Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Exploring the African Presence in Modern American Cuisine: Crawfish Mac and Greens

Baked mac and cheese is my favorite food.  Period.  It's the thing I most look forward to at holiday dinners (as long as there is no Velveeta, American cheese, cornflakes, ham, peas, tomatoes, Rotel, ground beef, fat free cheese or whole wheat pasta involved).  Just a personal preference, but don't mind me.  So, imagine my excitement when I saw S'MAC, a mac and cheese restaurant, in New York City this past weekend.  I stopped dead in my tracks, about-faced and studied the menu.   That's right, I studied the menu (and made a few mental notes, too).  Despite the serendipitous discovery and my overwhelming excitement, I decided to stick with the original plan and headed to Momofuku Noodle Bar for dinner.

Since we're talking about New York City and all, I'd like you to take a journey with me.  Let's leave the quirky East Village behind and head up to historic Harlem.  There's this eatery called Red Rooster that you might find interesting.  It's the brainchild of Chef Marcus Samuelsson.   He is doing some interesting thangs up there and his mac and greens are truly swoon worthy.  Trust me.  I mean I've even been convinced of the virtues of adding vegetables to mac and cheese.  Not to mention, the mac and greens at Red Rooster are made with rice milk, making them a light and healthier alternative to traditional mac and cheese.  I've been dying to replicate this dish for months so I figured it was finally time for me to take a stab at Chef Marcus' Mac and Greens.  And, of course, I put my own little spin on them.

Question:  So, how did mac and cheese become a staple of soul food cuisine?  Why is the cheesy pasta dished out at soul food restaurants across the country?   Why do my friends guard their secret family recipes so closely?  It's something I've always wondered, but I didn't know the answer until I started doing research for this blog post.  According to the Taste History Culinary Tours blog, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia is credited with introducing the dish in America upon his return from France, where he served as the American delegate.  While in France, President Jefferson supposedly "immersed himself in the art and cuisine of Europe and traveled to Italy".  In 1802, President Jefferson served a "macaroni pie" at a state dinner that is believed to have been prepared by slaves working as cooks and maids.  The slave servants would eventually take what was considered an upper-class delicacy and appropriate it.  "Thus explains the familiarity and duplication of the cuisine by African Americans."

You can find the recipe for Chef Marcus Samuelsson's Mac and Greens here: http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/marcus-mac-and-greens

I made the following substitutions and additions:

  • One 17.6 oz package of Barilotti pasta substituted for 1 package whole wheat orecchiette
  • 1/2 lb Quickes English Farmhouse Cheddar substituted for 1/2 lb low-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 lb Emmi Cave Aged Emmentaler Unpasterized Cows Milk Cheese substituted for 1/4 lb gruyere
  • 2 cups sauteed baby kale and bok choy with mushrooms substituted for 2 cups cooked collard greens
  • Added 1/2 lb of steamed and deveined crawfish tails along with the collard greens
  • Optional garnishes: Squeeze the juice from the crawfish head over each individual serving of the mac and cheese or add a dollop of creme fraiche, 

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