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This recipe is one of my favorites to make, because it’s really easy and fast (start to finish, under half an hour, and that includes stirring time) and very easy to modify. You can incorporate a variety of styles, depending on your mood and whom you’re cooking for. Plus, it potentially has something from all of the food groups.

At its base, this recipe has only two ingredients: a box of mac ‘n’ cheese and a jar of tomato sauce. I use Annie's brand mac with white cheddar, because Annie’s is worlds better than Kraft or your grocery store’s Kraft equivalent, and I like the flavor of white cheddar better than yellow in this recipe. It’s one box per person, which will feed a very hungry person and leave some leftovers otherwise. If you’re just cooking for one, and want to ensure leftovers, go with two boxes; I can easily eat a box on my own, but many people will find two-thirds to three-quarters of what it produces is more their style, which is not enough for a full meal on its own.

I say it’s a mac ‘n’ cheese variant, because you start with a box of mac ‘n cheese, but it’s really only based off of that because you get the cheese and noodles pre-measured, which is easy and cheap (and cheese is delicious!). I’ve had great success replacing the boxed mac with “the real stuff” — fancier noodles and a cheese sauce. I had some heavy cream and canned diced tomatoes recently to burn through because I overbought for a vodka cream sauce, and they worked out splendidly as a replacement. Experimentation is the heart of this recipe.

Anyway, I don’t know exact measurements for this next part because I do it by feel, but my experience has been that between one and three cups of chopped vegetables for every box of mac ‘n’ cheese is about the right proportion. Most anything will do — we usually have onions, broccoli, and bell peppers in the fridge, being poor twentysomethings, but use whatever appeals to you. Leafy greens work really well in this recipe: I’ve had a lot of luck with collard greens, mustard greens, and others. And tomatoes, of course, but keep in mind their high water content and adjust how much tomato sauce you use in the end.

Meat can also be delicious in here. I cook mostly vegetarian because of my roommate, but sausage, cubed chicken, ground beef, it’s all good. Don’t go for more than a third or half as much by volume as your veggies or it will overpower them, but it can really round out the flavor and give more protein bulk to the dish. Again, know your proportions — if you have three cups of veggies, a cup of meat, and one box of mac ‘n’ cheese, you may find yourself wanting for noodles. Of course, most people eat too much starch anyway, so this may not be so bad, but go for balance until you know what you’re doing.

Set up a pot of salted water. The amount they recommend on the boxes is out of control — a normal saucepan filled half to three quarters of the way up is well enough. When you see it start to accumulate little bubbles, put another pan on low heat with oil or butter. If you’re spicing this with seeds (I am possibly the world’s biggest fan of cumin) put them in as this heats, so that they will infuse the oil with their delicious flavor. At about the same time, the water should come to a boil and your other pan should be ready for the veggies. Add noodles to the one pan and veggies to the other. Stir the noodles now and again, but just let them boil and start to sample them after five-ish minutes until they’re ready. Don’t bother yourself about them.

Here comes the fun part: spicing the veggies. This is one of the coolest parts of this recipe. Depending on how you feel, you can go all sorts of directions. Keep in mind that unless you’re doing some serious modifications, you’re going to have a tomato cheese sauce going, but anything that tastes good with that will be great. I’ve done French spicing, Italian spicing, Indian spicing, Caribbean spicing, fusions, and others, and it’s all come out deliciously. Garlic is always good. Anything from Scarborough Fair/Canticle also. Cumin I mentioned. Try other things — allspice, lemongrass, black pepper, coriander, pepper flakes, ginger, dill, whatever! Salt is generally unnecessary, since there will be plenty in the cheese sauce, and your salted noodles will carry some of that flavor with them unless you rinse them (and I don’t). Smell the veggies, smell the spices, and follow your nose. Having a theme in mind beforehand is generally a good idea, too.

As the food starts to finish up, get your sauce ready. Mix the cheese packet(s) and sauce together, adding sauce bit by bit and stirring thoroughly so you’re sure it has the consistency you want. You can add spices here too, since you’ll have a good idea of how the veggies will taste, and smelling the cheese sauce will fill in another piece. If you want, crack an egg into the veggies and beat it into them — it’s important to stir quickly or they’ll scramble instead of coating. Of course, this may be what you want. In which case, go for it.

When the noodles are ready, drain them, mix the sauce into the veggies, and add the noodles. If you’re living the heady bachelor life, you can eat straight out of the pan. This won’t impress company, but it saves on cleanup.

Choose your wine to match your spicing, and enjoy!

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