with the oven or stovetop. Southwest flavors go hand-in-hand with the grill. The other reason for this spicy flavor trend is that when my husband, Les, and I make anything with jalapenos or cilantro or chipotle, we usually begin with fresh ingredients, which means we stay on the lookout for other ways to use the remainder of those fresh items. Last week, we hosted one of Les’s buddies for dinner in our home, and our entire meal followed this theme, from the pineapple-cilantro mules and a tropical shrimp-crab ceviche to the cilantro-marinated skirt steak with handmade tortillas, all the way through to a salty-citrusy Paloma pie, which I will be sharing with you very soon. Ooh, I do love a theme party.

There are many ways to enjoy the flavors that are beloved south of the border, and this time, I’m diving into the ocean to put a slightly spicy, southwestern twist on fresh crab cakes. These easy-to-make patties are Mexed out with minced jalapenos, red onions, fire-roasted corn and a chipotle-spiked mayonnaise binder. I coated them with panko crumbs and pan-fried them for a crispy edge that kept all the tender, delicate crab nicely contained.

These crab cakes have just the right amount of heat, and the panko breading makes them nice and crispy.

What I love about this recipe (besides the fact that it was simple to make in stages when I had free moments through the day) is that it can be imagined and served in various ways—we paired the crab cakes with sautéed zucchini and onions for a light, low-carb weeknight dinner, but you could just as easily turn it into a crab cake sandwich on a brioche bun, with a chipotle-infused tartar sauce. Or perhaps as a Mexican-style Sunday brunch benedict, atop a crispy fried corn tortilla with a poached egg and green chili aioli. You could even make them itty-bitty and serve them as an appetizer. If you wanted to go way outside the box (or shell, as it were), you could swap the crab for drained, chopped hearts of palm and make them vegetarian! I mean, it’s your party. I’m only here to offer inspiration and pictures.

This recipe follows the same general ratio of ingredients as the scallion-sriracha salmon cakes I shared a few months ago and the artichoke-crab cakes that I put on top of a salad. Hey, that gives me another idea—why couldn’t these south-of-the-border crab cakes adorn a Tex-Mex salad? Of course they could.


Serves 2

Ingredients

1/3 cup canola mayo

1 Tbsp. chipotle w/ adobo puree* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. minced jalapeno

2 Tbsp. minced red onion

2 Tbsp. fire-roasted corn, thawed and patted dry

1/2 beaten egg (save the rest for another use or discard it)

Salt, pepper and garlic powder

1/4 cup panko crumbs (plus 1/4 cup extra for shaping)

6 oz. lump crab meat, picked over to remove pieces of shell

Small handful of cilantro, optional for serving


*Notes

To make the chipotle with adobo puree, empty an entire can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. Pulse, then run continuously until the mixture is relatively smooth. You will only use a small amount of the mixture for this recipe. We use up the rest of it in a number of ways—in deviled eggs, hummus, homemade bbq sauce, hot dog chili, or anything else you want to give a little smoky, spicy kick in the pants. For sure, try Les’s smoky guacamole, which includes a few tablespoons of this pureed chipotle with adobo.


Instructions

Combine mayonnaise and chipotle to desired spiciness. Reserve a few tablespoons of this mixture to serve alongside the finished crab cakes. I transferred it to a small zip top bag, so I could drizzle the cakes with it.

Add the onions, jalapeno and corn to the chipotle mayo and stir until blended. Stir in the half amount of beaten egg. Fold in the crab, taking care not to break up the lumps. Sprinkle some panko crumbs into your hand, and gently shape the mixture into four patties. The mixture will be quite messy, but it will firm up in the fridge.

Arrange the cakes on a parchment-lined sheet; cover with plastic wrap and chill at least one hour, though two hours is better.

Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil. When oil begins to shimmer, carefully arrange the crab cakes into the skillet and leave them, undisturbed, until the bottom edges appear to be crispy. This should be about 4 minutes. Gently turn the cakes over to cook the same amount of time on the second side.

Serve as desired, with reserved chipotle mayo for dressing or dipping.



Pineapple-Cilantro Mexican Mule

With summer officially underway (as of Sunday at 11:32 p.m. EDT), I intend to be sufficiently armed with a lineup of refreshing, easy summer cocktails. We are finally getting back into the swing of life—fully vaccinated, planning summer travel, and enjoying the long overdue, in-person company of friends and loved ones. This makes me very happy, because one of the great common denominators for me and my husband, Les, is our delight in entertaining. Last weekend, we were pleased to have one of his fellow Yankees over for dinner, though the reference to Yankee is strictly a geographic one, as both Les and his friend, Dave, are native New Yorkers who happen to love the Mets.

While the guys talked sports in the air-conditioned comfort of our living room, I whipped up a batch of these pineapple-cilantro mules. It is my fruity, south-of-the-border twist on a classic Moscow mule, which uses vodka, lime and ginger beer. I have swapped in silver tequila and muddled some fresh pineapple and cilantro in the bottom of the copper mug. These two ingredients play especially nice together, and Dave, who initially noted that he has not enjoyed tequila since that bad experience in his younger days (you know what I mean because we all have one) joined me for a second round.

Summer tastes cooler in a copper mug!

This summery, chill cocktail is refreshing and simple to make. We have been enjoying the 1800 Coconut tequila (the same ingredient highlighted in the tequila & lime pie), but any straight silver tequila would be delicious. If you are still cringing over any tequila mishaps from your own youth, swap in a light rum and call it a twist on a mojito—no worries. 😀

Any quality brand of ginger beer will work, but I recently discovered the Q brand of cocktail mixers, and the company’s ginger beer is extra spicy and delicious, thanks to a pinch of cayenne.

I am generally not keen to have bits of anything floating in my drink, but the crushed ice keeps the muddled fruit and cilantro well-contained in the bottom of the mug.

Use fresh pineapple for best results, and if you don’t have copper mugs, go with a short rocks glass. Cheers!

The pineapple and cilantro work very well together, but if cilantro is not a favorite, the drink will be refreshing and delicious without it.

Makes 2 drinks

Ingredients

A couple of chunks of fresh pineapple for each mug bottom

A couple of sprigs of fresh cilantro for each mug bottom

3 oz. 1800 Coconut (or other silver) tequila

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 oz. canned or fresh pineapple juice

1 can or bottle ginger beer

Plenty of crushed ice


Instructions

Muddle the pineapple and cilantro together in the bottom of the mugs, using a cocktail muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon. Fill the mugs about 2/3 full with crushed ice.

Combine tequila, pineapple juice and freshly squeezed lime in a cocktail shaker. Add about 1 cup of ice cubes and shake about 30 seconds, until the shaker is uncomfortably cold.

Strain the cocktail into the ice-filled mugs. Top with ginger beer. Garnish as desired. Repeat at your own risk.



Long Time Coming (a Juneteenth cocktail)

On Juneteenth, my mind is littered with so many emotions I find it difficult to put my thoughts down. I am thrilled for the modern Black community, for whom Juneteenth has always been woven into the fabric of life. I am embarrassed to realize that the meaning of this occasion escaped me until last year, when the U.S. entered a long-overdue season of racial reckoning after the horrifying death of George Floyd. Most of all, I am disappointed and angry that the significance of Juneteenth was not spelled out in the history books of my small, lily-white upstate N.Y. town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Along with so many others in my age group, I grew up learning about the greatness of the men whose tremendous business skills built this great nation, including the forefathers and later the business and industrial magnates—Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt—you know, all the rich, white guys. But we did not hear the whole story, and that means we never got the real story. There is so much more to be said and taught about our nation’s history, but a great deal of resistance to teaching it, and I’m flat-out puzzled and pissed off about that.

Truth.

Juneteenth, in case you have completely avoided all news outlets recently, marks a celebration for the last of the slaves being freed following President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. The news that slavery had become illegal spread throughout the land, but not exactly like wildfire. It was not until 2½ years later, when federal soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to read the edict out loud, that the enslaved African-Americans there even realized they were free. I suspect the delay of this information had a lot to do with the fact that the slaveholders had more to gain by keeping the joyous news on the down low.

Fast forward 156 years, and Juneteenth has at last become a federal holiday, under the pen of President Joe Biden, and it’s been a long time coming. We still have a lot of work to do to recognize full equality and taking the first step feels a little intimidating. Rather than assume what kind of celebration is respectful, I have done some research into the significant themes around Juneteenth, and I am responding with this bright red cocktail, created in honor of those for whom respect has been a long time coming.

It’s lively, refreshing and suited to this occasion.

Red drinks have always played a major role in celebration of Juneteenth, as the color symbolizes both the bloodshed of Black peoples’ ancestors and the courage and resilience that brings them to this point in history. Hibiscus, a deeply-hued flower, is a significant ingredient in red drinks for Juneteenth, as it was one of many favored foods that enslaved Africans brought with them to this land. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart flavor and somewhat astringent effect—not particularly sweet on its own, almost like cranberry, but with hints of floral. I first tasted hibiscus as a tea, and that is a very traditional way to enjoy it on Juneteenth, but I wanted to mix it into a cocktail for one specific reason: this whiskey.

You can visit the Uncle Nearest distillery along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.

As part of my own “first steps” toward racial equity, I have made a personal commitment to seek out and support Black-owned businesses, and Uncle Nearest is one, founded a few years ago by a Black woman named Fawn Weaver. The story behind this new whiskey brand is rich and complex, just like the spirit in the bottle. There is so much to know about it—more than I can say here in this post—but the kicker of this true story is that Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man in Lynchburg, Tenn., taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. Yes, that Jack Daniels. This startling real story began to circulate a few years ago, and I think you’ll find the story linked here a fascinating read. I was elated this week to find that Uncle Nearest whiskey is already available in our local liquor store.

I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest 1856 premium whiskey with a couple of other ingredients that seemed right to me—hibiscus simple syrup, spicy ginger beer and a few drops of aromatic bitters, courtesy of Hella Cocktail Co., another Black-owned business. Finally, a subtle accent of vanilla, a flavor that seems so utterly common today, yet most of us would never have known it without the discovery and effort of an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius. I only learned about him last year when I went searching for the most popular flavors in America.

A cocktail will not fix the problems of racial inequity, but every little bit of awareness leads me into the light, and this is my small way of paying that forward. The drink is somewhat bittersweet—much like the story that inspires it—but refreshing and invigorating, nuanced with spice and freshness. It tastes exactly how I feel, now that I am finally beginning to understand the real story.

I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest whiskey with hibiscus syrup and ginger beer, plus aromatic bitters and a touch of fresh lime.

Ingredients

1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856

0.5 oz. hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup* (see notes)

2 or 3 drops Hella aromatic bitters

Quick squeeze of fresh lime

About 2 oz. spicy ginger beer*

Lime wheel to garnish


*Notes

A simple syrup is made with water and sugar, and in our house, that means fair trade-certified sugar because I learned the real, true story about slave labor in the sugar industry several years ago. Profit-driven exploitation of human beings must stop, and as consumers, we have the power influence companies to do the right thing. Is it more expensive? The answer depends on who you ask.

Here’s how I made the hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup:


If spicy is not your thing, any ginger beer or ginger ale will lend a nice little zip to this cocktail. I chose the Q brand “hibiscus ginger beer,” obviously for the hibiscus twist but also because it also includes spices that are celebrated in African-American cuisine. I stumbled onto this ginger beer by accident, and it turned out to be perfect in this drink.


Instructions

Combine Uncle Nearest 1856, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add 1 cup of ice and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain over new ice in a double rocks glass. Squeeze in lime juice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.



You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

Terrie

Cilantro-marinated Skirt Steak

There is a glaring disparity between the typical celebratory rituals honoring one’s parents. On Mother’s Day, the gifts we give are generally aimed at relaxation or pampering for mom, such as spa treatments or beautiful flower arrangements. We take mom out to brunch to give her a break from cooking and cleaning up the dishes. But on Father’s Day, which is coming up this Sunday, we put dear old dad straight to work. The annual occasion may as well be Black Friday for the stores that sell power tools and bbq equipment, two of the most popular categories of items we give dad to “honor” him. And, in the days when families still had landline telephones*, Father’s Day marked the highest day of every year for collect calls.

*For anyone born after 1990: our phones used to have long, twisty cords and they were plugged into the wall, so you could only use them at home. They were used exclusively for speaking to someone else, who also had to be home, or else it would just ring and ring. It’s true—this old-timey relic didn’t even offer games or weather apps or texting or anything cool. I know, crazy, right?! It was brutal. You had to memorize the phone number for the house you were calling, and you put your finger into the number holes and turned the dial to make a call. It took forever. And it cost extra to call your dad if he lived far away, but you could ask the operator (a phone assistant—kind of like Siri, but a real person) to make it a “collect” call, and that meant dad got the bill for it. That part was kind of cool.


That’s still kind of how Father’s Day works—you sit back and relax, while dad builds stuff and mows the lawn and slaves away at the grill to make dinner. To be fair, however, I have never known any man, father or otherwise, who did not greatly enjoy these kinds of gifts, and time spent cooking animal meat over a fire, so it works out perfectly. Grilling is in their DNA, and most men I know are pretty darn good at it. My husband, Les, is no exception, as he proved again this past weekend, when he finished what I started with this mouthwatering skirt steak recipe. I made the marinade, and then, while I was busy inside making drinks and setting the table, Les worked his magic on the grill, delivering this fantastic skirt steak.

The peppers and onions were grilled, too. YUM

If you have never had skirt steak, first of all, you are missing out on what I believe is the very best cut for fajitas. It comes from the front-underside of the cow, a bit more forward than flank steak. There’s a lot to love about skirt steak; for one thing, it has generous marbling for exquisite flavor and texture. It is thin, so it grills up in a hurry (and you do want to cook it quickly). It takes a marinade really well, and that means you can send it off in whatever flavor direction strikes your fancy. For an Asian stir-fry meal, you might marinate it in a garlic and soy mixture. At our house, we tend to favor Mexican and Southwest flavors, and I’ll show you how we bathed our skirt steak in fresh lime juice, garlic, onions and a big, fat handful of fresh cilantro.


The skirt steak we used came from a local butcher, and I am turning to these farm-focused artisan purveyors more and more. I appreciate their sustainable practices, which are more respectful to the animals’ natural grazing habits, and the flavor of pasture-raised beef is exceptional. It must have been my lucky day, because this skirt steak was also dry-aged, an air-curing process that intensifies the beefy flavor. You can read more about the difference here, if you’d like.

Most of my instruction is centered on the making of the marinade. I keep asking Les to take pictures of what he does on the grill, but he keeps forgetting, which may be his subconscious way of saying, “this is my job, just let me do it.” So, if you have questions about that part, call a dad.


Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds beef skirt steak

1/2 medium onion, rough chopped

1 medium jalapeno, seeds removed and rough chopped

3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped

Fat handful of fresh cilantro, stems and all (be sure to wash it)

Zest and juice of 1 lime

A few shakes of ground cumin

Kosher salt and fresh black pepper

About 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or canola oil


Instructions

For ease of grilling (and, later, slicing), I recommend cutting the skirt steak into manageable pieces, about 6 inches long. Arrange the pieces of steak in a large, glass baking dish. Generously sprinkle the meat with kosher salt on all sides.

Combine the onion, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro, lime and spices in a food processor. Pulse a few times to rough chop everything, then scrape down the sides and turn the processor on to run continuously. Slowly drizzle the oil into the processor as it runs, and continue until the mixture is uniform and somewhat thick.

Pour the marinade evenly over the steak, turning each piece to ensure equal coverage. Cover the baking dish and refrigerate at least 2 hours, up to 6 hours* (no longer, or the acid will begin to break down the meat fibers).

Grill over high heat for a short period of time until meat is seared (you can cut into a piece to check its done-ness to your liking), and immediately wrap it up in a double layer of foil. Rest the wrapped meat on the cutting board for about 5 minutes before slicing—against the grain, always. For skirt steak, this means making your cuts along the longer side of the meat, another reason it is helpful to cut the skirts into pieces.

So. Much. Flavor.

We enjoyed our cilantro-marinated skirt steak with grilled peppers and onions, on handmade flour tortillas (I used this recipe) with sour cream and Les’s incredible smoky guacamole.



Raspberry-Rhubarb “Pop Tarts”

Show me a kid who doesn’t eat pop tarts, and I’ll say that kid doesn’t spend nearly enough time at Grandma’s house. For me, one of the treats of being with Gram—besides that I simply loved her company and always had fun learning and making things—was getting “spoiled” a bit with certain foods that were not necessarily available at home. It isn’t that I loaded up on junk food at her house; that definitely was not the case. But I was allowed to grab handfuls of Cap’n Crunch cereal, right out of the box, to munch on while I watched Saturday morning cartoons from the big wing chair. Gram could be persuaded to purchase an occasional box of strawberry Pop-Tarts (assuming she had a coupon), and I did so love spreading my toast with banana- or cinnamon-flavored peanut butter. Please tell me you do remember Koogle, don’t you?


I would give anything to relive some of those sweet childhood memories and to appreciate the simple joys more than I did in the moment, especially the sputtering sound of Gram’s pressure cooker or the metronome-like sound of the pendulum on the cuckoo clock that hung on the back wall of the den. Just remembering the zipping sound it made when Grandpa pulled down the clock chains to reset it every evening makes me feel calmer inside. And, just like that, my eyes are misty—talk amongst yourselves, I need a moment.


These days, all the clocks in my house are digital display, with blue lights, and most of them keep me awake at night. Sugary cereals and funky-flavored peanut butters don’t stand a chance in my kitchen, and neither do most of the convenience snacks that have all kinds of who-knows-what ingredients. But I have been thinking about how simple it would be to make a homemade version of at least one favorite childhood treat, and to incorporate a flavor that Kellogg’s never would have thought of.

That’s how these raspberry-rhubarb “pop tarts” came to be, and they were ridiculously simple to make with store-bought pie crust dough and a fruity mashup that I made with my most recent score of rhubarb. Gram always had rhubarb in the spring and summer, and I learned to love it when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Why not make it a filling for pop tarts? I cooked it with raspberries, which have pectin for thickening power (rhubarb doesn’t), but there’s no reason you couldn’t use any flavor of ready-made preserves, homemade or otherwise, as a filling for this treat. And you could skip the sugary frosting if you’d like, too. I only made it because I wanted the pictures to be pretty.

OK, pretty and girly. 🙂

Word to the wise, I would not recommend actually putting these in the toaster. The pie crust pastry is more delicate than a commercial pop tart, and I’m pretty sure you’d have a mess on your hands (not to mention inside the toaster). Also, because these tarts are not filled with preservatives, you will want to eat them up once they are made, but I doubt that will be a problem.

This was a fun, whimsical project, and the tarts were delicious. The icing, however, made them very sweet, so I won’t likely make this exact version again anytime soon. But I’ll tell you this much—if I had grandchildren, we’d be making these easy homemade pop tarts every visit, in as many flavors as the little ones could think up!

What flavor would you make?


Ingredients

Enough to make 8 tarts

Pastry dough for double crust pie (I used store-bought)

About 1/2 cup raspberry-rhubarb filling:

1 heaping cup rhubarb chunks

1/2 cup fresh raspberries

1/4 cup cane sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1 Tbsp. corn starch, dissolved in 1 Tbsp. cold water


Glaze Icing (optional)

1 Tbsp. heavy cream

2 Tbsp. light corn syrup

About 2 cups powdered sugar

Food coloring, optional

Sparkling sugar, optional


Instructions

Make the fruit filling first, and give it plenty of time to chill in the fridge before making the pastries. Combine rhubarb chunks, raspberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat until the fruit breaks up and mixture is thick, syrupy and bubbling. If the mixture seems thin, whisk in a small amount of cornstarch slurry and cook until it is no longer cloudy in appearance. Transfer to a covered bowl and refrigerate.

To assemble the pastries, spread the pie crust dough out onto a lightly floured countertop or board. If you are using a store-bought rolled crust, use a rolling pin to even out the wrinkles, but do not aim to make it thinner than 1/8 inch. Pinch together any breaks in the dough as best you can. Cut the dough into approximately 3-by-5-inch rectangles. You should be able to get 8 rectangles from each pastry round. Discard the scraps, or do what my Gram always did with extra pie dough: brush the scraps with egg wash and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, then bake them and have the kids try to guess what animal they look like. 🙂

Carefully spread about 1½ tablespoons of the chilled fruit filling onto one set of rectangles, keeping the edges clean at least 1/2 inch on all sides. Top each pastry with a second rectangle. Use a fork to crimp the edges all the way around and to pierce shallow holes in the top surface. It occurred to me while I was doing this step that I could have used egg wash to seal the pastry, but they turned out fine without it. Transfer the pastries to a parchment-lined baking sheet and place the sheet in the freezer while you preheat the oven.

Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack set in center position. If you do not plan to put icing on the tarts, give them a quick brush with egg wash or milk before baking. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven for about 15 minutes, but watch them closely, as the edges of the tarts may want to burn. Carefully transfer the tarts to a rack and cool them completely before icing.

For the icing, whisk together heavy cream and corn syrup until smooth. Gradually add up to 2 cups of powdered sugar, whisking in each addition until smooth. Stir in a couple pf drops of food coloring, if desired, in one of the early sugar additions. The icing should be thick enough to form ribbons when dripped from a spoon, but thin enough to smooth out after a few moments.

Drizzle it thinly over cooled tarts and sprinkle with sparkling sugar or candy sprinkles, if desired. I mean, why not?

Just tripping down memory lane over here… ❤


Mac and Pimiento Cheese

Show up at any family reunion or church potluck in the South, and you can bet your sweet tea you’ll find at least three kinds of mac and cheese on the table, plus a couple of pimiento cheese appetizers (probably layered thinly in little white bread finger sandwiches). I love doing mashups of classic foods, and so it seemed obvious to me that pimiento cheese should be paired with mac and cheese. It’s a beautiful, diet-be-danged casserole collision, if I do say so myself.

If you have made any of my other mac and cheese recipes, you know that American cheese is usually the standard in my cheese sauce base. The special salts and enzymes in American cheese are what gives it that ultra-creamy, ooey-gooey meltability, and isn’t that the best thing about mac and cheese?


But pimiento cheese has its own character (namely, it’s mayonnaise-y) and I didn’t want it to feel overshadowed in this mashup. Last summer, I shared the recipe that my husband, Les, uses for pimiento cheese, and it is awesome but not a classic “Southern” style (mainly because it was not drenched in enough greasy mayonnaise). My own pimiento cheese recipe is also shy-of-classic, because I blend together mayonnaise and cream cheese for the base, and it’s probably no surprise that I usually add unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno or chopped pickles. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

For this “mac and pimiento cheese,” which just happens to be my 200th post here on Comfort du Jour, I leaned on cream cheese rather than American in the base for my cheese sauce. I really wanted the smooth, velvety texture of the mild cream cheese to anchor all the cheddar that’s happening throughout the rest of the dish. For the pimiento cheese accents, I used a whole jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped into small pieces. Some of them went into the cheese sauce, but the rest found their way into a quick mayo-based pimiento cheese that was layered in with the cooked noodles and cheese sauce before baking. All those dollops gave this mac and cheese that distinctive mayonnaise-y tang that is so signature to a good, classic Southern pimiento cheese.

Oh mercy me, look at that pimiento cheese dripping through that mac and cheese!

Disclaimer warning on this one—there’s a lot of richness in this recipe, and the chance is fair to middlin’ this mac and pimiento cheese will crush your calorie count, so you would do well to consider it dinner all on its own or with a fresh side salad. Here we go, y’all!


Ingredients

Cheese sauce

1/2 medium onion, diced small

4 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp* (this was most of a standard brick)

8 oz. brick sharp cheddar, shredded* (see notes)

About half of a 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped


Pimiento cheese dollops

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp (the rest of the brick)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

A few shakes sweet paprika

The other half of the 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped

4 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded (this was roughly a cup)


For assembling the casserole

Most of a 1 lb. package of macaroni or other pasta*

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (ours was seasoned with “chili onion crunch” from Trader Joe’s)


*Notes

I recommend regular, full-fat cream cheese for this recipe. I have found that the light version does not maintain the creamy texture in a heated sauce. For the complete recipe, I used an entire 8 oz. brick of cream cheese, but it was divided nearly evenly between the cheese sauce and the pimiento cheese mixture.

Two kinds of cheddar went into my mac and pimiento cheese, because we like spicy stuff at our house. I used an entire 8 oz. brick of sharp cheddar and half a brick of habanero cheddar. Mix and match to your liking, but reserve about a cup of shredded cheese for the pimiento cheese mixture.

Pimientos are a variety of pepper, and though it is easy to find jars of pimientos at the market, I used a large jar of roasted red peppers because that is what I had in the cabinet. You might even choose to roast fresh peppers yourself—that’s what I usually do when I make my own version of pimiento cheese. If you choose jarred peppers or pimientos, be sure to drain them well and use a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.

I held back about 1/4 of the box of pasta for this recipe, because I wanted it to be extra “saucy.” Classic elbow macaroni works great in a mac and cheese, and I always encourage choosing pasta that is labeled “bronze die cut,” because the surface of the pasta is rougher and holds a sauce extremely well. Cook your pasta just barely to the “al dente” stage, or a bit underdone than you would prefer. When you bake the mac and cheese, it will soften further from the heat and the cheese sauce.


Instructions

  1. Make the béchamel: melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute the onions until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine. Cook until flour is absorbed and bubbly. Add milk and whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the first amount of cream cheese to the béchamel and whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the shredded cheddar, a handful at a time, and whisk until smooth. Use immersion blender (optional) to amplify the creamy texture of the cheese sauce.
  3. Pat dry the first amount of pimientos or roasted red peppers, and stir them into the cheese sauce.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with oven rack in center position.
  5. Cook the elbow macaroni or pasta according to package instructions until just al dente. Slightly undercooked is better than overcooked, as the pasta will absorb moisture form the cheese sauce during baking. Drain the pasta and cool slightly.
  6. Combine the remaining cream cheese and mayo, whisking as needed to create a smooth-textured spread. Add the remaining pimientos (pat them dry first), paprika and remaining shredded cheddar.
  7. Fold the cooked pasta into the cheese sauce and layer about half of it into a glass 8 x 8 inch casserole. Spoon dollops of pimiento cheese mixture randomly over the mac and cheese, then layer on the rest of the pasta mixture. Spoon remaining pimiento cheese over the surface of the mac and cheese, but do not spread it.
  8. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheesy panko crumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese. Slide it back into the oven for 15 more minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Life is good, y’all!