March got you out of sorts? Go for comfort.
Are you in the March doldrums as much as I am? What is it with this month? Maybe it has something to do with the progression of months before it. January is all shiny and new and full of anticipation with the New Year. February is all lollipops and rainbows, filled with chocolate and hearts and the i-love-yous of Valentine’s Day. And then March…March lands with a loud THUD. Ka-BOOM (or, maybe more appropriately with all the wet drippy weather, Ker-PLOP.) I feel like a dark cloud hangs over my head after a few days in a row of gray, drippy, dreary, clammy weather (this is unfortunate as Ithaca is known for its gray, drippy, dreary, clammy springs). I gaze despondently out the window and wonder when, oh when, will spring ever come? And then the next day, it’s sunny and 50 degrees and I’m throwing open the windows and letting in the sunshine and bouncing as I walk. And then, the next day, Ker-PLOP all over again. Geez louise, it’s enough to make anyone go crazy. Normally I consider myself a pretty sunshine-y person, but each year March really tests me.
I could try to tell myself it looks like a flower…
Maybe this is why I’ve been turning to comfort-type foods lately; I don’t know. I’ve been making things that are warm and easy and that we can eat for a few days in a row during the week. At first I was hesitant to blog about some of these dishes, but then I reconsidered: if I’m falling for these types of foods, maybe some of you are just as discombobulated by March as I am, and maybe you’re in need of some comfort-in-a-bowl just as much as I am.
cheese makes anything better
especially a cheesy bechamel sauce
Take this baked penne with cauliflower and cheese, for instance. One look at it says “winter casserole.” But actually, I think it’s significantly better than just some run-of-the-mill cold weather casserole; it’s like a cross between grown-up macaroni and cheese and a cauliflower gratin…both of which I need no convincing to eat.
Macaroni and cheese has always been one of my favorite comfort dishes (and I know I’m not alone!) When I was young, my mom (and her mom, who ironically didn’t much enjoy cooking but made a mean mac-and-cheese) used to make baked mac-and-cheese with the real thing: macaroni in a cheddar cheese sauce, topped with sliced tomatoes and breadcrumbs. My brother was so enamored of mac-and-cheese (though in his teenage years, it was the Kraft box kind) that he used to eat it at least once a week. This coincided with a period of a few years when I was taking pottery classes, so I made him a bowl that was big enough to fit an entire box of Kraft mac-and-cheese. He got a lot of use out of it.
crusty and cheesy and delicious
So this is a new twist on one of my old comfort food favorites, spruced up a bit with the addition of cauliflower and a blend of cheeses. Penne and blanched cauliflower are mixed together with a simple bechamel sauce, amped up with Gruyere and Cheddar cheese, and then topped with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Yes, it’s definitely yummy, and definitely comfort food. And, it’s great when you pair it with some greens dressed in lemon vinaigrette.
lemony kale and ricotta salata is great foil to the creamy pasta and cauliflower
And, it’s a great thing to make on a Sunday and enjoy all week, while you nurse any March doldrums that seem to have settled around you…and remember: spring is just around the corner (that’s been my mantra lately!)
Baked Penne with Cauliflower and Cheese
Adapted from Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden by Jeanne Kelley
1 pound whole wheat penne
1 large head cauliflower, florets thinly sliced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
3 cups milk
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs (or Panko breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter a 9×13 baking dish.
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy pot over medium heat, then saute the onion until it’s translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute, then whisk in the flour and cook 1 more minute, but don’t let the flour brown. Whisk in the milk, then add the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking occasionally, until it thickens. Add the cheeses and keep stirring until they melt, then stir in the salt, cayenne, nutmeg, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Set aside (you can make this up to 1 day ahead, cooling it, covering it, and refrigerating it.)
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the penne according to the directions on the package. Four minutes before the penne is done cooking, add the sliced cauliflower florets. Drain very well.
Combine the pasta, cauliflower, and cheese sauce, stir well, then stir in the chopped parsley. Transfer the mixture to the buttered baking dish.
To make the breadcrumb topping, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and combine it with the breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the top of of the baking dish.
Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.