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Monday, March 7, 2011

Grandma's Macaroni and Cheese

Long ago and far away, there lived a working mother who wanted to serve her children well-balanced meals, on a tight food budget and an even tighter schedule. Over the years, she developed a lot of ideas and techniques that helped her kids learn to really like vegetables, to come to expect more meatless days than not, and to understand why their Mom's shopping list never included soda. (That is not to say they didn't use some of their first paper route earnings to go out and splurge on a few Big Gulps!) Much of what I learned in those early years is what I hope is helping anyone reading this blog now and again.

Early on, I learned that the "best" nutrients in carrots were generally more available to the human body when the carrots were cooked. I didn't stop serving carrot sticks, but I did begin adding cooked carrots as a side dish to many meals. This, however, was not a very popular option. Plain old steamed carrots just weren't anybody's favorite vegetable. But then I served them one day with some creamy macaroni and cheese, and the kids ate them up, sloshed as they were with the cheesy sauce. To be sure that the ratio of carrots to cheese and macaroni was what I wanted it to be, the next time I served mac and cheese, I cooked the carrots and stirred them into the pasta dish before serving. A quizzical look here and there, but soon that became "the way" we had this dish.

Fast forward a few years. My oldest grandson was still in his toddler years when I visited their home in another state. Looking for a quick meal before going off to some fun family thing, I offered to make mac and cheese. There was elbow macaroni on the shelf and some Velveeta in the refrigerator (the very quickest way to make this dish, even if it is not the foody purist's preference), but not a carrot to be found. The good news was that a bag of frozen peas lurked in the back of the freezer, so we were set. I put water on to boil for the pasta, found some nonfat dry milk powder to up the calcium content a bit, and in a few minutes the main dish was done. A couple of tomatoes were sliced to add color and variation to each plate and a well-balanced meal was ready.

As basic as that "recipe" was, it soon became known as "Grandma's Macaroni and Cheese" and was an asked-for dish each time I visited. I still find it a great go-to meal if one or more of the kids happen to be here for a last-minute lunch. A "recipe" follows.

Grandma's Macaroni and Cheese

2 c elbow macaroni--or any other fun shape of similar sized pasta you might have around (colored rotini is a special favorite)
2 to 3 oz Velveeta, sliced or cut into cubes
1/4 c nonfat dried milk (optional)
12 ounces frozen peas (broccoli, cooked carrots, mixed vegetables, etc., may be substituted), unthawed
freshly ground pepper to taste

Cook the macaroni as directed on the package until just done. Drain, leaving a tablespoon or so of the water in the pan. Stir in the Velveeta and dried milk into the pasta in the pan, mixing until well-blended and smooth. Turn burner to low, add the frozen vegetables and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, just until the vegetables are fully heated.

Alternatively, the drained pasta, cheese, dried milk, and frozen vegetables can be turned into a microwave safe bowl and put in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes until the vegetables are hot.

This also works for leftover vegetables of any kind. Just stir them in as with frozen vegetables, shortening the heating time accordingly.

(Pasta purists may want to stop reading now, but, if your family is like ours, you might want to serve this with ketchup and/or salsa.)

Another Cookbook--with a sample recipe

Those who know me are aware that I find most recipes pretty confining and use them more as guides or idea starters than as an ironclad chart to be followed. In fact, this blog has been a real challenge, since I now very carefully weigh or measure far more than I ever have in the past, to be sure that what I post can be pretty easily replicated by anyone interested in trying one of these dishes.

Because of this approach to cooking and because I rely more and more on internet searches to come up with inspirations for whatever happens to be in my cupboards at the moment, I have been gradually whittling down my cookbook collection. I even went through the mass of clippings and handwritten recipes I had gathered over the years and have one--admittedly pretty fat--file folder of ideas to try, recipes too good to quite give up.

Last week at the library, however, I checked out Color Me Vegan, an attractive book from the new acquisitions display and discovered quickly that this one was definitely a wise addition to my library. It should be arriving from Amazon any day now, but I still have the library copy to use until then.

Why am I so excited about this new book by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau? After all, I will never be a vegan, and even my most vegetarian dishes sometimes end up with a little chicken broth or a bit of leftover ham. And I am very unlikely to go out and buy "vegan butter" to try a recipe--mine will very definitely include the real thing, or oil (something that the author rather strangely, to me at least, seems averse to using).

But here are some things I do like about the book: the emphasis on color and making food look appealing, the ideas on ways to serve less familiar things like quinoa and unusually colored vegetables, and even the unexpected entries like Kale Chips. Further, even though the ingredients lists include lots of almond and soy milk, the aforementioned vegan butter, etc., the author does not go off on the kind of "health nut" rant many of these cookbooks turn into, and her discussions of various nutrients are well-reasoned and supported by conventional medical and nutritional sources. Finally, for a book so well-illustrated and nicely done graphically, the price is very reasonable.

I have already tried several of the recipes (with my usual variations of course!) and may be using some of them as inspiration in the weeks ahead for other entries here. For now, here is a Cajun seasoning mix I found that took a few minutes to put together but that has already proven a wonderful addition to some chicken poached in a slow cooker and added to the Black Beans and Vegetable recipe posted a little earlier today.

Color Me Vegan Cajun/Creole Seasoning Mix

2 T cayenne pepper
2 T paprika
1 1/2 T onion powder
2 T freshly ground black pepper
1 T garlic powder
2 t dried basil
1 t chili powder
1/4 t thyme (I used about twice this amount)
1/4 t ground mustard
1/8 t ground cloves (again, I used about twice this amount)

I put all of these into a large shaker jar, turned the cover on tight, and shook vigorously until it was well-mixed.

"Salt to taste" was included in the original recipe here, but I left it out completely, preferring to be able to use this mix with recipes that might or might not have salt from other sources and then adjusting the salt level accordingly.

Tortilla Crisps

Here's a quick and inexpensive way to prepare crisp tortillas for use in dipping or as a side "bread" for Mexican dishes. Corn tortillas are a great staple to keep on hand, since they store well in the refrigerator and many can be kept at room temperature for a few days when space inside the fridge is tight. The microwave method is really quick for up to six or seven at a time, depending on the size of your oven. If you are going to be preparing a really large number of crisps, whether for a large family or just to have some made ahead for a few days, use the oven variation.

Tortilla Crisps

Corn tortillas

Spread four to six or seven corn tortillas on a large microwavable plate (or directly on the microwave tray itself). Microwave on high power for about 1 minute per tortilla. Halfway through the cooking time, turn the tortillas over.

This has been tested in a 1000 watt microwave. The first time or two, you should watch the tortillas as the time may vary quite a bit with your oven. The key is to get them crisp and just beginning to brown, without their turning deep brown and developing a burned taste.

NOTE: This assumes that your microwave has a rotating tray; if yours does not, you will need to turn the tortillas more often to be sure they cook evenly.

Conventional oven:
Spread the tortillas in a single layer on baking sheets lightly sprayed or oiled. Bake at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes; turn and return to the oven for about 6 to 10 minutes more, until just crisp and golden.

Black Beans and Vegetables--a Colorful Center to the Meal

This dish may be a little "hard-core" for those still used to having more "meat and potatoes" type meals, but it is also a very colorful dish that could entice non-vegetarians to take a chance on a bean-focused meal. Check out the end of the recipe for some suggested substitutions.

Black Beans and Vegetables

1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, sliced
10 oz frozen chopped spinach (do not drain)
1/4 yellow (or other color) bell pepper, coarsely chopped
canola oil
3 c cooked black beans, including liquid
2 t cumin
1 t cajun seasoning, or to taste
1 t oregano
2 t apple cider vinegar
salt to taste

Saute the onions, carrots, and pepper in oil until the carrots are barely tender. Stir in the black beans and seasonings and return to a boil. Simmer ten to 15 minutes, uncovered, until the mixture has thickened. Stir in the spinach and return to a boil. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Toppings that are good for this: sour cream (or plain yogurt, as pictured), grated cheese, chopped cilantro, green onions, salsa--the usual things that go well with all things "Mexican."

Serve over rice, rolled into tortillas burrito style, or accompanied by corn bread or crisp tortillas and a nice crisp salad.


If your family is not big on spinach or other greens, you might want to start with perhaps half as much. Kale or collards could also be substituted for variety or if your family might just prefer those to spinach.

Right now, winter squash and sweet potatoes are not too available in the produce market (and are pricey when they do show up), but either of these, cubed, could replace the carrots in the right season. Frozen corn added at the same time as the spinach can add more color, especially if all you have available are green peppers.

The cajun seasoning I used is a mixture I will be posting in my next entry. Chili powder could be substituted instead, and the amount of either of these can be varied depending on the spiciness you prefer.

I used beans that I had cooked from the dry stage, without salt, so there was a definite need for some to be added. However, if you use canned beans (two 15 oz cans would be a good amount), be sure NOT to add salt until you taste the mixture.