Monday, 1 August 2011

Summer Mac 'N Cheese: An Ode to Me Ma

It's my Mom's birthday today, so I thought I'd make a classic dish of hers, and then write a bit about just how much I friggin' love her.

So, she's funny. And she laughs A TON. Often, in the summer when the windows are open, driving up to the house you can hear her laugh before you see her. She is empathetic, and compassionate, and generous. I mean generous in an almost criminal way. Do you know people like this? People that will give until they're too tired to stand if it's necessary? That's my Mom.

She's feisty as all get out, but she also has a knack for fighting the right battles, the really righteous battles, the ones that matter. Her whole (groundbreaking) career was predicated on helping women who look after children in their homes, so that they in turn could provide better care for kids. Also, she once boycotted a local dry-cleaner because they charged way more to launder a women's 'blouse' than they did for a men's 'shirt'. She was PISSED. She's never been back.

She is low-maintenance and doesn't get bogged down with all the upkeep-y junk that so many women are so dug into. She's pretty and vivacious and she taught me that having perfect make-up or hair really didn't (or at least shouldn't) make much of a difference.

The food she cooks is simple and delicious. She makes a mean soup and can do fantastic things with dried mushrooms. I have the most wonderful taste memory of a meal she used to cook when we were kids:  baked chicken breast with boiled onions and white rice, all smothered in a most delightful Campbell's mushroom soup sauce. Sure, it was an all-white meal, and sure, there were little to no vitamins and nutrients in it, but I swear, it tasted amazing. Her lobster rolls are also famous throughout Ottawa town. And her yorkshire pudding? Hold the phone.

Everyone should have panko at their house. Not to be bossy, but it's just a better breadcrumb.
This mac and cheese, a classic recipe of my mother's, is a good way to make a dent in an abundant crop of summer tomatoes (which we had, and my parents still have, every year thanks to my also awesome Dad's keen tomato-planting skills). It's a lovely, creamy mish-mash that gets nice and brightened by the addition of all that red summer fruit. It's also great if you have a bunch of cheese ends hanging in your fridge that are too small to have much of an impact all on their lonesome.

Just as an aside, when I called my mother to ask her for the recipe, she laughed like it was the most hilarious thing a person could ever ask her. Once she could get a full sentence out, through the laughing, she told me she 'oh, god, I mix some butter and flour together, and add milk, a fair bit, I guess, and then I add a bunch of whatever cheese I have, and then I boil macaroni, kind of to al dente, but I mean, whatever, and then I add the macaroni to the cheese, layering the whole thing with tomatoes, and then I bake it with some breadcrumbs until it's bubbly and browned'. A joyful, warming, straightforward recipe, just like its creator.
The tomatoes get a bit crinkly and warmed but still keep
their shape and some texture. So damn good.

Macaroni and Cheese with Fresh Tomato

1 big pat of butter
2 tbsp (or so) of white all-purpose flour
2 cups (or so) of milk
2 cups (or so) of cheese, shredded or crumbled accordingly      (I used a pretty dynamite combo of old cheddar, goat cheese, and blue cheese - my Mom says that blue cheese is one you don't want to leave out, and I wholeheartedly agree)
500 grams (or about half a regular-sized bag) of pasta      (so, traditionally one would go with elbow macaroni, but I saw the little baby seashells you see in the photo above and I couldn't resist. The key is to go with a pasta shape that has a few nooks and crannies for the sauce to slide into)
3 large tomatoes, sliced thickly
1/4 cup or so of breadcrumbs    (I always use panko now, which is a traditional Japanese style of breadcrumb - it's a bit less pulverized than typical 'Italian' breadcrumbs, and therefore has a bit more heft, while still being delicate and getting nice and crunchy when given the opportunity to broil)

First things first, put a pot of water, heavily salted, on to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, add in the pasta of your choosing and cook until it's just about done, but not totally done.  It will continue to cook once it gets mixed up in the cheese sauce and goes into the oven. Speaking of ovens, preheat yours to 350 degrees Farenheit.

So, the butter, flour, and milk are all going to get together to make a roux. This is the white, binding sauce that often shows up in mac n' cheese, and some lasagnas. Melt the butter in a big enough pot that will hold the roux, the cheese, and the pasta once it's ready. Once the butter is melted, add in 1 tablespoon of flour, and whisk it in.  Do your best to avoid lumps. And by 'do your best to avoid lumps' I mean, really, you don't want lumps.  Once you've got the first bit of flour incorporated, add in your second tablespoon and keep whisking away.

Serious whisking action.
The photo at right shows some serious whisking action. Once the flour is all incorporated, start by adding in about a cup of milk, and continue whisking. Add milk until you get a consistency that coats the back of a wooden spoon, but is still nice and loose, about 2 cups. Add in all of the cheese, and stir it up well. At this point, you have cheese sauce - which could also be ladled over broccoli or cauliflower, and so on. A multi-purpose recipe! So, drain your pasta, and add the pasta into the pot with the cheese sauce mixing everything up together.

Now, the layering. I used a cast iron pan (which I am obsessed with, they're just so hefty and powerful feeling), and put a layer of the pasta and cheese mix in first, then a layer of sliced tomatoes, then another layer of the rest of the pasta, then the rest of the sliced tomatoes. I had a bit of extra sauce, so I poured some on top (which was not really a show of restraint, but whatevah), and then sprinkled the panko on top of the whole shebang.  I popped it into my handily pre-heated oven for about a half an hour, and then I broiled it for about 5 minutes to brown the top. So, so good. This recipe would serve between 4 to 6 people.

Happy birthday Mom. You are, in my humble opinion, simply the best broad in the whole wide world.

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