Keeping Cozy: Tex-Mex Mac'n'Cheese

In my ongoing quest to a) keep our teeth from chattering in our 66-degree house, b) get something for dinner on the table at a reasonable hour and c) use up whatever leftover bits and bobs are left in the fridge before they spoil, I'll often resort to a casserole or stir-fry that will be quick to prepare and (hopefully) delicious.

And when you're in the middle of a pandemic and can't pop out to the store to pick up some ingredients on the fly to make a special dish, it's especially necessary to be creative with what you've got on hand. Which is where casseroles or stir-fries come in handy, since they cover all the food groups—starch, veg, protein—and are warm, belly-filling and can be zhooshed with spices, herbs and condiments to tickle any palate.

Which brings us back to me standing in front of the fridge with the door open (forgive me, Mom) and rummaging through shelves and bins. A hunk of cheese, half an onion, some poblano peppers that didn't get used for tacos the other night, a half pound of hamburger that was getting to the use-it-or-lose-it stage, plus a half package of cream cheese, some frozen corn, and leftover roasted tomatoes from a soup—another favorite absorber of leftover ingredients.

From scanning the heap on the counter, I could have made my mom's "goulash," basically a hamburger noodle casserole with corn and tomatoes for the base and chile powder for some zing. It would have taken care of most of the pile, but I was in the mood to try a variation on an old fave—which, to be honest, has more than once gotten me in trouble, as in "well, this is interesting but please never make it again" comments from my family.

But, glass of wine in hand, I forged ahead nonetheless and commenced chopping and frying and stirring and finally put it all in the oven. Promising aromas began wafting out, heads (including that of the dog) popped out from around corners with quizzical expressions, and finally the pot was placed front and center on the table, all crispy and golden and smelling amazing.

Moments later, it seemed, it was all gone, down to the last kernel of corn. 

Tex Mex Mac'n'Cheese

For the meat mixture:
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 lb. hamburger, or Tolucan chorizo
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 large or 2 medium poblano peppers, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. frozen or fresh corn kernels
1 tsp. oregano

For the sauce:
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 c. milk
4 c. sharp cheddar cheese, grated*
4 oz. cream cheese
1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce
1 tsp. salt plus more to taste

For the casserole:
1 lb. dried pasta
1 c. whole roasted tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
1/2-1 tsp. chile powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°.

Bring large pot of salted water to a boil.

Place large frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the hamburger and brown, breaking it up into small bits. When it is completely browned, add onions and sauté until tender. Add chopped peppers, corn and garlic and sauté until tender. Stir in oregano and keep warm over low heat.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente.

While pasta cooks, melt butter in medium-sized saucepan. Remove pan from burner and add flour, stirring until the mixture is smooth with no lumps. Place saucepan back on burner and cook on medium heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add milk gradually, stirring/whisking until thickened, then add cheese in handfuls, stirring until melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste. (The sauce should be slightly saltier than you'd normally make it, since when combined with the pasta it will tend to make it taste less salty.)

When pasta is done, drain and put back in pasta pot, add cheese sauce and stir gently to combine. Add meat mixture, drained tomatoes and chile powder and stir. Transfer to baking dish. Bake 30 minutes.

* I like a couple of sharp cheddars made locally, and recommend Face Rock Aged Cheddar and TMK Creamery Cheddar. Also Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar and Organic Valley Grassmilk Cheddar are excellent.

Classic Casseroles: Four Favorites That Bring The Comfort

In stressful times like we're in now, where even the smallest effort can seem strangely exhausting and where fear threatens to become a constant companion, I crave the familiar, whether it's my favorite sweatshirt—because, really, who bothers to get dressed up any more?—or the lovely aroma of good food baking in the oven, with the promise of a delicious meal soon to emerge.

Crab mac'n'cheese.

Anything hot and creamy and filling will do, and for me that often takes the shape of a casserole, that standby of my mother's generation that filled her three kids' bellies for a relative pittance. Classics like macaroni and cheese or tuna casserole would come courtesy of a box or with help from a can—we considered cream of mushroom soup part of the glue that held our world together—and could be put together in a few minutes. Then it was popped into the oven for a half hour or so, enough for her and my father to put their feet up and share a glass of wine.

Eggplant parmesan.

These days I tend to eschew the boxes or cans (so long, Kraft and Campbells!) and make my sauces from scratch, but I still duck into the pantry for staples like pasta or tuna or cornmeal. Knowing what goes into my food rather than trusting a giant corporation to look after my family's health over their bottom line means the preparation might take a few minutes longer, but I still get that blessed half hour while it bubbles away, coming out crisp and creamy and steaming to the table.

Below is my recipe for the creamiest macaroni and cheese I've ever had and a family staple made with cheddar from a local small farm. It's infinitely mutable: I've made versions with bacon and garlic (top photo), salmon and crab, and even a version with pimiento cheese.

Tuna Mushroom Casserole.

You can also check out my version of classic tuna casserole made with foraged mushrooms that works just as well with button mushrooms from the store. Then there's a fabulous eggplant parmesan that is so sumptuous it's perfect as a main dish yet extremely simple to prepare—and vegetarian, even! And another regular from my childhood, a tamale pie that I make from pasture-raised hamburger, corn I froze from the summer and cornmeal ground and grown an hour's drive from the city.

I hope you're staying safe and healthy, and that these recipes bring a measure of comfort to your tables and your lives. Enjoy!

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. dried pasta
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2 c. milk
8-12 oz. aged cheddar cheese, grated*
8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil large pot of salted water. While water is heating, melt butter in medium-sized saucepan. Remove from burner and add flour, stirring to combine. Place saucepan back on burner and cook on low heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add milk gradually, stirring/whisking until thickened, then add cheese in handfuls, stirring until melted. Add cream cheese and stir until sauce is thick and creamy, then add hot sauce with salt and pepper to taste. (The sauce should be slightly saltier than you'd normally make it, since when combined with the pasta it will tend to make it taste less salty.)

Add pasta to boiling water and cook till al dente. Drain and put back in pasta pot, add cheese sauce and stir gently to combine. Transfer to baking dish. Bake in 350 degree oven 30 minutes.

* I like a couple of sharp cheddars made locally, and recommend Face Rock Aged Cheddar and TMK Creamery Cheddar. Also Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar and Organic Valley Grassmilk Cheddar are excellent.