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Griffin to Go: Mac and Cheese Me, Please

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What comfort macaroni and cheese brings.

The second annual San Antonio Cellar Classic drew hundreds to the Pearl Brewery Stables Saturday to sample a wide variety of wines that they could then take home at a discounted rate.

Taking tastes at the San Antonio Cellar Classic.

Shoppers looking to shore up their cellars with some age-worthy bottles or those just wanting to get an early start on holiday treats lined up before the doors opened and then lined up at the end to collect their purchases. In between, there were dozens of wines poured alongside some small plates available from a series of restaurants, both established and soon to be on the dining scene, offering proof once again that fine wine loves great food. A floral Terrazas Torrontés 2001 offered a nice balance to Feast chef Stefan Bowers shrimp ceviche, while Bending Branch's new Cabernet Sauvignon and the Col Solare, Washington state's answer to Italy's Super Tuscans, both went well with sous vide flank steak from Jesse Perez's upcoming Arcade. The tangy Ripa delle More 2008 from Castello Vicchiomaggio and veal polpette from chef James Moore's soon-to-open Boiler House Texas Grill. Clint Connaway of Max's Wine Dive offered a strata that was made for the Ruinart Rosé Champagne.

Jesse Perez plates his dish.

Urban Taco, NAO, the Bright Shawl, H-E-B and Ms. Chocolatier also offered treats ranging from flautas and gazpacho to salted caramel cake balls and red velvet cupcakes.

Cake balls.

While the guests were sipping and snacking to their hearts' content, the real work was taking place in a corner under the staircase. Five of us had to judge seven different macaroni and cheese dishes from the participating restaurants. TV and web personality Tanji Patton, food writer Chris Dunn, Suzanne Taranto Etheredge of Culinaria, Lenny Friedman of Los #3 Dinners, which provided the great background music, and I were all set for the difficult task, while food writer Julia Celeste Rosenfeld served as tie-breaker, if one were needed. How  do you judge macaroni and cheese, we asked ourselves. Quality of the pasta counts, of course. So does the nature of the cheese. Is it creamy and velvety? Does the cheese complement the rest of the ingredients? How well do the rest of the ingredients, whatever they may be, fit in with macaroni and cheese?

A judge reaches for a sample of macaroni and cheese.

The choices we were faced with ran the gamut from two made with bacon to one that featured duck confit and spinach. One was more like a casserole, in that that the meat took over, leaving the cheese in the dust. Some had breadcrumbs on top, others arrived under the protection of a crispy shield of cheese. In the end, we were almost unanimous in our agreement that Feast's Stefan Bowers had come up with a winner with his smoky, spicy mac and cheese with shishito peppers folded in. The smokiness carried over into the cheese. Not that the others were slouches by any means, but in Bower's version, everything played together to provide that pure comfort that comes from a top-notch macaroni and cheese. And the not-too-hot spice in the dish would have been perfect with the fruity Tortoise Creek Grenache Rosé d'Une Nuit 2011, a French rosé with a very New World label and approach. Hard work, folks. Just be glad there are folks willing to sacrifice time and taste buds for a good cause.
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