At this point in January, there’s not much left to look forward to when it comes to winter weather. We’ve long passed the first snowfall. The holidays came and went. Only weeks of cold weather and snow remain. One small but bright spot of joy is the rich, fatty foods that seem most appropriate for these cold times.
For instance, baked mac ‘n’ cheese. Noodles covered in melted, gooey cheese. Sautéed onions, mushrooms and celery. It’s wonderful on a January evening, and it’s a dish that accommodates more than one hungry mouth. There’s something satisfying about eating something that hot and delicious when the cold is trying to creep in through the windows.
My dad is the person who changed macaroni and cheese into a calorie-loaded cheese heaven for me. I once thought that Kraft’s Blue Box Challenge was the ideal mac ‘n’ cheese. Then, sometime during my high school years, my dad served up a late-night supper with this intense version of it.
The cheese was melted in thick layers of real cheddar and the vegetables were a happy surprise. Like many of the late-night suppers my dad has served up over the years, I left the table with a full, happy stomach.
The trick since entering college has been learning how to make it. Sautéed onions? I figured that out pretty fast. In fact, the majority of evening meals I ate my junior year started with me crying over an onion while I chopped it. Sautéed celery and mushrooms? Neither of those were much of a stretch – once you know how to sauté one vegetable, the rest of them seem pretty manageable.
The cheese, on the other hand, screwed me up for a long time. I couldn’t figure out how my dad melted cheese with such aplomb. I burned it, or didn’t melt it enough. On one especially memorable occasion, I tried to make two mac ‘n’ cheese recipes at once and ended up with a cheese soup that tasted like rubber. Unfortunately, I was cooking for five of my nearest and dearest friends. They all heroically ate it and said they’d seen worse. They were lying, but hungry and kind enough to eat it.
Since then, I’ve more or less figured it out. The cheese has to be melted on the stove prior to adding noodles or any fresh veggies. A little butter on the bottom of the dish keeps things from burning or sticking too much. The heat should be medium low, and the pot should be constantly watched and stirred. After that, it’s easy to add everything else in, maybe with a little bacon sprinkled on top for my meat-eating friends. Now, when I make it, nobody is pretending when they say it’s delicious.
“Papa’’ Baked Mac ‘N’ Cheese
1 pound rotini noodles
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
1 ½ cups chopped mushrooms
½ cup green pepper and/or cauliflower (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoon butter
½ pound good melting cheese, like cheddar
½ cup chopped parsley (optional)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook the noodles according to the package directions.
In the meantime, over medium heat, melt 1 teaspoon of butter in a large pan. Add the minced garlic. Stir occasionally.
Start chopping up all those vegetables. For the optimal flavor and crunch, sauté them one vegetable at a time. If you don’t have the patience, like me, then start with the onions, add the celery as you chop them and finally the mushrooms. Cauliflower and green pepper, if you choose to use them, should be added around the same time as the celery.
Once that is done, you’ll need a casserole dish that is large enough to hold all of the combined ingredients. Put this on the stove and melt the remaining butter. Once the butter is melted, add the cheese. It melts best if you can chop it into smaller chunks. This part needs close monitoring – and stirring! Otherwise, you’ll do what I did and burn all of the cheese.
As soon as the cheese is melted, add the noodles and the vegetables. Stir until the cheese is well mixed with the other ingredients. I like to sprinkle an extra layer of cheddar on top, and if you are a fan of bacon, sprinkle that on top as well.
Bake for about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle parsley on top if you wish, and enjoy with friends.
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