Cooking with Strange Ingredients of Questionable Origin

Ugh, I do not feel like I am winning this camp session so far. I don’t think I’m going to not win (yet) but it’s been a slog and I’m quite a bit behind. This nonfiction writing business is kind of a drag. I mean, it’s interesting and stuff, but I feel like I need to do about twenty or thirty minutes of research for every ten words that I write. I knew I would be writing few words this time around and that it would take more research and fact checking, but sheesh. I could really go for just a quick and stupid blitz through draftyville right now, you know?

That said, it hasn’t all been rainclouds and misery these last couple weeks. One of the two nonfiction projects I’m working on is a cookbook, and that means cooking! Furthermore, it means experimental cooking, which is probably the best kind of cooking that there is.

In the interest of keeping the cookbook accessible to normal humans, I can’t do anything too crazy-go-nuts, and that’s kept me reigned in reasonably well. After all the ingredient I’m showcasing here is a little wacky itself- birch syrup. (Who here has heard of birch syrup? Tried it? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to know what you think about it!)

Birch syrup is like the half-sibling between unrelated maple syrup and molasses. It’s got that maple treeishness, and molasses’ kind of minerally tang to it, but has a flavor profile all its own that varies quite a bit from batch to batch. I’ve been working on a series of recipes that bring out its uniqueness, but within the kinds of comfort foods that people already know and love.

Some of the recipes I’m working on are things like birch vinaigrette, birch baked black beans, and birch-infused profiteroles. There are birch caramel popcorn balls, and boreal bliss ice cream, and birch brined moose jerky. (These are my comfort foods, okay?)

My kids’ favorite so far, though, has to be the birch bacon mac and cheese. Sweet and salty and gooey and hot, that double batch I made didn’t stand a chance.

1/2 pound of bacon

1 lb chopped vegetables of choice (broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, etc)

1 lb dry pasta

1/4 c unsalted butter

1/4 c all-purpose flour

2 c whole milk

1/4 c dark birch syrup

1 1/4 c mozzarella cheese

3/4 c cheddar cheese

1.  Boil pasta according to directions, cooking just slightly less than al dente. (I usually find the directions for al dente and then subtract one minute for every five. Bite a piece and if it feel just a bit undercooked, it’s ready.) Drain the pasta and set aside.

2.  Cook bacon in a frying pan over high heat until crisp, about eight minutes. While bacon is cooking, steam vegetables. I typically chop vegetables into chunks about the size of my curled forefinger and steam for five minutes, until they are just a tiny bit crunchier than al dente, like the pasta. Set aside vegetables. Drain bacon, and then chop into bite-sized chunks and set aside.

3.  Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the butter begins to boil, add flour and whisk until the mixture becomes fragrant and turns a light brown, about three minutes. (It’s better to undercook than overcook at this stage. Overcooking with make for a slightly lumpy cheese sauce while little brown flecks, while undercooking is easy to correct with a little extra cooking later. Either way, it will still taste fine.) Slowly whisk in the milk. It may be a little lumpy at first, but keep whisking as the milk comes up to heat and it will smooth out. Whisk constantly as the sauce thickens, taking care that the bottom does not scorch. Turn off heat, but keep pot over burner, and whisk in the birch syrup. The sauce should be a uniform light caramel color.

4.  Add cheese a half cup at a time, allowing it to melt completely and then whisking it in before adding more cheese. Sauce should be thick and gooey; if it is too thick, add two tablespoons of additional milk at a time until desire consistency. (I usually end up adding about an extra half cup of milk at this point, but my family likes a slightly thinner mac.)

5.  Pour the noodles, bacon, and vegetables into the cheese sauce, stirring gently until well coated. Cook over low heat until cheese sauce just begins to bubble and all ingredients are heated through, about five minutes. Serve hot.

Looking for a slightly lighter side dish? Omit the bacon and vegetables, instead adding one teaspoon of salt to the cheese sauce.

Note: While any pasta would taste good with this sauce, different pastas hold sauces differently. When choosing a good mac-and-cheese pasta, pick a “short” pasta, rather than a strand or ribbon pasta, that would cup the sauce and transfer little reservoirs of it into your mouth. Medium-to-large sized tubes or shells (such as penne, conchiglie, or rotini) about the same size as your vegetable and bacon chunks would be about right for this recipe. Alternatively, if omitting the bacon and veggies, you can go for a smaller pasta such as macaroni or campanelle.

PS- If you can’t get your hands on birch syrup (like most of the world outside of extreme northern latitudes), don’t sweat it. This recipe will still be tasty if you use maple syrup or molasses instead. Just, while you’re eating it, you are legally required to think of how much nummier it would be if you had the real deal. Legal truth. *nods*

Until next week, happy writing cooking!

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