Foodie Sunday : Simple Gifts and Sunday Lunch
Last week, I got the most unexpected and amazing gift. It wasn’t diamonds, perfume , pearls or even a new Le Creuset casserole, but actually it was even better because I learned that there is nothing as wonderful as the gift of some quality time alone with yourself ! Most of you know that my son Alex has been living in California for the last couple of years and has finally returned home to Cleveland. He made the first part of his move in November, packing up his truck with all of his worldly possessions and making the long drive back across the country, but he still left a condo full of furniture to be put into storage out there, awaiting the day that we would return to arrange it in a lovely new California home . Needless to say, with the addition of his two extra cats, and periodically his lovely girlfriend and Leo my grandpuppy, the house has been fabulously full of life but anything but quiet.
Last week, Alex and his father returned to California to finish the job and drive the last car home , leaving me to myself for about 5 days. Now I’ve been married for almost 30 years and truthfully I’ve never been without Jim for that long , at the most we’ve been apart a couple of days here and there but never 5 totally uninterrupted days. I actually planned it out because I was fairly sure that I’d be really lonely. Well, it turns out that I needn’t have worried. I spent that five days relaxing, cocooned in my home , drinking endless cups of tea, writing and lounging, cooking and reading and generally just enjoying my life in a way that you can only do when you have yourself for company and the environment is as peaceful as this was. I had tons of new perfume samples to enjoy and plenty of time to allow them to unfold. I went out to barn and rode my horse and every evening I had wonderful dinner plans with friends that I don’t get to see as quite as often as I’d like to. I came home happy and well fed and fell between the sheets every night with three snoring cats and my dog at the foot of the bed , clad in my most comfortable nightgowns….horrid, raggedy old flannel things with holes in them, plenty of magazines, cookbooks and more than enough Fracas to keep me warm!
Although I enjoyed my “vacation” immensely , I couldn’t make a habit of it because by the time my darling husband was on his way home, I missed him so much that I could barely stand it. When he called me to say that they’d be in Cleveland by 10:00 am Sunday morning I was ecstatic. He and Alex had a incredible journey of their own, leaving San Diego late Thursday night and stopping in Scottsdale, Boulder and then driving straight through the long snowy night , stopping only for gas, food and bare necessity. The only drawback was that they overestimated their ability to find good food on the endless stretches of snow covered highway and by Sunday when they rolled in they were famished. You can only imagine the joy I felt when on Saturday evening after having Slim Jims, M and M’s and Subway and endless liters of Pepsi for dinner they called me form Nebraska to announce that the only thing that they wanted when they got home was a hot home cooked lunch!
Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m cold, tired and starving all I can think about is comfort food , which for me translates to anything really rich and cheesy with a garnish of carbs. I thought about it for a moment and set off to make a huge casserole of macaroni and cheese with smoked chicken , laced with endless pockets of creamy smoked gouda , scallions and cream.
Macaroni and Cheese seems to have made a huge comeback over the last few years, not that for me it ever went out of style, but it seems that everywhere I eat there there’s another variation to be enjoyed. This stuff is not like your mothers Mac and Cheese or even Stouffers which I must admit in my weakest moments I still crave! This Mac and Cheese is the stuff of foodie dreams , topped with lobster or pulled pork, Jalapenos or chicken, and even a variation that I’ve seen with grilled steak which I must be honest and say I found a little bit odd. For my family I settled on my favorite variations, which is basically pasta that I fold into a Bechamel sauce that I’ve enriched with tons of cheese and seasonings and topped with a buttered crumb crust laced with toasted pecans.
I adore a smoky flavor and scent in almost anything , so I figured that I would stir in shreds of smoked chicken breast to add a bit of extra flavor. Well, by the time they arrived the house smelled incredible, filled with the rich warm scent of onions, subtle smokiness and melting cheese. I’d set the table and made a salad for each of us, a simple bit of fresh mixed greens laced with a honeyed dressing and a bit of red onion and spoonfuls of the huge blackberries that my husband and son both love and that I usually try to resist buying at this time of the year for all kinds of political and socio - economic reasons. I brought out the casserole and we sat down at the table to eat, enjoying for one brief moment in time the family that we once were, happy to be together again yet knowing that the next bit of time would be one of more transition as Alex navigates his way through the strange spirals of impending adulthood.
The three of us sat together for a long contented while just happy to be in others company and then Jim and I went upstairs and climbed into bed for a bit of a winters nap and a wee bit of alone time. It was bliss. I fell asleep nestled in my husbands arms watching the snow pile up outside. There were no cats allowed and definitely not the raggedy nightgown. There was however more than a little bit of Fracas…...
Many have asked me for this recipe and I’ll try to share it here although I must admit I’m not much for measuring. I’m a “pinch of this; a cup of that” type of cook and I’m always adjusting as I go. But I promise you that if you can learn to make a good cream sauce, that you can make any type of Mac and Cheese that you like. Here’s my tried and true recipe which was my mothers tried and true recipe. I promise that it’s the only one that you’ll ever need.
For one cup of Bechamel sauce you will need:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/4 cups organic half and half, heated
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the roux cooks and bubbles a bit, but don't let it brown — about 2 minutes. Add the hot half and half, continuing to whisk as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a slow boil. Add salt and pepper to taste, lower the heat, and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more as it thickens. Remove from the heat.
Now that you have at least 6 cups of this yummy cream sauce (you should always have more than you think that you need!), all you need to do is season it however you like. For this particular mac and cheese I used garlic, fresh dill, sautéed onions, scallions and lots of chopped chive. Then I stirred in a box of cooked penne pasta, lots of shredded smoked chicken breast and a bag of shredded cheddar and muenster cheese. Then I added about 3 cups of cubed smoked gouda cheese and stirred it all together and folded the whole thing into a buttered casserole. For the topping I used my favorite standby, nothing fancy, just several cups of seasoned Italian bread crumbs sautéed in lots of melted butter with toasted pecan pieces mixed in. Just sprinkle the buttered crumb mixture on the top of the casserole and bake the whole thing for about 30 minutes until it’s bubbly and golden. I love to serve this with a simple salad and a glass of really good ale and anything’s better eaten in the company of those you adore , candlelight, a roaring fireplace and a couple of fat lazy cats!
So now I’m curious....When you’re craving food to comfort you body and soul, what do you eat?