Are you surprised to see macaroni & cheese on My Carolina Kitchen? Not nearly as surprised as I was the day I ordered it at a tapas bar. It just doesn’t sound like something I would do, does it? I normally go for healthy dishes like seafood and salads. Here’s how it happened.
One afternoon last month we went to see a simulcast of Puccini's opera La Boheme Live from the Met HD series and on the way home from the theater we stopped by one of our new favorite spots in Fort Myers, Cru in the Bell Tower Shops (the same place I discovered the fabulous Caesar kale salad featured a couple of weeks ago here). It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but we joined the others in the bar for tapas. One of the tapas specials caught my eye - macaroni and cheese with Spanish chorizo and grilled chicken tapas.
For some reason lately and I don’t know why, I’ve been fascinated with chorizo. Do you ever get on a food kick and not sure why? Anyway, I ordered the macaroni and cheese tapas with the chorizo. It took only one bite and I was truly blown away. The flavors of the smoky chorizo coupled with the creamy macaroni paired very well with the grilled chicken and cheese. I insisted that Meakin try it (before I ate the whole thing myself) even though he kept telling me that he was busy with his two tapas - tuna tartare and short ribs. He basically ignored me until I nagged and nagged him. He finally gave in and had a taste. He was as impressed as I was and agreed that we should try to duplicate it at home. So here it is.
I baked the macaroni in individual ramekins just as they did at Cru, but a large ovenproof casserole would work fine. Be sure to use the Spanish chorizo, a cured smoked sausage and not to be confused with the Mexican version of chorizo, a fresh ground pork sausage that must be cooked before eating. This is a very substantial tapas dish with 3 cheeses and 2 meats and serves six to eight. We served it with an arugula salad dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and called it lunch.
Macaroni & Cheese with Spanish Chorizo & Grilled Chicken Tapas
Inspired by Cru in Fort Myers, Florida
Serves 6 to 8
10 ounce grilled boneless skinless chicken breast
7 ounces of fully cooked Spanish style cured smoked chorizo sausage
1 pound of small corkscrew rotini or similar small pasta
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, thinly sliced
6 to 8 individual ceramic ramekins, depending on their size (I used 7 ounce ramekins similar to these but square)
Softened butter for greasing the ramekins
After the chicken has cooled, cut it up along with the chorizo into bite size pieces and set aside. Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to the package directions until al dente. Drain and rinse the pasta quickly to stop the cooking. Place in a large bowl and set aside while you make the sauce.
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything
2 ½ cups milk
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups freshly grated sharp Cheddar cheese
½ cup freshly grated Havarti cheese
½ cup freshly grated Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cook the milk with the bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. In about 5 minutes or so when small bubbles appear along the sides, turn the heat off and let the milk stand.
In another small saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter is foamy, add the flour and cook, stirring until the mixture browns, about 5 minutes or so. Remove the bay leaves from the milk and add about ¼ cup of the milk to the hot flour mixture, whisking all the while. As soon as the mixture becomes smooth, add a little more milk and continue to do so until all the milk is used up and the mixture is thick and smooth. Add the Cheddar and havarti and stir well to combine.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Pour the sauce over the cooked noodles, toss in the Parmesan, grilled chicken and chorizo pieces, stir until combined, then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grease the custard cups with the butter and turn the noodle mixture into the cups. Top with slices of Gruyere cheese and bake the macaroni and cheese mixture in the oven (I put the ramekins on a sheet pan) until the Gruyere melts and the macaroni is heated through, about 15 minutes. Serve hot.
I highly recommend Cru if you find yourself in the greater Fort Myers / Cape Coral / Naples, Florida area. It’s an upscale restaurant located in the Bell Tower Shops and reservations for the restaurant are a must during season, link here. Feel free to stop by their outside lounge or the bar inside any time you are in the area and no reservations are needed there. Or do what we did and enjoy their Tapas Bar, menu here plus daily specials, during Happy Hour from 4 to 7. Cru is a real happening place.