Children do not appreciate health food. Much as mom tried to turn us onto raw cashews, carob chips and Fig Newtons, it never really took. Well-meaning snacks of unsulphured apricots and whole wheat crackers went untouched while we searched for hidden stashes of Thin Mints and dried beef. A good day was scoring packet of powdered Kool Aid or Tang at the back of the pantry, turning our sticky fingers all the colors of the rainbow.
But best of all were mac ‘n cheese nights when, exhausted, she’d dish up bowls of Kraft Dinner and Lil’ Smokies while we watched the Muppet Show. I’m sure she felt a bit defeated about the whole thing. We thought we’d hit the the culinary big time.
And while just about every cupboard has a blue box or two hidden inside — and every kid waits for its debut patiently — .99 cent pasta with bright orange powder and skim milk have almost nothing to do with real macaroni and cheese.
The real stuff is bubbly, cheesy, buttery and crispy around the edges. Sure, it takes more than eight minutes to make, but the reward is so much greater, especially in tough times. Married with leftover tidbits from the fridge — bacon, ham, herbs, hunks of cheese, last night’s chicken or pretty much anything else you can rustle up — it’s a true one dish dinner on a budget. Or decadently flavored with aged cheddars, lobster and Italian pasta should circumstances warrant.
Most imporant, however, is the cheese. Skimp all you want on the pasta (and by the way, it’s way more fun to stray a little and use something other than elbow macaroni), but spend an extra buck or two on an sharp aged white cheddar, a little Gruyere and some real parmesan. Yellow cheddar tends to get a little grainy and processed cheese is, well, it just ain’t right.
After sampling some killer macs at local restaurants, I cobbled together this yummy bacon, artichoke heart and chicken version inspired by their recipes.
Experiment a little with your own mix of add-ins, depending on what you’ve got laying around. Macaroni and cheese is a forgiving friend, eager to befriend and beguile you regardless of your fiscal situation.
And though you may stray from time to time back to that familiar box (and who can blame you), once you’ve scraped the last crunchy bits of cheese out of a pan of homemade macaroni and cheese there’s no real going back. It’s a taste of childhood. But, in my case, even better.
In these scary economic times, more and more restaurants are making mac ‘n cheese a menu staple. Here are some local favorites:
– Uni (sea urchin) macaroni and cheese: Willi’s Seafood, 403 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. The Starks also serve up a simpler version using goat cheese at Monti’s, 714 Village Ct., Montgomery Village, Santa Rosa.
– Artichoke, goat cheese orichette with lavender: Zazu, 3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa. Chef Duskie Estes is such a mac pro that she was recently featured on the Food Network serving up her own brand of this comfort classic.
– Baked macaroni with bacon and chicken: Stout Brothers, 527 Fourth St., Santa Rosa.
– You’ll also find great macaroni and cheese at Underwood Bar and Bistro (913 Graton Road, Graton), Bruno’s on Fourth (1226 Fourth St., Santa Rosa) and Bluegrass BBQ (14301 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen).
Bacon, Artichoke Heart and Chicken Macaroni
1 boneless chicken breast
3 cups grated aged white cheddar cheese (reserve one cup)
1/2 cup grated Gruyere
1/2 cup grated parmesan
4-5 strips of bacon
4-5 artichoke hearts
1 cup breadcrumbs
3 Tbs butter
2 Tbs flour
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
1/4 tsp dry mustard
Dash Cayenne pepper
12 oz. macaroni, penne or other pasta
Boil pasta to al dente. Drain. Set aside.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Cook bacon, set aside, keeping grease. Put boneless chicken breast in the bacon pan, along with the artichoke hearts on medium high heat. Cook the chicken and artichokes several minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Set aside. In the same pan, melt one Tbs. butter, add breadcrumbs and cook until toasted. Set aside.
For the sauce, make a simple bechemel by melting 2 Tbs. butter in a saucepan. Add flour and stir constantly for about 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Don’t burn, but allow the flour taste to cook out. Add the cream. Stir until thickened, then add milk and keep stirring. Turn heat to medium-low and add cheese, continue to stir until melted. Add mustard, Cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. It should be a bit strong. Turn off heat. Add the pasta into the pot and stir gently until mixed.
Butter a casserole dish, then add pasta and cheese mixture. Top with remaining cheese (add more if you need to) and breadcrumbs. Cook for about 1/2 hour until crisp and bubbly.