28 September 2007

Super-Cheesy Mac & Cheese

Have you got the Blue Box Blues?

I know I do. And I've got them squared.

See, the trouble with out-of-the-box macaroni and cheese is that most of it tastes like something is missing. Even the fairly good, organic, REAL cheese versions. Most notably, these boxed mac & cheeses are lacking in flavor. Well, okay, I suppose they do have one flavor, but I don't think "fake cheese powder" should count.

Still, every few weeks I get that homesick craving for mac & cheese, and something must be done to satisfy it.

I wanted to use real cheese, but that begged the question of means. Microwave or toaster oven? I didn't know. I managed to cook the sausage in the microwave (and it came out quite tasty, too) but melting cheese seemed like a different animal to me. And, well, I'll admit it: I've got a case of what I'll call toaster oven snobbery. It pays off well to reheat such things as French fries, corn bread, pizza, and a plethora of other foods in the toaster oven. Less soggy and less like leftovers. But then, on the other hand, I'm also equally… impatient. So I can't totally bash the microwave, it has its moments of glory.

In the end, I just decided to try both and see what happened.

Baking in the toaster oven (7 minutes at 350 O F) gave okay results. But, surprisingly enough, the microwave actually worked better. The cheese was creamier, having less of a tendency to clump together during mixing. However, if you're looking to impress, the toaster oven version did come to the (coffee) table looking a lot prettier. However, as far as taste and texture, the microwave definitely won.


Microwave Results:

Toaster Oven Results:

Note: This picture may be misleading in the deliciousness factor. That cheese up there that looks nice and gooey and presentable? It's actually hard and tacky. Which is why the microwave wins at life... er, or at melting cheese anyway.

I'd like to give one more note of warning. This recipe is really and truly super cheesy. I made the original with double the amount I've recommended here. Eight ounces doesn't seem like a lot when you're layering it over a whole pot full of noodles. Trust me, it really is. I could barely finish a serving with all that cheese weighing it down. But if you love cheese like it's the new Elvis, please, go ahead and double the amount recommended in the recipe. But don't say I didn't warn you.

If you're still craving that super-cheesy goodness, here's what I've come up with:

Super–Cheesy Mac & Cheese

Things you can pilfer from the dining hall:

1 cup red pepper slices

¼ cup milk

4 Tablespoons butter

Things you will probably have to buy:

1 box macaroni & cheese mix (Toss the powdered cheese. You know you want to.)

4 oz shredded cheddar cheese (You may want to have a of mix white and yellow cheddar, as I have.)

3 stalks green onion

1 package sausage links (use one sausage of approximately 7 ounces in size)

  1. Cook macaroni according to box directions. Add peppers to macaroni with one minute left on the timer.
  2. Slice sausage into rounds. Cook according the packaging microwave directions. Make sure when you buy it that the sausage can be cooked in the microwave.
  3. Drain macaroni. Mix in onions, milk, butter, sausages, and some garlic salt and chili powder. Arrange cheese on top.
  4. Melt the cheese in the microwave on HIGH for 1 minute and 30 seconds.


26 September 2007

Tuna Boats, or something like it

Being a creative cook doesn't always have to mean making up your own recipes. I'm going to share with you one of my favorite re-imagined recipes which I'm going to call "Tuna Boats."

Last year, my parents gave me my favorite cookbook ever, Quick & Easy Healthy Eating. But I'll tell you a secret: I've never made any of the recipes in it. I've come close, to be sure, but to me it's been more of an idea book than a fool-proof plan of what's for dinner.

I have learned pretty quickly that Quick & Easy, in addition to not being quick or easy most of the time, often requires wondrous and mystical ingredients. Like mackerel, which I can only find in the cat food aisle, or several miles away at the seafood market, which is not only out of the way but too expensive on my kind of budget.

So why, then, is Quick & Easy my very favorite cookbook? Because it is chocked full of great ideas. Take today's recipe: the original ("salad with tuna-stuffed bell pepper" by Conrad Gallagher) isn't actually that different at its core from my version, but it did require some extras that I'd rather not fool around with. For instance, it calls for making your own French dressing, which is only good for a week or two, and, I've found, is entirely superfluous to the actual taste of the food.

The original also has capers, whose only purpose seems to be making the tuna taste saltier. I've come to the conclusion that capers are, by and large, included in a dish to make it sound more chef-y. Really, any time you see capers, you could just add more salt and save yourself the trouble of buying a 12 ounce jar ($6) that sits around in your refrigerator so long that it's been to school and back at least three times before you finally pitch it, still half-full.

The original also calls for skinning the peppers. This was less than successful. After 10 minutes in the toaster oven, my peppers were nice and blistery, just as the recipe said. I sealed them in a large mixing bowl under saran wrap, just as the recipe said, and when they were completely cool, I pulled them out, ready to strip those peppers down to their tender, naked selves.

Alas, this did not happen quite so smoothly. Taking the skin off of those peppers was not unlike trying to scrape away layers of enamel from a tooth. I eventually succeeded in squashing my first pepper into a pile of unusable pepper goo and taking about a dime-sized piece of skin off the second before I decided to leave off with the pepper abuse and just leave the skins on. If anyone out there has ever successfully skinned a pepper, and has some tips, let me know.

So those things don't sound like good ideas, or at least they didn't to me. But the heart of the recipe is a good idea, and it's what I made today: yellow bell peppers stuffed with tuna salad. Plain and simple. This dish is supposed to be served cold over salad greens. My version does away with the salad greens, jazzes up the tuna, and calls for cooking the whole thing in the toaster oven, making it more like a tuna melt – except without the cheese or the bread. So really not much like one at all – than a salad.

The moral of the story is that all recipes can be taken as suggestions. Try it once the way that the original chef intended, but if you don't like the way it turns out: don't give up, just get creative!

Tuna Boats

(adapted from a recipe by Conrad Gallagher)

Things you can pilfer from the salad bar:

½ cup red onions

2 dill pickle spears

½ cup celery pieces (or 1-2 stalks of fresh celery)

1 cup tuna (sometimes this is on the salad bar at my school. If unavailable, use 2 cans of drained tuna)

1 – 2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Things you will probably have to buy:

2 stalks green onions

1 yellow bell pepper (yellow peppers are the sweetest of the commonly available peppers; orange bell peppers are a fair substitute)

  1. Preheat your toaster oven to 350 o F.

  2. Chop any "dry" ingredients (i.e. – everything except the tuna and mayo) to uniform size. If you have canned tuna, make sure to drain it thoroughly. Mix the chopped ingredients with the tuna.

  3. Now you can mix in the mayonnaise. If you have added too much mayo, and everything is starting to look like tuna-soup, just add more tuna until it has the consistency you want.

  4. Cut bell pepper in half lengthwise, removing the stem, seeds, and inner membrane. Fill with tuna salad mixture.

  5. Bake the tuna boats at 350 o F for 10-12 minutes, or until the tuna has started to brown at the tips and the food is making a pleasant sizzling sound.


(Carefully. Barbarian drooling of food juices may occur if you attempt to eat this without a knife and fork. In fact, it may happen anyway. This is part of why I call them Tuna Boats. Be prepared. Bring a towel.)

21 September 2007

Couscous on the Loose

Domestic is not a dirty word. Or maybe I just don't want it to be because today I found myself barefoot, in a dress, cooking in the kitchen without a recipe. When I was a freshman, that would have scared me. Too girly, too tame, too stereotyped. Well, so maybe the dress thing and the barefoot thing are a separate issue. But the cooking thing, that, I think, I was just scared of.

Maybe you're like me. Maybe you think that cooking is reserved for someone older, someone domestic (or even just plain someone female), or maybe you just don't think you have the time, or the money, or the skills. I aim to show you that even a college student can learn to cook, and I'm going to start by teaching myself.

Now, you college students. Yes, you. I know that you like prepackaged. I know that you like junk food. I know that you like, let's call it, "thrifty buys" (now, now, it's true, isn't it?). I know this, because I am just like you. Now it's time to take it a step further. Everyone can cook spaghetti. (And ramen, and Mac & cheese, and hamburger helper…) So let's just skip to the next step: real cooking.

Welcome to College Cooking 102. We're going to get beyond the basics (and try our hands at spicing them up, too). I'm going to warn you now, this dish requires a little bit of multitasking. If you are a true beginner, do not attempt this alone. Rope your roommate into helping (or your best friend, or your significant other, or whoever happens to be wandering past your door at the time). The serving size is for two anyway, and you might as well make whoever's freeloading off of you help. This is always extra fun in dorm rooms that would fit whole with room to spare in your closet at home. If you are going to make this by yourself and make leftover (and this makes wonderful leftovers, btw) just make sure to do all the prep work before you start. This means cutting the vegetables, measuring the ingredients, and mixing the spices into the milk.

The great thing about this recipe is that most of these ingredients can be found (and stolen out of) your standard college salad bar. If your college doesn't have a salad bar, then I am very, very sorry for you. What do you do on nights when absolutely nothing is edible and you've already swiped your card? Which, being the nature of a college, once your card has been swiped there is NO TURNING BACK. No, the computers at a college are completely incapable of undoing a swipe or re-crediting a meal account. I hope that I am not the only one to whom this makes NO LOGICAL SENSE. Anyway.

It makes me feel very ninja to sneak things out of the dining hall once I've already eaten. My college has this other utterly moronic rule of not being allowed to take out any food once you've already begun with the intention of eating in. So say, for instance, the jock next to you suddenly starts puking up his Coke, pizza, fries, and hamburger, and you find this incredibly unappetizing and wish, on second thought, to take your meal with you while you try to get back something resembling an appetite… the dining hall would rather you put your whole tray of steaming, lovely food in the trash than take it home with you to eat later. Apparently this rule is enforced to keep people from eating a whole meal and then also taking out a whole meal. But under its tyranny, all suffer.

Moving back on topic. Which is that sneaking food out of the dining hall has become the game that everyone loves to play. I heard of a girl who once snuck out grapefruits in her pants. Others I know have carried out paper coffee cups of milk, in multiples of six. But the reason why you should be interested in everything I've just said is that with a little planning, and a little cunning, you can use your dining hall's salad bar like a grocery store. In fact, almost everything can be "bought" at this particular grocery store if you remember to bring you backpack (or your pants with super-large pockets).

I've made a note of that below, so don't be intimidated by the long list of ingredients. The spices you will have to buy, and the couscous. But spices are awesomeness and couscous is relatively easy to make and goes with lots of foods, so these are good purchases even for the thriftiest breed of college student.

Couscous on the

Things you can pilfer from the salad bar:

1 red bell pepper (or one cup red bell pepper slices)

1 cup milk

1 cup button mushrooms

½ cup shredded mild white cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon butter (in a pinch. But you should probably buy your own if you plan on cooking in the future)

Things you will probably need to buy:

5 stalks green onion

1 sm yellow onion (although, if you want to substitute this for onions, they could be found on the salad bar, too. In which case you'd need about ¾ - 1 cup)

1 cup couscous (in my dish, I used tri-colored couscous, but any kind will do)

2 cloves garlic

¼ teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons curry powder (the milder yellow Indian curry powder. Not the red madras stuff, which is like the super-spice of all super-spicy spices.)

¼ teaspoon salt

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Slice the yellow onion and simmer in oil over medium heat.
  2. While the onion is starting, cut up the mushrooms, red pepper, and green onion. When the yellow onion is starting to go limp, add the mushrooms.

    If you want to save yourself trouble, go ahead and do all these preparation steps ahead of time. The reason why I have them separated here is to give you something to do while the onion takes its good old time getting done.

  3. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk. Mix in the butter, salt, curry powder, and chili powder. Bring to a boil.
  4. When the mushrooms begin to change color from white to a light brown (1-2 minutes, depending on the size of your pan and the amount of heat), add the red pepper.
  5. When the water boils, mix in the couscous, cover and remove from heat. Let this sit for five minutes.

    At this point you may be freaking out about the multi-tasking thing. Don't be, it's really going to be okay. You can now ignore the couscous until the timer goes off. In fact, please ignore it; opening the lid at this point may alter its consistency. More on that later.

  6. When the red pepper starts to look limp, add in the green onion and pressed garlic. Stir and cook for an additional minute, then remove the vegetables from heat.
  7. After the couscous has cooled for five minutes, fluff with a fork.

    Do not be fooled! When the couscous is ready to be fluffed it is usually the consistency of polenta made with superglue. Well, at least it feels that way. This is the fun part. A.k.a. the part you fob off onto your helper. Helper (or cook) roll up your sleeves and use those biceps!

  8. Arrange on plate and sprinkle cheese on top. To melt the cheese: microwave for 30-40 seconds.