Mac 'n' cheese is the holy grail of convenience foods, except that it isn't hard to find and won't extend your life span at all. I guess what I meant to say, then, is that mac 'n' cheese is the 80s synth pop of convenience foods — really easy to make and incredibly fun to consume. No, no, no, I know, it's the Kanye West's mouth of convenience foods: Gold-covered and sloppy.
Similes aside, mac 'n' cheese stands alone in our hearts and on our shelves — a childhood treat that gets made, served and eaten without much tinkering or accompaniment. I don't mean to terrify the Peter Pans in the audience with this one, but sometimes you've got to grow up and add a little something new. You've got to up your mac game.
Thankfully, we here in Minnesota have been experimenting with putting otherwise good noodles in strange places for years (hello hotdish) and perfected a number of ways to impress fellow citizens without spending too much of our cold-earned dough. Heck, we even have a separate function dedicated to this sort of culinary recycling: the potluck.
In the name of food-based gatherings everywhere, the college kitchen chef would invite you to bring three (or more) of your favorite people together and lay down your finest mac game. Who knows, do it right and you might impress just the right person tonight …
A simple and easy pasta salad with a few nice twists. Basic balsamic vinaigrette keeps this one classy
1 box Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese (or Annie's or whoever's you prefer)
1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 large pear sliced thin
1/2 medium cucumber, sliced thin
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Bring water (as per box instructions) to a boil and add pasta. Cook 7-8 minutes or until soft; drain. Add butter, milk and cheese packet; stir together. Put everything in the freezer (if serving soon) or fridge until cool. While cooling, vigorously whisk (forks are fine) vinegar and olive oil until well-mixed (this emulsion of water and oil-based liquids won't last long, so re-mix before serving if necessary). When the pasta is cool, add the pears, cucumbers and vinaigrette, then serve!
Substitute any oil for the butter in the mac 'n' cheese or olive oil in the vinaigrette. Substitute red wine, white wine, champagne or apple cider vinegar for the balsamic. Try different crisp fruits and vegetables (apples and bell peppers are great).
A teaspoon or two of fresh or dried herbs (rosemary, tarragon and basil are all nice) mixed into the vinaigrette, or a spice mixture (chili powder!) of your choice for a little extra flair.
Creamy Mac Hotdish
This is the classic Minnesota dish, creamy and rich with your own fantastically inexpensive white sauce.
1 box mac 'n' cheese
1 1/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
5-6 spears asparagus, roughly chopped
1/4 cup frozen peas
1/3 cup crushed crackers of choice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a few cups of water to a boil; add noodles, and cook 7-8 minutes until done. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt butter. Then add the flour slowly, whisking constantly with a fork to spread out the flour and keep it from clumping. Once all the flour is added keep whisking for 3-4 minutes to cook off any raw flour taste. Next, pour the milk in a little bit at a time, continuously whisking so that the mixture does not clump. The final mixture should be smooth and ivory. Mix the cheese packet in with your new Bechamel sauce (the flour-butter-milk mixture) slowly, avoiding clumps. Turn off the heat. At the same time, boil or steam the asparagus until just tender. Drain the noodles; add into the sauce (with the cooked asparagus and frozen peas), mixing well. Transfer the mixture into a casserole dish, top with crumbled crackers, and bake for 5-30 minutes until heated through. Enjoy!
A lot of different vegetables can be used (ensuring that they are appropriately cooked first, 20 minutes in the oven won't cook anything through), such as kale, potato cubes or celery. You can replace the homemade Bechamel with cream of mushroom soup if time is of the essence, but it will be less tasty and worse for you. Any kind of crackers will do, though Saltines and Triscuits are superb.
Mac 'n' Cheese Pizza
It's not just for drunk nights at Mesa anymore, my friends.
1 box mac 'n' cheese (prepared as in the Mac Salad recipe with 1/4 cup milk and 2 tablespoons butter)
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/4 cup (approximately) water
2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for coating the dough bowl)
2 cloves garlic (diced)
2 tablespoons dried or 1/4 cup fresh basil
10-14 cherry tomatoes, halved
Mix together the flour, salt and yeast in a bowl, then add a cup of water and stir in. Start kneading with your hands, and keep adding water until the dough forms a smooth, round ball. Lightly coat the inside of a bowl with olive oil, then place the dough inside and cover. Leave in a warm place for 1-2 hours until roughly doubled in size. During this time make the mac, and sauté the garlic in olive oil until golden and fragrant. Also preheat your oven to its highest temperature (probably around 500 degrees).
When the dough is done rising lay it onto a lightly-floured work station and roll into a general pizza-esque shape, quite thin. Transfer onto your baking sheet and crimp up the edges to form a crust. Spread the dough with the garlic-olive oil you just made, then layer on the tomatoes, basil and mac. Bake for 12-20 minutes until the crust is golden brown, then cut up and enjoy!
The mac and dough can&undefined;t be messed with, but everything else here can — if you follow one simple rule. Cook everything that needs cooking before it goes on the pizza. Thus, if you want to add mushrooms or onions, you will need to sauté them first. If you want potatoes, fry or bake them, etc. Try any pizza topping you can think of really, from extra mozzarella or parmesan to anchovies. They will all get along quite nicely with the big mac.
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