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!”

My Favorite Cooking Tip of the Month

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fan of cooking shows. I got hooked years ago on “Two Fat Ladies”, the BBC cooking show with Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dixon Wright. The show was an amalgamation of travelogue and cooking blog in video form. The pair never really took themselves too seriously. My favorite episode was the time they served the Royal Gurka Rifles, First Battalion, turbot with watercress and pickled walnuts, beef with chestnuts, pears, and almonds, coq au vin, and quail with white wine. It was a true hoot. When the motorcycle driver, Jennifer, toodled down the road with Clarissa in the sidecar, you knew you were going to be treated to a wacky adventure. They didn’t count calories and they weren’t out to cleanse your colon with roughage. They were out for a good time.

I was also a big fan of Gordon Elliot’s “Doorknock Dinners”. Long before he brought us Paula Deen and “The Chew”, he would show up at a house, knock on the door, and offer a professional chef to the homeowner. The only catch? The chef could only use what was in the fridge at that moment in time. It made for some very funny episodes, especially because the families had to eat whatever the chef prepared. You know that bologna in your deli drawer? Imagine it as haute cuisine…. But Gordon wasn’t one to just stand around while the chef got busy. No, he would often press the beleaguered homeowner into a house tour. (If you’re anything like me, you probably want a good fifteen minutes notice before the crowd comes through — time enough to knock the dust bunny off the leg of the chair, scoop up the dryer lint from the laundry room floor, and toss the newspapers into the bin.)

One of my favorite things to do in my Dance with Danger mysteries is to have feisty heroines who love to cook and find men who enjoy it, too. Is there anything sexier than a man who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty in the kitchen? (My latest ebook, Charleston with a Clever Cougar, is available free: I like to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at characters and watch them fight their way out of the mess. Sometimes men and women have a hard time sharing the kitchen. It becomes a struggle for power, often because we think of it as exclusively a woman’s domain. Am I unusual? If I can operate a power sander, shouldn’t men be able to operate a mixer? (If you have any doubts about the ability of hunky men to function in a kitchen, look no further than the Deen boys, Tyler Florence, Ming Tsai, Florian Bellanger, and even Jacques Torres, who is welcome to come over and melt my chocolate any time.)

Lately, as I’ve tried new recipes, I’ve found several that were less than stellar. The cooking times and temperatures were less than accurate, or there was an ingredient missing in terms of taste. Disappointment after disappointment made me cautious. But then one afternoon, I tuned into Mary Ann Esposito on ”Ciao Italia”, the PBS offering. She and Jasper White were cooking up a seafood feast. And that’s where I found the secret to cooking great pasta.

Pasta — who doesn’t love it? Whether your tastes run from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Spaghetti O’s, and Stouffer’s Lasagna to linguini with white clam sauce (I learned to make a killer version that gets rave reviews and takes no time at all),  real macaroni and cheese from scratch, or luscious lasagna with fresh mozzarella (viva la difference!), we love our pasta. It’s the ultimate comfort food, and with a truly good sauce, better than a hug. (I once dated a guy whose grandmother made ravioli from scratch, and he brought me some as a love token — alas, we were not a match, but boy, that was some damn fine ravioli!)

It’s so simple. It’s so smart. It’s even idiot-proof. I find the pasta I cook in the too-small pot boils over, and if there is one thing I hate, it’s gunk in my drip pan. Mary Ann’s solution? Fill a BIG pot with water, bring it to a boil, turn off the burner, toss in the pasta, and set the timer.

Before my mother died, she insisted on buying a big pot with a removable strainer and glass lid. She even paid retail, which was a big deal for someone who got a thrill out of clipping coupons. Every time I use that pot, I think about what a great investment it was. But even more so now, because it is the ultimate pasta pot. Just the right size for this. And that strainer that attaches to the top makes draining the pasta no problem at all. No more pasta landing in the sink. No colander to scrub. One-stop pasta production. Excellent.

As I listened to Mary Anne talking about doing the pasta this way, I was skeptical. After all, that’s too easy. I can boil water. I can turn off the burner. I can stir in pasta. So, why aren’t other chefs teaching this little trick?

I’ve made the pasta this way three times now. I even tried it with noodles. I learned this. You do have to stir it once in a while, so it doesn’t clump together. With a big pot, the water stays hot for a long time, and that’s the secret. Nothing to watch. Nothing to spill over. Your hands are free to fuss with your sauce, your salad, your garlic bread, your table. Fool-proof. Even someone who can’t cook can do it. Boil water. Set the timer. Pour on the sauce. Thanks, Mary Ann Esposito. Sheer genius!