As a new contributor for the Dallas Observer's "City of Ate" blog, I get to dine at restaurants each month to try a favorite dish. My premise is to recreate that dish healthier, cheaper and/or easier from home. Sometimes all goals will be met, sometimes none of them will, but it's been a fun journey so far that I look forward to continuing!
For this assignment, my friend Erin and I hit Victor Tango's to indulge in their Crab Mac and Jack Gratin - an incredibly cheesy, creamy side dish favorite. I am not allowed to play the "journalist" card so I have to weasel answers out of staff the best I can as an "average-Joe" patron. The place was packed so the waitress was my best ingredient-hinting source and all I was able to get from her was that there were 6 cheeses, lots of heavy cream and Pancetta used.
The restaurant version was $13.00 before tax and tip and we were in and out in less than an hour. I had seafood, heavy cream and six cheeses to try to emulate without breaking budget or the waistband. My work to meet cheaper, easier and healthier was cut out for me!
In a Central Market class that Mr. Max and I took last spring, we did a Lobster Mac and Cheese, so I took to that recipe for some guidance as I began my restaurant recreation process. That class recipe only used four cheeses and did not include a roux, which is typically created in cream based sauce-making. Due to time constraints, I only had one night that I could do this to meet the deadline, and of course, I ran into one slight problem: my grocery store was out of crab meat - BUT - they did have lobster. Though my objective is to recreate the restaurant dish, the D.O. food critic editor challenged me to include my own twists, so I felt this classified as such and I went with a different crustacean.
The crab in the original version was a silent ingredient; it sat atop but didn't bring any flavor or even texture to the dish. As far as the Pancetta, we couldn't find a trace of it while eating it, though they said it was an ingredient, and it was listed on the menu. I went ahead and picked up some fresh shavings of the meat from the deli to incorporate at some capacity.
For the sauce, I wanted to try to make it as healthy as possible. I bypassed the fat and calories of the heavy cream, opting for Half and Half instead, paired with whole wheat macaroni elbows. As for the six cheeses, the lobster already put me closely over budget at $10 for half a pound, so I needed to be tactful. I picked up some reduced fat cream cheese to help fill the void that the heavy cream would leave, then after discussion with a self-proclaimed cheese expert on melty, tasty, non-sweating cheeses, I grabbed shredded Parm, Gruyere, Fontina and a Cheddar-Jack mix.
Experience with sauces has taught me, you need a double boiler-type method when dealing with cheeses to keep them from burning or curdling when directly melted on the heat source. After starting the noodles, I was able to create a make-shift double boiler with a pot and a ceramic mixing bowl.
I added a little butter to provide a liquid for the cheese as it started the melting process. I used about 2 cups of cheese altogether consisting of approximately 10% Parm Reggiano, 20% Gruyere, 20% Fontina and 50% Cheddar Jack. I used 3 oz. of softened cream cheese, then added in tablespoon pours of the Half and Half as it melted, mixing it in before adding more. I reserved 1 cup of the macaroni water to help with thinning, and add a little starch if needed, using about 2 tbsp. worth total.
My thought for the Pancetta was to cook it in a skillet, creating tasty grease. I cooked four pieces, put them aside, then added the chopped lobster to saute and coat in the flavoring. I am a huge fan of creole seasoning in my macaroni so I decided to add that to the lobster chunks for additional taste, something the crab lacked in the restaurant version. I then chopped up one of the Pancetta pieces and mixed it in with the lobster.
I learned in a cooking class to coat noodles with just 1 tbsp. of butter when using a heavy sauce to help keep the dish creamy, rather than coagulating into clumps. I used 3/4 of the sauce to coat the noodles, then spooned them into individual casserole dishes. I then topped each with the remaining 1/4 bowl of sauce. The restaurant version used a few breadcrumbs sprinkled atop the crab and then baked for the finished result. While I am not a fan of heavy bread crumbs, I decided to pull out the Panko and mimic that texture, only using a light sprinkle, dusting the lobster-pancetta mix spread along the middle of the mac and jack.
I turned on my broiler and popped this in the oven for 2 minutes until top looked golden brown. The taste was wonderful - the lobster method was a vast improvement in the overall taste from the initial dish, it added so much more dimension! However, my cheese sauce did not maintain the same kind of velvety, creamy consistency as the restaurant version. It had the right taste to it but missed the full-bodied consistency that heavy cream would have created, and seeped through every bite of the restaurant version.
The results? If I could take my flavorful lobster topping and use of the whole wheat noodles, combined with their cheese sauce, it would have been a perfect combination! In terms of ease, my process took about 40 minutes from start to finish, which worked well on an evening where I wanted to be home, and still less time than the restaurant experience. The cost of just one portion would come out to roughly $10.67, no tax or tip needed in my kitchen. The amount of ingredients I purchased made three portions and my grocery bill for everything, rounded to the nearest dollar, was $32 - much higher than going to the restaurant and ordering up just one for myself. My use of whole wheat noodles and Half and Half certainly made it healthier.
For my full recipe, click here!