A couple of months ago, I had the good fortune to have a late afternoon lunch at B&G Oysters in the South End. With a natural affinity for all things dairy and, in particular, for a good mac and cheese, I ordered the orzo from their list of “sides” to go with my lobster roll.
It arrived in a small ceramic dish, hot from the oven. I pierced the crumb topping with my spoon and scooped up a bite. A little puzzled because there were some darker colored bits in amongst the cheesy creaminess, I thought that there was a little prosciutto surprise in there.
But, I was wrong. As it turned out, the B&G Oysters team had toasted some of the orzo that went into the dish. I was intrigued – I had never heard of toasting pasta before it was cooked but immediately it sounded like a good idea – and boy, did it taste like a good idea! I am willing to bet that the toasty, warm, nutty flavor in the mac and cheese found its scrumptious origins in the toasting process.
The other awesome thing about B&G Oysters side is that they use solely Parmigiano Reggiano for the cheese end of things. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good mac and cheese medley like Tyler’s ‘Mil Fromages‘ but for “single varietal” mac and cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano is definitely one of my top contenders.
In the weeks following my lunch at B&G, I did not forget my sides experience and even got to go back once more to relive it. The second go was no less delicious. It was then that I determined to try to recreate the scrumptiousness of the dish at home. Searches on the internet did not yield a standalone recipe from which to begin my quest so I ended up doing a recipe mash-up, snagging bits and ideas from a few recipes – the principal among them were one for simple toasted orzo and another for a pasta gratin. Below I append the recipe that resulted from this cocktail of sources. I got lucky on my first go around and managed to hit pretty close to the mark. As the recipe yields a fair amount, it served as leftovers for a couple of days and, after a short heat-up in the oven, was almost as tasty as it was on the first night.
Mac and Cheese with Toasted Orzo and Parmigiano Reggiano
3/4 lb. Rustichella d’Abruzzo orzo
1 cup chicken broth
3 cups water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon Aria olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups cream
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated (about 1 ¼ cups)
1/4 teaspoon salt
White pepper, ground (to taste)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1. In a non-stick pan, toast half of the orzo over medium heat until golden brown. Monitor it closely as it can quickly burn.
2. Pour the chicken broth and water into a pot and bring to a simmer.
3. In a separate pan, heat 2 tbsps butter and oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion, cooking until it is soft and slightly translucent. Add both the toasted orzo and uncooked orzo – mixing for about 30 seconds to fully combine with the onion and coat with butter and oil.
4. Add 2 cups of the broth-water mixture to the orzo. Cook until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed. Continue doing this bit by bit, regularly stirring, until the pasta is just firmer than al dente (the orzo will continue to cook when it bakes) and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Do not expect to have used all of the broth*. Add cold butter, 1/4 cup of your remaining water-broth liquid, salt and pepper to taste, and cook a minute or two more.
5. Preheat the oven to 500°F.
6. In a large bowl, combine the cream and cheese (reserving only 2 tablespoons for later), 1/4 teaspoons salt, and white pepper to taste.
7. Combine the orzo and the cream mixture and put in a ceramic dish (about 2 quarts in volume). Sprinkle with the reserved cheese, bread crumbs and dot with the last 2 tbsps of butter.
8. Bake until the pasta is gently bubbling and the top has started to brown, about 10 minutes. If you can restrain yourself, let rest for 3 to 5 minutes before serving (this is a good time to get your beverage pairing ready). Enjoy!
*I ended up using about 3 cups of liquid in total – the amount you use may, however, depend on the pasta you are using and/or the degree to which you have toasted it.
Mary is a baker and cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.