King Ranch Mac and Cheese

King Ranch Mac and Cheese
King Ranch Mac and Cheese

WARNING: This recipe is a DIET BUSTER!! If you are on a diet and don’t have planned cheat days (who doesn’t plan cheat days for their diet?), then go ahead and close this page and go about your normal daily activities. But if you are not on a diet, or you are a big fan of King Ranch Chicken and are obsessed with mac and cheese, then by all means keep reading.

Mixin everything into a cast iron skillet
Mixin’ everything into a cast iron skillet

     When I first spotted this recipe in Mrs. G’s Southern Living back in January, I knew I was going to make it, it was just a matter of when. Mrs. G loves mac and cheese, have I mentioned that before? Well, she does and she can whip up some pretty mean ones and her King Ranch Chicken is out of this world (although you can’t tell from those horrible pics I took. Hey, I was just getting started, cut me some slack). What a fantastic idea to combine the two of them. This past Sunday, I grilled up a bunch of chicken thighs (lately, I’ve been grilling up extra food on Sundays for lunches and casseroles and what not during the week) with no real plans of what I was going to do with them. Mrs G has a bunch of casseroles that use chicken, but I wanted something new. Something different. That’s when I remembered this recipe that I believe graced the cover of Southern Living back in January 2013.

King Ranch Mac and Cheese

(Slightly modified from original Southern Living version, serves 6)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 of a 16-oz. package of elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper, diced (the recipe originally called for 1 green bell, but you know how I feel about those)
  • 1 (10-oz.) can Ro*Tel (diced tomatoes and green chiles)
  • 8 oz Velveeta (or more if you really like cheese), cubed
  • 3 cups chopped cooked chicken (leftover BBQ chicken if ya got it 😉 )
  • 1 (10 3/4-oz.) can cream of chicken soup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 cups (6 oz.) shredded Mexican Four Cheese Blend
The original recipe called for shredded cheddar cheese. I figured a Mexican Four Blend Cheese would work better. Ready for the oven.
The original recipe called for shredded cheddar cheese. I figured a Mexican Four Blend Cheese would work better. We’re ready for the oven.

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Do NOT follow the directions on the package or you will end up with soggy, overcooked macaroni after it spends 25-30 minutes additional cook time in the oven. The directions on my box said to cook it for 8-10 minutes, we opted for 6 and it came out perfect.
  3. Meanwhile, melt butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and bell pepper, and sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in tomatoes and green chiles and Velveeta; cook, stirring constantly until cheese melts. Stir in chicken, next 4 ingredients, and hot cooked pasta until blended. Spoon mixture into a lightly greased 10-inch cast-iron skillet or 11- x 7-inch baking dish; sprinkle with Mexican cheese blend. (The directions said a 10-inch CI skillet, but to us it looked like it wasn’t going to fit, so we used a slightly larger one. I’m not sure on the size as I forgot to measure. maybe 12″?)
  4. Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly.
  5. Allow mac and cheese to cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.
After cooking in the oven approximately 25 minutes.
Cooling after cooking in the oven approximately 25 minutes.

How do you like to serve your macaroni and cheese? In a bowl or on a plate?

Mrs. G likes to eat hers out of a bowl.
Mrs. G likes to eat hers out of a bowl.

Me? I’m not real picky. I don’t figure there’s really a right or wrong answer as long as you give me a big ole helping.

I had mine on a plate
Mrs. G served mine up on a plate.

     What can I say? This dish was everything I hoped it would be. Ooey, gooey cheesy just like mac and cheese should be, but with the flavors of a good King Ranch Chicken. Just a touch of heat from the Ro*Tel and chili powder. Not enough to make your nose run or tongue burn, but enough to remind you that this is no ordinary mac and cheese. A slight earthiness flavor from the cumin combined with the chili powder gave it a Tex-Mex/Southwestern flavor. At first, it was a little weird. Missing was the flavor and texture of the corn tortillas that go into a King Ranch Chicken, to be replaced by elbow macaroni. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just different.

We probably ate more than we should have, it was that good.
We probably ate more than we should have, it was that good.

     If you are going to blow your diet, or you plan your cheat days, this dish it totally worth it, IMHO. Not something we’re going to make on a regular basis for health reasons, but next time we have left over chicken, I’m seriously going to consider this recipe when deciding what to do with it.

What I Would Do Differently

Not a damn thing. Winner, winner, mac and cheese and chicken dinner. Honestly, not one thing would I do differently.

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Basic Meat Grinding, Part 3: Grinding Your Own Meat

Time to grind your meat
Time to grind your meat

     You’ve made it this far and now you are ready to grind your own meat…almost. What? There’s more? When do we get started grinding meat? Patience, Young Grasshopper. Remember, part of the reason you want to grind your own meat is for sanitation and safety reasons.

     Before you get started, you need to thoroughly clean your grinder and all your materials. This isn’t hard, but its a good habit to get into. Just soap, hot water and some scrubbing. Make sure to get in all those nooks and crannies, that’s where the “nasties” hide. Even though I clean all the parts of my grinder before I put it away after each use, I still like to clean it before using it again. Sometimes it sits dormant for months on end between uses. Call me anal or over cautious, doesn’t bother me, but it gives me a peace of mind. Once you start grinding your own meat, you tend to start cooking your burgers a little bit more on the rarer side, or I did anyway. Heck, half the reason to grind your own meat is that you know its clean and you don’t have to cook the bejesus out of it to get rid of any harmful bacteria or other “stuff”. 

     One last thing before we get started, cold is your friend. You’ll see me mention chilling and freezing in the steps below. This is very important, do not skip these steps. Fat melts. Let me emphasize that…fat melts very easily. The heat of your hand can melt the fat in ground beef as well as the heat that builds up due to friction while grinding your own meat. This will leave you with what is called “smear” and “smear” is no bueno. When grinding meat, you should be able to clearly tell when fat and meat are coming through the grinding plate as distinct little pieces. If your meat begins to heat up, it will begin to come out looking like indistinct pink strands, then you’ve got smear. You will have to stop what you are doing, chill your meat, take apart, clean and chill your metal grinder parts and start over again at a later time. Do yourself a favor and chill your meat and grinder parts ahead of time.

Meat cut for grinding, this was 50/50 pork butt and venison for a venison jalapeno cheese sausage I made
Meat cut for grinding, this was 50/50 pork butt and venison for a venison jalapeno cheese sausage I made

Directions

  1. Thoroughly clean and dry all parts of your grinder.
  2. Toss the metal parts (feeding tube, hopper, auger, grinding plates, knife and locking ring) in a bowl or on a baking sheet and toss in the freezer. 30 minutes is good, an hour is probably better.
  3. Cut your meat into cubes (some people like to do strips, depends on your grinder) and remove all sinew, connective tissue and silver skin. Grinders have a problem with this and they will end up wrapping around the auger and clogging up the grinding plate, not to mention they aren’t good eats. I like to toss my meat into the freezer for 15-20 minutes before I cube it up. I find that the time in the freezer, firms it up and makes it easier to cube.
  4. Spread the meat out in a single layer and put it in the freezer for 30 minutes. You want the edges to be firm, but the middles are still pliable.
  5. One tip that you may or may not find useful. We like to place a kitchen towel under our grinder before beginning. For one, it helps with clean up. But more importantly, have you seen our counters? They are white…Yuck! The little black plastic feet can leave marks on light colored counters. You can get them off, but its a pain and I’m all about easy. Or lazy. Take your pick.
  6. Assemble your grinder. First, attach the feeding tube to the grinder and tighten down. Next insert the auger, making sure it lines up properly. Slide the knife onto the end of the auger, followed by the grinding plate (use the medium grinding plate for ground beef) and finally tighten it down with the locking ring. Once you have it assembled, place the hopper on top of the feeding tube. One thing to take notice of is the blades of the knife. They should be in contact with the grinding plate. If you turn them the other way and they won’t be able to grind up your meat. You don’t want that. 

    The proper order for assembling yoru grinder
    The proper order for assembling yoru grinder. Left to right: Locking ring, grinder plate, knife, auger, feeding tube (note: for illustration purposes this was laid out, but the feeder tube should be attached to the grinder before assembling the rest of the parts)
  7. Place a large bowl, casserole dish or baking sheet under the end of the grinder to catch your ground meat. Some people will say to fill a bowl with ice and then place another empty bowl on top of it to keep your meat chilled. I don’t do this as I’m usually working in batches of 5-10lbs and can get the meat ground in under 10 minutes. If I was working in larger batches or in a hot environment, I would probably do this, but I don’t find it necessary for the amounts I do.
  8. Fill up the hopper with the partially frozen, cubed meat.
  9. Turn on the grinder.
  10. Slide the meat over the neck of the feeder tube and push down using the meat pusher. Continue until all the meat has been ground.
  11. When finished, don’t forget to take apart your grinder and thoroughly clean it. I often let it soak in hot water for 10-20 minutes before hand. You maybe able to place your parts in the dishwasher (and sometimes I do except for the grinder plates and knife), read your instructions first. And those grinding plates? If yours are made out of carbon steal, don’t forget to thoroughly dry them, spray them down with cooking spray, wrap in paper towels and seal in a zip-lock bag. All that might be over kill, but you don’t want them to rust, do you?
You may need to spin your bowl or dish as it fills up.
You may need to spin your bowl or dish as it fills up.

     Now you’ve got your own home ground meat. Obviously you can use it right away if you are so inclined, but we always have more than we need. Why go through all that work just to grind up a pound or two? Go ahead and do five or ten or more. What we usually do is weigh the ground meat out into batches with a digital scale. We like to wrap our scale in plastic wrap to avoid any contamination. Then we, place a bowl on it and tare it. You remember that term from science class, right? When you re-zero a scale? Most digital scales will have a button for that. Then, weigh it out into desired batches, vacuum seal it, label it including date and type of meat and toss it in the freezer for later. Now you’ve got ground meat on hand that you know is safe and what is in it, ready to be used at a moments notice.

Basic Meat Grinding, Part 2: What You Need To Get Started

Kitchener #12 from Northern Tools
Kitchener #12 from Northern Tools

     So you read Basic Meat Grinding Part 1, and now you are thinking about grinding your own meat. You’re probably asking yourself, “How much is this going to cost?” Believe it or not, only about $100. Most of the stuff you need, you probably already have at home in your kitchen.

Materials Needed

  1. Grinder (we’ll get into this more later on)
  2. Good SHARP knives, at a minimum a chef’s knife and a boning knife
  3. Cutting boards (plastic is better when working with raw meats)
  4. Large bowls, casserole dishes or cookie/baking sheets (size depends on how much meat you are working with)
  5. Parchment paper or wax paper
  6. Cleaning supplies
  7. Optional items: scale, food vacuum sealer, plastic wrap
  8. And of course…MEAT!!

     Let’s talk about that grinder. The one I am using is a Kitchener #12 from Northern Tools and is pictured above. As of 7/16/13, they have it listed on their site for $99.99. We’ve been using it for a little over a year and half now and have never had a problem with it. The box claims that it can grind 176 lbs per hour, which comes out to about 3 lbs per minute. I don’t know if this is accurate, as I’ve never timed it myself. Generally, I do batches of about 5 to 10 lbs and it seems like it takes about 5 to 10 minutes. Quick enough that all the metals parts are still ice cold from being frozen before grinding (we’ll get into why cold is important later).

     I’ve also heard really good things about the LEM #8 grinder, which can be found at Academy for the same price. I’ve never used it, but people say it’s a quality product and if their sausage stuffer I use is any indication, I would believe them.

     I will caution that this grinder is for home use, you might even call it an “entry level” grinder. If you are doing small batches, it will serve you fine. I couldn’t say how large your batches would be before you might run into problems, but if you are grinding meat for an army, you might want to pony up a little more cash and spring for a larger model that has more horsepower. Processing more than a few deer at a time or a couple of cows? Spend the extra “moo-lah”. But if you are just grinding meat for a small family, this one will do fine.

This is what a Kitchener #12 comes with
This is what a Kitchener #12 comes with

      Starting from the top left you have the grinder itself. Already attached to it on the left side is the feeding tube. On top of the feeding tube, is the hopper. Moving on down, on the bottom left you will see a meat pusher. That’s pretty self-explanatory. This grinder also comes with 3 different size plastic stuffing tubes and a stuffing plate. On the right hand side, you will see the metal parts. There are 3 different sized grinder plates, a grinder knife (kind of looks like a Chinese star), an auger (pushes meat through the feeding tube and into the knife and blades and finally a locking ring. Not pictured is a kubbe attachment. If you don’t know what kubbe is, don’t feel bad. Neither did I till I looked it up this morning. Apparently, it’s a Middle Eastern dish, typically a cylindrical-like shell made of meat and stuffed with a spiced minced lamb filling. I have no idea how well the kubbe attachment works, but now I am curious.  Might have to experiment with it no that I know what it’s for. Anyway, more than enough to get you started grinding and even stuffing your own sausage, should you choose.

    One word of warning about the grinding plates, from the ones I have seen, they are all made of carbon steel. I won’t say whether that is a good or bad thing, but I will offer some advice. Carbon steel rusts if you don’t take care of it. That is not a big deal and easy to prevent, however. When done grinding your meat, thoroughly wash and dry the grinding plate. Then spray it with cooking spray or rub it with some type of cooking oil. Then wrap it in paper towels and seal it an a zip-lock bag and you will have no problems with rust. I do the same thing with the knife even though it’s supposed to be made of stainless steel. Better safe than sorry. 

     I will mention that I looked up the LEM #8 this morning for comparison and it only comes with 2 different sized grinding plates and one stuffing tube. That might be something to consider when shopping around for a grinder. Not all grinders come with the same accessories.

Basic Meat Grinding, Part 1: Why You Should Grind Your Own Meat

Grinding meat
Grinding meat

     I’ve never been asked to do a write-up on a certain topic before, but this week a reader and a fellow member on the Big Green Egg Forum, who goes by the name Hibby, asked me if I would consider doing one on grinding meat. I thought about it for probably half a millisecond and decided I would. After all, I’m just here to help out where I can. If anybody else has any questions or suggestions, throw ’em at me.

     So, you’ve decided to grind your own meat? Maybe it’s because you are concerned about safety, maybe you are concerned about taste or maybe you want to make sausage. Don’t know if you should grind your own meat? Here are some reasons:

Safer – You can’t control the cleanliness of the factory or butcher shop your meat was ground in. Maybe its clean, maybe it’s not, but meat is more likely to be exposed to E. Coli and other harmful bacteria in a factory than if you do it in your own clean kitchen. Your kitchen is clean, right?

Fresher – Contrary to what you may believe, most meat is not ground at your local grocery store. No, its more likely to be ground at a factory somewhere, then shipped to your store where it sits around for another few days or a week before you buy it. As it sits there, patiently waiting for you to pick it up, its losing quality and flavor.

Fat – You can control the fat content in your own grind, whether you want a super low and healthy 95/5% blend, or a good ole 80/20% blend (I wouldn’t use anything less for my burgers), wouldn’t you rather decide how much is in your blend?

Customize – Different cuts of meat offer different tastes and textures, not to mention fat content. Try experimenting with cuts like chuck, sirloin, brisket, short ribs and even ox-tail. Check out the article on Serious Eats about Mastering the Art of Burger Blending for an in-depth look at how various cuts will affect your burgers. BTW, save skirt steak for fajitas, it doesn’t do much for taste or texture in burgers. Trust me on this one. 😉

Quality – You have no control over the quality of the meat being used in the grind when it comes from a factory. It could be an old dairy cow for all you know. By blending your own burgers, you can control the quality from select to choice to prime. Corn fed or grass-fed? Locally raised? That’s all up to you. Heck, you can even spring for Wagyu if you like.

Economics – face it, like most things in life, if you do it yourself, its cheaper. Next time you are at the store, compare a chuck roast to ground chuck. Which ones cheaper? The chuck roast. They are both the same thing, you’ve just paid somebody to run it through a grinder. Why pay somebody else when you can easily do it at home.

Ground Pork – I don’t know where you normally shop, but where I’m at, finding ground pork is pretty much hit or miss. Sometimes they have it, sometimes they don’t. When they do have it, it’s stupid ridiculous on price, considering the price of pork butts. Ground pork butt is the primary ingredient in sausage. I’d rather pay the $1.99 a lb for a pork butt and do it myself than pay what they are asking for…that is if they even have it.

Wild Game – I know…this probably won’t concern most of you, but if you are a hunter, why wouldn’t you grind your own meat? Sure, you can take your deer, wild hog or other game to a game processor and have them do it for you and there is nothing wrong with that. They’ll even turn it into sausage for you if you like, but there is a certain pride knowing you shot an animal, skinned it, field dressed it, broke it down, ground up the meat and made your own ground meat or sausage. At least to me there is.

     Wow…when I decided to write this, I thought I could do it all in one short post. Guess I got more to say than I originally thought. I’m going to break this into a 3 part section with Part 2 being materials you need and Part 3 covering how to grind your own meat. I’ll try and have Part 2 up tomorrow and Part 3 the following day. If not, I’ll definitely try and get both up by the end of the week, so stay tuned and if you have an idea or a topic you would like me to cover, I’m all ears.

Up close view of meat being ground up
Up close view of meat being ground up

New York Pizza – Attempt 3

…or Third Time’s The Charm!!

Look at that beautiful pizza pie!!
Look at that beautiful pizza pie!!

     Some of you may remember my first attempt at New York Style Pizza. Didn’t quite go as well as planned, namely due to an oversight on my part. All purpose flour is NOT the same as bread flour, just so ya know. So what about the second attempt? Well, that one never got documented (although I’m sure I have pictures floating around somewhere). When letting my Egg come up to temperature, the plate setter (which had gone through several low and slow cooks with nothing to protect it from drippings) literally caught on FIRE!! I wish I had pictures of that part. So we had to resort to the oven. That and I took the amount of dough for one pizza and tried to stretch it out for two. Ended up overworking the dough while forming the crusts. While it still tasted good, the extra stretching and overwork caused it to be thin and flat and had no rise when cooked. But the third time…well the third time was the charm!

Remember this recipe called for the dough to be mixed in a food processor?
Remember this recipe called for the dough to be mixed in a food processor?

     Once again, I have to give credit where credit is due. The recipe for this New York Style pizza came from Serious Eats, a website that has a whole section dedicated to different styles of pizza. They have put in a ton of time and effort reproducing regional variations of pizza (and burgers if you are interested)

Ingredients

  • 22 1/2 ounces (about 4 1/2 cups) bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • .35 ounces kosher salt (about 3 teaspoons)
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 15 ounces lukewarm water
  • 1 batch New York Style Pizza Sauce
  • 1 pound grated full-fat dry mozzarella cheese (about 4 cups), placed in freezer for at least 15 minutes
Yes, a scale really does help in making pizzas (and baking and sausage making)
Yes, a scale really does help in making pizzas (and baking and sausage making)

Directions

  1. Combine flour, sugar, salt, and yeast in bowl of food processor. Pulse 3 to 4 times until incorporated. Add olive oil and water. Run food processor until mixture forms a ball that rides around the bowl above the blade, about 15 seconds. Continue processing 15 seconds longer.
  2. Transfer dough ball to lightly floured surface and knead once or twice by hand until smooth ball is formed. It should pass the windowpane test. Divide dough into three even parts and place each in a covered quart-sized deli container or in a zipper-lock freezer bag. Place in refrigerator and allow to rise at least one day, and up to 5.
  3. At least two hours before baking, remove dough from refrigerator and shape into balls by gathering dough towards bottom and pinching shut. Flour well and place each one in a separate medium mixing bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise at warm room temperature until roughly doubled in volume.
  4. 1 hour before baking, adjust oven rack with pizza stone to middle position and preheat oven to 500°F. Turn single dough ball out onto lightly flour surface. Gently press out dough into rough 8-inch circle, leaving outer 1-inch higher than the rest. Gently stretch dough by draping over knuckles into a 12 to 14-inch circle about 1/4-inch thick. Transfer to pizza peel.
  5. Spread approximately 2/3 cup of sauce evenly over surface of crust, leaving 1/2 to 1-inch border along edge. Evenly spread 1/3 of cheese over sauce. Slide pizza onto baking stone and bake until cheese is melted with some browned spots and crust is golden brown and puffed, 12 to 15 minutes total. Transfer to cutting board, slice, and serve immediately. Repeat with remaining two dough balls, remaining sauce, and remaining cheese.
My dough ready for toppings
My dough ready for toppings

     Kenji didn’t mention anything about “docking” his pizza dough. I worked in numerous pizza joints in high school and college. In some, we “docked” the dough, in others we didn’t. Basically, its poking holes in it to prevent bubbles from forming when cooking the pizza. Where I worked, we had a roller that did it, now at home I just use a fork.

Top it with freshly grated mozzarella
Top it with freshly grated mozzarella

     We’ve discussed it before, but I’ll mention it again. Please grate your own mozzarella. Do NOT use the pre-grated stuff. It’s coated with “stuff” to prevent it from clumping in the bag…which also prevents it from melting nicely. And not part-skim or low-fat, get the full fat stuff. The other kinds don’t give you that stretch when you take a bite. Come on people, it’s pizza! Live a little. You’re already cheating on your diet, might as well go all the way. One last thing, don’t use the fresh or buffalo mozzarella. This isn’t a Neapolitan pizza, its NY Style. Save that for a pizza Margherita pizza.

All that hard work pays off.
All that hard work pays off.

     Ovens vary and cooking times will be different for everybody. Kenji suggests 12-15 minutes. I slid my pizza in the oven on my pizza stone that had been warming for one hour using the parchment paper trick. After 5 minutes, I opened the oven, slid the parchment paper out from under my pizza and gave it a 90 degree spin. Reset the timer for another 5 minutes. When it went off, I brushed some melted garlic butter on the edges of the crust and gave it another spin, almost done. Keeping an eye on it, I let it go another 2 to 3 minutes and it was done.

Check out those air pockets!
Check out those air pockets!

     Just what I was shooting for. Thinner than a pan pizza, but thicker than a Neapolitan. The bottom layer was crispy, but not cracker like with a soft, chewy bread like layer that was nowhere near a bland, flavorless crust. The sauce played along wonderfully with its balance of sweetness and acidity, not too strong or over powering in herbs and spices.  This has got to be one of my favorite pizzas I’ve made to date. And the best part…Mrs. G is out of town so I got to eat it all by myself. 😉

Odd Tidbits of Information

  • This dough requires a night in the fridge before its ready to use. Not saying that it’s not good the next day, but try leaving it for 2-4 days. The dough will have even more flavor.
  • Life gets in the way and for whatever reason you aren’t able to make your pizza in 5 days? Vacuum seal it and pop it in the freezer for another day. Whenever you are ready, take it out of the freezer the night before and allow it to thaw overnight in the fridge. The next day, let it rise at room temp for at least 2 hours (I went for about 3.5 hours) and it will come out just fine. That exactly what I did with this one.
  • The sauce also freezes just fine.
  • Please allow at least one hour for your pizza stone to come up to 500F. It will benefit you when cooking pizzas.
  • Do you find pepperoni to be too greasy? Pop it in the microwave for 15-20 seconds and then blot away the grease with a paper towel.