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Colorado Springs chefs turn classic mac 'n' cheese into unique dishes in less than 30 minutes

August 29, 2017 Updated: August 29, 2017 at 2:55 pm
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Patrick Reitmayer, owner of Salt of the Earth Catering, prepared mac and cheese with cherry tomatoes, arugula, topped with smoked salmon for the Mac and Cheese Showdown. Photo by Teresa Farney

Two local chefs went whisk-to-whisk at the Celebrity Chef Cook-off Mac and Cheese Showdown during the recent Women's Living Expo. Yours truly was one of the three judges who determined ooey-gooey supremacy.

The chefs were Patrick Reitmayer, owner of Salt of the Earth Catering, and Joshua Kelly, executive chef at Bonny and Read. Both gave a nod to nutrition by incorporating veggies into their recipes. But let's be clear: Mac and cheese is all about the cheese, cream, milk and butter - not exactly the poster child for nutrition. (Just remember, all things in moderation.)

Contest rules included:

- Using cow's milk dairy products (the Western Dairy Association was a sponsor)

- Extra points for a recipe taking less than 30 minutes to prepare

- Extra points for a "fun twist" on the old classic, such as using whole grains or added vegetables or serving it in a unique way

Both chefs trimmed time by preparing the recipe's noodles before the contest started. Reitmayer reheated his bowtie pasta in the microwave. Kelly had a large pot of boiling water going; he put the macaroni into a mesh strainer and plunged it into the water when it was time to reheat it.

And the differences between the two chefs continued from there.

Reitmayer used whole milk to make his roux for the cheese sauce. What got everyone's attention was the addition of a large block of cream cheese.

"This (cream cheese) makes the sauce extra creamy," he said.

While the sauce simmered over low heat, he sautéed a few cups of cherry tomatoes in olive oil. Then he turned his attention back to the cheese sauce and added grated dill Havarti.

"This is a good melting cheese," he said. "Add salt, pepper, cayenne pepper - just a hint for great flavor. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning. Go easy on salt. You can always add more, but you can't take it away."

He seasoned the sautéed tomatoes with salt and pepper and added a big batch of arugula to the pan.

"You just want to wilt the arugula," he said.

For plating, he piled the veggies on the bottom of the plates, topped them with the pasta and poured the sauce over everything. His finishing touch? Smoked salmon.

"You can smoke your own salmon or buy it at the grocery store," he said.

Kelly's contest entry was Heirloom Caprese Mac & Cheese, and he was going to make it like an upside-down pineapple cake. He had brought baking dishes that were about the same diameter as the beautiful heirloom tomato he had brought to the show. Baking pans were about 5 inches round with 4-inch-high walls.

He started by making the roux for the base of the cheese sauce: butter and flour mixed together over low heat. He added half-and-half.

"There are a ton of options with cheese," he said. "I'm going to use grated parmesan cheese for an Italian flavor and mozzarella for a stringy texture."

The mozzarella was in the form of little balls called pearls. He cut the tomato into thick slices, which he seasoned with salt and pepper. A slice of tomato was placed in the bottom of each baking dish and topped with the mac-and-cheese mixture. The dishes were baked for a few minutes at 425 degrees. To serve, he turned the dishes upside down onto plates so the tomato was on top. Chopped basil finished the caprese effect.

Both entries were unique, prepared well under 30 minutes and absolutely delicious. Kelly's tasted just a few points better, which earned him bragging rights. Although noodle dominance didn't go to Reitmayer, I'd make both versions - Reitmayer's for a brunch entrée, and Kelly's for a late summer dinner.

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