My sister was recently in Paris for a flying visit* and since she hasn't seen her nephew since August, we decided that it would be nicer to have dinner at our place than go out to a restaurant without the boy. As usual, I wanted to make something French, but it had to be something French that the Critic would like as well. So I went for the easy option as it was a weeknight with work the next morning: raclette. And as usual, I bought far too much cheese. I don't like to run out of raclette and I never have.
This leaves me with a surplus of cheese for which there are very few recipes in the world that are more complicated than "place cheese beneath a heating element and scrape the melted cheese over boiled potatoes or ham". So I needed to look for new places to put this cheese. Because it melts so well and has a gorgeous intense flavour once melted, I decided this time to try using it with pasta. Macaroni, raclette sauce, a good start. But I'm also trying to get in vegetables and folic acid for two these days and so I thought of another element that is strong-flavoured and would stand up well to the strength of the cheese: Napa cabbage. I was right. It was a marriage made in heaven. The cabbage and raclette combination was so tasty that I might just serve some lightly steamed cabbage leaves with the potatoes the next time I make a classic raclette.
* Literally: she's a flight attendant. And the Perfect Sister brought her pregnant little sister TWO big jars of Vlassic Kosher Baby Dills. I'm so lucky.
The first time I made the dish, I layered pasta and cheese, then cabbage, then leftover chicken and ham and finally another layer of cheese. The cabbage was cleverly hidden in the center and the Critic ate a full serving and even liked it, despite a definite aversion to all things brassica (except mustard seed: just noticed that in the Wikipedia definition). Personally, I thought that the meat was not essential and even added a chewy texture that didn't mix well with the soft cabbage and pasta. So I made it a second time and the recipe is below. If you are a dedicated meat eater, you might want to mix some shredded proscuitto or other uncooked ham in with the pasta - it was mainly the chicken that seemed out of place to me.
One other thing to note: the second time I made the dish, I meant to mix the pasta and cabbage together to make it easier to taste the flavours coming together. Although it looks prettier with a middle layer of cabbage (as in the photo above) it actually was done that way because Yours Truly is an airhead and initially forgot to put the cabbage in. So I dug out half the pasta, laid a layer of cabbage on the pasta and then covered it. Both ways work, but you do need to make sure that every little bit of cabbage is covered on the top of the finished product. Otherwise it will brown and turn dry and bitter and you will lose all the pleasure in eating it.
Macaroni and Cheese with Stealth Cabbage (serves 3-4 as a side dish or 2 as a main)
200 g whole wheat macaroni
1/2 a small Napa cabbage (about 150 g raw)
150 g raclette, divided
1 cup milk
40 g butter, plus a little extra for the pan
40 g flour
1/3 nutmeg, ground
generous dose of salt
1/3 c breadcrumbs
Cook the pasta in boiling water according to the package instructions until just barely done. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Butter a small casserole dish (about 22 cm by 15 cm) and dust the inside with about a third of the breadcrumbs. Wash the cabbage and slice in bite-sized pieces. Place it in a deep frying pan with the water clinging to the leaves. Cover and cook on a low flame until the kitchen smells of cabbage and the leaves are a little limp but still have some character. (A word on the smell: cabbage really only smells unpleasant when it's overcooked or has been lingering in your home too long. Don't over cook and ventilate when you are done cooking and you will be fine. Your family, like mine, might not even notice those healthy leaves sneaking into the pasta and cheese.)
In a small saucepan, melt the 40 g butter until it begins to froth. Stir in the flour and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the butter just starts to turn a bit brown. Slowly add the milk and beat quickly with a fork or a whisk to keep lumps out. Chop 100 g of the cheese in small pieces and slowly add it to the milk sauce. Add the nutmeg and taste for salt. (It will depend on your cheese, but you will want to be generous - pasta begs for it and the cabbage is nicer too for some reason.)
Once all the elements are ready, you can assemble. Drain the pata and toss it with the cheese sauce. Reserve 1/4 of the cheese and pasta sauce. Either toss the remaining 3/4 with the cabbage OR place it in the baking dish and top with the cabbage. Cover with the remaining pasta and cheese. Grate the remaining 50g of cheese and sprinkle over the top of the dish. Sprinkle the remaining bread crumbs over the cheese. You might want to add another light dusting of salt as this will make the crusty top even more delectable. Or you could think of all the cholesterol in the cheese and refrain.
Bake for about half an hour or until the top is brown and crusty and the sauce is bubbling around it enticingly. Allow to cool for ten minutes or so before serving: it will be too hot to eat before then anyway, and waiting allows the pasta and cheese to set a bit and so make serving easier.
Note on the cheese: if you haven't recently overstocked raclette or don't have access to it, you could use any strong flavoured cheese that melts well. Sharp cheddar goes well with brassicas (think cauliflower or broccoli and cheese sauce) but even gruyere would be lovely. And you could always top with Parmesan instead of your base cheese too.