Mac and cheese with braised leeks, asiago and parmesan breadcrumbs

Mac and cheese with braised leeks, asiago and parmesan breadcrumbs

The first time I tasted macaroni and cheese, I was well into my twenties. The experience was entirely new — and entirely pleasing. How could it not be? After all, pasta and cheese is one of those superb pairings that delight just about everyone, regardless of their age, gender or background.

But if you were raised in a French household like I was, your only experience of pasta (“les nouilles”), would have been of limp, overcooked noodles tossed with a little butter and served alongside a steak — a far cry from the luscious mixture of creamy cheeses and macaroni that Kraft turned into an icon in 1937 with the “Kraft Dinner.”

Needless to say, I was eager to adopt my new homeland’s favorite comfort food as my own. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I adore all cheeses, regardless of how stinky, how aged or how moldy they might be!

This recipe is a bridge between my French heritage and my adopted country. The leek is a very prominent vegetable in French cooking and when braised it loses its spunk and turns mellow and sweet. Pair it with a slightly tangy Asiago and you have a mac & cheese that will make you come back for seconds, even if your stomach screams it’s full.

Food & wine pairing: Loire Valley, Cabernet Franc with braised leek and asiago mac & cheese

Red wine icon
A Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley or from Long Island, New York is delightful with this hearty pasta.

Leeks at the farmer's market

Mac and cheese with braised leeks, asiago and parmesan breadcrumbs

serves 8
active time: 1 hr

For the leeks

  1. 3 tablespoons olive oil
  2. 4 leeks – 4″ of tops and roots trimmed (1 1/2 lbs) (680 g), cut in half lengthwise, thoroughly washed and cut in 1/4″ slices
  3. 4 large garlic cloves – skinned and finely chopped
  4. 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili pepper flakes
  5. 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  6. freshly ground black pepper to taste
  7. 3/4 cup white wine

For the béchamel

  1. 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  2. 6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  3. 6 cups milk – warmed
  4. 1 cup heavy cream
  5. freshly ground nutmeg to taste (use a microplane grater)
  6. 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  7. freshly ground black pepper to taste
  8. 8 oz (225 g) Asiago – coarsely grated (2 cups)

For the breadcrumbs

  1. 1/3 cup breadcrumbs
  2. 1/2 cup finely grated Reggiano Parmesan
  3. 1 tablespoon olive oil

For the pasta

  1. 1 tablespoon sea salt (for the pasta water)
  2. 1 lb (455 g) pennette lisce or macaroni
  1. 1 medium (15″ x 10″) ceramic or glass baking dish – buttered

  1. Step 1: To braise the leeks – Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and leeks. Toss well and sauté for 5 to 6 minutes until leeks have wilted and just begin to take on a golden color, tossing from time to time. Add the garlic, chili pepper flakes, salt, black pepper and wine. Quickly toss, reduce heat to medium-low and cover pan. Braise leeks for 25 minutes until very tender and all the juices have evaporated (if there is still some liquid in the pan after braising the leeks for 25 minutes, sauté at high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until all juices have evaporated). Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
  2. Step 2: To make the béchamel – Place the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as the butter is melted, whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly for 1 to 2 minutes until the mixture becomes foamy and the flour becomes golden, but not brown. Quickly whisk in the warm milk and cream. While constantly whisking, bring back to a boil. As soon as it reaches boiling point, lower the heat to medium and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes until the béchamel has slightly thickened, still whisking constantly. Add the nutmeg, salt, pepper and grated cheese. Whisk until the cheese has melted and remove from heat.
  3. Step 3: Place the breadcrumbs and parmesan in a small bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil and mix well. Set aside.
  4. Preheat oven to 375°F (190ºC).
  5. Step 4: Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. When the water is boiling, add the salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta about 2 minutes less than the package instructions so that it’s not cooked all the way through (see picture below). Drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Add the leeks and béchamel to the pasta and stir until well blended. Transfer to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until bubbly on the sides and golden. Remove from oven and heat the broiler on high. Place the mac & cheese under the broiler for a few seconds to brown the breadcrumbs. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
  6. Cook’s note: The mac & cheese is best eaten as soon as it’s made. Reheating will make it stodgy. The braised leeks can be prepared up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated. The béchamel can be prepared up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated. Gently reheat it over medium-low heat and thin with a little milk before using in the recipe. Boil the pasta, assemble and bake the mac & cheese just before serving.

Mac and cheese with braised leeks, asiago and parmesan breadcrumbs

pasta, mac and cheese, leeks

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