Gordon Hamersley and his wife, Fiona, owned Hamersley’s Bistro in the South End for 27 years, until they closed the restaurant late last year. His cooking column will appear in the Food section biweekly, offering chef’s tips, dishes he’s been making lately, favorite recipes, and more.
Chefs are like hunters — always on the prowl. We are constantly searching for good food ideas for our menus and sometimes they come at odd times.
That pursuit was in full force while on a bird hunting trip one December a few years ago. I stayed in a tiny town on the east side of Montana. The land is so flat to the east that you see nothing but grassy plains. To the west are the spectacular foothills of the eastern slope of the Rockies. It was a spot you could imagine in a movie. There were a few stores, a gas station, and a market. Otherwise it was just cattle ranches and hundreds of acres of frozen pasture land. Not much for the average tourist to do there in winter, but for a hunter in search of pheasant, sharptail grouse, and Hungarian partridge, it was like a cook’s tour of Paris. The hunting on that trip was super and we saw lots of birds every day. The dog work was good too. Both canines hunted hard, followed the scent well in the cold air, and retrieved the birds we brought down. And we shot well for a change.
We stayed in a barebones motel in the town. For lunch every day, we devoured sandwiches sitting in the cab of the truck. We ate every breakfast and dinner in a little family-run cafe that seemed to be the place where everyone in town met and feasted on the specialties of the house: for breakfast, fluffy pancakes and fried eggs with their edges lightly crisped; for dinner, huge burgers and fries, broiled fish, and baked chicken with mashed potatoes.
One night I spied an appetizer on the menu called deep-fried macaroni and cheese with ranch dressing. Sounded like heart attack food and I should not have ordered it. But I’m a cook! I have an obligation to my professional sense of indulgence. Sadly, the little nuggets of American cheese and pasta with a droopy beer batter-like coating didn’t live up to what I was imagining.
But I came away with an idea. I began thinking about how to make my own and what best to pair it with. (Thankfully, I had no idea that sports bars were also reinventing their own versions of the classic.) I knew what I wanted to end up with. I imagined a big square of golden macaroni and blue cheese, creamy and oozing onto the plate, but not deep-fried. I would bake the pieces until crisp, and serve them with a 2-inch-thick steak, and perhaps a port sauce and a spicy watercress salad.
Getting the mac and cheese to hold together while it heated through to the center would be the trick. I decided I didn’t want to thicken the creamy mixture with flour. When I returned to my South End kitchen I began to experiment. I cooked the macaroni and drained it well, making sure all the moisture came out of the bends in the elbows by giving the colander a good shake from time to time. Letting the pasta drain for five minutes will ensure success later.
I heated heavy cream and let it reduce for a few minutes to thicken it. Then I crumbled blue cheese into the cream and poured it over the pasta, adding fresh chives, thyme, and sauteed onion. I put in a pinch of pepper but left out the salt; the blue cheese would take care of that. I poured the hot mixture into a nonstick cake mold and left it overnight.
The next day I used my standard approach for crispy baked fish on the mac and cheese. I toasted panko in a saute pan until the crumbs turned golden, then let them cool. I cut the firm macaroni mixture into squares, dusted them with a little flour, and dipped them into beaten egg before rolling them in the panko (that would help the crumbs stick to the sides). Then into the oven until hot and crisp.
Brilliant? Not quite. Before they became hot enough to serve they fell apart.
Then I remembered a trick that the great French chef and Washington, D.C., restaurateur Michel Richard uses a lot: gelatin. The next try I added a bit of Knox unflavored powdered gelatin to the mixture and that changed everything. This time the squares stayed together as the gelatin set the mixture. The technique is old; chefs have been adding gelatin to croquette batters for centuries. Success!
I put these macaroni and cheese squares on the Hamersley’s Bistro menu in various ways for about a year. The technique is as easy as the old-fashioned dish, but the crispy element adds a layer of flavor and texture that transforms this American favorite.
I try to keep my cooks’ minds wide open. You never know when an old standby will inspire a new variation.