Jalapeno Popper Mac and Cheese

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This is a sentimental meal for me. Not only because homemade mac and cheese makes me shed a tear of happiness, but because it’s the last meal I made and shared with my best friends before I left San Diego for New York. I really wanted to cook for my favorites on my last night — it’s a tradition for me to host the girls for dinner and usually a bit of horrible reality TV. So I busted this favorite out for my last night before I left for the East Coast.

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I’ve shared this mac and cheese book with you before, but let me just reiterate how great (and dangerous) it is. They get the base béchamel sauce down, and you can’t go wrong from there. This version is a spicy, delicious variation on the classic. Mix some diced up jalapeno peppers into this cheesy cheddar and cream cheese combo — yum. The first time I made it, we were scrambling for the last serving. This time I learned my lesson and made a double batch.

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TW’s Tips

  • Have some extra sliced peppers on hand for people who like it spicy.
  • Eat with people you love, because you’ll be fighting for the last bite.

To my girls — thank you for sharing so many wonderful meals with me. You made them taste 100x better because of the great company. Come visit so I can cook for you here. Miss you beyond words. xoxo

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Jalapeño Popper Mac 

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound dried elbow pasta
  • 2 cups mac sauce (recipe below)
  • 2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup stemmed, seeded and chopped jalapeno chiles, plus extra, for garnish
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until a little less than al dente. Drain, rinse the pasta with cold water, and drain again.

Add the sauce (remember only two cups!), cheese and chiles to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cook over medium heat until the cheese is barely melted, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the cooked pasta. Take a taste to check the potency of the chiles–jalapeños can vary in their heat, depending on the batch and the season, so you may want to add more to increase the fire.

Pour the cheesy noodle mixture into a large baking dish. Top evenly with panko and bake until you see the cheese sauce bubbling up the sides, 10 to 15 minutes.

Spoon into bowls and serve immediately. Sprinkle a few extra jalapeño bits on top for an extra kick.

Mac Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 teaspoon table salt

Directions

Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat until it just starts to bubble, but is not boiling, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Heat the butter over medium heat in a separate, heavy-bottomed pot. When the butter has just melted, add the four and whisk constantly until the mixture turns light brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Slowly pour the warm milk, about 1 cup at a time, into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly. It will get very thick when you first add the milk, and thinner as you slowly pour in the entire 3 cups. This is normal.

Once all the milk has been added, set the pot back over medium-high heat, and continue to whisk constantly. In the next 2 to 3 minutes, the sauce should come together and become silky and thick. Add the salt.

The mac sauce is ready to use immediately and does not need to cool. Store it in the fridge for a day or two if you want to make it ahead of time. It will get a lot thicker when put in the fridge, so it may need a little milk to thin it out a bit when it comes time to melt in the cheese. Try melting the cheese into the sauce first and if it is too thick then add milk as needed.

 

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Red Rocker Margarita Chicken Sandwich

I have to confess — I got a little lazy on this one. Not only did I not realize I needed to marinate the chicken (I had to pull a quickie marinade together so I don’t think I got the full effect of the flavors that were possible here), but I just didn’t have the energy to roast the red peppers or fry said roasted red peppers for the crunchy topping. (Although I do think it would be good.) Sometimes a recipe is just too much, ya know?

However, I’ve got to say that Guy Fieri’s Red Rocker Margarita Chicken Sandwich was still pretty tasty. The chicken was nice and spicy, thanks in part to the fact that I added sliced jalapeno peppers to the skillet when I cooked the chicken, and I threw some of those on top of the chicken on the sandwich. That was some serious heat. And you really can’t go wrong with a sandwich.

The cabbage slaw gave the sandwich a nice, fresh crunch, and with the cheese on top, it was nice and melty and a great combination of textures.

TW’s Tips

  • Allow time to marinate the chicken. Duh.
  • Find something good to make with the leftover cabbage — you’ll still have a lot left!
  • If you get lazy like me, use jarred roasted red peppers, although I think roasting your own will make them hold together a bit better when you’re frying them.
  • Use any kind of cheese you like — I prefer sharper/more pungent cheeses than provolone so I used cheddar.
  • Pair this with a cooling salad or maybe even cucumbers with vinegar and dill for a nice acidic accompaniment.

Red Rocker Margarita Chicken Sandwich

Ingredients

  • 2 jalapenos, thinly sliced rounds
  • 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
  • 4 tablespoons tequila
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon red chili flakes
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 2 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 red bell peppers, roasted, skinned, seeded, julienne
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 2 cups canola oil
  • 4 Kaiser rolls
  • 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1/4 green cabbage, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces provolone cheese, sliced

Directions

In a medium mixing bowl add jalapenos, cilantro, tequila, garlic, red chili flakes, cumin, oregano, lime juice, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the chicken breasts and red bell peppers to resealable gallon bag and pour in marinade. Let marinate in refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours.

Heat grill to high. Remove chicken from marinade, and add chicken to the grill.

In a small mixing bowl add flour, remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the granulated garlic.

Heat the canola oil to 350 degrees F.

Remove bell peppers from marinade and dredge in flour and fry until crispy. When done drain on paper towels.

Cook chicken thoroughly on both sides, remove from heat and cover. Let sit for 5 minutes. Thinly slice or shred.

Lightly toast rolls. Spread mayonnaise evenly among the rolls and then stack evenly with the cabbage, onion, chicken breast, fried peppers, and top with cheese.

Zucchini, Poblano and Ricotta Quesadillas with Guacamole and Black Bean Salsa

This is one of my favorite quesadillas and favorite vegetarian meals ever. It’s definitely not your traditional quesadilla. Dig it: Zucchini, Poblano and Ricotta Quesadillas.

The recipe comes from my Food Network Kitchens Favorite Recipes cookbook. Check out the filling below: poblano peppers add smoky heat, zucchini dusted with coriander adds a Middle Eastern flair, and the cheese — ricotta mixed with jalapeno, scallions, lime zest and cilantro — kicks in some more zip, a nice creaminess, plus freshness from the lime, cilantro and scallions.

So, not only are these full of flavor, they’re also pretty healthy! Served with fresh guacamole (yum!) and a black bean salsa, and you can’t go wrong.

The killer guacamole (recipe below) is also from my Food Network cookbook — it’s super chunky, spicy and fresh with a hit of garlic. Absolutely delicious. I’d never had guacamole until I came to California, and these days it (or simply avocado) will sell me on a recipe in a second.

The black bean salsa is a Rachael Ray. It’s smoky, hearty and has a nice spice to it from jalapenos. Sun-dried tomatoes add an unexpected, sweet tang.

TW’s Tips

  • Peeling the skin off charred poblano peppers is easier said than done. Char them as much as you can and use a paper towel to brush off the skin (it’s easier than trying to peel it).
  • If you’re making this for company, it’s easy to make the filling ahead of time and just assemble and fry up the quesadillas that day. Just nuke the filling a little bit to warm it up.
  • For the guac, leave it chunky — just mash it up slightly. It’s awesome to get a real nice piece of avocado in a bite of your quesadilla.
  • For the black bean salsa, I cut back on the barbecue sauce (I used about 1/4 cup), but next time, I might just use a couple of tablespoons. It overpowered the flavor of the beans a bit.
You’ve got to try this one!

Zucchini, Poblano and Ricotta Quesadillas

Ingredients

1 teaspoon coriander seeds
3 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise about 1/3 inch thick
3 poblano chiles, stemmed, halved and seeded
Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fresh ricotta (see tip below)
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus extra for garnish
2 scallions, sliced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced (leave in seeds for extra heat)
1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
4 12-inch flour tortillas
4 lime wedges

**Ricotta tip: you can find fresh ricotta at specialty cheese shops, or buy the ricotta in the tub at the grocery store and put it in a coffee filter-lined strainer over a bowl and refrigerate at least a couple of hours or overnight to drain off the excess moisture.

Prepare an outdoor grill with a medium-hot fire (grill pan works too).

Lightly brush zucchini and poblanos with olive oil with grill, turning as needed, until tender and lightly charred, about 4-6 minutes. Season the zucchini with coriander, salt and black pepper. Cut into bite size chunks and set aside to cool slightly. Peel skin from poblanos and thinly slice. (Peeling the skin is easier if it is charred. It will start to pull away from the pepper and you can peel it with your fingers. If you can’t get all of it off, don’t worry about it.)

Mix the ricotta, cilantro, scallions, jalapeno, lime zest, 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Lay out the tortillas and spread one-quarter of the cheese mixture over half of each tortilla, leaving about a 1/2-inch border around the edge. Divide the grilled vegetables among the tortillas and fold tortillas in half. Brush lightly with oil, sprinkle with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and grill on both sides until the cheese warms and the outside is golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Place each quesadilla on a plate, scatter with cilantro leaves and serve with lime wedges and salsa, guacamole and sour cream.

Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 3 ripe Hass avocados
  • 1/4 medium red onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 to 2 jalapeno or serrano chiles (with seeds for more heat, without seeds for less), stemmed and minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, diced
  • Juice of one lime (about 2 tablespoons)

Directions

Smash the garlic cloves, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt, and, with the side of a large knife, mash and smear the mixture to a coarse paste. Put in a bowl with onion.

Cut the avocados in half, remove the pits, and score the flesh with a knife. Scoop the flesh out of their shells into the bowl with the onion.

Mix the tomatoes, cilantro, chiles, lime juice, and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt with the avocados with a rubber spatula or large fork until just combined, keeping the guacamole chunky. Serve immediately with tortilla chips.

Black Bean Salsa

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 can black beans, drained
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
  • 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes in oil, chopped
  • 1/2 cup smoky barbecue sauce (I use less)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Add a turn of EVOO to a skillet and add the onions, garlic and jalapeño pepper; sauté for 2-3 minutes, then add beans and corn to the pan. Stir in chopped tomatoes and barbecue sauce, then season salsa with salt and pepper. Transfer warm salsa to a serving dish.