It’s so rare that I menu plan anymore when having friends over for dinner. Usually, the problem solving and creativity comes by way of figuring out how to make serving 10 types of fried rice not seem weird, or how to turn a three day old taco topping into a meal that doesn’t feel like leftovers. So just like last year’s celebration, I used New Year’s Eve as an excuse to go all out for my friends and actually have a dinner buffet that made some sort of sense.
Charlie and I had a brainstorming session to make sure we covered all the elements of a classic Southern New Year’s meal. I did a trial run of these collards. He researched Hoppin’ John recipes and sourced a 20 pound ham for one of my favorite Canal House dishes. I selfishly took on the gluten-y things – fried chicken and mac ‘n cheese – so that I wouldn’t miss out on any of the gluttony. And then we assigned cornbread, biscuits, bourbon punch, and banana cream pie to our most responsible friends.
As the guest list grew, and my post-beach laziness set in, I conceded the frying of the chicken to Dirty Bird. But that only made my mac ‘n cheese recipe resolve stronger. It’s one of the few pasta dishes that I’ve consistently served to non-gluten-free folks without them noticing. So I didn’t feel too guilty about inflicting quinoa elbows on 20 unsuspecting whiskey drinkers. But I wanted to make my spin on the classic all the more special and southern nonetheless.
It’s usually my MO to add green wherever I can. But I wouldn’t dare thwart the southern theme by trying to stick a vegetable where it didn’t belong. So I decided to kick up the cheesy pasta with some scallions and jalapeno. Not only was this socially acceptable, but it turned out to be quite delicious.
My memory of the meal from that night is a little vague. But I did manage to siphon off a quart container’s worth of the jalapeno mac and cheese before heading uptown to Charlie’s. I baked it off as Hercules raged outside in the days that followed. A few of my friends stopped by for shelter during that time and helped me slowly chisel away at the casserole pan, standing over the stove with a fork. After so much fuss and fanfare, it was nice to regress to my normal way of doing things, with people grazing on the contents of my fridge, which also contained several pounds of ham, without trying to make any sense out of it.
Jalapeno-Scallion Mac ‘n Cheese
- 12 ounces gluten-free elbows or 16 ounces regular pasta
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter plus more for greasing the pan
- 1 bunch scallions thinly sliced
- 1 large jalapeno halved and thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons white rice or AP gluten-free flour
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 16 ounces coarsely grated mild cheddar cheese about 4 cups
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a large cast-iron skillet, casserole pan, or a 9 × 13-inch baking dish, and set it aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, following the package directions, until 3 minutes shy of al dente. The pasta should still have a bite to it. Drain, and shake out all the water.
- Meanwhile, In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter. Saute the scallions and jalapenos over medium-high heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the flour and cook until it is fully incorporated, 1 minute. Add the warm milk and whisk gently over medium heat until the mixture has bubbled and thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Stir in the salt, pepper, mustard, and most of the grated cheese, reserving 1/2 cup. Add the pasta and toss to combine.
- Distribute the mixture evenly in the prepared skillet or baking dish, and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling and browned. If the top is not browned and toasty, stick the pan under the broiler for 1 minute. Serve piping hot.