Easiest, Creamiest Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseAs I plopped down on the couch for dinner the other day over a plate of this awesome mac & cheese, I mused that nothing gave me a good ego boost like mastering a bowl of this stuff. On the one hand, I was kidding, but in a way it’s also kind of true. I mean, I’ve had – and made – a lot of mediocre mac & cheese. Sorry, family and friends! So many recipes underestimate the amount of cheese you should use and have you stick to just one kind, while others have you overcook the pasta until all that is left is a very gummy or, still worse, gummy and dry, mess.

While darling Bear claims there’s no such thing as bad mac & cheese, I have to disagree. It’s real and it’s a tragedy. So, let’s start anew with this recipe, which is easy as much as it is tasty. It’s, in my opinion, the easiest, creamiest stovetop version, so whether it suits you just right, or it acts as the base for your spicier, more garlicky, ham and broccoli version, for example, then that’s just fine, too. What matters here is that we’re saving mac & cheese from all the horrible things that have been done to it and making a classic version that is worthy of all the accolades people give it as a dish.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseI use four cheeses for this version. I know you’re saying, “whoa, girl!” but I swear it’s the blending of multiple cheeses that will get you, in part, to where you want to go. Mac and cheese, while a homey dish, doesn’t mean it’s beyond science. What kind of science, you ask? Well, the one that covers how cheeses work together, how they melt or crisp, add creaminess or thicken a sauce while adding a salty bite…and you said you hated science! This recipe relies on a blend of cheeses because we want a mac and cheese that isn’t just one note. You know why so many mac and cheeses are just blah and tasteless even though you’ve added 15lbs of cheese? Because you’re only using one kind and that, combined with a bunch of not-too-flavorful elbow noodles, is not going to bring all the boys to the yard.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseSo, here today we’re going to use the four cheeses of American, asiago, pecorino romano, and cream cheese. Did you see that last one coming? It’s so right for a creamy, smooth sauce. You’ll never make macaroni and cheese again without it! Both the asiago and the pecorino romano add the saltiness you need to bring the cheese sauce together, but also to add some more, much needed flavor to the noodles. All of the cheese melt into the sauce beautifully while also helping to thicken it. The main cheese is regular old American though and sneer all you want, but it melts like a dream and brings a delicious flavor that is familiar. Coupled with onion, hot sauce, yellow mustard, salt, and fresh ground pepper, this mac and cheese is complex in flavor without being difficult to master or snooty. It’s perfect for a weeknight dinner.

Easiest Stovetop Mac and CheeseTo keep it moist and creamy, this stuff never sees the inside of an oven and, really, it needn’t. Yet, how can you have macaroni and cheese without some semblance of a crunchy, buttery crust? You can’t! So, the topping is all done on the stove-top too and, in all honesty, I absolutely prefer it this way, as the panko retains all of its crunch and doesn’t sink into the macaroni like toppings tend to do when you bake it all together. Make way in your recipe boxes for this one, it’s sure to give other versions a real run for their money and, I’m guessing, will outshine most of the competition. Enjoy!

Easy, Stovetop Mac & Cheese
Yields 6 servings

1lb of elbow macaroni
Canola oil
1 small onion, diced
7 Tablespoons of butter, divided
4 Tablespoons of flour
4 cups of milk, divided (3-1/2 for sauce, 1/2 extra to thin, if needed)
Salt & pepper
1-1/2 Tablespoons of garlic powder, divided
12oz of American cheese, cubed
3/4 cup of asiago cheese, grated finely
3/4 cup of pecorino romano cheese, grated finely
4oz of cream cheese, cubed
Hot sauce
2 teaspoons of yellow mustard
1 cup of panko bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons of minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Fill a large stock pot with water and add a few generous pinches of salt. Bring to a boil, add pasta and stir for the first minute so that the pasta does not stick together.

While the pasta is cooking, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan over medium heat and finely dice your onion. When the butter is melted, add the onion and cook for several minutes until the onions start to become translucent – about 5-7 minutes. Once the onion is cooked, add about a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper each and 1 Tablespoon of garlic powder. Add 4 Tablespoons of flour and stir to combine. Allow this mixture (the roux) to cook for 2 minutes or so. Next, turn the heat up to medium high and add the milk. With a whisk, stir the mixture vigorously to break up the roux into the milk and allow it to dissolve. Allow to heat through, stirring it every minute. When the roux has dissolved and the heat rises, the mixture will begin to thicken, when you notice this starting to happen, stand watch and stir frequently so that the mixture does not burn or become too thick. When it reaches milkshake consistency, turn the heat back down to medium and add all of the cheese and stir to combine. Allow all of the cheese to melt slowly, stirring every minute or so to help it become incorporated. Once the cheese has melted entirely into the sauce, add a few dashes of hot sauce to your tastes and the yellow mustard; stir thoroughly. Taste for salt and pepper and add more if necessary. If sauce seems too thick at this point, you can add up to about a 1/2 cup of milk, though I suggest starting with a smaller amount, stirring to combine, and seeing if you need more.

Cook the pasta until al dente (it should still have some bite to it, as it will soften more as it sits in the sauce), then drain it and return it to the pot. If you are still readying the other ingredients, add a small drizzle of canola oil to the pasta, stir, put a lid on it and allow it to sit off the heat while you complete the other elements. If your sauce is ready to go, omit the canola oil step and add the cheese sauce to the pasta and stir thoroughly to combine. Cover with a lid while you prepare the topping; you may choose to keep it over a “warm” level flame if you’d like, though the lid should keep the macaroni and cheese hot since the topping doesn’t take long to put together. Be aware that even over “low” or “warm,” the sauce will continue to thicken, making the pasta drier.

In a frying pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 teaspoon of canola oil over medium heat. Add bread crumbs, some salt and pepper to your tastes, and 1/2 a tablespoon of garlic powder. Stir together and toast the bread crumbs, stirring occasionally, until thoroughly browned, about 5 minutes total. Be sure to keep an eye on them, though, they go from light brown to burnt quickly! When the bread crumbs are toasted, remove from the pan and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. In the meantime, plate your macaroni and cheese either on individual plates or in a larger casserole-type vessel. When the bread crumbs have cooled, add the very finely minced parsley and stir. Top macaroni and cheese with topping and serve. To reheat macaroni and cheese after refrigeration, add it to a heavy-bottom pot with a splash of milk and cover with a lid. Apply medium heat and allow to come up to temperature, stirring every few minutes until the sauce has melted and become creamy again.

Red Beans & Rice

Red Beans & Rice RecipeA girl born and raised in New Jersey has little business chiming in about what makes a great pot of red beans & rice, let alone offer you a recipe. In fact, I can’t say that I’ve even had this dish more than a handful of times and, I’m sorry to say, about one third of those instances were from a fast food chicken joint that was on the way home from work during my days spent living and working in Washington, D.C. When I have had red beans and rice out at a restaurant or, best of all, from a friend’s kitchen, I’ve savored it for its smokey, bold flavors, but also for the comfort and warmth it brings. Red beans and rice just feels homey even when its origins are far from any place I’ve ever held an address.

Before making these, I devoted more research to their recipe than I care to admit. I’ve been pinning and clipping recipes for years, but I’ve also tagged a few cookbooks and scribbled down notes when I’ve seen it on menus, in magazines, or featured on a cooking show. My archive of red beans & rice recipes is impressive, but to be honest, the thought of trying to create a pot myself felt intimidating. For one, I’ve never made dried beans before of any variety, nor have I seen my mother do it – an assurance that always lends me confidence vicariously.

Red Beans & RiceWould I be able to cook them to the correct amount of doneness? Would my beans be bland and like stones or mushy and without texture? I worried about making a big pot only to lose it on the beans and have wasted all of the very precious ingredients they call for. See, even if red beans and rice is a fairly cheap dish to make, the idea of ruining even a $2 ham shank and a piece of smoked sausage is enough to leave me stalled.

I finally turned to my grandmother for council one day recently while on the phone discussing her prior travels through the American South with my grandfather a few years before his death in 1992. She shared some stories I’d never heard before. Charming details about a banana cream pie slice eaten for breakfast in Louisiana and the best peach jam she’d ever had in Tennessee; one she continues to chase in her annual attempt at making homemade preserves each July.

Red Beans & RiceI sprung it on her suddenly: “Did you wind up eating any red beans and rice while you were traveling? I’ve always wanted to make them, but beans! Dried beans! They’re intimidating!” In her usual way, which is all things loving, wily, and derisive simultaneously, she replied, not missing a beat, “Dried beans? You’re worried about dried beans? An idiot could cook dried beans!”

Well, then.

And so it was, one idiot, NJ born and raised, pulled from this recipe and that, with the confidence of at least two generations behind her, and made the tastiest pot of red beans and rice she’s eaten yet. Do not be the girl who stalls on this one; they are too good to put off even one more day.

Red Beans & Rice
Yields 4-6 servings

8oz. of red beans soaked overnight and drained
2 Tablespoons of bacon grease (You can substitute 1 Tablespoon of olive oil + 1 Tablespoon of butter)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb smoked kielbasa, cut into 1/2″ coins
1 smoked ham shank
1 bay leaf
Celery salt & black pepper
Cayenne pepper to taste (I used 1/2 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon of sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of oregano
1 teaspoon of thyme
3-5 dashes of Liquid Smoke (optional)
2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce
4 cups of chicken broth + water to cover
2 scallions, chopped for garnish
Cooked white rice
Hot sauce

The night before, pour the dried beans into a medium bowl and cover with water by an inch or two. Allow to sit for at least 8 hours. The next day, put a large pot. or dutch oven. over medium heat and add the olive oil & butter. Add the onions and peppers and sauté for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. After slicing the kielbasa, add it to the pot and allow to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the kielbasa is cooking, find a bowl or measuring cup that can hold at least 6 cups of liquid. Into it, pour the chicken broth, Worcestershire sauce, and liquid smoke; set aside. Raise the heat slightly under the pot and add the ham shank and sear on both sides for 2 minutes each. Add the bay leaf, oregano, thyme, paprikas, celery salt, and black & cayenne peppers to the meat and vegetable mixture and stir to combine. Once incorporated, pour in the liquids and stir together well, being certain to scrape the bottom of the pot with your spoon to loosen the pieces of meat, vegetables, and spices that have cooked down. If needed, add enough water to cover the shank and then stir in the drained beans.

Allow the mixture to come to a rolling boil and cook for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to simmer, stir thoroughly, cover pot and allow to cook for another 30 minutes. After a half hour has passed, remove the lid and allow to simmer for another hour, stirring it occasionally every 20-30 minutes. Check the doneness of the beans and cook an additional half hour or more depending on your preferred texture. If the mixture seems dry or not loose enough, add water, 1/4 cup at a time and stir to combine. When the beans have reached the desired doneness, remove the ham shank (it may be in a few pieces), and use a potato masher to smoosh (technical term) some of the beans to create a creamy consistency. You can also do this with the back of a spoon on the side of the pot. Allow the shank to cool slightly and then shred the meat. Discard any bones and add the meat back to the pot.

To serve, spoon the bean mixture over a bed of white rice and top with chopped scallions. Add a few dashes of hot sauce if desired.

Italian Wedding Soup

There is something so comforting and yet energizing about Italian Wedding Soup. It’s warm and hearty, but not weighed down with creams and cheeses. Not that there is anything wrong with cream and cheese, of course. This is the kind of food, though, that you feel strengthened by. Dark, leafy spinach – so rich in vitamins – layered throughout clean, flavorful chicken stock. Carrots cut into little jewels, nestled around light, bite-sized pork meatballs. Simple. Bright. Nourishing. Nothing, in fact, like an Italian wedding!* It’s all the things a good end-of-winter soup should be.

I make these little pork meatballs the same way I would meatballs for spaghetti with the exception being that these are made exclusively of ground pork, as opposed to pork and beef, and are studded with fresh tarragon. The latter of which, with parsley too, makes the soup lightly herby in flavor and so aromatic. Usually, I’d suggest cooking the noodles separately and adding them on a bowl-by-bowl basis in order to not have them lose any and all texture as the soup sits, but because I lessen the amount of noodles called for in this recipe and, coupled with the small size of the pasta, this extra step is unnecessary. I promised simple, didn’t I?

*I say this about Italian weddings as a born-and-raised Italian-American femme from New Jersey. My Super Sweet Sixteen happened for all of my cousins out on Long Island and then happened again when they all got married. As a result, you could say I know my way around smoke machines, stretch Humvees, and Venetian tables.

Italian Wedding Soup
Adapted from Ina Garten’s Italian Wedding Soup; Serves 6

For the meatballs
1lb ground pork (feel free to sub ground chicken, turkey, or even beef)
2/3 cup dried Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
3 Tablespoons milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt & pepper

For the soup
2 tablespoons good olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 cup minced yellow onion
1 cup carrots, diced
3/4 cup celery, diced
10 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 cup small pasta such as rings, tubetini or stars
12 ounces baby spinach
Lemon zest for serving, if desired

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

For the meatballs, place the ground pork, bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, tarragon, parmesan, milk, egg, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl and combine gently with your clean hands – this is the best method! Taking a teaspoon of the mixture at a time, form 1 to 1-1/4 inch meatballs and drop onto a sheet pan that has been lined with parchment. You should have about 40 meatballs when you’ve finished. Bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through. If you’d like, you can stop here and finish the soup within 3 days or go on to making it immediately.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large stock pot. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook until they’ve softened, stirring occasionally. After 5 minutes, add the chicken stock and wine, bringing the mixture to a boil. Add the pasta to the simmering broth and cook until the pasta is tender. Add the meatballs to the soup and stir in the spinach, allowing the soup to cook for another 2 minutes, or until the spinach is wilted. Check the taste for salt and pepper.

When soup is finished, ladle into bowls and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, some additional parmesan, and a light sprinkle of lemon zest. Serve with warm, crusty bread, if desired. As with all soups, this is great on day one and amazing a day or two later, reheated.