published Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

New food bar option: Hold the lettuce, pass the pasta

Congratulations are in order for Frank Bell and his son, Mitchell, who were named this year’s Sweet Peppers Franchisees of the year. I just love their restaurant, and if you haven’t paid them a visit since they opened a couple of years ago, it’s time to go and try one of their incredibly good sandwiches. Being a fan of Reubens, I can highly recommend theirs.

In a news release, Sweet Peppers officials said, “The Bells are a team that operates at a high level and to Sweet Peppers franchise standards. They follow the 10 best practices and lead all franchisees in catering sales. They took a downtown location where we knew there would be great lunch sales, but not sure about nights, and turned that into a positive by marketing Sweet Peppers to the downtown-area businesses.”

At that point, the release continued, the Bells’ catering sales became a little overwhelming.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Just be sure to place your orders early.

A news release came my way recently about a new restaurant concept being tried at The Eatery, a family-owned diner in Fort Worth, Texas. I don’t normally write about restaurants that far from home if I haven’t tried them, but it’s not the restaurant I want to talk about. It’s the new mac-and-cheese bar that captured my attention.

It’s like a salad bar, but instead of lettuce as a starter, it’s pasta. As you go down the bar, you can add on numerous toppings, such as smoked sausage, Virginia baked ham — even the restaurant’s special taco meat. Then you go for the cheese ... cheddar, feta, blue cheese and other options. When your mac-and-cheese creation is complete, it’s weighed, and then you pay. After you take your plate to the table, a server will come along and brown it with a torch, if you so desire.

This is a trend that’s catching on throughout the country. In fact, owners Don and Cindy Gifford got the idea from eateries such as S’Mac in Manhattan’s East Village and The Mac Shack in Las Vegas.

Why do I write about this? I want one here in Chattanooga. Do you know of any nearby? I consider mac-and-cheese one of life’s great comforts any time of year. E-mail me with your thoughts. In the meantime, try this interesting recipe from picky-palate.com. Makes my mouth water just reading it.

Chef Terrance Brennan’s Gourmet Mac and Cheese

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni

7 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour

3 cups milk

3/4 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup Parmesan Reggiano, grated

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese

2 1/4 cups gruyere, shredded

Salt and fresh ground pepper

Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil, and add the elbow macaroni. Cook until it’s al dente, 6 to 8 minutes.

While the macaroni is boiling, slowly melt 5 1/2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat in a medium saucepan.

Stir in the flour, and cook together for a minute or so. Do not brown the mixture; you want a blond roux. Add the milk, whisking to avoid lumps. Bring mixture to a boil, and continue whisking. Lower heat, and simmer for about five minutes until it thickens.

While the milk is simmering, combine 2 tablespoons butter and the bread crumbs; melt together in a separate pan.

Add the Parmesan cheese. This adds another layer of flavor so it’s not one-dimensional. Cook until the butter is just melted. Remove from heat.

When the milk is ready, add the mascarpone cheese. Then whisk in gruyere cheese. As soon as it melts, remove from the heat. This will happen quickly because the gruyere cheese should be grated and at room temperature.

Season with salt and black pepper, and whisk to combine. Add the macaroni to the cheese sauce, mix it well, and when it’s nicely incorporated, spoon it out into a cooking dish.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs on the top, using your hands to pat it down to make sure it’s nice and evenly dispersed all over the surface. The topping becomes very crunchy when it bakes. Cook for 35-40 minutes in a 350 F oven until golden brown and bubbly. Makes 4-6 servings.

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