Quac ‘N Cheese with Tillamook Maker’s Reserve Aged White Cheddar
Picture a tantalizingly golden crusted, ooey-gooey mac and cheese.
Now, swap out that elbow pasta for rainbow quinoa instead.
Stay with me, stay with me.
Right about now, you’re thinking what an awful idea that is. Why in the world would you switch the classic tried-and-true pasta for something so healthful, and which frankly, always looks to me like a wool sweater that’s been put through a meat grinder?
Because my friends, it’s actually really, really good. And with the amount of cheese that goes into this dish, believe you me, it’s as far from health food as it gets. So there.
“Quac ‘N Cheese” is worth your while. If made with Tillamook Maker’s Reserve White Cheddar, it’s guaranteed to boast an impeccable cheesiness, too. I had a chance to try samples of the reserve cheeses, which are now available in stores, and are worth seeking out.
Each of the cheeses, marked by the date it was produced, has been aging and maturing for a couple of years by the Oregon farmer owned co-op. I sampled three vintages: 2015, 2016, and 2017.
All were extremely velvety in texture, getting just ever so slightly crumblier with the 2015 vintage. There’s a huge umami character to all three years, along with a piquant sharpness that intensifies the older the cheese gets. There’s also fruitiness and a slight grassiness. The cheeses gain complexity and even more depth with longer age. They all have very long finishes on the palate, too.
These are cheeses where just a little goes a long way, with a smidge on your tongue filling your entire mouth with cheesy richness. Each 8-ounce brick of cheese is about $11, $12, and $13 for the 2017, 2016, and 2015 cheeses, respectively. They’re available on the Tillamook web site, as well as at retailers such as Andronico’s, Safeway, and Lucky.
For the “Quac ‘N Cheese,” I used a combination of the 2017 and 2016 cheeses. The quinoa dish, which can be a great holiday side or a vegetarian main, is from the cookbook, “Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings” (Avery), of which I received a review copy.
The book is full of recipes that will have you running to your kitchen to try. They’re imminently doable and include helpful hints on how to prep the them over a couple of days if you’re short on time, which we all are.
Like a typical mac and cheese, you make an easy bechamel sauce made with milk that’s thickened with flour, then flavored with dry mustard, cayenne, and nutmeg. Most of the grated cheddar gets melted into this sauce before getting incorporated into the cooked quinoa plus shredded kale.
Some of the cheddar is held back to sprinkle on top of the dish, along with panko bread crumbs mixed with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano and olive oil, before going into the oven.
When it emerges, it boasts a formidable crusty top that you have to break into to get to what’s beneath — and that is the quinoa-cheese-kale mixture that has turned soft, almost like a corn-pudding texture. While regular mac and cheese is very much noodles smothered in cheese, “Quac ‘N Cheese,” owing to the tiny size of quinoa, is a much more integrated dish. It’s as if quinoa and cheese become one. It also has a greater textural contrast with a substantial cheesy crust covering far less dense and heavy contents.
When it comes to “Quac ‘N Cheese,” the time is now to be a believer.
Quac ‘N Cheese
(Serves 8 to 10)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
1 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
10 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded
1¼ teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1½ teaspoons dry mustard
4 cups cooked tri-color quinoa (see Note)
2 cups shredded kale
1⁄3 cup panko breadcrumbs
1⁄3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until translucent. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in the milk in a slow stream, whisking continuously. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture comes to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes, until thickened. Add 8 ounces of the cheddar cheese, whisking until fully melted. Turn off the heat, stir in the salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste, the cayenne, and mustard powder. Transfer to a large bowl, add the quinoa and kale, and mix well.
In a small bowl, stir the remaining 1 tablespoon oil with the panko. Mix in the Parmigiano-Reggiano and set aside. Butter a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or similar-size baking dish. Transfer the quinoa mixture to the skillet and scatter the panko topping over it. Top with the remaining cheddar cheese. Bake uncovered for 40 to 45 minutes (or up to 55 minutes if taken from the fridge), until golden brown and bubbling at the edges. Serve immediately.
Up to 2 days ahead: Make the béchamel, shred the kale, and cook the quinoa.
Up to 1 day ahead: Assemble the dish; keep refrigerated. Just before serving: Bake the dish.
Note: This recipe calls for cooked quinoa, because the volume can vary depending on what color you use and how it is cooked. I usually cook 1½ cups dry with 2¾ cups water, rice style, for 15 minutes, covered, which will yield a bit (about 1½ cups) more than what’s needed for this recipe. Use the extra in a salad or a grain bowl.
To make this dish gluten-free, substitute gluten-free flour for the all-purpose, and gluten-free breadcrumbs for the panko topping.
From “Open Kitchen” by Susan Spungen
Another Delicious Recipe by Susan Spungen: Crispy Semolina Potatoes
And More Mac and Cheese: Kimchi Mac and Cheese
And: Macaroni and Cheese