Mac-n-Cheese: It’s Not Just For Kids Anymore
Bachelor Chow Doesn’t Have to be Boring
When I was in grad school, money was tight. Now that the economy is in the toilet, money is tight again. I have many memories of my years as a struggling student, most of them fond. Some of these fond memories have to do with food that I cooked for myself. I had figured out that if I was going to eat well, I was going to have to learn to cook well. My earliest adventures in the kitchen having met with limited success, I had learned to have a backup cupboard full of store-brand mac-n-cheese (you know, the kind in the cardboard box with packet of yellow powder?) for when I burned or otherwise ruined my dinner. Then one day I had a bit of a mishap with the mac-n-cheese, but it turned out for the best. This is the story of that mishap, the happy discovery that resulted, and how this led to further successful experimentation.
Yeah, it's pretty good out of the box, too.
Student Needs Food, Badly
I woke up late on a Saturday morning. My roommates had hosted a party the night before. I’d been at the library, working on a paper, and had been up pretty late already when I came home to laughter, libations, and lots of loud lads. The that morning, I woke up later than I’d planned and ravenously hungry. I grabbed a box from the back-up cupboard and started making a pot of mac-n-cheese. When it came time to mix the cheese sauce, I made a disappointing discovery: there was no milk of any kind in the fridge. How was I to make the cheese sauce? Would I have to settle for butter-noodles? What was I to do? And then my eyes lit upon the one beverage that was pretty much always in the fridge in that apartment: a bottle of lager beer. I don’t remember which brand it was. Actually, yes I do, but here in the USA, one national brand tastes pretty much the same as the others, in spite of what the commercials tell us. Anyway, I thought, “Hey, they make beer-cheese soup, don’t they? I bet this would work.”
So I opened the bottle and poured about a third of it into the pot with the noodles, the butter, and the orangey-yellow powder. The beer foamed alarmingly, but didn’t overflow, and after I stirred it up, it looked exactly the same as when I made it with milk. Only it smelled much more interesting. It tasted good, too—good enough that I started experimenting with other stuff.
Explicit Instructions (for those of you who need them)
1) Fill a medium saucepan with water. Heat on high until boiling.
2) Open the box. Remove the packet of cheese powder. Pour the noodles into the boiling water. Stir.
3) Boil the noodles until they're ready to eat. Test by fishing a noodle out, letting it cool, and eating it.
4) Drain the noodles with a colander or strainer and return them to the pot.
5) Add the butter and the cheese powder, but instead of using milk, substitute beer or white wine. Stir until the cheese sauce is well mixed.
6) Add sauteed mushrooms, onions, and/or garlic (optional).
What About Wine?
The next logical step was to try wine in the mac-n-cheese. Wine goes with cheese, right? The pinot grigio I tried first made for a lighter, crisper flavor with hints of oak and citrus. My second experiment with wine and mac-n-cheese involved a bottle of Piesporter. It lent a sweeter flavor to the dish, with apricot overtones. My confidence growing, I tried using a merlot. Never, never do this. In fact, I’d avoid reds altogether. It tasted okay, but the sauce was a nasty-looking, unappetizing brownish color. Can’t win ‘em all, can you? I imagine the same principle would apply for darker beers like Guinness. If you try this, I’d love to hear from you.
What Else Goes With Cheese?
The Merlot Disaster fresh in my mind, I decided to eschew hard liquor in my experiments. Vodka, I reasoned, had no taste at all, and to use whiskey in such a way would be tantamount to sacrilege. But what about salsa? Hmmm, reddish color, like the wine…could be another disaster. I tried it anyway, and it turned out that the brighter red of the salsa made for a pleasing reddish-orange sauce, and the spice and texture added a new level of complexity. Mustard? I tried a Dijon-style variety. It wasn’t wet enough to make the sauce, so I had to pour in some wine. This turned out to be another success, but barely. By this time, I figured that I’d just about exhausted the non-milk liquids that had any hope of making a meal I’d want to eat.
Everything’s Better With Mushrooms
One night at the grocery store I saw that fresh mushrooms were astonishingly inexpensive. These were just plain, white mushrooms, nothing fancy. I bought a half pound of them along with the rest of the groceries and that night I fried them up with diced onions in olive oil, and dropped them into the mac-n-cheese pot (along with some pinot grigio). Friends, the mushrooms added a meaty texture while the onions’ characteristic flavor blended with those of the wine and the cheese sauce in a delicious way. It was many years before I made mac-n-cheese according to the instructions again.
Will The Kids Eat It?
Now that I have two young boys, one of whom is a fairly finicky eater, I don’t usually put wine or beer in the mac-n-cheese. I have, however, put minced garlic and ground pepper into the pot with the boiling noodles. This adds a savory flavor that’s fairly subtle to the finished product. Either the youngsters don’t notice it or else they like it. As the boys get older, I may introduce them to some of the other variations with more obvious tastes and textures. But if you’re living on your own, you don’t need to worry about who else will eat your cooking, do you? The next time you open up a box of mac-n-cheese, try something crazy. See what you get. And please, by all means, let me know how it goes.
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