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Macaroni & Cheese & Me (and You) – Round 1

May 29, 2015

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When I was a kid, my parents would go out on Saturday nights, and my brother and I would stay home and watch movies and play games, and eat Kraft Mac & Cheese. It was heaven. Ever since then, Kraft has been a cheap, easy, comfort food staple for me, and I always have a box in the house for emergencies. (My emergencies are typically food related.)

So when I saw this news story, relaying that Kraft is going to change their recipe, I was not psyched.  I agree that removing artificial flavors and colors is a good idea, but there is no way my mac & cheese is going to taste the same. I have two options: Buy a boatload of Kraft before January 2016, or find the closest possible substitute and start training my taste buds. So, in the name of science and my wallet, I have set out to try all* the mac & cheeses.

*By “all” I mean 4 at a time, because otherwise that’s just too much mac & cheese, even for me.

Round #1: Kraft against Back to Nature, 365 (Whole Foods Market Store Brand), and Annie’s

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For purposes of this experiment, Kraft is the control variable, as it is my favorite and that by which all other boxed mac is judged. Also of note, I prepared all of these according to the instructions on each box, which had slight variations in amounts of milk and butter. Typically when I make my Kraft, I alter the recipe by adding less butter and more milk, and throwing in some shredded cheddar at the end – but  not for this experiment. In the name of science, no fancy alterations.

While none of these is going to break the bank, it is worth noting the cost of the contenders. Back to Nature was almost three times the cost of Kraft.
Kraft: $.99
365 (Whole Foods Market) Original Mac and Cheese: $.99
Back to Nature Organic: $2.79
Annie’s Original: $1.99

Now, to the cooking. The first big difference was the color and texture of the sauce. Clockwise from the top left, we have Annie’s, Back to Nature, 365, and Kraft. Kraft is clearly the most neon in color, and 365 has a paste -like consistency that really made me want to toss it in the trash without even tasting it.

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Next, the noodles. The noodles were all very similar except for the box of 365, where they were shorter, fatter, and sturdier. All of the noodles cooked for the same amount of time, but 365 remained the most “al dente”.

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I tasted 365 first, and Kraft last, primarily because a) I didn’t want to ruin the taste of the others with my love for Kraft and b) by the look of it I really thought I was going to hate 365.

I’ll just say it, the 365 looks gross when compared to the others, or when compared to what I think boxed mac & cheese should look like. The sauce is so thick that it didn’t seem to spread evenly over the noodles, even though I gave it a vigorous stir in the pan. (My dog highly enjoyed the bits that ended up on the floor.) And the color was more brownish than orange.
But, despite how off-putting it looked, I liked it. The sauce, while thicker than the others, was mild but flavorful, and the texture was actually fine. The noodles had more heft to them than Kraft, which I liked. There was also another, very pleasant, flavor that took me a few bites  to identify. Was it a smokiness? No.  Garlic? No. After awhile I realized that it has the same cheese flavor as Cheez-Its. Which was a bonus for me, since I love Cheez-Its.

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Next up was Back to Nature (try to ignore the chipped bowl – I have a million bowls yet somehow I used the chipped one here). This was by far my least favorite. The consistency was chalky, and it had next to no flavor.  It wasn’t just bland, it was watery, and if I didn’t know it was supposed to have a cheese or cheese-like flavor, I’m not sure I would have guessed. This would need serious doctoring to make it worth eating. If this is what new Kraft is going to taste like, I quit right now.

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Next, Annie’s. A bowl of Annie’s is, thus far, the closest approximation to Kraft. It looks very similar, the sauce makes enough to coat the noodles with a bit left over so it doesn’t get dry after a few minutes. The flavor is good, more mild and less salty than Kraft, but a satisfying cheesy blend.

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And finally, the control. Note: I actually ate the bowl of Kraft for dinner, or as much as I could muster after all of the taste testing. Sadly, in this bunch of competitors there is just no comparison. Kraft is MUCH saltier (which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but definitely contributes to the flavor), and the fake cheese taste just wasn’t recreated anywhere else.

I’m soliciting requests/ideas for Round 2 competitors, and so far I’ve heard that I should try Trader Joes. Shoot me a comment if you think there is another brand worthy to go up against the gold standard. Until then, I’ll be squirreling away Kraft before the recipe changes…

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Perfect Cacio e Pepe

April 2, 2015

I’ve made cacio e pepe before, I’ve even written about it here. And it’s been great, a basic Roman pasta with very few ingredients, easy to make and easier to eat. Then I read Mark Bittman’s piece on how to REALLY make this dish, and my whole world of pasta changed.

In his recipe, important components are a paste, made from the cheese and water, as well as the addition of the pasta water. But the real crux is the method – stirring the pasta vigorously to activate the starch. In all the years I’ve been making pasta, I’ve never heard of this process (perhaps it is a well kept secret), but now that I know, I will use it whenever appropriate. Once you try it, you’ll never look back.

picture from the new york times

picture from the new york times

In case the link doesn’t work, here’s the recipe, courtesy of Mr. Bittman and the NYT.

INGREDIENTS

  •  Salt
  • 1 ½ cups finely grated pecorino Romano, plus more for dusting completed dish
  • 1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, plus more for finishing the dish
  • ¾ pound tonnarelli or other long pasta like linguine or spaghetti
  •  Good olive oil

PREPARATION

  1. Put a pot of salted water on to boil. In a large bowl, combine the cheeses and black pepper; mash with just enough cold water to make a thick paste. Spread the paste evenly in the bowl.
  2. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta. The second before it is perfectly cooked (taste it frequently once it begins to soften), use tongs to quickly transfer it to the bowl, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water. Stir vigorously to coat the pasta, adding a teaspoon or two of olive oil and a bit of the pasta cooking water to thin the sauce if necessary. The sauce should cling to the pasta and be creamy but not watery.
  3. Plate and dust each dish with additional pecorino and pepper. Serve immediately.

Food: Chicken Curry

April 1, 2015

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I have tried for years to find at least one Asian-inspired dish that I can cook well, and when I stumbled across this recipe for Curry and Yogurt Braised Chicken yesterday, I finally found it.  Things I love about this recipe:

1. Easy to make, and quick.
2. Ingredients are easy to find, but the dish still tastes like something you could get at your favorite neighborhood restaurant.
3. Inexpensive.
4. Healthy and filling. I used non-fat greek yogurt and served it over brown rice and spinach. (I also omitted the corn because I didn’t really understand why it was there in the first place.)

I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs because they have more flavor and become so tender (I simmered this for an extra 45 minutes), but you could substitute chicken breasts if you’d prefer. Either way, this is making its way into my regular rotation.

In case the link stops working, here is the recipe, courtesy of Food and Wine:

INGREDIENTS

  1. 1/4 cup grapeseed or canola oil
  2. 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs
  3. Salt and freshly ground pepper
  4. All-purpose flour, for dusting
  5. 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  6. 1 garlic clove, minced
  7. 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
  8. 1 red bell pepper—cored, seeded and cut into thin strips
  9. 1 tablespoon Madras curry powder
  10. 1 pound tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
  11. 1/2 cup fresh corn kernels (from 1 ear)
  12. 1/4 cup Greek-style plain low-fat yogurt
  13. 1/2 cup water
  14. Cilantro leaves, for garnish
  1.  In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and lightly dust with flour, tapping off the excess. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook over high heat, turning once, until lightly browned, 6 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate.
  2.  Add the ginger, garlic, chile and bell pepper to the skillet and cook over high heat until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the curry powder and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, corn, yogurt and water; stir until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
  3.  Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over very low heat until the chicken is tender and the juices are slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle the chicken with cilantro and serve.

Food: Orecchiette with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

February 20, 2015

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This winter is challenging every ounce of hope New Englanders can muster. Here is an easy pasta that can provide at least a little comfort amidst the snow, ice dams, and general crankiness.

Orecchiette with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe
(serves 2-4)
1 lb orecchiette pasta (or other small pasta), cooked and drained with 1 cup cooking water reserved
1 lemon, cut in half
1 package fully cooked Italian sausage (sweet or spicy), casings removed and insides chopped
1 bunch broccoli rabe, blanched and chopped
1 cup breadcrumbs, panko or Italian
1 cup grated Parmesan
2 cloves garlic, chopped
olive oil

Boil water and drop pasta into a large pot, to cook while you heat the other ingredients. In a large sauté pan, sauté garlic with the sausage (the oil from the sausage will cook the garlic). Once sausage is warm and garlic is cooked, add the chopped broccoli rabe and sauté until hot. Squeeze 1 half of lemon on top, stir, cover, remove from heat and set aside.

Reserving 1 cup of cooking water, drain pasta and return to its pot on medium heat. Add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, stir. Add 1/2 cup of cooking liquid, juice from the other half of the lemon, and 1/2 cup of grated cheese, stir until you have a sauce coating the pasta. Add more of the cooking liquid if necessary, or discard the rest. Add sausage and broccoli mixture, stir to combine. Serve topped with breadcrumbs and more parmesan cheese. Voila.

Feast: Christopher’s Restaurant

January 30, 2015

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I’m something of a corned beef hash connoisseur. Don’t tell my doctor. But if you’re going to Christopher’s Restaurant in Reading, MA (and why wouldn’t you be?), pass on the corned beef and go directly to the pot roast. It’s not greasy, it’s not crusty, and it’s just the right amount of salty. A perfect compliment to their light omelets, sweet hot chocolate, and potato pancakes that taste just like the hash browns at McDonalds (in the best possible way).

Snow day

January 27, 2015

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Food: Unstuffed Pork Tenderloin

January 26, 2015

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I always forget how easy pork tenderloin is, and with these quick cooking greens the whole meal is no trouble at all. This is warm and hearty for the winter without being particularly bad for you.

Unstuffed Pork Tenderloin (serves 2 very hungry people, 4 less hungry people if you also serve some bread)
1 lb pork tenderloin
spice rub of your choice OR salt and pepper
1 lb bag spinach
1 lb bag kale greens OR 2-3 cups of trimmed kale leaves (any type of kale)
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1-2 cups mixed mushrooms (whichever you like)
Juice from 1 lemon
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub entire tenderloin with whatever spice rub you prefer, or just some salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and put in oven for 30-40 minutes. In the meantime, sauté mushrooms in half of the lemon juice and a little olive oil until tender, set aside. Saute kale and spinach and the rest of the lemon juice and a little olive oil. Add back the mushrooms and the feta cheese, stirring gently to combine. Remove tenderloin from oven, tent with foil an rest for 5 minutes. Top greens with sliced tenderloin. Voila.