Monday, August 22, 2011

Cheap Bastid's Mac & Cheese

It seems like every time there’s some cooking show on or one of the chef’s competitions like Top Chef or Next Food Network Star, someone always does Macaroni and Cheese.

If you check out recipes like I do, you’ll find a whole bunch of different recipes for Mac & Cheese. And there’s a lot of “foo-fooing” going on. Exotic cheeses, different ingredients—even truffles!

It’s always seemed to me that Mac & Cheese is a family dish. It’s supposed to be a simple dish—and it’s evolved to one which is most usually prepared out of a box. (I’ve had it many times out of a box and never thought twice about it). And, it’s associated with “soul food” which is usually home cooked, inexpensive cooking that has 2 main elements—it tastes great and it’s inexpensive.

So, Cheap Bastid set out to make Mac & Cheese that will fulfill these 2 critical “soul food” criteria. To make it taste great and to make it as inexpensively as possible. (Notice I didn’t say cheap. I quickly discovered that this isn’t necessarily a cheap dish at all). And, if I were going to do it, I vowed to use that most American of cheeses—Velveeta.

So here’s what I came up with. It’s simple, but it takes a bit of time to prep and make. It’s reasonable, but by no means “cheap”. And it’s thoroughly customizable.

Cheap Bastid’s Mac & Cheese

• 1 lb elbow macaroni
• 1 lb Velveeta Cheese
• 1 8 oz. bag shredded cheddar (or whatever shredded is on hand or that you like)
• ½ lb bacon cooked
• 2 tbsp chopped jarred jalapeno peppers
• 1/3-1/2 cup milk (skim, 1%, 2%, whole—it doesn’t matter)
• 4 slices bread (white, wheat—whatever)

First of all, notice that some of these ingredients are based on what you have on hand or what you prefer. That’s the way cooking is. Cook what you like. Substitute for what’s in the pantry—for example if you don’t have any bread, use saltines or Ritz or even hamburger or hot dog buns. This ain’t rocket science.

If you don’t want to use bacon, leave it out. If you don’t have any but want a bit of meat use spam or ham or bologna or hot dogs. Like the homegirls say: “Whatevah”.

So, let’s cook. Prep first! Get out your pasta pot, a small skillet, a casserole dish, cheese grater (don’t have a cheese grater? Just cut the cheese into small cubes), 1 gallon freezer bag, rolling pin (or meat tenderizing mallet or the bottom of a sauce pan), a big mixing bowl, a medium bowl, cutting board and a small baking sheet.

Turn the oven on to 250. Put the 4 slices of bread on the baking sheet and then put it in the oven for about ½ hour.

Put the skillet on a burner turned to medium and put the bacon in it to cook. Start grating the Velveeta into the mixing bowl.

Remember to check the bvacon while it’s cooking—don’t get too focused on grating the Velveeta. We’re multi-tasking here! When the bacon is browned, put it on a plate covered with a paper towel to cool. When cool, chop it into about ½ inch or smaller bits.

Put about a gallon of water into the pasta pot and put it on the stove turned to high. Bring to a boil, add a tablespoon of salt and add the pasta. Cook for about 8 minutes. Keep grating that Velveeta! Cook about 8 minutes—just a bit “al dente”. Pour the cooked pasta into a colander and shock with cold water to both stop the cooking and cool it down. And if you’re an anal retentive foo-foo foodie who would say that rinsing the pasta removes the starches, just go ahead an have an ice bath set up an put the drained pot full of pasta into a bowl and then into the ice bath.

When the bread has been in the oven long enough to thoroughly dry-out, take the pan from the oven and let it cool When it’s cooled you’re going to put it 2 slices at a time into the freezer bag and then use the rolling pin to turn it into crumbs—if you’ve got a bit of hostility to release, feel free to use the bottom of a sauce pan and whomp it into submission and crumbs. (When my wife does that I know without asking who she is metaphorically “whomping” if you get my drift).

Put the bread crumbs into a medium bowl and mix them up with a generous handful of shredded bagged cheddar (or other cheese) and then sprinkle about 1 ½-2 tbsp of your favorite green herb (parsley, cilantro or basil—and if you use another “medicinal” herb add an extra tbsp, but I don’t want to know about it).

OK, so now all the prep work has been done. Pasta’s cooked. Bacon’s cooked and chopped. Jalapenos are chopped. Cheese is grated. And the oven should be pre-heating to 350.

Take all the ingredients (pasta, bacon, jalapenos, rest of shredded bagged cheese and grated Velveeta) and dump them in the big mixing bowl. Add the milk. Stir everything together in the casserole dish. Smooth it out and then evenly spread the bread crumb mixture over the top.

Pop this into the oven at 350 for about a half hour. Take a peek—has the top browned up? If not, turn your broiler on for about 2 minutes (do NOT leave the room when the broiler’s on!), then take another peek and see if it’s browned. But remember, under the broiler anything in the oven can go from toasty golden to charcoal in about 14 seconds if you’re not paying attention. If it’s starting to brown at 2 minutes, turn the oven off and just leave the casserole in the oven for about another minute. Then remove. Let it cool for about 10 minutes and then dish it up and enjoy!

The Cheap Bastid Test: So how’d I do? Well, the pasta was the cheapest part. It cost me fifty cents (on special at the grocer). The bacon was about a third of a pound at $1.99 per pound for a total of $.67. The jalapeno was out of an open jar in the fridge and I used a couple of tablespoons that cost maybe a quarter. The cheese, that’s the big ticket.

I used a pound of Velveeta which cost me $4.50 and about 1/3 bag of shredded cheese (that’s all I had) which cost about $.80. So the total if my math is right is about $6.75 (I had to add a bit for the milk and 4 slices of bread). We got about 8 servings which means that they cost $.84 apiece. The bottom line is that’s not bad! Not bad at all for 2 dinners for 3 and a couple of lunches.

Next Time: We went to Fraiser’s Farms the other day and checked out the cheeses. I really want to get under $4 a pound for cheese. I can get a 2 lb block of mild cheddar for $3.29 a pound and Mozzarella for $3.99 or real American (not the crappy stuff that’s individually wrapped) for $3.79 a pound. So, next time I think it’ll be Cheddar and American mixed together.

That’s the Cheap Bastid Way: Eat Good. Eat Cheap. Be Grateful!

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