Sunday, May 22, 2011

Praise Cheeses! Post-Rapture Pasta.

The blinders have been lifted from eyes, y'all! I am HEALED! It's a frigging post-Rapture miracle! (Clearly, my atheist views have me Left Behind. Well...yay! More cheese for me.) Anyway...I have forever been...challenged, in the area of making Smack Your Mama Good Mac and Cheese. And I am no more...praise Cheeses!

For literally years I've sought the mac and cheese holy grail, and come up with a myriad of results. Some sort of tasty and serviceable, others frighteningly oily, or oddly gritty, or just...not what I wanted. Because I have a very firm idea of what the perfect mac and cheese is, and it has been eluding me all this time. No matter what types of cheese I tried, fat free or whole fat milk, warmer or cooler cooking temperatures, they all fell flat. In my mind's eye, it was unctuously creamy and thick, an even sauce, noodles with just the right amount of toothesomeness (we're going to go with that being a word, ok?) and of course, a high ratio of crusty topping. Bubbling, golden, dairy-laced heaven.

Cue heavenly chorus, kids, because in March of this year, Bon Appetit's latest issue came in my mailbox. One look at the front cover, and I started to feel illicitly hopeful. For there was a mighty fine looking mac and cheese on the cover, and my faith in my own abilities was flagging. I'm no food porn newbie, though...I'm not easily lured in by just a sexy picture with strings of melted cheese. Well, yes, I am, but whatever. So I scanned the ingredient list, hit the grocery store (what the HELL are Peppadew peppers? Oh well...roasted red peppers would have to do.), and set to.

Now, I'm no novice in making white sauces and baked pastas...I can make a basic bechamel with the best of them. So I was blithely following along with the recipe, and waiting for it to inevitably say..."melt 1/2 cup butter, stir in 1/2 cup flour...add 4 cups milk". And it NEVER SAID THAT. Anywhere. And on closer examination, there was no milk to be found in the whole recipe. WTF? What kind of wonky mac and cheese was this? Sure, it was labelled Pimiento Mac and Cheese, so I expected some tweaks, but no milk? Was this a misprint? Did I need to pen an irate letter? (I come from a long line of irate letter writers...this would not be a problem.) "Bugger it", I thought, and decided to just carry on. Worst case scenario, I could make peanut butter toast.

There was more weirdness yet to come...dumping a bunch of peppers and cheese in a blender? And that was the sauce? Oh well. I bunged the neon orange mess into the oven (that many red peppers yield a shade of orange more commonly found on Sesame Street characters) and waited. And what came out was....heaven. Some magic happened in that blender that yielded the sauce I'd been lusting after all these years. Texture? Spot on. Flavor? Complexity with the peppers, yet familiar and soothing with the cheese. Crunch topping? You bet your butter-rubbed Panko bread crumbs!

And since I'm sure there are others out there who have stared forlornly at a casserole of disappointing mac and cheese, I happily share this discovery, and urge you to make it pronto!

Pimiento Mac and Cheese
(adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2011)


1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 1" chunks
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/2 cup Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
3 tbsp unsalted butter at room temp, divided
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
3/4 cup drained Peppadew peppers in brine (I have no clue what those are...I used most of a jar of roasted red peppers and their brine)
1/4 tsp chile powder
1 1/4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup grated mozzarella
8 ounces medium shell pasta

  • Bring 1/2 cup water, bell pepper, and garlic clove to boil in saucepan. Cover; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until pepper is soft, about 15 minutes.
  • Toast panko in skillet over medium-high heat until golden, stirring often, about 5 minutes.
  • Transfer crumbs to a bowl, and let cool to lukewarm. Rub 1 tbsp butter into crumbs to coat. Mix in 1/4 cup of Parmesan.
  • Transfer bell pepper mixture to blender. Add jarred peppers and 1 tbsp of their brine, 2 tbsp of butter and chile powder. Add cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Blend until sauce is smooth, season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter 8-cup baking dish.
  • Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente (8 minutes or so, depending on size and shape of pasta). Drain.
  • Pour drained pasta into prepared baking dish. Add mozzarella, and pour sauce over whole mess. Stir until well combined. Admire astonishing color.
  • Top with buttered bread crumbs.
  • Bake until pasta is bubbling like a bright orange volcano and the bread crumbs are golden, about 25 minutes.
  • Set it on the counter and let it cool about 15 minutes. (You'll regret skipping this step. Burning all the skin off the roof of your mouth with melted cheese is No Fun.)
Makes 4 generous servings.

I can die happy now. Although since I missed the Rapture, I guess I'll have to stick around a bit longer.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ironing out the details...

So, kids, I've committed to a start date for this little undertaking of mine. I'll be taking the plunge on June 1st, with the idea of keeping ALL of my food intake within the $200 budget that the federal government allots its Food Stamp recipients. I've decided to include any meals out, snacks grabbed on the fly, and generally, any comestible that passes my lips. I will, of course, make use of anything that currently exists on my shelves, in the pantry, or in the abandoned tundra that is my freezer. And no, I will NOT be stockpiling before the start date with freeze dried truffles and extra tins of escargot, just so I don't have to go without. The idea is to be as authentic in the experience as possible, and not create any contrived environment, be it towards greater or less extravagance.

I'm going to be as full disclosure as possible (without veering towards deadening tedium, one hopes) in the incurred expenses and experiences. I intend to share any good tips and recipes that may emerge, and, of course, any disasters and failures.

There are a couple of things that worry me from the outset... I'm vaguely terrified that I'll be stuck eating WAY more legumes than I'd like to (the Bean Soup Nightmare is becoming a new and recurring event). One of the biggest obstacles I face in decent eating now, even prior to this experiment, is time. Or, rather, a total lack thereof. I'm still working two jobs, and most days am at work from 7 am to 9 pm. I do manage to get home briefly for lunch and before heading to my other job at night, but time to prepare meals is in seriously short supply.

I do NOT want this to turn into a Ramen-palooza, or get caught up in cheap, fast prepared foods. Healthy, fresh food is very important to me, and I'm hell bent on keeping that front and center. Beginning next weekend, I'll be starting my summer CSA share, which I'm splitting with a friend. This is my third summer participating in this, and I love it. It allows me to embrace local, fresh produce and to find creative uses for the bales of kale I inevitably end up with. I am going to prorate my expense for the share, and incorporate that into the $200/month as well. As this is also a resource readily available in my community, I want to actively use this resource, and see how well it can merge with the constraints of the budget.

So...with a start date in the not-so distant future, please cross your fingers for me! And feel free to send me suggestions, critiques, questions, and so on. I have no doubt that this project will evolve, and I want input!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Challenge and a Budget...

So, for the past 6 months or so, I've been working in Social Services, and coming face to face with the very personal realities of poverty for a distressingly large portion of my county. I will spare you what are some stark realities for a lot of people, because I assume you'd like to sleep at night without particular images in your brain.

Homelessness is not nearly as uncommon as you might wish to believe. It goes without saying that lack of decent (or any) medical coverage is the norm for the vast majority of individuals. (I fully intend to rant about the insane income limits set for medical coverage at a later date.) Ongoing mental health issues, often coupled with drug use borne out of desperation, lack of options or any other myriad of reasons do NOT make daily living or traditional work structures easy or even achievable for many. These are enormous issues, extremely well addressed in learned articles, thick academic tomes, and accessible reads such as Barbara Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America".

As my academic background is not this area, I'm going to leave the hard research to those equipped to do so, and venture into an area in which I feel I have some personal knowledge. And that area is food. I've long since prided myself on being a frugal shopper and cook, who can turn out a damn good meal on a tight budget. But can I, truly?

According to the national Food Stamp program, the federal government allots an individual $7/day for groceries. And while the program is not intended to be the entire food budget for a family or individual, for many people it is. If it's not on their benefit card, it's not being put in the shopping cart or on the table. There is no extra money beyond what they receive in Food Stamps. And bear in mind that this is food only...paper goods, cleaning products, bath products and so on are not allowable on the Food Stamp program, and yet are most certainly essential needs.

What I'm kicking around as an idea is to see how I can do on the federally mandated food budget for a month or so. I'll allot myself $200/month (the maximum a single individual can receive in Food Stamps) for food, and stick to it. I'm hoping that this will give me a greater understanding of the challenges my clients face in food budgeting, and some of the obstacles to good nutrition that are faced. I by no means have a single illusion that I'll be walking in anyone's shoes but my own for this, and do not want anyone believing that my success or lack thereof means that I underestimate their challenges. I'm coming into this with extraordinary resources that many people do not have. I have a kitchen that is well equipped (if you're homeless and living in a hotel, I quite frankly don't know how you manage), and I've been an attentive cook for a long time. I'm also not trying to feed persnickety children, which, from hearing my friends tell it, adds a whole different layer of difficulty into getting dinner on the table.

I'm still ironing out the details of this, and would welcome input and suggestions that you might have. My only goal here is increased understanding, as my heart is broken almost daily by my clients. The better I understand, the more I can be of assistance. And in the end, shouldn't that be what my job is all about?