My Version of Comfort Food — Quick Macaroni and Cheese Feeds the Soul

What is it about macaroni and cheese that makes us so happy? It’s the ultimate comfort food that we all seem to love, but why? Is it all that flavor and soft, gooey goodness? Is it that it’s easy on the eye, the simplest of foods, or that it satisfies us in a way that no other meal does?

I’ve found that serving it at a holiday meal generates all kinds of positive comments. It’s always the first dish to get gobbled up. After years of having this one not eat ham and that one not eat lamb, it’s become the go-to dish for the whole family. It doesn’t matter what I serve any more, because all folks really care about is the macaroni and cheese.

But it’s also often a dish that fussy, fidgety eaters will indulge in even as they reject that shrimp dish I slaved over in the hot kitchen. It entices us, beckons us, seduces us. It is a sensual food, tongue-pleasing and self-indulgent. Macaroni and cheese offers no resistance to our teeth. It doesn’t fight back or leave us struggling to chew. It goes down smooth. It slides into our tummies like a big, warm, fuzzy hug.

The reason I love it most? I can make it in my sleep. I’ve got it down to a science of sorts. I picked up a few tricks on cooking shows. Bobby Flay taught me to heat my milk for my Béchamel sauce. Mary Ann Esposito taught me to boil my pasta water, take it off the heat, and stir in the macaroni — no need to worry about boil-overs, because the pasta cooks on its own. I don’t even bother with following a recipe anymore. I just throw everything together.

So, what do I do with the time I don’t waste fussing on dinner? I work longer. On nice days, I get outside, whether it’s a walk around the block or a hike up a mountain. This weekend, I made my mac and cheese before I took the little pocket pooch for his second official hike. Adopted last year, Dino had little experience for long walks, so I had to condition him. We started last year with twenty-minute walks in the woods, so he could work his way up to the real deal.

I’ve worked over the last few months to get him used to hopping over logs, tree roots, and the like, even as I increased the length of our walks. My last pocket pooch was a natural in the woods. She adored scrambling up the mountain. A nervous, high-strung little Yorkie, Sweetie had a tough time in the real world, but felt right at home in the middle of the woods. People used to marvel at the fact that she made it to the summit on her own power.

Will Dino be as agile and adept? It’s hard to say at this point. He’s certainly off to a good start. We hiked the base of the mountain for about an hour, and he thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. On the way home, he napped in his car seat. I was only sorry that I don’t know the doggie equivalent of mac and cheese, because I would have whipped him up a dish of it.

Here’s my recipe for 4 servings:

8 ounces of your favorite pasta (I like macaroni or ziti, to absorb all that lovely cheese sauce) cooked al dente

1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 flour
2 cups hot milk
8 ounces shredded cheddar
1/4 cup good grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
pinch of nutmeg
1 teaspoon Adobo seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder

Nuke the two cups of milk in the microwave while you cook the butter/margarine and flour over medium heat, stirring often, for about 3 minutes. Pour in the hot milk and whisk to break up any clumps. When the sauce is thick and smooth, add the cheddar, Parmesan, mustard, nutmeg, Adobo, garlic powder, and onion powder, stirring until the cheeses are melted. Pour over the cooked macaroni.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If you like a crumb topping, melt 1/4 cup of butter or margarine in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds, and stir in about one cup of seasoned bread crumbs. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until heated through. If you’re in a rush, you can nuke it for 5-6 minutes, and then finish baking it in the oven for 15-20 minutes. As Julia Child would say, “Bon appétit!”

Before the Next Hurricane, Can Someone Invent….

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, leaving people frazzled, frantic, and frustrated. This is the third time in a year and a half that we have lost power for several days. After Sandy hit and the power went out, we sat across from our neighbors for four long days and nights, feeling cheated. Their power never even went off. It was the haves v. the have-nots. That made me think of things I want someone to invent before the Next Big Storm of the Century.

(Note to the power company — next time, take down the rotted tree that took down the power line on our street BEFORE it does the damage. You save everyone time and money by being truly pro-active. You also protect your representative when he’s stuck doing wire-guard duty — there were some really p’o-ed customers reading him the Riot Act.)

We’ve been through a tough time. Nerves are frayed. It will take a while for us to get back on our feet. We’ve lost time from work. We’ve lost money. We’ve lost food (don’t get me started on all the food that went into the trash because the freezer was too long without power, despite my best efforts ahead of time to stuff it with containers of ice.)

Before you go telling me that a generator would be a great idea, let me point out the drawbacks. They are expensive — in some cases, thousands of dollars. And they can be dangerous. People were killed in Hurricane Sandy because their generators weren’t properly vented outdoors — carbon monoxide poisoning. Unless your generator is hooked up to natural gas or propane, you have to constantly refuel it. Hard to do without gas stations operational. Ask the folks in New Jersey and New York waiting in line for hours. HOURS.

You know all those public service messages you get from your local government, telling you who to call for what during a Big Storm? Can’t make those calls without phone service. Cell phones are great until the storm knocks out the towers. Then they are useless. Good thing we kept our land line. Of course, we lost that, too. In an emergency, there is no 911. What do we do if we run into trouble? Hang a flag outside the house and hope someone sees it and rushes to the rescue?

What do I want for the next storm? I want a battery-operated crock pot. Does that sound strange? It would be the ultimate comfort to the storm-weary. How hard can it be to make this? Crock pots don’t use much electricity to begin with, so couldn’t someone make a battery pack for mine? Instead of plugging my ceramic cooker into the wall, let me plug it into an adapter of sorts. I want to smell my food cooking all through the long miserable days. I want to feel like I can toss some beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and God knows what else…(Spam?) and feel like I’ve still got some kind of power over the environment. Cold canned chili doesn’t do it for me. Library paste would be tastier than that cold glop.

If I had a battery-operated crock pot, I could make soup, even from one of those packaged soup mixes. I wouldn’t mind adding a can or two of chicken if I had nothing else to work with — beggars without power cannot be choosers.

(If you think about it, there are other applications for the battery-operated crock pot. How about camping? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to make some real baked beans in the middle of the woods? Rootin’ tootin’ good. Of course, you might have to share with the bears….)

Maybe what someone should invent is a battery-operated “hot cup”. Let me warm up a can of soup in a mug without running out of battery power. Let me boil a cup of water for that tea. I need to feel human again. I need to get beyond feeling like a victim of the Big Storm.

If only the Food Network would get involved. This is the perfect show for Gordon Elliot to take on. Challenge people to come up with food that can be made during power outages. Help us to know that we can still eat well as we suffer nature’s blows. Stimulate our brains and help us to be creative for the next time we are stuck without food, gas, power, or entertainment for several days. Let’s go beyond peanut butter and jelly. What do we do when all the restaurants are closed, the refrigerator’s konked out, and we’re desperate for something tasty. Maybe this is a job for Bobby Flay. Let’s see you throw this challenge down, Grill Boy! Working only with canned goods, come up with a meal that people actually want to eat.

Wouldn’t it be nice if HGTV got into the act and had a new series before the Next Big Storm? They could call it “Storm House”. They could call it “Survival Crashers”. Hell, they can call it whatever they want. Just help us. Showcase the gadgets and geegads we can buy ahead of the Big Rush to be prepared for a major power loss. Are there features we can build into our homes that have us prepared for major emergencies? What solar products work, besides the typical lanterns and radios? Give us some ideas. Overwhelm us with razzle dazzle. These same products would also work with remote camps, boats, and other living spaces. If you must, take the show to Alaska or Timbuktu, but help us survive this high tech debacle with low tech products.

How about a battery-operated night light? It doesn’t have to light up New York City. Throw an LED bulb in there. How much power does that draw? Wouldn’t it be nice to have on hand for those middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom? Just having that constant warm little glow illuminating the dark would be reassuring, especially if you don’t want to trip over the dog or cat. Add a motion sensor and it’s even better.

How about a little light to read by, something that doesn’t die out just when I get to the good part of a story? After so many nights of sitting in the dark, I want to know that I can be amused without breaking the bank. The radio was great. It was a lifeline to the outside world. But I want more. I want to have fun during the long, boring hours. The trouble is that when a power outage lasts more than a day or two, the stores are still closed, and you’re running out of batteries, you have to ration your supplies. Light my world during a power outage with products I can use in meaningful ways.

Even the regular media could participate in this project. It’s just a mattering of hunkering down and getting to the bottom of storm survival. Entertain us with ideas and help us retain our sense of humor. Educate us on simple, inexpensive ways we can get through these kinds of emergencies. Help us to not waste our resources. Help us to function in homes that are without power for several days at a time. What do we need to know in an ice storm, a hurricane, a tornado, or a flood?

Why not interview people who have real insight into storm survival? What do scientists do in the Antarctic when their generators crap out and the next flight isn’t until six months down the road? What do Inuit people do in the middle of all that ice and snow, when the nights are forever and the seals and walruses start to look pretty? What do people who have to survive on a deserted island do when they are stuck? Take us out of our modern bubble and show us how we can go on without all our tools, machines, and electrical outlets. Remind us that we can get through this without losing our minds.