Eric Akis: Skillet BBQ Mac and Cheese rich with Island cheeses

Eric Akis

Palate-pleasing, comforting and rib-sticking, it’s no surprise that mac and cheese appeals to all ages. And another big part of its allure is that it can be prepared in myriad ways.

For example, it can be pretty basic, made by stirring hot, just-cooked macaroni into a pot of tangy, simmering cheese sauce. You can also bake mac and cheese, topped with more cheese and other toppings, until bubbly and delicious. You’ll even find recipes where cold mac and cheese is formed into balls, coated in seasoned breadcrumbs and deep-fried, until crispy and golden on the outside and molten in the middle.

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A wide range of ingredients can also be added to mac and cheese to make it even more divine. The many possibilities include specialty cheeses; fresh herbs; roasted, grilled and other types of vegetables; seafood, such as lobster, crab and shrimp; smoked chicken and turkey; and meats, such as ham, pulled pork and shreds of barbecue brisket.

In today’s rather sumptuous recipe, I cooked mac and cheese in a skillet on the barbecue and flavoured it with three types of Island-made cheese and bacon.

If I now have your mouth watering and you’ve developed a big-time craving to try different types of mac and cheese, but don’t want make your own, you’re in luck.

Our Place Society, which provides support to Greater Victoria’s most vulnerable people, has organized a special event that, from Aug. 8 to Sept. 8, will see numerous restaurants serving up their own special version of mac and cheese. So far, the restaurants include 10 Acres Bistro, Aura Waterfront Restaurant and Patio, Boom & Batten, Boondocks, Chuck’s Burger Bar, Courtney Room, Crooked Goose Bistro, Frankie’s Modern Diner, Heron Rock Bistro, Il Covo Trattoria, Irish Times Pub, Smuggler’s Cove Pub, Spinnakers and Virtuous Pie.

Steven Seltzer, Our Place Society’s special events and corporate giving manager, says the idea of the event is to show support for our local culinary industry — businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that, over the years, have helped raise much-needed funds for Our Place Society.

Beyond getting to purchase and try many splendid versions of mac and cheese, whether you eat it at the restaurants noted above or get it to go, this event is also a culinary competition that will determine who makes Greater Victoria’s best mac and cheese.

To have your say, after you have tried some of the different types being offered, go to the Our Place Society website and vote for the restaurant you thought made the best mac and cheese. (Voting is open Sept. 1 to 10.) The winner will be announced at Our Place Society’s virtual Hungry Hearts fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 5 p.m. More information about that event, including how to tune in, will also be on the Our Place Society website.

Skillet BBQ Mac and Cheese with Island Cheese and Bacon

This Vancouver Island-style mac and cheese is rich with three types of local cheese and crispy bits of bacon. Make a summer meal by serving it with a green salad adorned with cut, raw local vegetables, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and bell peppers.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: About 45 minutes

Makes: Four to six servings

2 cups elbow macaroni

4 strips of Vancouver Island bacon, cut into small cubes (see Note 1)

3 Tbsp butter, plus some for greasing

3 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 cups warm milk (see Note 2)

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

100 grams Little Qualicum Cheeseworks Qualicum spice cheese, grated (divided; see Note 3)

100 grams Natural Pastures Cheese Company aged farmhouse cheese, grated (divided; see Note 3)

• salt and white pepper, to taste

2 green onions, thinly sliced (divided)

75 grams Salt Spring Island Cheese Company goat cheese (see Note 3)

2 Tbsp panko or other dried breadcrumbs

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil to cook the macaroni. While it’s coming to a boil, place bacon in a skillet, set over medium to medium-high heat and cook until crispy. Drain fat from these bacon bits. Transfer bacon bits to a plate lined with paper towel and set it aside for now.

When water is boiling, cook macaroni until just tender, about eight to 10 minutes, depending on the brand.

While macaroni cooks, place 3 Tbsp butter in a medium-to-large-sized pot set over medium heat. When butter is melted, mix in flour and cook, stirring, two minutes.

Very slowly, while whisking, dribble and mix in 1/2 cup of the milk. Cook until the mixture becomes quite thick, and then slowly whisk in the remaining milk and sour cream.

Bring this white sauce to a simmer, stirring frequently so it does not scorch on the bottom. Simmer one minute to thicken. Remove sauce from the heat. Mix in paprika and three-quarters of the grated spice cheese, and three-quarters of the aged Farmhouse cheese. When cheese has melted, season the sauce with salt and pepper.

Preheat your barbecue until the temperature in the chamber is 375 F to 400 F (see Eric’s options).

When macaroni is cooked, drain it well. Now add it and three quarters of the green onions to the sauce and gently mix to combine.

Lightly butter the inside of 10-inch diameter cast-iron skillet (see Eric’s options). Spoon the macaroni mixture into the skillet. Top macaroni with the remaining grated cheeses, and then sprinkle on the bacon bits. Set small nuggets of the goat cheese at various points on top of the mac and cheese. Now sprinkle top of mac and cheese with the panko.

Set skillet on side of the barbecue. Close the lid and turn the heat off underneath the skillet; leave the other side of the barbecue on. Cook the mac and cheese 25 to 30 minutes, or until very hot and bubbly. As the mac and cheese cooks, check the temperature in the chamber and adjust the flame as needed to maintain the 375 to 400 F temperature.

When ready, sprinkle the mac and cheese with the remaining green onions and serve.

Note 1: Places making bacon on Vancouver Island include grocery store chain Red Barn Market (redbarnmarket.ca); small charcuterie shop the Whole Beast (thewholebeast.ca); and meat companies Hertel Meats (hertelmeats.ca) and Berryman Brother’s Meat Ltd. (berrymanfarms.ca). Hertel and Berryman bacon is available at many grocery stores and smaller foods stores.

Note 2: I warmed the milk for this recipe to just below a simmer in a 2-cup measuring cup in my microwave. It could also be warmed up in a small pot on the stove set over low heat.

Note 3: The cheeses noted in this recipe are available in the deli section of most grocery stores and smaller food stores. You will have to buy package sizes that contain more than you need here. But wrap up and refrigerate the leftover cheese and save it for a cheeseboard or other use. If you can’t find the exact type of cheese called for in the recipe, simply use one of the company’s other types of cheese that’s similar in style.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, any other barbecue-friendly pan will work here as long its about 2 1/2-inches deep and holds eight to 10 cups. If you don’t have a barbecue, you could bake the mac and cheese in 375 F oven for a similar length of time.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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