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Food Friendly May: Play With Your Food | Manolo for the Big Girl

Food Friendly May: Play With Your Food

In reply to my entry yesterday, reader and all-around awesome person Txbunny wrote:

Ms Twistie, please post your momma’s Mac & Cheese recipe. I could really use it.

 

Txbunny, I honestly wish I could. Alas! I don’t have it. In fact, I’m not certain there ever was a written recipe for it.

On the other hand, you can create your own version with a little experimentation.

See, when you come right down to it, cooking is chemistry. If you’ve got a decent rough estimate of proportions and a general idea of time and temperature, you can create your own recipes, or just adapt ones you already have available.

For mac and cheese, you need pasta (most often some variant on elbow macaroni, but you can use any bite-sized kind that appeals and holds plenty of cheese), a bechamel sauce, and cheese. Your parboil your pasta, pour on the bechamel, sprinkle liberally with cheese that melts well and any other additions you please (bacon, broccoli, roasted garlic, cayenne pepper, shrimp… it’s amazing what’s good in mac and cheese), and bake until the cheese melts and bubbles. Call it roughly twenty minutes at 400F, give or take.

There are even versions that don’t require an oven, though I tend to prefer the baked ones, myself.

And it doesn’t have to stop at mac and cheese by any means!

The other night I was faced with half a loaf of really good rye bread I needed to use up in a hurry. I could have made a metric derriere load of croutons, but I never think to use croutons, somehow. I decided instead to make a savory bread pudding. The only hitch? I’d never actually made one before.

Still I’d made plenty of sweet ones in my time, and I figured the biggest difference involved would be to leave out the sugar. I cut my bread into cubes, eyeballed a mixture of milk and eggs until it seemed about the right amount, soaked my bread, cut up and lightly sauteed some carrots, broccoli, and onions, mixed them in along with a few diced cloves of roasted garlic, and plonked the whole thing in the oven. Half an hour and an additional green salad later, we had a lovely dinner.

I love my cookbooks. I use them often. I read them like erotic literature even more often. Having lots of recipes at my fingertips makes me happy. You can have my cookbook collection (and it’s growing every month!) along with my KitchenAid stand mixer when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

But I would hate to be chained to my cookbooks. I treat them less as holy scripture than as a jumping off point. Once you’ve read through a few recipes for mac and cheese, or bread pudding, or stew, or biscuits you have the knowledge you need to start playing.

Start small. Substitute one flavoring agent for another, or one root vegetable for a different one. Add or delete a spice. Decide if you’d like a different cheese from the one in the recipe.

Then you can get bolder.

And if you’re looking for a good basic guide to experimentation, I’d like to direct your attention to the book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman, readily available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions. It breaks down a variety of kinds of recipes by proportion and the order ingredients are added, as well as technique. For instance, a pound cake is: 1 part butter; 1 part sugar; 1 part egg; 1 part flour. A sponge cake, on the other hand is: 1 part egg; 1 part sugar; 1 part flour; 1 part butter. Same ingredients, same proportions, but used in a different order and with different techniques. Once you know that, you can create your own pound or sponge cake with minimal fuss and maximal result.

Food is a necessity. If we don’t eat, we starve. If we starve long enough, we die. It’s that simple.

But food can also be one of the great pleasures of life. It can comfort and connect us in ways few other things can.

The aromas and flavors of good food remind us of times past that matter… as do sometimes the foul odors of really bad cooking. My brothers still tease me about the barley risotto I accidentally made when I was about twelve… and I still make it to this day, much to Mr. Twistie’s delight. I’ve seen recipes for barley risotto in magazines like Fine Cooking and Food&Wine since then, as well as in cookbooks by chefs famous, infamous, and mostly unknown. I didn’t intend to make barley risotto the first time I did it. I thought it was brown rice and I couldn’t find the white rice. But that happy accident taught me that substituting one grain for another could work out just fine in the right dish. And that got me thinking that other experiments might work out just as well.

Your mother probably scolded you at least once as a child to stop playing with your food. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s time to start playing again.

Go on. Have fun. You’ll thank me later.

And that, my friends, is the end of another Food Friendly May.

4 Responses to “Food Friendly May: Play With Your Food”

  1. erylin May 27, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    thanks for the book recommendation! i generally use the web for recipes, but that book sounds really helpful and exactly what i am looking for.

  2. thinposter May 29, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    I experimented with mac and cheese using Betty Crocker’s recipe as a jumping off point. It turns out the magic formula is twice the amount of cheese Betty thinks it needs.

    (Also, crushed Ritz crackers on top.)

  3. Ananas May 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    One of my favorite cookbooks is the New Best Recipe cookbook from the Cooks Illustrated people. The recipes are good classics, but what makes it amazing is that prefacing each recipe is a bit where they explain what worked and didn’t work in all of their test recipes. It really starts to give you a feel for when such and such a step is truly important and when it is not, and that’s given me a lot of confidence in experimenting on my own.

  4. KESW May 31, 2012 at 2:21 am #

    Carmelized onions and bacon are my favorite Mac mix ins, but if he’s around, my husband is always in charge of the sauce. He makes some sort of magic in that pan. He is also the one who taught me how to follow your knowledge plus instincts in the kitchen, and it has made planning meals so so much smoother for me, not being bound to recipe books (which I also collect and read as entertainment).