Monday, August 6, 2012

Baked Mac-n-Cheese

This meal was tested on animals... and they LOVED it!

My household (cats included) is a huge fan of the blue box.  I remember our first couple of years of marriage included Kraft Macaroni and Cheese at least a couple of times a month, not because I couldn't cook (because I totally can), but because my hubby and I just love Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  The chemicals, the unpronounceable ingredients... what's not to love?!

Well, in an attempt to move our meals from boxed, chemical-riddled concoctions to more whole foods, I started looking for recipes to replace our beloved blue box, but every single "homemade" macaroni and cheese recipe I found online started with a base of Velveeta.  Now, I'm not knocking Velveeta here but don't claim to be homemade macaroni and cheese when you melt a stick of Velveeta and call it homemade cheese sauce.  That's as much homemade as me pouring milk into a bowl with the packet of "cheese" from the blue box and calling that homemade.  *Steps Down From Soapbox*

Just wanted to throw in another photo for good measure! 

Anywho... When I started following a lower carb, higher protein diet, my pharmacist recommended a book called "The Belly Fat Cure" by Jorge Cruise.  In his book, Mr. Cruise offers hundreds of lower carb, healthier recipes for some of our absolute favorite carb heavy, chemically processed foods including macaroni and cheese.  I used that mac-n-cheese recipe as the base for mine and adapted it to suit my personal tastes.  Also, I included some gluten-free alternatives so my gluten-allergy affected friends and family can also try out this recipe!

Sorry in advance for the lack of photos for this post.  This macaroni and cheese recipe requires both hands during the entire process, so I didn't get many photos this time, but I promise to have the hubby help me next time so I can add in some photos at a later date, but I at least wanted to get the recipe up for y'all to view!

Here is the mac-n-cheese right after I pulled it out of the oven! Yummy!

So... without further ado, here is my version of homemade mac-n-cheese!  I hope you enjoy it and let me know what you did to make this recipe your own!

Baked Mac-n-Cheese
Adapted from The Belly Fat Cure

-  1 bag           Whole Wheat or Gluten Free Pasta (12-16 oz. bag is typical)

Cheese Sauce:
-  1 1/2 cups    Grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
-  1 cup            Grated Colby Jack Cheese
-  1/2 cup         Grated Mozzarella Cheese
-  6 tbsp.          Unsalted Butter
-  3-4 cloves      Fresh Garlic, minced
-  2 cups           Heavy Whipping Cream
-  3 tbsp.          Whole Wheat Unbleached All Purpose Flour (or Rice Flour for the Gluten-Free version)
-  To Taste       Seasonings including: Fresh Cracked Black Pepper, Cayenne Pepper, 
                       MSG-free Season Salt

-  4 tbsp.          Unsalted Butter, melted
-  4 tbsp.          Whole Wheat Panko (or Gluten Free Bread Crumbs)
-  1/2 cup ea.   Grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese and Mozzarella Cheese
-  1/2 cup         Parmigiana Reggiano Cheese
-  To Taste       Seasonings including Fresh Cracked Black Pepper, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder

-  Cook pasta according to the direction on the bag.
-  Once the pasta has cooked, drain it, but reserve approximately 1 cup of the pasta water in case you need to thin the cheese sauce.
-  Set aside.

Cheese Sauce:
-  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, and grease a glass casserole dish (9" x 13" or 11" x 17" dish will work just fine).
-  Over medium heat, melt butter in a medium sauce pan, and throw in the minced garlic.
-  Once the butter has melted, whisk in the flour, cayenne pepper, and black pepper, and whisk continuously for a few minutes.
-  Whisk in the heavy whipping cream, and bring to a soft boil.
-  Once the mixture has begun to boil, turn down to medium low heat and continue whisking for a few more minutes (2-3 minutes) until the mixture begins to thicken.
-  Slowly add in the various grated cheeses until completely combined.
-  Remove from heat and continue to stir.  Should the sauce feel too thick, feel free to thin it slightly by adding the reserved pasta water a little bit at a time until your desired thickness has been reached.
-  Mix the cheese sauce with the drained pasta, and transfer to a baking dish.
-  Cover the mac-n-cheese with the topping (directions to follow), and bake uncovered for approximately 15 to 20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

-  Melt the butter in the microwave.
-  While the butter is melting, combine in a bowl: panko, cheeses, and seasonings.
-  Once the butter has melted, remove it from the microwave and add it to the panko mixture.
-  Mix together with your hands until everything is combined, then sprinkle over top the mac-n-cheese.

-  Tradition calls for using elbow macaroni as the pasta, but I like to shake things up and use different pastas like farfalle, penne, or bow tie pasta.  Feel free to use whatever pasta you would like!
-  Following the directions as is will yield a gorgeous casserole style side dish, perfect for barbeques, weekday dinners, or special occasions, but you can mix in your favorite meat to create a full casserole-style dinner.  My hubby and I personally like to mix in my slow cooker shredded chicken to make a spicy Mexican-style Mac-n-Cheese, but ground turkey or ground beef would also be a perfect mix-in.  To make this a full meal, you will want to mix in your hot, cooked meat of choice in at the same time you mix the pasta in with the cheese sauce that way everything gets a nice coating of cheesy goodness.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Slow Cooker Shredded Chicken for Tex Mex Dishes

Street Cart Tacos with Cilantro Lime Rice and Charro Beans

It's okay to be jealous.  I ate everything on that plate last night and fell asleep in a completely blissful Tex Mex coma, and it was everything I hoped it would be and more.  You, too, can have such an amazing dinner on a week night, after work, with about 10 minutes of prep time the night before (or the morning of), and 30 minutes of cooking time when you get home from work (to make your sides and heat up your tortillas because the chicken was finished before you got home), but it will appear to your husband or guests that you took the day off and slaved over a hot stove for 10-12 hours just for them.  And, you can let them believe that, totally.  I won't tell.  Go for it!  ;o)

I developed this recipe from one I found on Pinterest.  I basically took a "cilantro lime shredded chicken" recipe and changed it up a bit not only to suit my own Tex Mex loving tastes, but because taco seasoning packets are not only terrible for you (picture ingesting the stuff that comes in your shoes that you take out and throw away because the little packets tell you not to ingest), but they are pretty much as far from "authentic" Tex Mex as you can get.  It's like eating canned salsa from New York City.  New York City?  Yeah, that's right.  I went there.  Don't get me wrong.  I've had great "Tex Mex" as far north as Idaho, but there is still a difference between what other states refer to as "Tex Mex" and what Texas refers to as Tex Mex.  I'm not "doggin'" your state "brah", I'm just letting you know that my definition of Tex Mex refers to what San Antonio and south Texas calls Tex Mex.  There are even some Tex Mex places here in the DFW area that don't live up to my "Tex Mex Snob" standards.

Side note: I also find that most Pinterest recipes don't ever have enough garlic, so my rule of thumb, unless the recipe calls for 10 cloves of garlic because the writer of that blog also shares my obsession with garlic, I tend to double or triple the garlic content, and for this particular recipe I was basing mine off of, which had ZERO cloves of garlic (I know, right?! I about passed out when I saw that!), I immediately made a mental note to pretty much throw in an entire bulb.

So, back to the task at hand: getting awesome San Antonio Tex Mex flavor regardless of where you are in the world.  

Every good Tex Mex dish starts with a well-seasoned meat.  Once you have a well-seasoned meat, you can create anything from street cart tacos to natchos, quesadillas, and enchiladas.  The combinations are endless at that point.  But, it's important to note that the fresher your ingredients, the better-seasoned and flavorful your end product will be.

For this dish, you will need chicken, fresh salsa, fresh pico, fresh cilantro and garlic, a lime or two, and a handful of seasonings.  I do not condone the use of canned salsa in my home (unless we're having a large group of people over and I don't have time to make any or the market is out of their own fresh salsa) because I personally find fresh salsa to be way more mind-blowingly good than the mass-produced stuff, whether it's produced in San Antonio or Seattle, Washington.  Plus, fresh salsa is super easy to make.  Remind me again in a month or so and I'll create a post dedicated to the art of salsa-making because there are so many different combinations and styles you can make.  

Everything you need to make shredded chicken in a slow cooker!

But, with all that said, if you have to buy a canned salsa because you either don't want to or know how to make fresh salsa or because your market doesn't make salsa, make sure to choose a canned salsa that you know and love.  You can even change the flavor of this chicken depending on the style of salsa you choose: salsa fresca (uncooked, just pureed) is going to taste completely different than a fresh or canned fire-roasted salsa.

As for pico, if your market doesn't carry fresh pico de gallo, find a new market.  Kidding!  I know markets carrying fresh salsa, pico, and guacamole are often hard to find once you find yourself out of the south or southwest.  Pico is super easy to make yourself--just grab a large, yellow onion, a couple tomatoes, a couple jalapeno peppers, a handful of cilantro, and a little lime juice; mix it all together, and there you have it!  Bonus!  Two "recipes" for the price of one!

Once you have all of your ingredients ready, layer it all in the slow cooker.  By the way: to make this recipe as is, you will need to break out the large slow cooker, not the one you use to make appetizers and dips.  You will need the, "I'm cooking for 12 people" slow cooker.

Here is my slow cooker completely packed with yummy goodness!

Once everything is layered and ready, you can either put a lid on it and store it overnight in the refrigerator (which is what I do because I cannot sleep through the night when deliciousness is cooking in the slow cooker), or if you are putting this together in the morning, you can go ahead and throw it into the slow cooker and start the 10 hour cooking process.

After those devilishly-long 10 hours are over, you can shred the chicken with two forks or a fork and a set of tongs.  After the meat is finished cooking and it's been shredded, the rest is up to you!  

You can simply throw this chicken into a bowl, sprinkle some cheese on top and attack it with tortilla chips (which is what I did to "taste" it yesterday).  You can throw the chicken into doubled-up corn tortillas, add your favorite toppings, and have tacos.  You can put it in flour tortillas, sprinkle with fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese and have your own "Taco Tuesday" (for all my Rosa's Tortilla Factory-loving friends out there).  You can use this chicken as the base for enchiladas.  You can mix in cooked rice and stuff bell peppers with the chicken, sprinkle with cheese and bake them for stuffed peppers.  You can place it between two flour tortillas with cheese and make a quesadilla.  

If you haven't figured it out yet, you can pretty much make any kind of Tex Mex chicken dish with this pot of goodness.  If you have any questions though regarding what would be good or not so good to make with this recipe, feel free to ask it in the comments, and I'll be happy to steer you one way or another!

The finished product! Drooling yet?

Slow Cooker Shredded Chicken (for Tex Mex dishes)

 -  1 pkg.         Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
 -  1 pkg.         Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs
 -  24 oz.         Fresh Salsa
 -  8 oz.           Fresh Pico de Gallo
 -  1 med.        Lime, juiced
 -  ½ cup         Fresh Cilantro, chopped
 -  4-6 cloves   Fresh Garlic, chopped
 -  3 lg. tsp.     Garlic Powder
 -  3 lg. tsp.     Onion Powder
 -  2 lg. tsp.     Chili Powder
 -  1 lg. tsp.     Ground Cumin
 -  1 lg. tsp.     Cayenne Pepper
 -  To Taste     Cracked Black Pepper (no need to add salt to this recipe)


      -  In a bowl, mix together garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, fresh cracked black pepper, and fresh chopped garlic cloves.  
      Note: for these seasonings, you can use as much as you like.  Because I don't like Cumin and Chili Powder and much as I like Garlic and Onion, I toned those two back, but you can use as much as 3 full teaspoons of each seasoning.  Also, when I say "large teaspoon", I mean heaping, not a leveled-off teaspoon.  We're not measuring baking soda for cookies here, we're making stewed chicken.  :)
      -  Place some pico on the bottom of the slow cooker.
      -  Place the chicken breast on top of the pico in a single row and cover with some more pico, salsa, and seasonings mixture.    
      -  Layer the thighs on top, and cover with the rest of the pico, salsa, and seasonings mixture.
      -  Add the fresh cilantro and lime juice on top, cover, and cook on low for 10 hours.
      -  Once the ten hours is up, take the lid off and shred the chicken with two forks.