Even though I tend to think of Mac N’ Cheese as a cold weather dish, I needed a relatively inexpensive dish to feed a lot of big appetites on the Vineyard this summer, & Émilie suggested Mac N’ Cheese. “Hmmm”, I thought, “That’s a good idea. How can I make it more seasonal?” After a trip to Morning Glory Farm, I had fresh summer corn, cherry tomatoes & pesto, which I added to the dish, which was really tasty. Since I first made the dish a month ago, I have remade it, adding a little more garlic & basil to the pesto, as well as various colors of cherry heirloom tomatoes to make the dish a little more vibrant. I have even added rotisserie chicken, which was also very good, but I like it best as a vegetarian one-dish wonder…the cheese provides enough protein, and I like the simplicity of flavors. For a great adult dinner menu, or Back-to-School menu…this is truly a kid-friendly dish…start with Smoked Trout or Salmon on Cream Cheese Cucumber Rounds, serve a Fig Balsamic Mixed Green & Cucumber Salad with the Mac N’ Cheese, & end the evening with Peaches & Cream Popsicles…all kids, both big & small, will adore you!
Shuck the corn, then cut the kernels away from the cob by getting your sharp knife as close to the cob as possible. Slice the kernels away from the cob in a down & sideways motion (a). You will have a really clean cob if you remove the kernels in this fashion. Place all the cut kernels in a bowl & set aside (b).
Slice the tomatoes vertically in half. Place in a bowl & set aside.
Place the basil leaves, garlic, if using, & pesto in a food processor (a). Process until smooth (b). Set aside.
If adding chicken, debone the rotisserie chicken & set aside the meat as well.
In a heavy 3 or 4-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat.
Add the flour to the butter (a), whisking until smooth & bubbling (b)...you have now created a roux.
Slowly whisk the milk into the butter-flour mixture or roux (a). Continue whisking over medium-low heat until the mixture thicken & coats the back of a wooden spoon. You want to see the spoon coated well with the thickened mixture, which is now a béchamel sauce (b).
Add kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Whisk in the cheese, a cup at a time, until all the cheese has melted & is smoothy, thick & creamy. You now have a mornay sauce The mornay sauce should stretch when the whisk is removed from the saucepan.
Remove the mornay sauce from the heat, & whisk in the pesto until well combined & smooth.
Stir the corn & tomatoes into the mornay pesto sauce.
While you mix in the cheese & add the remaining ingredients, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta & cook until al dente. Drain well, shaking to really ensure that you have gotten rid of as much excess water as possible. Any water will thin the sauce...not good.
In a large bowl, mix together the pasta & the sauce until well combined. Be careful not to break up the pasta. Transfer the mac n' cheese to a 6-quart baking dish that has been coated with nonstick cooking spray.
The mac n' cheese may be made ahead & rest 1-2 hours at the point before baking.
When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 350˚.
While the oven is preheating, make your bread crumb topping...combine the bread crumbs & By The Sea Salt in a bowl. Mix together well. Add olive oil or melted butter, starting with ¼ cup, mixing well. If you prefer the the bread crumb topping to be more moist, add more olive oil or butter.
Spread the bread crumbs over the entire top of the mac n' cheese.
Bake the mac n' cheese, uncovered for 30-40 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly around the edges & the bread crumb topping is nicely browned. Remove from the oven & allow to rest about 5-10 minutes...this will make the mac n' cheese easier to serve.
Gluten-free pasta works really well in this dish also...substitute crushed Corn or Rice Chex for the bread crumbs & use melted butter rather than olive oil...you will be pleased with the results!