Friday, August 13, 2010

Mac and Cheese from Back in the Day

When I was growing up, my mother had a standard menu that she would roll out on a regular rotation. To this day, it's my favorite and it's always the one I request when she asks:

Pork Chops (or Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy, if we were really lucky); Mashed Turnips; Mustard Greens; Macaroni and Cheese; Black Eyed Peas; and Sliced Tomatoes

Simple. A good Southern meal that is a true family classic. Sometimes the turnips are replaced with stuffed "crook-neck" squash (see recipe below). Sometimes you'd see the dreaded pone cornbread on the side. No matter what the variation, this menu is my first and last idea of comfort food. It is the epitomy of a childhood food memory.

I've mastered the mustard greens, the black eyed peas, and the turnips, but I've never attempted the macaroni and cheese that my mom, and her mom, used to make. I think it's because of one simple fact: macaroni and cheese recipes in this day and age—the kind you find in restaurants or featured in gourmet magazines—are just so uber-cheesy, they make my mom's recipe pale in comparison. I mean, gobs and gobs of oozy, cheesy, saucy deliciousness, drowning the mac until it becomes just a faint hint of texture in what is really just a casserole of cheese product—this is definitely not my mother's mac and cheese. I have made a Martha Stewart macaroni and cheese recipe that required 5 different kinds of cheeses, about 4 pots and pans to prepare it, and in the end (2 hours later), while unbelievably delicious, I have to say it was a little too hi-falutin' for me.

Don't get me wrong...the more cheese, the better. I have never met a cheese I didn't like.  I would take cheese over chocolate any day of the year and twice on Tuesday. When my husband and I went to France for our 1-year anniversary, my heart nearly stopped (literally) every time the lovely waiter brought around the cheese cart at the end of the meal [I wanted him to park it tableside from the moment we sat down until we left just so I could graze...but I guess that would be gauche]. On our last night of the trip at our last amazing restaurant, the cart had approximately 30 different cheeses on it, causing me to weep over the fact that we would have to leave this wonderful cheesy country behind. So, be clear. I have no problem with cheese. Pour it on.

But when it comes to my mother's brand of home-cooking, the recipes are often simple, and simple is most often the best. When I made her macaroni and cheese the other night, I took one bite of it and it was familiar and warm and made me smile. Nothing fancy or hi-falutin'. Just macaroni, cheese, butter, and a bit of milk. Amazing how those simple ingredients can combine to make something so memorable.

So while I will still eat the neon-orange, heavily processed macaroni and cheese served in the cafeteria of the school where I work, and will still make that arduous Martha Stewart recipe when I need to feel gruyere and fontina coursing through my veins, I will always say that mom's recipe is the one closest to my heart.

Macaroni and Cheese
Granny Lula

This recipe has no measurements...simply boil until al dente as much macaroni as will fit in the baking dish you have selected. Grate about 3/4 of a block of medium cheddar cheese, or more depending on the severity your cheese addiction. Cover the bottom of the dish with a layer of macaroni. Sprinkle with cheese and scatter small dollops of butter around the layer. Add salt and pepper. Continue this layering until your dish is topped off. Cover with more cheese. Then pour whole milk into the dish about halfway up the sides. Back at 350 until cheese is gooey and melted, and most of the milk is absorbed. Top with a bit of parsley for color.

Crook Neck Squash (yellow squash)

6 crook neck or yellow squash
3 Tbsp butter
15-20 Ritz crackers, crushed
1/8 cup evaporated milk
1/8 tsp Lawry's seasoned salt
Cheddar Cheese

Cut ends off of the squash and scrape off any bruised places. Boil until tender. Remove from water and drain on paper towels. When cooled, slice squash in half and scoop out seeds and center area into a bowl. Mash the insides with butter and crushed Ritz crackers. Add evaporated milk and seasoned salt. Place squash shells in baking dish. Fill shells with mixture and top with cheese. Pour a bit of the evaporated milk on top and then sprinkle with paprika. Bake in oven at 375 until warmed through and bubbly, about 20-30 minutes.

This is a really yummy side dish, great with pork or roasted chicken. I tested this without Ritz crackers in the house and used bread crumbs instead. Bad idea. Stick with the Ritz!

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