Although the excitement of the Women’s World Cup reached a fever pitch with the US win, I’ve kept the soccer travels to a minimum this summer. After spending a good chunk of last summer in Brazil, I’m happy to watch more of my soccer on TV this year and focus my energies on other things: friends, family, cleaning the dad-blasted garage. But when the Gold Cup schedule came out and I saw that the US men’s team were scheduled to play in my home-away-from-home, Foxboro Stadium, I knew that was one game we wouldn’t want to miss.
Despite New York boasting not one but two Major League Soccer teams (not to mention the Marcia Brady of NY soccer), US soccer rarely comes to New York. Giants Stadium (sorry, MetLife stadium, blargh) is a horrible place to see a soccer game, given the cavernous 80,000+ capacity, lack of roofs, distance from the field, and weather that always seems to be either brutally hot or brutally cold. Red Bull Arena is a lovely place (despite their horrible, no good, very bad team), though presumably the 25,000 capacity is deemed a bit small since the US men rarely play there. Hence most of my East Coast US Soccer adventures involve a 4-hour trip north to Foxboro or a 6-hour trip south to RFK.
This reality equates to some special considerations when it comes to tailgate food: easily made a day or two before and keeps well; travels well, in terms of room temperature or cooler storage; travels well, in terms of not falling apart (hello cake & pie) or leaking all over the place; lastly, compact; and does not require me to pack a grill into my tiny VW bug. Usually, this list of constraints results in a bar or cookie-type dessert, like a jam bar or sweet scone, and these have been crowd favorites in the past. But I was in more of a savory mood this year, and I had all of this cheese to use up, you see.
I’ve been on a bit of a mac & cheese kick of late: mac & cheese with baby leeks and thyme, mac & cheese with beet greens and scallions, mac & cheese with a gorgeous Connecticut gouda and tons of fresh oregano. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to double my standard mac & cheese recipe, pack it into a half-sheet pan, and cut it into squares for the tailgate. Of course, I choose to tart it up a bit, with whole wheat elbows, whole wheat & rye roux for the bechamel, and Swiss chard and shallots to add a savory, grassy note. The resulting mac & cheese squares heat up easily in a covered grill, and while they are not quite as melty and gooey as they are straight out of the oven, they pick up a lovely smoky flavor from being bathed in grill flame while reheating.
A few notes on technique: in order to cut down on washing up, I sauté my veg right in the bechamel pot, just whisking extra diligently to incorporate flour into the bechamel. However, if you’re not confident in your bechamel chops, you can certainly sauté the vegetables in a separate skilet, then add to the bechamel during the last few minutes of cooking time. How much you reduce the bechamel is really up to you: I let mine go for about 5 – 10 minutes; enough to thicken it quite a bit, but keep it soupy. Under-cook the pasta just a bit, as it will cook a little bit during baking, and make sure you sauté any watery vegetables very well – the last thing you want is a watery mac & cheese. Stick to those simple rules and you’ll be enjoying fabulous tailgate mac & cheese for your next soccer adventure!
Tailgate Mac & Cheese
- 1 lb macaroni elbows (or other cut pasta – I like whole wheat)
- 5 ½ cups whole milk
- 6 tbsp butter, divided
- 1 large bunch chard, finely chopped (stem ends discarded, or pickled!)
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 6 tbsp flour (I used 4 tbsp whole wheat pastry & 2 heaped tbsp rye flour)
- salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ½ lb (about 2 cups) sharp cheddar, grated
- ½ lb (about 2 cups) Gruyère, grated
- 1 heaping cup (about 5 oz) freshly grated Parmesan
- 1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
- Cook pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions, stopping about 2 minutes before pasta is al dente. Drain, rinse pasta in cool water until quite cold, then toss with olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.
- Butter a rimmed half sheet pan (18″ X 13″). Preheat oven 375 F. Pour milk into a medium saucepan and warm, covered, over low heat.
- Sauté vegetables. Melt 3 tbsp butter over medium heat in a large Dutch oven or high-sided skillet. Add the shallot and chard. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and sauté, stirring, until vegetables are well wilted and cooked down, about 5 minutes.
- Make bechamel. Add remaining 3 tbsp butter. Once melted, add flour and, stirring constantly, cook for 1 minute. Add warmed milk in three batches, whisking constantly, and continue to cook over medium to medium-low heat until bechamel thickens, about 8 minutes.
- Make cheese sauce. Remove bechamel from heat. Add about two-thirds of each cheese with generous grinds of black pepper. Stir until melted. Add oregano. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in cooked macaroni until evenly coated in sauce.
- Bake mac & cheese. Spread macaroni-cheese mixture into prepared sheet pan. Sprinkle top with remaining cheeses. Bake until top is bubbling and nicely browned, about 35 – 40 min. Remove to a wire rack to cool.
- Cool, cut & wrap. Once mac & cheese has cooled in the pan, cover with plastic wrap and chill completely in the refrigerator (overnight is best). When completely chilled, remove from the refrigerator and loosen edges with an offset spatula. With a spatula or dough scraper, cut into 2″ X 3″ rectangles (9 cuts by 4 cuts). Remove pieces to a foil package (separate layers with waxed or parchment paper), or layer into a disposable foil roasting pan. Keep chilled in a cooler until ready to grill.
- Reheat on the grill. Using a small rimmed baking sheet (one that you don’t mind getting some grill/fire char on) lined with tinfoil, or a disposable foil roasting pan, place mac & cheese sections in a single layer with a little space in between each piece. Place the pan on a clean grill grate, keep the grill lid closed, and heat over a medium-high fire until warmed through and just starting to bubble, about 10 – 15 minutes. Allow to cool for a minute or two before serving.
Yields 36 2″ X 3″ servings.
- You can easily make this a basic mac & cheese by omitting the chard & shallots. But I like the difference that adding some vegetables adds; and given typical tailgate food, it’s always nice to sneak in a veg.
- There’s always a temptation to add bacon; but not a few people thanked me for keeping this one vegetarian. Tailgates are not the most veg-friendly places, after all. And it’s so rich that it doesn’t really need the meat.
Store cooked mac & cheese refrigerated for up to 1 week. During transport, chill in a cooler until ready to cook.