Mac and Cheese++

The ability to make macaroni and cheese is a basic parental survival skill. The problem is, the boxed Kraft stuff tastes of chemicals. Although the Annie’s and Whole Foods brands are better — without being overly expensive — I’m still turned off by that packaged powdered cheese food stuff. Eventually I realized that since the water-boiling and pasta-cooking steps dominate the time required to cook mac and cheese, making it from scratch is no slower than making it from a box.

The simplest version of the recipe below gives a result that looks about like boxed mac and cheese while tasting far better. If you use high-quality cheeses and throw in onions, peas, white wine, and some ham or bacon, the resulting dish approaches the savory goodness of a simple risotto.

This is one of those recipes where no measuring whatsoever is required. However, I’ll give approximate amounts calibrated to match a half-pound of dry pasta.

  1. Before even thinking about the cheese sauce, get the water heating. Don’t skimp on the amount and make sure not to overcook the pasta.
  2. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of fat or oil over low heat in a small saucepan. I usually use olive oil, butter, or a combination. If Sarah’s not looking I may sneak in some bacon fat.
  3. Add salt and ground pepper.
  4. Optionally: Add a few tablespoons of diced onion and/or garlic.
  5. Optionally: Add a few tablespoons of diced cooked ham or bacon.
  6. Optionally: Add a big handful of frozen peas or shelled edamame.
  7. When the fat is hot and any extras have cooked a bit, add 1.5 teaspoons of all-purpose flour. Mix well. Most white sauce recipes call for more flour than this, but a teaspoon or so is enough to make a smooth cheese sauce.
  8. Next, add some liquid. Milk, water, white wine, or chicken stock will all work. A few tablespoons is enough. Stir well until a nice creamy, bubbling white sauce is formed. It shouldn’t be lumpy.
  9. Next, add at least 1.5 cups of grated cheese. Pretty much anything will work but the better the cheese, the better the final product. This is a good time to clean up those small fragments of cheese that often lurk in the fridge. Cheddar, perhaps mixed with some parmesan, is ideal. When I use gruyère, the kids say the resulting dish is “stinky but good.”
  10. Stir until the cheese melts into the white sauce, making a nice gooey mess. Don’t overheat this, or cook it any longer than it takes to make a smooth cheese sauce.
  11. Fold the cheese sauce into the drained pasta, which ideally became ready just as the cheese sauce did.

Yum! Kids are the excuse for this dish but I’d cook it for myself in a heartbeat.

Epic Win

Today I visited my favorite taco stand in SLC, the one facing State Street in the Sears parking lot close to 800 South. Four excellent carne asada tacos for $3 is hard to beat. After lunch I went to the new Epic Brewery just a few hundred feet away. I didn’t know much about them, but had heard they’re making good beer. Epic’s shtick turns out to be interesting: they brew strong beer (in contrast, most Utah microbrew is 4.0% ABV) and sell it only in 22 oz (~650 ml) bottles. The retail store is minimalist: a fridge full of bottles, a rack of t-shirts,  and a cash register. While reviewing papers tonight I opened an “825 State Stout.” It is good: a little sweet, not overly alcoholic or hoppy, with plenty of toasted malt flavor. Overall above average among stouts I’ve tasted — nice, since Utah stouts tend to be underwhelming.

Short Order Dad

Since having kids I’ve stopped treating cooking as entertainment and started treating it more like a job.  I’m short-order Dad and the goal is to get something edible on the table, rapidly and reliably.  A bit of diversity is important too, since people get tired of things quickly.

Most of the “30-minute” cookbooks suck.  First, they lie. Oh how they lie.  Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way and America’s Test Kitchen 30 Minute Suppers are both perfectly good cookbooks containing many tasty recipes. But you cannot, no matter how hard you try, make most of these recipes in half an hour or less.  Clearly, timed testing by actual end-users is not a criterion for putting a recipe into this kind of book.  The second problem with this category of  cookbook is that they advocate unacceptable shortcuts (the two examples above don’t do this, but many do).  Ketchup is not an ingredient, ever — what’s so hard about that?  Other things that are unacceptable include anything frozen after being fried and anything that resembles cheese, but is not (the kids demand boxed mac and cheese sometimes, so we do make exceptions).

A fantastic example of a short order cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food; I’ve read every page probably twice.  The difference is that instead of relying on extensive ingredient lists and gimmicky shortcuts, his recipes are based on a small number of basic ingredients.  The fact is, you can rapidly make a large number of good things out of onions, canned tomatoes, eggs, butter/oil, cheese, pasta, rice, basic spices, potatoes, and at most a dozen other staples.  Sometimes advance prep work is needed — this does not need to be a big deal.  To make fried rice, you need cold rice from that morning or the night before.  Many recipes benefit from home-made meat stock or tomato sauce; these can be time consuming but are a perfect thing to make on a bad-weather weekend afternoon.  Tabouli tastes much better if made in advance.  A big batch of polenta gives three meals: one hot and two out of cold, sliced polenta.  In fact it is often possible to work ahead with minimal effort by just making large batches of food, when the extras can be refrigerated or frozen.  All of these kinds of advance planning are pretty easy and pay off well.  Then, when things get hectic and planning fails, we order out pizzas or get Thai food, no big deal.  But I prefer eating out to be a fun thing, not a last resort.

One way to make it easy to cook at home is to have single-dish meals.  Life is too short for thinking about salads or other side dishes, although we do have these occasionally.  A bowl of cut-up cherry tomatoes, olive oil, pepper and a bit of cheese is perfect in my opinion.  Appetizers are never necessary.  Dessert can be fruit, a chocolate bar, cookies out of the freezer, or whatever.

So what do we actually eat on a day to day basis?  Here are some of our common fast meals:

  • baked pasta, covered with home-made tomato sauce (either Nigel Slater’s quick recipe, or frozen), maybe some pork sausage, then grated mozzarella and parmesan cheese
  • fried rice
  • rice pilaf
  • sweet potato and black bean burgers
  • salad nicoise
  • frittata or omelet
  • fried pastrami, egg, and cheese sandwiches
  • white chicken chili
  • chicken noodle soup
  • tuna salad or tuna melts
  • Greek salad
  • fried vegetables and pasta, maybe with tomato sauce, topped with cheese
  • pasta salad with steamed peas, grilled chicken, browned onions and garlic, and crumbled bacon
  • sautéed scallops
  • risotto (really very easy, but lots of stirring required)
  • pizza bagels
  • crab cakes
  • hummus
  • salmon cakes
  • grilled Alaskan salmon
  • grilled sausage
  • baked sausage and potatoes
  • pancakes or crepes
  • tacos, burritos, quesadillas
  • stir fry
  • potato pancakes or potato kugel
  • lentils (Jamie Oliver has an awesome recipe)
  • polenta
  • hamburgers

Some of these don’t quite make a meal, so they’re combined with leftovers, a can of sardines, or whatever.

I’m making it sound like I’m the only cook in my house; that isn’t the case at all.  However, I do enjoy it more than Sarah does and she’s happy to do the dishes if I make the food, so that’s what often happens.

To maintain at least a veneer of civility, we have a rule that you do not criticize Dad’s cooking.  It is fine to turn green, choke, gag, leave the table, make funny faces behind my back, or whatever.  But we do not criticize.  This is a helpful guide to behavior for children whose first impulse, on hearing that dinner is anything besides baked ziti, is to scream “but I HATE that!”  Another simple thing that makes cooking work is to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine before even starting to figure out what to make.  This just makes the rest of the process go more smoothly, especially when the little food critics learn what is about to be served.  It also helps to have hungry kids.  When I’m running the show snacking is forbidden under pain of death (or at least serious tickling) starting around 4:30.