Fancy French dish upgrades mac ’n’ cheese

JeanMarie Brownson

Three decades ago, I was inducted into the Commanderie des Nobles Vins du Jura et du Comte, a bacchanalian confraternity in the Franche-Comte region of France celebrating the local wines and cheeses.

A few of us food writers from the United States took the charter’s oath to extol, whenever possible, the noble wines and cheese of the Jura. We received an embossed medal and a parchment with the seal and signatures of the three officers. The hand-lettered parchment hangs in my kitchen to this day.

During our visit to this eastern region of France, we toured wineries and cheesemaking establishments. The dedication to tradition, to quality, to the land, runs through everything. I’ve been happily cooking with creamy, tangy Comte cheese and sipping the crisp white wines ever since.

A recent trip to Paris rekindled my appreciation for Comte cheese. Like a creamier version of Swiss cheese (without the holes), Comte tastes of rich milk, with a hint of nuts, and is aged to a perfectly tangy flavor.

The piece de resistance came at lunch at chef Alain Ducasse’s brasserie, Restaurant Champeaux in the newly renovated Les Halles shopping center.

“Coquillettes/jambon/Comte/truffe noire.”

Easy to translate that the dish would have ham, cheese and black truffle. However, I hadn’t a clue as to a coquillette. I ordered the dish anyway.

Turns out, coquillettes are simply miniature elbow-shaped pasta. Ah, this was a fancy mac ’n’ cheese! Comfort food at its Frenchiest. And mighty delicious at that. Photos and notes taken, I brought home 3 pounds of coquillettes purchased at a market near my Airbnb. Perfect January fare.

Take no fear, the recipe that follows can be made with nearly any pasta, but using small shapes, along with the tiny dice of ham and cheese, adds to the eating pleasure. For ease, coquillettes can be ordered from Amazon. Ditto for Comte cheese. You can always skip the drizzle of truffle oil and opt for a little fruity olive oil in its place.

The second recipe, with its rich sauce of wine and butter, also takes the sting of out January. Plus, delicate, mildly onion-flavored leeks, add variety to our winter vegetable table. The leeks braise to tenderness in broth and wine, then the pan juices transform into the sauce. A fluffy pile of hard-cooked egg, known in French cuisine as mimosa, tops off this simple dish with a flourish. Serve the leeks as a vegetarian main course or as a side dish to roast chicken.

Pasta With Smoked Ham And Comte Cheese

Dice the ham and cheese into pieces just a tad larger than the pasta shapes.

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: about 51/2 cups, serving 2 to 4

8 ounces trimmed smoked ham steak

4 ounces Comte cheese (or Gruyere or Swiss cheese), cut into small dice (about 1 cup)

2 tablespoons each: butter, flour

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cups 2 percent or whole milk

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces coquillettes, or tiny shell-shaped pasta or orzo

1 large egg

Shredded Parmesan, optional

Minced fresh chives, optional

Truffle oil or olive oil, optional

Cut the ham into a small dice. You will have about 11/4 cups. Trim the rind from the cheese and cut the cheese into the same size dice as the ham; you will have about 1 cup.

Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and garlic; cook 1 minute. Slowly whisk in milk until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until mixture boils and thickens, about 5 minutes. Stir in nutmeg. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. (Sauce can be made an hour or so in advance.)

Heat a large saucepan of well-salted water to a boil. Add pasta; cook until al dente (slightly toothsome in the middle), about 8 minutes (or according to package directions). Scoop out and reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain pasta in a colander, and place in a large serving bowl.

Reheat the milk mixture if it has cooled. Beat the egg in a small bowl and then slowly stir in a few tablespoons of the hot milk mixture to warm the egg. Then, working over low heat, whisk the egg mixture into the remaining milk mixture. Whisk until smooth and heated through, but do not boil. Remove from heat.

To serve, pour the hot sauce over the warm pasta. Add diced ham and toss gently until well coated. (Add a little of the reserved pasta cooking water if mixture seems too thick.) Add the cheese cubes; toss again, and then spoon onto serving plates.

If desired, sprinkle with Parmesan and chives and drizzle with tiny dots of the truffle or olive oil.

Nutrition information per serving (for 4 servings): 569 calories, 24 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 133 mg cholesterol, 54 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 32 g protein, 1,049 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Braised Leeks Mimosa

Be sure to have the hard-cooked egg cooled before using.

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 2 to 4 servings

4 small-medium leeks, each about 1 inch in diameter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup homemade or low-sodium vegetable broth

1 hard-cooked egg, peeled

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks

1 or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives

Trim off the root ends from the leeks. Trim off the dark green tops. (Save them for making soup.) Trimmed leeks will be about 8 inches in length. Cut each leek lengthwise in half. Gently rinse (keeping the leek intact) under cool water to be sure there is no grit inside. Let drain on a towel.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil, then arrange the leeks cut side down in the pan. Cook until cut side is lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn gently and season with salt and pepper. Pour wine into pan and heat to a simmer.

Pour broth over leeks. Heat to a boil; cover pan and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer gently, until leeks are fork-tender, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, press the hard-cooked egg through a medium-mesh wire strainer into a small bowl to turn it into a fine chop.

Use a slotted spatula to gently transfer leeks to a large platter; cover with foil to keep warm. Heat pan juices to a boil. Remove from heat, and whisk in lemon juice. While whisking, add small chunks of butter, whisking until all butter is added and melted. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over leeks.

Sprinkle sieved egg over leeks. Sprinkle with chives. Serve immediately.

Nutrition information per serving (for 4 servings): 190 calories, 14 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 62 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 3 g protein, 360 mg sodium, 2 g fiber