There’s really not a lot going for me at the moment, besides watching season 2 of ‘Chuck’ (which I still haven’t decided if I like yet) and obsessing over Bastille covers like this one. Friday the 13th came and went without one mysterious mishap, unexplained event, nor hockey-masked man with a chainsaw. The real horror, I guess is that I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a food rut situation. 10 and 12 hour work days, have left me with very little enthusiasm to remain standing long enough to cook a meal that requires more effort than pushing a few buttons on a microwave. Plus, it’s 5 dollar foot-long subtember, so my lunch and dinner for the past week has pretty much been spoken for, I’m sad to say. But, earlier this week, my food prospects were looking pretty good. I actually started the week with a day off [score!] and spent it in the kitchen, with the idea that I would eat leftovers the rest of the week. Sadly, I overestimated my self-control.
I had been suffering from an overstuffed pantry. [I work in a grocery store, so I have a bad habit of buying things daily, when they go on a good sale; pasta, canned beans, condiments... stuff that won't go bad, that I know I'll use eventually. And because I know ahead of time what things are going on sale, or going on a better sale, I always clip my coupons accordingly.] So, my roommate bet me if I could go three days without buying groceries, he would buy me some mozzarella cheese [the good stuff] for a ‘second try’ recipe that I’ve been dying to put my own spin on. And, lord knows, I’m always up for a little low stakes cheese bet.
My friend Tracy, over at t.ringel design, is always bringing me pinterest pins to cook up for dinner, and a month or so ago, she came to me with a recipe for ‘Caprese Mac N’ Cheese,’ which sounded like the best idea in the world. We tag-teamed it in the kitchen that night for dinner; she grated and I stirred. Mozzarella is a very mild cheese though, which unfortunately rendered the dish pretty bland, as it was pretty much just pasta coated in a mozzarella cream sauce, with tomato and basil. But, it was such a good concept, I was determined to give it some flavor, and much needed salt.
Even though Brenden still owes me my mozzarella [I went 3 days without milk for my coffee to win this bet], I was too impatient, and decided to do some experimenting with some self-bought, store brand cheese of my own. I knew I needed to elevate the flavors, while still using traditional caprese salad ingredients, i.e., tomato, mozzarella and basil. And the few straggler garden cherry tomatoes on my top shelf were just asking to be pan-blistered and doused with balsamic. My biggest dilemma was deciding how to combine the tomatoes and the rest of the dish. I opted for layering, similar to it’s namesake ‘salad’, but then realized that I didn’t have enough tomatoes, (I adjusted the recipe accordingly) so I ended up just mixing them together before baking, but I don’t think this should effect any taste outcome.
Baked Caprese Mac with Pan-blistered Cherry Tomatoes
8 oz [2 cups] ziti pasta (or pasta of your choice; I didn’t have any elbows on hand)
2 dozen cherry tomatoes, kept whole
tsp. olive oil
tsp. balsamic vinegar
2 cups milk*
2 Tbsp. corn starch**
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
1. Cook pasta ‘al dente’ according to package directions, drain and set aside. Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet to medium-high and add olive oil [just enough to thinly coat the bottom of skillet].
2. When the pan is hot, add whole cherry tomatoes, shake pan briefly, and leave for about two minutes. Repeat until tomato skins start to split and a nice color starts to form [depending on your stove, you may have to adjust the heat a little, so they aren't burning]. Using the back of a wooden spoon, gently smash tomatoes to release juices, toss with balsamic vinegar and take off heat.
3. In a medium sauce pan, over medium heat, add cornstarch and season with salt and pepper. Slowly whisk in milk. Just as sauce starts to thicken, add in garlic and basil and heat until milk starts to boil. Take off heat and stir in cheeses until melted. Stir in cooked pasta noodles. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
4. In a greased casserole dish [about 9x9] spread mixture into pan and top with tomatoes. Sprinkle any leftover cheese on top [optional] and bake 15 -20 minutes or until bubbling. Let sit 10-15 minutes prior to serving. Garnish with basil leaves. Enjoy!
*you can use anything but skim, something with some fat content or you’ll spend hours waiting for it to thicken. And, I’ve never been brave enough to try a béchamel with any dairy milk substitutes, (soy, almond, rice) but if you do, let me know how it goes.
**traditionally, you would use equal parts flour and butter [2 Tbsp.] to form a roux for thickening, but I have not yet mastered that particular skill; mine always get doughy. Cornstarch is fool proof and the outcome is the same.