Last December, my friend Nick from DudeFoods.com recommended me to Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board to contribute to the 30 Days 30 Ways With Mac and Cheese project. Since he had one of the most creative dishes from last year’s event with his Bacon crust mac and cheese pie he must have some clout since they took his recommendation and contacted me to participate. Here is a link to the recipe on their website.
I chose Roth Kase Gran Queso, a cheese that up until the day I made the recipe, I had never even tried. I read some reviews and its desciption on the Roth Kase website and to sum it up, it is basically a Wisconsin-made version of Manchego, with the major difference being that Manchego is made with sheep’s milk and Gran Queso is made with cow’s milk. Gran Queso is a firm, almost brittle cheese that is fairly sharp and has a distinctive nutty taste. It is a delicious cheese and deserving of the numerous awards it has won, including first place at the 2004 American Cheese Society awards for Hispanic and Portugese style ripened cheese. Its not a terribly easy cheese to find in the area (couldn’t find it at a couple of Sendik’s or Brennan’s) but the West Allis Cheese Shop at the Milwaukee Public Market carries it and I would wager that Larry’s Market in Brown Deer also has it. It also isn’t very expensive, a half pound wedge (enough for this recipe) will set you back about 7-8 bucks. After I made the recipe I thought it needed a little more complexity so I added a little Wisconsin Parmesan to give it a little flavor boost.
I decided to play off the Spanish origins of this cheese, incorporating other familiar Spanish ingredients like pimentos, olives, and Serrano ham. I added some smoked paprika almond slices textural contrast. Instead of your traditional Mac and Cheese where you create a bechamel sauce to add cheese too, I used orzo and cooked this dish like you would cook risotto; slowly simmered with small additions of wine, then chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarians) then finished with Wisconsin cheese, butter and cream. The version I made was creamy but not as much as a risotto is. You can add more cream or even more stock if you want a more risotto-like experience. The pimentos and olives are added along with the cheese then the dish is spooned into bowls and topped with crunchy smoked paprika almonds and crispy Serrano ham.
Gran Queso & Orzo Mac & Cheese, Risotto Style
1 – 1lb bag or box of orzo pasta
2 shallots, finely diced
1/2 cup of white wine
2 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 1/2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
¼ cup of heavy cream or half and half
Kosher or Sea salt
4 cups of low sodium or homemade chicken broth
2 cups of Roth Kase Gran Queso, finely grated
½ cup of finely grated Wisconsin parmesan
1 4oz jar of diced pimentos
1/4 cup of pitted and diced kalamata olives
1/4 cup of slivered or sliced almonds
1/2 teaspoon of Smoked Paprika
5-6 thin slices of Serrano Ham, crisped in microwave (see procedure below)
Directions for Mac and Cheese:
Pour the chicken stock into a saucepan and bring it up to a light simmer.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and add the dry orzo and shallots. Cook until the orzo is lightly browned (see photo below) then add the white wine.
Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the wine is almost absorbed. Then add the chicken stock, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring occasionally.
Once the stock is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup or so and continue this pattern until the orzo has finished cooking. It should take between 15-20 minutes. You may have stock leftover or if you run out before the orzo is done, you can just add some warm water. The orzo will have absorbed enough chicken flavor that the water shouldn’t impact how it tastes.
Once the orzo is done cooking, turn the heat down to low and add half of the shredded Gran Queso and stir until it is incorporated into the rice. Add the rest of the Gran Queso and the parmesan cheese and stir them in. Then add 2 tablespoons of butter and the cream and stir until everything is incorporated together. Add the olives and pimentos, stir, and check the seasoning of the dish and add more salt and pepper as needed.
Directions for Crispy Serrano Ham
Slice or tear the Serrano Ham into thin strips and lay them on a paper towel lined plate. Microwave for a minute or so until crispy. You’ll want to keep a close eye on them as you cook them as they go from cooked to burnt in a matter of seconds.
Directions for Smoked Paprika Almonds
In a microwave safe bowl add ½ cup of slivered or sliced almonds, ½ tablespoon of butter, the smoked paprika and a pinch of salt. Cook for 1 minute then stir. Cook for another minute or so until the almonds start to dry up (see above), spread on paper towel to cool.
When everything is done spoon the orzo risotto into bowls for serving and top each serving with some more shredded Gran Queso cheese, the smoked paprika almonds and crispy strips of Serano ham.