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Before I cooked professionally, I wondered what make restaurant food taste so much better, aside from the fact that you don’t have to clean anything up.  But my questions were answered the first day I started culinary school; part of our mandatory uniform was tasting spoons!  Professional cooks and chefs make mistakes, just like we do at home, the difference is that they taste almost everything to make sure it is just the way they want it, before it goes to the guest.

Quality control is absolutely essential to good results.  That being said, I’ve noticed over the years that thing in the kitchen that is most commonly checked for quality control is always the bacon.  You never know, it could have become ‘not bacon’ while your back was turned…  So, taste your food as it progresses, see how adding different ingredients and seasonings changes the flavors.  Just remember, if you make something that you’re excited to eat, your friends and family will probably love it too.

One dish that I make regularly, and have changed, tweaked and improved through constant taste testing is home made macaroni and cheese.  If the only macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had is from a cardboard box, you haven’t seen this dish’s true potential.  That’s just like how aliens only seem to abduct people from trailer parks, I’d hate for them to be judging the human race’s potential on that alone.  I highly recommend giving this grown-up version of the childhood favorite a try.

This is a great recipe because of its versatility.  If you know how to make a great Mac’n’cheese base you can customize it, make endless variations, make it a ‘one pot meal’ and easily please any picky eaters you may happen to love.  Also, you can make extra and throw it in the freezer for a day when you just don’t feel like cooking.

First things first, let’s start with a basic Mac’n’cheese foundation.  Hey, it’s great on its own too!

Macaroni and Cheese – with gratin topping

Serves 4 – cost approx $1.06 per serving

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz butter (or bacon grease!!!)
  • 2 oz flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 cups stock
  • Salt and pepper – to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 12 oz shredded cheese – cheddar, fontina, jack, whatever your little heart desires!
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 lb. pasta – a short variety, but what ever you like, bowtie, elbow, shells…

Put on a pot of water to boil, when it’s ready, salt it like the sea and cook your pasta until it is just short of al dente.  Also, preheat the oven to 375 F.

Melt your butter in a large pot over medium heat and allow it to brown a little bit.  Then whisk in your flour and stir for a few minutes.  Now you have rouix!  Next, whisk in your milk and stock and keep mixing so that there are no lumps.  Let the mixture come to a simmer, season with salt and pepper and add the bay leaf.  Now you have a variation of beschamel sauce!  (When I interned in Italy, they made their ‘beschamiela’ with browned butter, a little different from the classic French method.)  After the beschamel has simmered for about 10 minutes, slowly begin incorporating the cheese, but save a small handful for the topping.

Make sure the cheese sauce is delicious and adjust your seasonings if necessary, then add your pasta and mix until the noodles and cheese are all hot and heavy together.  If your pot can’t go in the oven, transfer the mix to something that can.  Mix the bread crumbs and the cheese together and sprinkle over the mac’n’cheese, now pop it in the oven until that the topping gets hot, golden brown and delicious, approx 15 min.

ooey, gooey, cheesy and perfect!

Southwestern Variation

Cost, and additional $.40 per serving

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 jalapenos, small dice
  • 2 small onions, sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 green onions, sliced thinly
  • 2 cups shredded chicken
  • 1 cup frozen peas

Now, here’s where the versatility comes in.  When I made this dish, I had a picky friend joining me so I sauteed the things she didn’t like, the onions, peppers and garlic, in a separate pan.  Mixed the things she did like, the green onions, chicken and peas, into the finished mac’n’cheese base and portioned out her own little casserole dish full.  After separating out the picky eater’s dinner, I added the sauteed veggies into the main pot, topped them both with the bread crumbs and cheese and finished them in the oven.

To make this a ‘one pot meal’ you could very easily saute the veggies in the butter for the ‘base’ recipe, incorporating them into your rouix.  From there it’s smooth sailing, and all you need to do differently is mix in your already cooked items (the chicken, green onions and peas) before you top and bake your masterpiece.

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