When You’re Here, You’re Family. 20% Gratuity Optional. An Olive Garden Adventure.

“When you’re here, you’re family.” So goes the popular refrain to lure us into the red-sauce joint known all across America as The Olive Garden. When it’s wintry and cold, my desire for pasta, butter, and cheese skyrockets. This recipe delivers all three in record time, and you can eat it in your PJ’s. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to the Garden, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back once I cobbled together two Fettuccine Alfredo recipes and finally achieved pasta perfection. The late 70’s Metropolitan Museum of Art cookbook had one such recipe, claimed to be from an observer who watched Alfredo himself in Rome. The key was to do as Alfredo did: “turn the heat off when you add the cheese.” Duly noted. And Chuck Williams, the late departed founder of Williams-Sonoma, suggested steeping sliced garlic and butter in the cream. Game-changer. And now that the Olive Garden sells their signature dressing and croutons in stores, it’s a small matter to make your own Olive Garden-inspired house salad if you want an “authentic” experience! And, you won’t be a supporting a corporate-owned business that destroys creativity and ingenuity. More on that next.

I always wondered why one of our department’s favorite professors at university always mentioned the Olive Garden in snide side remarks. This went on for three classes over a several-year timespan. The Olive Garden seemed to be his ideal example of banal comestibles and ho-hum middle-class fantasies. “When you and your date are at the Olive Garden…” or “So you can get a good job and bring your girlfriend to the Olive Garden,” to “You know you’ve made it when you are eating at the Olive Garden and you can have all-you-can-eat breadsticks!” These comments, delivered in a Gallic accent at the crescendo of a humorous tale, would inevitably cause titters of laughter amongst us students. I assumed because of his French background it followed that his gastronomic sensibilities were offended by the ubiquitous Italian –American chain restaurant.

It was only until my final semester and class with Professor X that I learned the secret of his disdain for the Olive Garden. He shared that many moons ago he had been a salad prep chef at The Olive Garden. The rules were rigid and specific for the number of olives, tomato slices, peperoncino peppers, croutons, etc. that would go into each salad prepared assembly-line style. The order in which these items were added was precise and from a manual, enforced by a draconian manager. Imagine the inventiveness of this salad chef when he decided to create a splash guard of a to-go box top between the critical assembly line items of croutons and dressing. The dressing, applied from a ladle, would invariably splash on the croutons, making them un-crispy and unappetizing as salad prep continued through the evening. His supervisor immediately noted the deviation from the official Olive Garden rulebook, and a confrontation ensued, ending with our protagonist telling his boss in no uncertain terms, “Take this job and shove it!” It was a memorable story, accompanied by the message that the more education and degrees we got, the less bullsh*t we would have to take from our workplaces. For anyone who has toiled in customer service jobs where you feel more like a robot/slave than a human being, the words were welcome succor. And so in closing, I raise my glass to the spirit and substance of the “Olive Garden Story.” Make this at home and perform your own quiet act of revolution. Breadstick recipe not included.

Fettuccine Alfredo

 1 pkg. dried fettuccine pasta (try to find a brand made in Italy)

1 ½ cups heavy cream, approx.

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into cubes

¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated(non-negotiable)

two cloves of garlic, sliced thin

freshly ground black pepper

Bring water to boil to cook pasta. Begin to steep garlic in cream and butter, keep at a very low simmer to infuse flavor and reduce/thicken cream and butter mixture.

Cook pasta, drain. Do not rinse with water. Remove softened garlic with a slotted spoon. Raise heat to medium. Add about half of pasta to cream/butter mixture, using tongs to toss and allow warm past to absorb hot cream sauce. May add additional pasta, but do not be concerned if mixture is loose. Add generous grind of black pepper. No need for salt since the cheese is very salty. The cheese (added next) will thicken sauce up naturally. TURN OFF HEAT (to keep cheese from becoming grainy) and toss, toss, toss until cheese, pasta, and sauce become one. Transfer to platter or individual bowls with your tongs, sprinkle with chopped Italian parsley, and serve immediately.

Salad Ingredients (In the style of the Olive Garden)

One head iceberg lettuce, washed and torn

One head butter lettuce, washed and torn

Grated carrot

Purple cabbage, shredded

Peperoncino

Sliced vine-ripened tomatoes

Whole Ripe California Olives (you can pick how many!)

Croutons

Italian vinaigrette-style dressing

Chinese Chicken Salad aka Cheaters Baby Shower Chinese Chicken Salad

The first time I had Chinese Chicken Salad at a restaurant, I decided it was my favorite thing ever. Moist and succulent chicken, crisp romaine lettuce, shredded cabbage, carrots, and cilantro topped with crispy wonton strips and a sesame dressing. It’s a creation more Chinese-California, but it hit all the right notes. However, making it at home ran into a few issues- why was my chicken flavorless and dry, and the dressing was so tricky?

 

Enter the baby shower. We’ve all been to them. Cheese and wine, gifts, cupcakes, with tears and laughter. They are events that tend to bring out epic weirdness in women, because unless you’ve been smoking something, this isn’t a sisterhood, it’s a competition. The thought bubbles ran like this… (I don’t have a baby, I’m never going to have a baby, why did I tie my tubes, I’ll never get married, why doesn’t my boyfriend ask me to marry him, I’ll be 70 and living with a cat). I was plotting my escape from the drama when a delicious salad appeared.

 

My attendance was worth the first unctuous bite. Crispy, crunchy, and refreshing. Filling but not heavy. Savory but not spicy. I got a few secrets from the salad-maker, waited ‘til the presents were opened, and made my escape. Since then it’s become a standard in my repertoire. It relies on a couple of genius store-bought ingredients and fresh veggies. The lettuce can be prepped and veggies shredded in advance, and the chicken can marinate for a couple of days. Then, when you get home from a long day, it’s not a terrible amount of work to cook the chicken and wonton strips and assemble your salad.

 

Salad:

I large head of romaine lettuce or 3 romaine hearts, washed and dried

purple cabbage, shredded

carrots, shredded

chopped cilantro (may omit)

 

Chicken:

2 Chicken Breasts

(marinated for up to 2 days in refrigerator with Soy Vay toasted sesame dressing and sauce)

Pat marinated chicken breasts dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper and rub with olive oil. Place in a hot cast-iron grill pan and sear both sides, creating hatch marks and lowering heat to finish cooking.

 

Wonton Strips:

1/2 package of Naysoya wonton wraps, cut into strips

Vegetable oil

 

Heat 1 ½ inches of vegetable oil in saucepan for frying. Add one strip to ensure oil is hot enough, it should sizzle and rise to the top. Fry strips in small batches and remove with a spider (wire sieve) to a paper-towel lined plate to absorb any oil.

 

Assembly:

Slice warm chicken breast and top in individual bowls filled with chopped romaine lettuce. Sprinkle with carrots, cabbage, cilantro, and fried wonton strips. Top with sesame dressing to taste. Enjoy!

Phillipps Bakery: Cookie Memories, Part I

Every time we would visit Sacramento during my childhood we would visit Muzio Bakery for the best Italian bread, and Philipps Bakery on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento for the best baked goods. Walking into the small bakery in a brick storefront was exciting and a little scary. You knew that between you and the baked goods were angry bakery staff (women) who seemed to resent all baked goods, but especially you, the customer, as they placed your selected sweets in pink cardboard bakery boxes. My Dad was the master at selecting the best, and he always got four varieties of cookies: sugar, vanilla and chocolate piped cookies, and spice cookies. The bakery never had any names listed for the items and you ordered by weight.

 

I was probably 18 before I had the courage to place my own order. It was greeted with a growl, a grimace, and a heave of disgust. This was the price you had to pay for some of the best cookies you would ever have in your life, the bakery version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.

 

On our subsequent trips to the neighborhood, the bakery changed formats: Its name changed to New Philipps Bakery, and less items were for sale. It finally closed down and reopened, rumored to be taken over by the granddaughter-in-law of the original owners, as a newer Philipps Bakery, which seemed to only make fancy wedding cakes. It closed its doors over a decade ago, and it became a paint store. Now it might be a yoga studio or a cutesy bistro. The cookies are alas, gone forever.

 

But not quite. Like all great taste memories, a dedicated baker can search for clues, templates, and hints and cobble together a facsimile of a favorite recipe. That was my motivation for recreating the spice cookies and the sugar cookies from Phillips Bakery. I’m still working on the chocolate and vanilla cookies. To wit, recipe #1 (Hermits) was formed from three recipes, practice, errors, and finally, success. It took more years than I would like to admit, but the spicy, crunchy, chewy cookie is now back, although Phillips bakery is long gone.

 

Recipe: Hermits in the style of Philipps Bakery

Hermits are an old New England name and recipe for  crunchy spice cookies made for sailors on long voyages. The spices kept the cookie preserved, and the dry texture encouraged a long storage life in a dark chest, hence the name hermits.  This is my version, a little chewy, a little crunchy, and chock-full of nuts, spices, and luscious dried fruit We’ve never had them last long enough to find out if they keep well for a fortnight, let alone a trip around the world on a clipper ship. This makes a double batch so you can share with family, neighbors, and friends.

 

4 c all purpose flour

1 tsp. soda

½ tsp. salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp cloves

2 C dark brown sugar

2 eggs

2 sticks butter

2/3 cup molasses

2 tsp. lemon zest

2 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup dark raisins

½ cup golden raisins

1 cup dried fruit bits

(Note: Sun-Maid sells this, a combination of finely diced raisins, apricots, dried apples, peaches, and cranberries. It’s rather irreplaceable in this recipe and hard to find in stores now so I order it directly from Sun-Maid’s website).

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup chopped walnuts

 

Whisk flour with salt, spices, and leavening. Cream butter for two minutes, add sugar and mix until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add molasses, zest, and vanilla. Add flour mixture to butter mixture gradually, blend in dried fruit and nuts until all is well mixed.

 

On two greased cookie sheets, divide dough into two long strips, evening out and patting down with hands dipped in ice water (dough is sticky). Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Let cool five minutes, divide into slices, using a bench scraper to divide dough width-wise into 2 ½ inch slices. Separate slightly. Return to oven, lowered to 250 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool five minutes. When cookies are still warm blend together confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and half and half to make a glaze, just thick enough to be stirred with a whisk. Use a pastry brush to brush on warm cookies. The cornstarch in confectioner’s sugar will be activated by the warm cookies and provide a shiny, tasty, and simple glaze reminiscent of that on store-bought iced oatmeal cookies.

 

 

 

 

 

White Bean Soup, 2.0

White Bean Soup, My Version

I crave soup when it’s cold out. The body and spirit cries out for nourishment and warmth and this soup always delivers, my grown-up version of Campbell’s Bean With Bacon soup. That soup was my hands-down favorite as a child, probably a takeoff of the famous Senate Bean Soup, with its navy beans, onions, and ham hocks. I created this to capture that taste memory but enhanced with extra goodness. Enjoy this convenient version with fresh veggies, prepared chicken stock, and both ham and bacon in a tomato base. The best thing is you start with canned beans, making prep simple.

 

Recipe:

 

3 cans (10 ounces each) white beans, drained

½ cup diced smoked ham

4 strips bacon, diced

1 large white onion, diced

2 tbsp. olive oil

6 stalks celery, diced

6 small carrots, diced

1 can (11 ounces) diced plum tomatoes in puree

1 carton chicken stock, or 2-3 cups

¼ tsp red pepper flakes

½ tsp kosher salt

½ tsp. pepper

garlic salt to taste

2 bay leaves

 

In large Dutch oven, sauté bacon in oil, when lightly crisp, add onion. Add diced celery and carrots, continue to cook until tender and fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, broth, ham, and seasonings. Cover, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, stir occasionally and keep at simmer for 1 ½- 2 hours. Remove bay leaves and serve with assorted crackers, bread, and cheese.

 

Of Chicken Pot Pies…and Piecrust

IMG_2763Do you remember the sublime delight of your own individual pot pie in the aluminum foil pie tin from the grocery store freezer and baked in your oven at home? I certainly do, but the anticipation of my very own pot pie for dinner diminished rapidly after the first few bites. Where was the chicken? The crust wasn’t too flaky, either. And finding peas was like searching for gold. Lots of work and not much payoff. Kiss those kiddie potpies goodbye with this luscious redux, so simple that’s it’s hardly a recipe and more like a template for a luscious crusty dinner. You’ll learn a few piecrust tips, too. And don’t tell anyone the secret ingredient, which I painfully realized was essential to the unctuousness of this dish when I insisted on a handmade broth and cream sauce which fell flat.

To start:

2 poached chicken breasts, chopped in largish chunks, or rotisserie chicken breasts, chopped

Butter and oil (2-3 tbsp. total)

6 stalks of celery, one small onion, 6 carrots

salt and pepper

2 tbsp flour

1/2 can cream of chicken soup

1-2 cups chicken broth

1 baked or boiled potato, cut in dice

1/2 cup frozen peas

finely chopped fresh parsley

Finely dice onion, chop celery and carrots into smallish pieces. Saute vegetables for 10 minutes in butter and oil. When vegetables are partially cooked, stir in flour for 1-2 minutes to heat mixture. Stir in cream of chicken soup. Stir to heat. Add chicken broth gradually, beginning with one cup and adding more if needed for a medium-thin saucy consistency.  Heat to bubbling; allow to simmer for 10 minutes;check for seasonings. Stir in peas and chopped potato. Right before taking off heat, stir in reserved chicken.

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You have your fabulous filling. Now for the piecrust. There are lots of ways to handle crust- but the best way in my opinion, is to make crust in the food processor! I’ve made tart crusts, pate brisee, and American piecrust in the food processor and I get more compliments when I use this French invention than when I slave and sweat with manual labor. Piecrust is something you have to put in your hours to gain some competence: you will create inedible pasty crusts, shattering crusts, and impossible to cut crusts. People will try to eat your pie crusts and they will not be able to, and you will bow your head in shame. You will screw up, and then one day you will have sublime flakiness that shatters in your mouth and you will never look back or buy a refrigerated piecrust, an abhorrence to all that is decent in the world. It’s worth the pain for the payoff. My other secret: Everything must be COLD! ice water, butter, etc. And my best secret: piecrust mix in the refrigerator. All I need to add is ice water.

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Piecrust Mix:

6 cups bread flour

2 heaping tsp salt

1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup shortening

Mix salt and flour in food processor. Add butter and shortening, cut into pebbly chunks in flour mixture with food processor blade in pulses. Don’t over -mix.  Put dry mix in refrigerator in tightly covered container.

When it’s time to make pie crust, pour some of your mix in a bowl, sprinkle with ice water, and form into a ball. Working quickly, roll into rounds. fold over, cut steam vents, and drape over filling.

Bake pie (large) for 40-45 minutes in 400 degree oven.

Individual potpies are lovely and bake in 25 minutes. Prepare to be transported to the childhood potpie you dreamed of but never had, now a reality!

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Skillet Cornbread

Returning to a home without a single piece of bread, a loaf, or a baguette is a sad state of affairs. The freezer was empty of frozen bread, so I set to work. It was time for cornbread. I had always secretly adored Jiffy corn muffins growing up, the sweet yellow crunchy bread absorbing butter like a sponge. Halfway between a dessert and a bread…just my thing! I have made many variations of cornbread since those early years, but I had always had a hankering for a good old-fashioned Southern skillet cornbread. It’s not too sweet, but it’s flavorful and crusty. It is best the first day, but refrigerated can last a little longer. I customized such a recipe from several existing ones, and pull out my trusty metal skillet, a $5 estate sale find that can go from stovetop to oven. Bread is ready in under 30 minutes from your oven- fresh, hot, and ready for some unsalted butter. Tastes great with stewed beans, zucchini, etc. cooked Southern-style with some good bacon or country ham.

IMG_2146Simply drizzle in a little vegetable oil in the pan, and add several tablespoons of butter. Heat in a 425 degree oven and watch carefully so as not to burn the butter.

Have your dry and wet ingredients ready:

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 egg

1 1/4 cup milk

Mix dry and wet ingredients together. Pour into metal skillet with melted butter/oil mixture. Pour a bt of butter that rises on the sides on the top of bread. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and tester inserted in center comes out clean. Enjoy!

The finished product!

The finished product!

Waffle Weekends

The stack is getting started...

The stack is getting started…

My Dad has never been someone who enjoys making meals. He claims he always had a dream of being a short-order chef, to the extent that he has memorized some diner slang (“Adam and eve on a raft- float ‘em”). Granted, Dad’s scrambled eggs and omelets are delish. He says if he was on his own, he would live on sandwiches. I don’t doubt it. When my Mom worked weekend shifts at a hospital, he would make my sister and I the same dinner every night- burnt hamburgers. He would get distracted as we watched The Six Million Dollar Man on TV, and invariably the house would get filled with smoke as the burgers burned.

Yet, my Dad had a specialty in the kitchen growing up- waffles. I’m not sure how the tradition started, but I recall in the mid-80’s our kitchen on Saturday mornings filled with the irresistible scent of waffles and maple syrup. Dad’s waffles didn’t come from a box; he made them from scratch and cooked each one to order. He used a recipe called “Oh Boy” Waffles from a stained 30-year old cookbook. As the waffles rose in the iron, he would admonish the waffles: “Rise you sucker, rise!” Needless to say, we were a happy family on waffle weekends with the delicious treats and commentary. Dad always had his with peanut butter and jam, which I tried to like (but didn’t). I stuck with butter and syrup, and branched out to fruit and ice cream.

When I started to make my own waffles years later, I found out that “Oh Boy” Waffles don’t turn out as well as they once did. The waffles stuck to my waffle iron. Other recipes were auditioned, but my favorite is the basic waffle recipe that came with my $20 waffle maker. No need for fancy waffle makers- Belgian waffles are usually steamy and floppy, so a basic nonstick model that allows steam to escape does the trick. The only waffle rule I stick to is, never make a soggy waffle. Crisp is best, and any extras can be frozen or refrigerated and heated up in a toaster or waffle iron. I can never enjoy a waffle in a restaurant; they are never crisp enough. So, the only solution is to have a waffle weekend, which I did today. No one said, “rise you sucker rise,” but the waffles were delicious, and a special treat after a long week. Dad would approve. If we had waffle weekends across America, I’m convinced our happiness scale would go off the charts.

Basic Waffles

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tbsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

1 tbsp. baking powder

1 ¾ cups milk

6 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 large eggs

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Beat eggs in small bowl; add oil and milk. Combine wet and dry ingredients and stir with a spatula. Finish with a whisk. Let batter rest five minutes before using. Follow directions for waffle maker. Spray iron with nonstick spray when ready light indicates; put small amount of batter on iron for a “test” waffle. Proceed with remaining batter. Makes about eight waffles.

Waffles, ice cream, and strawberries

Waffles, ice cream, and strawberries

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Chicken Enchiladas: Green Chile Style

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Living for a few years in the South-westish, if there is such a place, marked me for life as a fan of a certain style of Southwest- style Mexican food. There were two restaurants in my teen years that served white enchiladas, made with a spicy green chile sauce that I swooned over. Served with homemade corn tortillas on the side (more carbs, please!) I was inspired when a local natural foods store began carrying additive and preservative-free corn tortillas to make my own enchiladas. Another breakthrough was Lauren Groveman’s versatile recipe for fajita seasoning, which I use for chili and enchiladas in addition to enchiladas.

I still have my Tucumcari, New Mexico Rattlers t-shirt (best high school mascot, ever!) even though I just passed through. Though I now live in the land of sushi, grass fed beef, and green smoothies, there are certain times when my spirit cries out for the kind of Mexican food you can’t buy out West.

Hence, I’ve had to be creative and assemble my own facsimiles of southwest Mexican-American comfort food. This dish can be assembled quickly as a casserole, using less tortillas, and everything can be assembled without a huge effort if you have chicken breasts already poached. I always poach extra if I’m making chicken salad because they do come in handy. My version of green chile enchiladas follows:

2 poached chicken breasts, reserving broth

1 package corn tortillas (Whole Foods sells additive-free fresh tortillas)

1 small onion, diced small

1 clove garlic, minced

1-2 small cans diced green chiles (available mild to spicy depending on preference)

2-3 tsp. fajita seasoning (recipe to follow)

Cheese Sauce:

3 tbsp. flour

2 tbsp. butter

1 cup cream

1 cup chicken broth

salt and pepper

1 ½ cups grated Monterey jack cheese

½ tsp. fajita seasoning

¼ cup sour cream

Sauté onion until soft over medium heat. Add garlic, stir briefly, add green chiles. Add 2-3 tsp. of fajita seasoning and let spice blend saute with vegetables for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Prepare cheese sauce as for a standard white sauce, adding cheese at end. Reserve ½ of sauce. To remaining sauce, add sour cream off heat.

Add sautéed vegetables to reserved sauce (the batch without sour cream). Fold in diced chicken. Either fill tortillas with chicken mixture and roll or layer with tortillas in casserole. Top with cheese sauce and sprinkle with a little Monterey jack cheese and cilantro, chopped. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. “Lord, this is good,” you’ll find yourself saying, sneaking a few spoonfuls before dinner. You’ll thank he beautiful diversity of America- the cultures, places, and ingredients that inspire regional cuisine.

Fajita Seasoning: (recipe by Lauren Groveman)

  • 3 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 3 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 3 tablespoons black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons aromatic dried oregano, crumbled
  • 3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

To Sweden With Love

photo-3 We had bought some store-bought cookies. Their cloying, artificial taste got me off my butt and facing the stand mixer with the triumvirate of cookie bliss: Butter, Flour, Sugar. I also decided to crack open the new Spritz Cookie Press I had bought at a warehouse store a few weeks ago. I had tried automatic cookie presses, Swedish cookie presses, but sadly, none could compare to my Mom’s cookie press which was purloined by a grinch who “borrowed” it one Christmas. After ignoring the directions that came with my new cookie press, I was off and running with a stainless-steel ratchet style tool that could double as a Krav Maga weapon! The only Spritz cookie recipe I found was in my Mom’s hand. She had telephoned a Minnesota woman she babysat for years ago for her recipe but she had apparently found it flawed: it was crossed out with the words. “NO, NO, NO…this is BAD.” Fortunately, the manual I had ignored boasted a single recipe. It was supposed to be mixed by hand. Not likely in my world.

CLASSIC SPRITZ COOKIE

2 sticks unsalted butter (1 cup)

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

2 cups all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

1 tsp each vanilla and almond extracts

colored sprinkles

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy; add egg and beat well. Add flour, salt, and extracts, mixing briefly. Follow directions (as if!) for cookie press, and bake for 10-12 minutes at 350. Decorate with sprinkles immediately after removing from oven. In a matter of under 30 minutes, a heavenly aroma emanated from the oven, and we had a crisp, not-to-sweet, Swedish classic cookie. The new cookie press sliced my hand like a knife when I washed it. I guess that’s why they said to put it in the dishwasher. But, as my mechanic says, “You’ve gotta suffer, man.” It was definitely worth it for this cookie that is both rich and austere, a tribute to cold nights and Swedish ingenuity.

Are You There, God? It’s Macaroni and Cheese

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After a month of green smoothies, protein shakes, and fruit and yogurt smoothies, my spirit cried out for a meal. I wanted eggs and toast for breakfast, and mac and cheese for dinner. I finally realized there is a reason why we have breakfast, lunch, and dinner…we’re supposed to eat three times a day. I’m enjoying the re-set, back to eating food after a scary month of dental procedures that reminded me of the joys of eating, and chewing food. If I am brutally honest, I was also using my dental procedures as a way to see if I could lose a few pounds. Multitasking is my specialty. My autobiography, to paraphrase Judy Blume, should be titled, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Geneva, and I Need To Lose At Least Fifteen Pounds.” I have been blessed with many things, but a fast metabolism is not one. But, since I need to live long enough to outlive and outperform my enemies, eating well is a must.

My love for macaroni and cheese  began with the little individual portions served from steam trays at cafeterias. Yep, growing up in the Midwest and South, cafeterias were the perfect place to have lunch or dinner on a budget. No tipping, lots of choices, and generally everyone could get at least an approximation of what they wanted. I always got macaroni and cheese, glorious in its elbow-macaroni cheesy goodness. Sometimes the top was crusty with breadcrumb topping, sometimes cheesy, sometimes grainy and sometimes smooth. The little bowl was mine and mine alone, but there were no leftovers. Where to get more mac?

My first forays into macaroni and cheese cookery began with the ubiquitous Kraft mac and cheese in the blue box. The orange powder was more like a science experiment than dinner. When I began coking in earnest, mac and cheese was one of the first dishes I attempted. The building block of homemade mac is a white sauce. Thus, I became white sauce’s bitch, pathetically attempting mastery of this devilish process called roux. Lumpy sauces, burnt sauces, and thin not-sauces, thick sauces like glue. I did them all. Finally, something clicked after my numerous mistakes (including the time my grandmother seamlessly demonstrated how to make a white sauce and laughed at my disaster on the stove). Like everything in life, it’s trial and error. And errors are how we learn. The key for white sauce is threefold: 1)stir the roux for two minutes to avoid a raw undercooked taste. Equal parts butter and flour. 3) add your liquid in gradually, stirring to prevent lumps 3) You can always make a sauce thinner,  but you can’t make it thicker.

Next was the cheese. American- Yuck. Velveeta. Yuck. Cheddar, yes, but it usually wasn’t sharp enough, and it was too yellow. Mozzarella: stringy. Colby: weird. Italian Cheeses: no. not for this. Blue Cheese? God, no. Believe me, I’ve tried them all. I finally came across a perfect three-cheese combo last year: Aged White Cheddar, Muenster, and Monterey Jack. Now for the pasta. Elbow macaroni is best. Don’t get weird on me with other shapes. I’ve done it, and rigatoni or farfalle and cheese sauce don’t work together. Get a good Italian pasta and cook it firm, not soft. Toppings? A must. I’m a fan of the crunchy film on mac and cheese.

Macaroni and Cheese

1 box elbow macaroni, cooked

White Sauce:

1/4 cup flour

4 tbsp unsalted butter

2 cups milk

salt and pepper

squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Lawry’s garlic salt (thank you for this tip, Patti LaBelle!)

cayenne pepper (a smidge)

Melt butter over medium heat. Blend in flour with a whisk, cooking for 1-2 minutes to make a roux. Add about 3/4 c of milk slowly, stirring all the while. Wait ’til this becomes lump-free with your constant whisk work, and add remaining milk and seasonings. Stir over medium heat until thickens. You’ll get bored, but that’s normal. Your sauce should be medium: not thick and not thin. The cheese will transform its texture and firm it up, so err on a looser sauce initially.

Add cheese: 2 parts grated white cheddar, 1 part grated muenster  and monterey jack. Something like 2-3 cups depending on how cheesy you like your mac. Reserve a little for your topping. Add more milk if it seems too thick. Taste for seasoning. Blandness is a no-no. Envelop macaroni and cheese sauce together. Stir. Pour into a buttered casserole dish and top with buttered browned breadcrumbs and cheese. (For the breadcrumbs, toast crumbs in a little skillet with a dab of butter. Stir until you are bored and they get toasty and yummy). Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes or until bubbling and topping is golden brown. And oh yes, enjoy. We enjoyed it so much we forgot to take a picture, but I’ll work on that shortly.

Sometimes dreams can come true. Mac and cheese, on demand, from your own oven. And I’ll take comfort in Michael Pollan’s words, that if you cook your own food from scratch, you can enjoy the pleasures of eating it without a smidge of guilt, and, in fact, with gratitude and thankfulness. Eating, and nourishment, of body and soul is a gift.