Eric Akis, In Our Back­yard: Who makes the best mac and cheese?

Times Colonist - - Front Page - ERIC AKIS In Our Back­yard eakis@times­colonist.com Eric Akis is the au­thor of eight cook­books. His col­umns ap­pear in the Life sec­tion Wed­nes­day and Sun­day.

Palate-pleas­ing, com­fort­ing and rib-stick­ing, it’s no sur­prise that mac and cheese ap­peals to all ages. And another big part of its al­lure is that it can be pre­pared in myr­iad ways.

For ex­am­ple, it can be pretty basic, made by stir­ring hot, just­cooked mac­a­roni into a pot of tangy, sim­mer­ing cheese sauce. You can also bake mac and cheese, topped with more cheese and other top­pings, un­til bub­bly and delicious. You’ll even find recipes where cold mac and cheese is formed into balls, coated in sea­soned bread­crumbs and deep-fried, un­til crispy and golden on the out­side and molten in the mid­dle.

A wide range of in­gre­di­ents can also be added to mac and cheese to make it even more divine. The many pos­si­bil­i­ties in­clude spe­cialty cheeses; fresh herbs; roasted, grilled and other types of veg­eta­bles; seafood, such as lob­ster, crab and shrimp; smoked chicken and turkey; and meats, such as ham, pulled pork and shreds of bar­be­cue brisket.

In to­day’s rather sump­tu­ous recipe, I cooked mac and cheese in a skil­let on the bar­be­cue and flavoured it with three types of Is­land-made cheese and ba­con.

If I now have your mouth wa­ter­ing and you’ve de­vel­oped a big-time crav­ing to try dif­fer­ent types of mac and cheese, but don’t want make your own, you’re in luck.

Our Place So­ci­ety, which pro­vides sup­port to Greater Victoria’s most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, has or­ga­nized a spe­cial event that, from Aug. 8 to Sept. 8, will see nu­mer­ous restau­rants serv­ing up their own spe­cial ver­sion of mac and cheese. So far, the restau­rants in­clude 10 Acres Bistro, Aura Wa­ter­front Restaurant and Pa­tio, Boom & Bat­ten, Boon­docks, Chuck’s Burger Bar, Courtney Room, Crooked Goose Bistro, Frankie’s Mod­ern Diner, Heron Rock Bistro, Il Covo Trat­to­ria, Ir­ish Times Pub, Smug­gler’s Cove Pub, Spin­nakers and Vir­tu­ous Pie.

Steven Seltzer, Our Place So­ci­ety’s spe­cial events and cor­po­rate giv­ing man­ager, says the idea of the event is to show sup­port for our local culi­nary in­dus­try — busi­nesses neg­a­tively af­fected by the COVID-19 pan­demic that, over the years, have helped raise much-needed funds for Our Place So­ci­ety.

Beyond get­ting to pur­chase and try many splen­did ver­sions of mac and cheese, whether you eat it at the restau­rants noted above or get it to go, this event is also a culi­nary com­pe­ti­tion that will de­ter­mine who makes Greater Victoria’s best mac and cheese.

To have your say, after you have tried some of the dif­fer­ent types be­ing of­fered, go to the Our Place So­ci­ety web­site, our­place­so­ci­ety.com, and click on the link that will al­low you to vote for the restaurant you thought made the best mac and cheese. The win­ner will be an­nounced at Our Place So­ci­ety’s virtual Hun­gry Hearts fundraiser on Satur­day, Sept. 12, at 5 p.m. More in­for­ma­tion about that event, in­clud­ing how to tune in, will also be on the Our Place So­ci­ety web­site.

Skil­let BBQ Mac and Cheese with Is­land Cheese and Ba­con

This Van­cou­ver Is­land-style mac and cheese is rich with three types of local cheese and crispy bits of ba­con. Make a sum­mer meal by serv­ing it with a green salad adorned with cut, raw local veg­eta­bles, such as cu­cum­bers, toma­toes, radishes and bell pep­pers.

Prep time: 40 minutes Cook time: About 45 minutes Makes: Four to six serv­ings

2 cups el­bow mac­a­roni 4 strips of Van­cou­ver Is­land ba­con, cut into small cubes (see Note 1) 3 Tbsp but­ter, plus some for greas­ing 3 Tbsp all-pur­pose flour 2 cups warm milk (see Note 2) 1/2 cup sour cream 1/2 tsp smoked pa­prika 100 grams Lit­tle Qualicum Cheese­works Qualicum spice cheese, grated (di­vided; see Note 3) 100 grams Nat­u­ral Pas­tures Cheese Com­pany aged farm­house cheese, grated (di­vided; see Note 3) • salt and white pep­per, to taste 2 green onions, thinly sliced (di­vided) 75 grams Salt Spring Is­land Cheese Com­pany goat cheese (see Note 3) 2 Tbsp panko or other dried bread­crumbs

Bring a large pot of lightly salted wa­ter to a boil to cook the mac­a­roni. While it’s com­ing to a boil, place ba­con in a skil­let, set over medium to medium-high heat and cook un­til crispy. Drain fat from these ba­con bits. Trans­fer ba­con bits to a plate lined with paper towel and set it aside for now.

When wa­ter is boil­ing, cook mac­a­roni un­til just ten­der, about eight to 10 minutes, de­pend­ing on the brand.

While mac­a­roni cooks, place 3 Tbsp but­ter in a medium-to­large-sized pot set over medium heat. When but­ter is melted, mix in flour and cook, stir­ring, two minutes.

Very slowly, while whisk­ing, drib­ble and mix in 1/2 cup of the milk. Cook un­til the mix­ture becomes quite thick, and then slowly whisk in the re­main­ing milk and sour cream.

Bring this white sauce to a sim­mer, stir­ring fre­quently so it does not scorch on the bottom. Sim­mer one minute to thicken. Re­move sauce from the heat. Mix in pa­prika and three-quar­ters of the grated spice cheese, and three­quar­ters of the aged Farm­house cheese. When cheese has melted, season the sauce with salt and pep­per.

Pre­heat your bar­be­cue un­til the tem­per­a­ture in the cham­ber is 375 F to 400 F (see Eric’s op­tions).

When mac­a­roni is cooked, drain it well. Now add it and three quar­ters of the green onions to the sauce and gen­tly mix to com­bine.

Lightly but­ter the in­side of 10-inch di­am­e­ter cast-iron skil­let (see Eric’s op­tions). Spoon the mac­a­roni mix­ture into the skil­let. Top mac­a­roni with the re­main­ing grated cheeses, and then sprin­kle on the ba­con bits. Set small nuggets of the goat cheese at var­i­ous points on top of the mac and cheese. Now sprin­kle top of mac and cheese with the panko.

Set skil­let on side of the bar­be­cue. Close the lid and turn the heat off un­der­neath the skil­let; leave the other side of the bar­be­cue on. Cook the mac and cheese 25 to 30 minutes, or un­til very hot and bub­bly. As the mac and cheese cooks, check the tem­per­a­ture in the cham­ber and ad­just the flame as needed to main­tain the 375 to 400 F tem­per­a­ture.

When ready, sprin­kle the mac and cheese with the re­main­ing green onions and serve.

Note 1: Places mak­ing ba­con on Van­cou­ver Is­land in­clude gro­cery store chain Red Barn Mar­ket (red­barn­mar­ket.ca); small char­cu­terie shop the Whole Beast (the­w­hole­beast.ca); and meat com­pa­nies Her­tel Meats (hertelmeat­s.ca) and Ber­ry­man Brother’s Meat Ltd. (berry­man­farms.ca). Her­tel and Ber­ry­man ba­con is avail­able at many gro­cery stores and smaller foods stores.

Note 2: I warmed the milk for this recipe to just be­low a sim­mer in a 2-cup mea­sur­ing cup in my mi­crowave. It could also be warmed up in a small pot on the stove set over low heat.

Note 3: The cheeses noted in this recipe are avail­able in the deli sec­tion of most gro­cery stores and smaller food stores. You will have to buy pack­age sizes that con­tain more than you need here. But wrap up and re­frig­er­ate the left­over cheese and save it for a cheese­board or other use. If you can’t find the ex­act type of cheese called for in the recipe, sim­ply use one of the com­pany’s other types of cheese that’s sim­i­lar in style.

Eric’s op­tions: If you don’t have a 10-inch cast-iron skil­let, any other bar­be­cue-friendly pan will work here as long its about 2 1/2-inches deep and holds eight to 10 cups. If you don’t have a bar­be­cue, you could bake the mac and cheese in 375 F oven for a sim­i­lar length of time.

Skil­let BBQ Mac and Cheese with Is­land Cheese and Ba­con is a sump­tu­ous ver­sion cooked on the bar­be­cue, fea­tur­ing three Is­land cheeses. From Aug. 8 to Sept. 8, restau­rants in the cap­i­tal re­gion will be serv­ing up their own spe­cial ver­sions of mac and cheese in an event or­ga­nized by Our Place So­ci­ety.

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