I'm not the first to use kimchi in non-Korean ways. Far from it. Way back in 2008, Los Angeles chef Roy Choi incorporated it into offerings from his Kogi truck, and the Korean taco trend exploded. Since then, I've worked it into deviled eggs, dip and a Grilled Kimcheese sandwich and have even tossed it with cubed avocado for an appetizer I call Guaca-Chi.
Do you sense a pattern? I like the fermented cabbage best alongside rich ingredients because its funk and spice simultaneously bring a little roundness and depth, plus a sharp zing that cuts through those fatty flavors. It's just how kimchi is used in more traditional (read: meaty) applications, but my go-to partner ingredients are now eggs and cheese rather than bulgogi and pork belly.
My attachment to kimchi has not gone unnoticed. Colleague Tim Carman teased me about it in our Super Bowl pizza smackdown, writing that my strategy for winning would surely involve topping a pie with it. (I resisted it that time, but kimchi pizza topped with a fried egg does happen to be a favorite of mine.)
It was only a matter of time before I came up with a way to work kimchi into one of the great American comfort foods, macaroni and cheese. It makes a lot of sense. Besides that funk and spice, kimchi offers a crunchy counterpoint to the soft pasta and sauce. Once the kimchi was in there, though, I wanted more: something to turn this homey side into the star of the weeknight dinner table.
Sidekicks were in order. Roasted red pepper brings a welcome splash of color against the beige pasta, but the real supporting players are the shiitakes and their extra dose of umami.
Mac and Kimcheese With Mushrooms is now complete. What's next?
Mac and Kimcheese With Mushrooms
Parboil the macaroni and refrigerate it up to three days in advance. Make the sauce and refrigerate it for up to one week. Assemble the entire casserole and refrigerate it for up to three days. From Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, author of the upcoming "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook" (Ten Speed Press, August 2013).
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
12 ounces dried whole-wheat elbow macaroni
1 large red bell pepper
2 1/2 cups vegetarian kimchi, preferably spicy
5 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth2 cups low-fat milk (may substitute almond milk)
About 7 1/2 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (1 3/4 cups; may substitute vegan cheese such as Daiya brand)
1 to 2 tablespoons Sriracha or other hot sauce (optional)
1/4 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a large casserole dish at hand.
Toss the mushrooms and oil on a large rimmed baking sheet; lightly sprinkle with the sea salt. Roast until the mushrooms have softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the casserole dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and par-cook for 2 to 3 minutes less than the package directions suggest, until the pasta has slightly softened yet is still undercooked; it will finish in the oven. Drain in a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Add it to the casserole dish.
If you have a gas stove, turn one of the burners to high. Use tongs to hold the bell pepper over the flame, turning it every couple of minutes, until blackened all over. (Alternatively, when the mushrooms have finished cooking, broil the bell pepper a few minutes per side until blackened all over, then set the oven temperature to bake at 400 degrees.) Transfer the pepper to a small bowl, cover with a plate and let steam. When it has cooled enough to handle, slip off the blackened skin and discard it. Discard the stem and seeds; cut the pepper into 1/2-inch strips. Add them to the casserole dish.
Working over a small bowl, drain the kimchi, then gently squeeze out any extra liquid, reserving 1/2 cup of it in the bowl; discard or reserve the rest for another use. Chop the kimchi and add it to the casserole dish. Whisk the flour into the reserved kimchi liquid.
Combine the broth, milk and flour mixture in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk frequently as it begins to bubble, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for a few minutes to form a thickened sauce, then stir in the cheese and cook until it melts.
Toss the macaroni mixture in the casserole dish to combine, then pour the sauce over the mixture. Stir to coat, then add the Sriracha to taste, if using. Sprinkle the panko on top. Bake, uncovered, until the mixture is bubbling and the panko is golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Per serving: 360 calories, 18 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar