Yup, it's true...I won a Mac-n-Cheese contest! I happened to get an email regarding a Mac-n-Cheese contest that was going to be held in Jamaica Plain (JP), the city where I used to live. It is a suburb of Boston and it has a real sense of community. I immediately wanted to enter, not even because I thought I had a winner Mac-n-Cheese, rather, just to support the community.
The contest was set up by a local chef, Keesha O'Galdez, otherwise known as the Gourmet Diva; the proceeds of the event were going to benefit the JP Small Business division of the JP Neighborhood Development Corp, an organization responsible for getting many of the businesses up and running in the JP area.
My first thought was to enter my standard mac-n-cheese, which is made from a basic cheddar cheese sauce with the addition of ham and peas....but then my mind wandered to a sandwich I once demo'd at Sur La Table, shortly after I started Thyme To Cook. It was a Mexican sandwich which I found in a cookbook by Rick Bayless called Chorizo and Frijoles Negros Tortas. The sandwich was a mixture of chorizo, a spicy sausage, and mashed, sauteed black beans with a chunk of queso fresco (fresh cheese) and avocado, on a crusty baguette. The flavors of this sandwich were off the hook, really. I thought about the flavors and realized that they would probably go great mixed with a nice Monterey Jack cheese sauce. And viola, my Sultry Chorizo and Frijoles Negros with Queso Fresco and "Tortas" Crust Mac-n-Cheese was born.
I did a test run where I invited a bunch of people over to taste test it about a month before the Mac-off. I'm glad I did because I made 2 major improvements to the recipe. First off, I learned I had to make it more cheesy; it just wasn't gooey enough. Second, I was apprehensive about being too aggressive with salt because the queso fresco is a pretty salty cheese, and I learned that I needed to add a bit more salt; the first time around it was a bit flat.....other improvements I made were to add poblano peppers to the chorizo and black bean saute as well as a squeeze of lime juice to brighten the overall flavor.
Here it is all coming together....My list of things to do.....
First off, I sauteed the chorizo, some garlic, and poblano peppers....I added in powdered New Mexico chiles as well as smoked paprika...
Now, unlike the sandwich, where you mash the black beans and saute them, I left them whole and just mixed them with the sauteed chorizo and poblanos.
I made my bechamel sauce....
and added in cheddar as well as Monterey Jack cheeses...
I made the crusty topping out of a day old baguette, olive oil and queso fresco cheese, then assembled it all together.
Just prior to baking....
and after, with my cilantro/scallion garnish...
At the contest...
I was surprisingly nervous as I approached the church where the contest was being held. I don't know why I was nervous, I guess it was my competitive edge coming out. There was 1 other professional chef present, a few kids for the kids division and the rest were in the amateur division for a total of 16 entrants.
When the event started, there were not alot of people there, but slowly but surely, the place filled up and there were over 200 people who attended. Judges were given samples of the mac-n-cheese in small cups to try. Since I was #15, I was 1 away from the end. I was worried that the mac-n-cheese was going to dry out, since it was on sterno for 2 hours, but it didn't even come close to drying out. I was also worried that I was going to run out of mac-n-cheese before the judges got to taste it, since I was 2nd to last; I was starting to run low. I didn't want to pull any samples for fear that they would be cold and dried out. Thankfully, I had enough and served the judges nice hot and gooey, yummy, mac-n-cheese. The judges got to declare the winners in each category and there was also a People's Choice overall award. In the end, I beat out the other professional chef to take 1st place in the professional division, and I took 2nd overall for people's choice.
Overall it was a great experience. Not sure if I'll go back for the 2nd annual Mac-off next year...but we'll see.... :)
Here is my recipe...it's a bit involved, but totally worth it:
Sultry Chorizo and Frijoles Negros with Queso Fresco and Tortas Crust
Chorizo Black Bean Mixture
1 15oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
8 oz chorizo, diced
1 poblano pepper, chopped
6 garlic cloves, sliced
2 TBS fat of your choice for sauteing
2 tsp New Mexico chile powder
2 tsp smoked paprika
Juice of 1 lime
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
S+P to taste
5 cups 1% Milk
5 TBS butter (or Vegan "butter" such as Earth Balance)
5 TBS flour
1 pound Monterey Jack cheese, grated
2 cups cheddar cheese, grated
Nutmeg, S+P to taste
1 day old Baguette, chopped into small dice
1/2 cup Queso Fresco, crumbled, divided
1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
S+P to taste
1 Pound cooked pasta, shape of your choice, al dente
1. Make your Chorizo/Black Bean filling by sauteing the poblano and garlic over medium heat until softened, in the fat of your choice. To that add your chile powder and smoked paprika, stirring for a minute until fragrant.
2. Add in the chorizo and increase the heat to medium-high. Saute until crispy, then add cilantro and lime juice, tasting for S+P.
3. Remove from heat and mix in the black beans. Re-season as necessary.
4. Make your bechamel by melting butter, adding flour and "cooking off" for a minute, then adding warm milk and whisking constantly. Bring to a boil and let boil for a minute.
5. Remove from heat and add nutmeg, S+P.
6. Stir in your cheeses and re-season as necessary.
7. Make your "tortas" crust by adding baguette and 1/4 cup queso fresco to food processor fitted w"S" blade and process into crumbs. Drizzle in the olive oil and then process once more until the oil has been incorporated. Season w.S+P. Reserve the remaining 1/4 cup queso fresco to put over the top of the mac-n-cheese prior to baking in the oven.
8. Assemble the mac-n-cheese by mixing the al dente pasta with the chorizo/black bean filling and the cheese sauce until well incorporated. Pour into a 9x13 pan (sprayed w.non-stick cooking spray). Top with the "tortas" crust and then the remaining 1/4 cup queso fresco.
9. Cover w.tin foil that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray and bake at 400 for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 15-20 more minutes until bubbly and golden brown.
That's it. Enjoy! Feel free to email me w.questions or comments.