Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Side Dish

The rule in our house has been; Don't eat in restaurants food that you can prepare better at home. This rule used to be limited to steak joints, spaghetti mills, and salad bars. Who could have imagined that the rule could be extended to restaurants that serve dry cereal, PB and J, and now the latest in the single dish restaurants, soon to be on a corner near you. They come with names that are a variation of "Mac something", the name for any one of hundreds of new mac and cheese outlets. It would be too easy to ID the latest hot spot in NYC, so for some scope consider CHEESE-OLOGY in St.Lo. This store has franchise potential written all over it. I am sure they serve great mac and cheese, and the variations sound wonderful, but when I'm in St Louis, I'm going to be suckin ribs.

When Carrie and I found that we could read in bed from the light transmitted from our young bodies, alit with the afterglow of Kraft's original mac and cheese (in those days 4 boxes for a buck) we hauled out the Fannie Farmer and have been making variations ever since.

Our mac and cheese is baked, topped with bread crumbs, does not contain an egg, uses up cheese ends, employs meaty sized short cuts of pasta, and the preferred cheese is a yellow cheddar. Within this simple recipe there are some fabulous lessons that can be widely applied. First of all we build our dish on a béchamel, froggy for white sauce. The keys to white sauce are universal principles that can be widely applied: One tablespoon of flour will thicken one cup of liquid. A roux(roo) the combination of fat and flour that is the first step in the creation of the sauce, does not have to be brown to be flavorful. The way to avoid burning a roux is to saute some veggie bits in a pan, say onion, and sprinkle the flour on top, stir for a minute, and then add liquid, The liquid need not be hot, but you do want to whisk until creamy (if using a non-stick pot, use a plastic whisk). Simmer for 5 minutes or so to "cook" the flour. Add a handful of grated cheese, stir again. Add slightly undercooked macaroni, stir and pour out into greased casserole. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, Bake at 400 for 15 minutes or until a peek reveals a bubbly dish you can't wait to eat. The above is devoid of specifics because they are so variable. I start with two TBLs of butter and two TBLs of flour over a 1/4 cup minced onion. You can use olive oil, bacon fat, schmaltz, your lipid of choice. Given I have two TBLs of flour I add two cups of milk. I could use stock, cream, half and half, or heavy cream, or any combination. Keep the proportions constant. Cook at a simmer, stir until thickened. Add 1/2 pound cooked pasta. There are as many variations for toppings or stir throughs as you can imagine. The menus of the restaurants are inspirational and nothing you can't do yourself. Ben's Chili Bowl in DC (Obama's fav) used to have a chili mac/cheese that you could order with extra grease. It is a miracle we are still alive.

There has been a game changer in this house. Thailand companies make fried and dried garlic, shallot, or red onion flakes. They come in 4 oz to 2 pound containers in Asian markets. I buy 8 oz jars for 3 bucks at my local supermarket. This is not garlic powder, nor is it a substitute for fresh . These products have a distinctive flavor that adds depth to many recipes. I sprinkle it on veg, stir it in scrambled eggs, use in salad, each variety has hundreds of uses, and I add it to my mac and cheese.

While we are on the subject of comfort food. The other morning, stirring in bed, anticipating Carrie's awakening, I knew I was in for another bowl of oatmeal. Her instincts were confirmed. Oatmeal has just been voted the healthiest breakfast one could eat. If I smother it in enough syrup, and raisins, and cinnamon, I can manage to get over the gluish feeling I have in my mouth. I was not looking forward to breakfast. And then the epiphany; why not savory?
We have settled on old fashioned rolled oats which we buy in the bulk bins in our local market. Two cups of salted water set to boil. Pour in one cup oats. Reduce heat. Cook for no more then ten minutes. Now Carrie adds milk to get the consistency she wants. It was then I jumped in with a handful of crumbled bacon, a heap of fried/dried shallots, a slather of olive oil, a crack of pepper, and topped it with a soft cooked egg. I look forward to my next bowl and another variation. Mark Bittman likes soy and scallions in his oatmeal.

Side dish:
What the hell does it mean to "win the future". We are so caught up in this competitive madness that we have lost the ability to distinguish between a football game, a foot race, and a national, what? We win the war? Is that what the masters of the universe are prepping us for. US v China in the race to what exactly? What does losing look like, smoldering embers? We breed that mentality in the schools. We grade students. We fail students. We grade them on curves. They are taught to compete. If we truly wanted them to learn we would inculcate them with curriculum until they got it. They would all win. We would have to figure out another way to determine who got into Harvard, and who went to jail. That would piss off aspiring parents who want their kids to win. And what does losing look like? What does it mean to be deemed a failure at 13? No one believes grading is a benign method to determine how they are progressing and not meant to be competitive. Save us all a lot of trouble and just kill the losers off. Or, teachers, and I know you are out there, refuse to grade them. Not by yourself, though that would be wonderful. In the faculty lounge today, agree among yourselves to just stop. That's something you can do. Stop grading kids!


  1. How can you eat all this pasta and cheese and oil and oatmeal-plus-egg without blimping up?

  2. In the case of oatmeal, it is very low on the glycemic index. As re pasta, portion control and willingness to be realistic about body type.