For the last month or so (not at all coincident with my 45th birthday, I’m sure) I’ve been trying to get into shape. Get back into shape, I should say, as usually I am pretty fit, by American standards: when a “fun weekend” means scaling 200-foot cliffs or hiking 12 miles & 6000 feet, you need the muscles, heart & lungs to make those journeys more pleasure than pain. Sadly, there haven’t been a lot of crags or peaks on my agenda of late: more spreadsheets and deadlines, and lazy afternoons on the couch, to be honest. It’s all too easy to get out of the swing of physical fitness, both in terms of activity and diet, and all too difficult to climb back out of that fitness hole you’ve dug yourself and get back on track. But climb out you must, because life is short and I’d much rather be tackling a 200-foot cliff than a 2-lb bag of potato chips.
But why, you ask, are you telling us this now? In the context of a fat & carb-loaded bacon mac & cheese? I’m so glad you asked, because here’s the thing: being fit is about more than numbers on a scale. Or the number on the waistband of your jeans, for that matter. It’s about being in the shape you want to be in order to live life to the fullest: and that includes looking great, and feeling great, and enjoying great food. Food with fat, and carbohydrates, and yes, bacon.
Understand, I’m not talking about “OMG, I must lose 10 lbs before the high school reunion next month!” We’ve all been there and I’m not one to judge. I’m talking about course corrections. About making smart decisions. About getting to the place that you know you can be: healthy, happy, and fit to take on anything life dishes out. And my life definitely dishes up bacon.
So, I make the smart choice. I serve myself a half-cup of gloriously rich, wonderfully filling, umami-tastic bacon & balsamic-roasted tomato mac and cheese. I add a large green salad and a pint of fizzy water and call it my “diet lunch.” Because I will scale that cliff, and I will wear those skinny jeans: and I’ll do it while eating bacon. Just watch me.
- 8 oz whole wheat macaroni (I used penne pasta here)
- 4 slices thick-cut, or “country,” bacon
- 1 cup balsamic-roasted tomatoes (**see notes below)
- 2 and 3/4 cups whole milk
- bacon grease from cooking bacon + butter to yield 3 tbsp fat
- 1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or AP flour)
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp smoked paprika, plus extra for garnish
- 4 oz (about 1 cup) gouda, grated
- 4 oz (about 1 cup) smoked mozzarella, grated
- 2 oz (about a 1/2 cup) parmesan or Barat, grated
**I’ve had these simple balsamic-roasted tomatoes in my fridge for a couple of weeks. There is no “recipe” per se, but to yield one cup of roasted tomatoes, you’ll probably need about a dozen plum tomatoes, halved, or 3 -4 large, meaty globe tomatoes, quartered, and a good splash or two of olive oil and one or two of balsamic vinegar. Roast in a 350 degree F oven until falling apart, about 1 – 2 hours. If it is not fresh tomato season, I think this would work fine with canned tomatoes. Or, to save time, you could use sun-dried tomatoes in oil (cut back to about 1/3 cup) or fresh cherry tomatoes, wilted over high heat in a skillet just until they start to brown.
- Cook macaroni. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add macaroni and cook until the outside of the pasta is cooked but the inside is underdone, about 4 minutes (2 to 3 minutes if using semolina or other, softer, pasta). Drain macaroni in a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold water in order to stop cooking. Toss to remove water and reserve.
- Fry bacon. In a large skillet, fry bacon over medium heat, turning occasionally, until quite crisp. Remove bacon to a clean cutting board and chop coarsely; set aside. Strain bacon grease through a very fine sieve, cheesecloth or a coffee filter into a small, heat-safe bowl.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a casserole (I use a ceramic, 9 and 1/2-inch deep dish pie dish).
- Make bechamel sauce. Warm the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Don’t let the milk get too hot; if it starts to boil, remove from heat and stir to lower the temperature. Measure the bacon grease into a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven; add enough butter, or extra bacon grease, to yield a total of 3 tablespoons. When hot/melted, add the flour; whisking constantly, cook for 1 minute. Whisking constantly to keep the mixture smooth, slowly add the hot milk, in 3 or 4 batches. Continue to cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the bechamel thickens to somewhere between heavy cream and a thin potato-leek soup, about 10-15 minutes. Remove bechamel from heat. Stir in about two-thirds of each pile of grated cheese and the spices. Stir for a minute or two until the cheese is all melted and the sauce looks uniform. Add the roasted tomatoes, bacon, and macaroni; stir well.
- Bake mac & cheese. Transfer macaroni & bechamel mixture to the prepared casserole dish. Top with the remaining grated cheese and a bare sprinkle of smoked paprika. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 30-35 minutes. Cool the dish on a wire rack for about 15 minutes before serving.
- I tend to make mac & cheese with whatever cheeses I have on hand: a sharp cheddar is my favorite, but in this case, the smoky mozz and mellow gouda complimented the umami-fest that is bacon, roasted tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and smoked paprika. Nonetheless, feel free to try this with your favorite cheeses, provided they are neither too dry (all parmesan, for instance) nor too soft (brie or other triple creme cheeses).
- A good quality, thick-cut bacon is really essential here, not just for flavor but so the bacon pieces aren’t lost in the shuffle of the final dish.
- I originally planned to add a few tablespoons of fresh herbs, likely thyme as I have plenty of it out on the deck still; however, I forgot. In retrospect, I don’t know that it would have made any difference, given the strong & layered flavors of this dish. A good handful of basil, if it were still in season, might be nice.
- If you are a breadcrumbs-on-your-mac kind of cook, go for it. Toss them with melted bacon grease for the ultimate extravagance.
Refrigerated, for up to 5 days. Frozen for up to 6 months.