Category Archives: pint-sized diners

mac n’ cheese, please

Macaroni and cheese is a little like chocolate — often it’s ordinary, sometimes it’s sublime, but either way it’s tasty. I will admit that I have been guilty of coming home, tired and hungry, after a long day at work and opening a box of shells and powdered cheese. With enough black pepper, I find this a totally comforting, one bowl dinner. But it always makes me feel sad, because with just a little more energy and not much more time, I could have eaten something wonderful.

Mac n' Cheese

Anne, of course, is a big fan of macaroni and cheese (the woman subsists, essentially, on complex carbohydrates and cheese). So having a recipe for homemade mac n’ cheese that I can put together on a week night with stuff we almost always have on hand is essential to my marriage. I like to bake this version in a low gratin dish because you get a larger surface area for covering with breadcrumbs that get all toasty and crusty when fused with cheese in the oven. The interior, though, is creamy with a significant bite from the cheese. If you enlist a partner to grate the cheese while you boil the pasta and whisk the sauce, you can have the whole thing assembled and in the oven in 25 minutes.

Macaroni & Cheese

½ lb elbows or penne
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the dish
2 tablespoons AP flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground mustard
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon onion powder (I know, I know – so sue me…)
pinch of nutmeg
10 oz. shredded cheese (I use 6 – 8 oz. sharp cheddar and gruyere for the rest)
1 cup Panko bread crumbs

Pre-heat oven to 350º and butter a 2 quart gratin dish. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted, boiling water for about 1 minute less than the package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, in a 2 quart saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until foaming subsides. Dump in flour, all at once, and whisk vigorously until the flour is incorporated but the mixture is still pale gold. Slowly whisk in milk and simmer, stirring frequently, over medium low heat until the sauce is thick, about 15 minutes.*

Cream SauceOnce the sauce is thickened, add salt and pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon kosher salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper) and remaining spices, whisking until thoroughly combined. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the 2/3 of the grated cheese by handfuls, whisking to incorporate after each addition. Taste the sauce at this point to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Pour sauce over the cooked pasta and stir to combine.

Pour half the pasta and cheese sauce mixture into the prepared gratin dish. Sprinkle on half the remaining grated cheese. Add the rest of the pasta mixture and sprinkle with remaining cheese. In a small bowl, melt remaining tablespoon of butter and mix with bread crumbs. Sprinkle buttered bread crumbs on top of macaroni and cheese and bake about 30 minutes until hot and bubbling. If your bread crumbs aren’t brown enough for your liking, put the dish under the broiler for 2 – 3 minutes.

Mac n' Cheese on Plate

Serves 4 for dinner, 6 — 8 as a side dish.

* If you want to speed up the sauce, you can warm the milk in the microwave (or on the stove) before adding it to the roux.

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breakfast for dinner

Maybe my parents were delinquent, but we had pancakes all the time growing up. Sometimes, we even had them for dinner. To Ellis, this was a radical but welcome concept. After two weeks of mediocre reviews (3/4 of a thumbs up; better without the lemon), I decided I needed a sure thing. Dinner tonight received a “gooooood!”

Pancakes

When I moved into my first apartment, I spent a lot of weekends trying to figure out pancakes. They seem so simple, but bad pancakes are really terrible — burnt on the outside, raw on the middle, flavorless, soggy, sodden, spongy. I ate some real losers. The recipe of choice in our house growing up was from the brown, crumbling edition of Fanny Farmer my mother had probably received as a wedding gift. But when I tried it, the pancakes came out flavorless and kind of gooey inside. Gross.

Pancakes on GriddleIf you still haven’t found a reliable pancake recipe to guide you through bleak times (like, a late night at work and a seven-year old coming over for dinner), let me offer this one. It’s from the folks at Cook’s Illustrated, so, of course, it’s slightly fussy (you have to separate an egg, and then say a little spell and add the parts of the egg to the buttermilk and melted butter in a very particular order), but it’s worth it. These come out great every time; crispy on the outside with a light and fluffy interior. And here are two other tips for pancake making. First, use a griddle. You can make almost the whole batch of these at one time on the griddle, the cakes are easier to flip, and it is easier to maintain the heat when you add the batter. Second, fry some bacon first. Bacon fat gives the most deliciously salty, naughty flavor to the crisp edges of the pancake.

Light & Fluffy Pancakes
Adapted from The Best Recipe by the folks at Cook’s Illustrated

1 cup AP flour
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
¼ cup milk, at room temperature
1 large egg, separated and at room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
vegetable oil or bacon fat for greasing the griddle

Pancake MiseWhisk dry ingredients together in medium bowl. Combine buttermilk and milk in a 2-cup measuring cup. Whisk egg white into milk mixture. Stir egg yolk into melted butter then pour butter mixture into milk mixture. Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and whisk lightly and quickly, just until combined.

Heat a griddle over medium-high heat (or, if you’ve been frying up a bunch of bacon on your griddle over low heat, increase your heat to medium-high). Generously grease the griddle with vegetable oil (or bacon fat – yum!). Ladle batter, about ¼ cup at a time, onto griddle. Do not over-crowd the pancakes.

When the first side is brown and little air bubbles have begun to form on the surface (2 –3 minutes), flip pancakes and cook second side (1 –2 minutes longer). Serve immediately with butter, maple syrup or jam.

Serves 2 – 3 pancake lovers.

reinforcements

Our friend Ellis has graciously agreed to have dinner with us once a week to help out with mission eat-down-the-freezer (sub-specialty: meat). Ellis is 7. I’ve known him for over five years and in that time we’ve eaten a lot of meals together. Most of those meals are festive, however, with a prescribed menu. So last night, I quizzed our dinner guest about his likes and dislikes.

Here is some of what I learned: He hates potatoes (who doesn’t like potatoes?). The only time he eats cooked carrots is when they appear in the school lunch. (This shocks me; the chaos of an elementary school cafeteria seems easy cover for ditching your vegetables.) Bacon was once the only breakfast meat he ate, but he recently had sausage at a friend’s house and was quickly won over. Also, Ellis absolutely loves fettucine alfredo, but claims it is rarely served to him. (Remember the days before you had your own kitchen and could reach the stove? Those were hard times, man.)

Stuffed Peppers

Last night we had stuffed peppers and a Caesar salad, which I described as salad with ranch dressing and cheese because Ellis claims he only eats salad with ranch dressing. (He ate the salad. Some day I will tell him the truth — maybe for his bar mitzvah.) I made the peppers because the filling contains three things I know Ellis likes: ground beef, sausage and mozzarella cheese. And, let’s be honest, because I’ve got a problem with freezer capacity, exacerbated since Anne decided to horde half of her birthday turnovers for a rainy day.

It was love at first sight for me and Ellis. After we met, he told his mom he liked my hair. I am unreasonably vain about my hair. To paraphrase Vicki (the crazy, drunk one) from The Real Housewives of Orange County, I pay a lot of money to be blond, not yellow. Ellis is a blond too. We understand each other. He gave the peppers three-quarters of a thumbs-up. I take his honesty as a sign of the strength of our bond.

Stuffed Pepper on PlateI think they’re yummy. The red peppers get all sweet and roasted in the hot oven, and the interior — full of cheese, parsley and tomatoes — is savory, bright and satisfying. And did I mention that there is sausage inside? Plus, you keep them in your freezer, folks, and then just cook up as many as you want whenever you want. So smaht, as they say around here.

Stuffed Peppers
From Cook’s Country (the red-headed step-child of Cook’s Illustrated)

Peppers and Stuffing
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
8 oz. 85% lean ground beef
4 oz. Italian sausage, casings removed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups cooked, long-grain rice
1 can (14 ½ oz) diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup shredded mozzarella
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 medium red bell peppers

Cut the peppers in half through the stem end, but leave the stem intact. Remove seeds and core and set aside. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook onion until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and add the beef and sausage, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon, until meat begins to brown, 6 – 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Place mixture in colander and drain for 1 minute.

In a large bowl, combine meat mixture, rice, tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmesan, parsley, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Refrigerate until well chilled, about half an hour.

Filling Ingredients

Spoon filling evenly into pepper halves. Wrap each pepper in two layers of plastic wrap and one layer of tin foil. Place in zip lock bags and freeze up to two months.

For Serving:
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella

Bamboo Skewering PepperPreheat oven to 450º. Cut as many pieces of foil as peppers you’ll be cooking; the squares of foil should be just large enough to cover the stuffing in the peppers. Spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray (or brush with oil). Unwrap peppers and cover filling with the foil squares. Using a bamboo skewer, poke several holes in the filling.

Place the peppers, foil side down, on a broiler pan. Brush the backs of the peppers with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, until peppers are spotty brown. Remove pan from oven. Flip peppers over and remove foil. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, return to oven and bake 5 minutes more, until cheese is melted.