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Tuesday, May 21

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Editor's note:For the second anniversary of One Good Meal, we're re-running the very first column. Cinnamon will whip up some new dishes next week.

There is something about the first few days of autumn that bring nostalgic cravings for comfort food. Homemade macaroni and cheese is one of my favorites. Sure, the boxed variety stuck with me through college and fills the void on those nights I don't really want to cook. But that packet of powder doesn't really hit that craving quite like the hand-shredded, stove-stirred variety does.

Despite what Kraft wants us to think, macaroni and cheese isn't quite a meal in itself. If you're going to go to "all that work" to make it from scratch, you're going to want a simple side -- and I don't mean opening a can of green beans. A light, refreshing green salad with a homemade mustard vinaigrette.

The other main ingredient you'll need for this dish is cheese. Sure, you could use just one cheese, but you'll get a much more complex flavor if you mix your cheeses. Four works best, I think. You don't need a lot of each so I recommend hitting the snobby cheese section of your favorite store. And, yes, I know most of those cheeses are going to cost at least $5 to $10 per pound. But remember, you only need 2 ounces of each. Since you may only make this dish once or twice a year, the $6 worth of cheese won't be too hard on your overall food budget.

You can ask the person working behind the cheese counter for suggestions, or you can sample cheeses and just pick out four varieties that you like and think will go well together. But, if you want that ooey-gooey stringy goodness, the bulk of your selection should be a softer cheese. I recommend 2 ounces of two different soft cheeses, 2 ounces of a medium-hard cheese, and 1 ounce of Parmesan.

Parmesan is very important in Italian cooking, in practically every region of Italy. And it has been for centuries. Parmesan actually gets mentioned in Boccaccio's Decameron. One of the reasons it remains so popular is because many Italians are lactose intolerant, and since parmesan is low in lactose (as are cheddar and swiss), it's easier to digest. If you're lactose intolerant, I'd suggest making sure you have a lactase pill handy even if you use these cheeses. You can also substitute lactose-free milk for the milk called for in the recipe.

You could also choose a reggiano, pecorino-romano or asiago, but parmesan will give you a lot of flavor and saltiness without overpowering your other cheese selections. Hopefully you have a box grater, because fresh-shredded parmesan is necessary. Once the cheese is shredded the oil, which carries the flavor, starts to dry up. Yes, it's a pain. But if you want this to be easy, grab that yellow powder.

The medium cheese could be a cheddar, gouda, muenster, edam, swiss, etc. If you are a fan of molded cheeses, such as gorgonzola, bleu cheese, or stilton, choose 6 ounces of non-sweetened ricotta cheese for your accompanying soft cheese. It will give you the smooth, creamy texture without a clashing flavor.

The soft cheeses could be gruyere, fontina, brie, camembert, provolone, boursin, mozzarella, chihuahua, etc. If you've gone for a mild medium-hard cheese then one of these should be pretty pretty flavorful. You could also substitute a goat-cheese for one of them.

I'm not suggesting this meal should make a weekly appearance in your house. But, eaten in moderation, cheese isn't that bad for you. The French have scientific evidence that shows the enzymes and bacteria in cheese aid in digestion, and that much of the fat in cheese isn't absorbed by your body. It's also a low-carb food.

For the salad, I recommend visiting the pre-mixed bulk greens selection that many of the chain stores and some of the independent stores will provide. You get to buy just what you need, you can pick out the pieces you don't like, and you don't have to worry about opening a bag of slime. You will pay more, per pound, than if you were to buy four different varieties of lettuce, but unless you're related to Peter Cottontail or live with a lot of people four heads of lettuce is going to go bad before you can use them, so don't waste your money. About a quarter pound of mixed greens will get you enough salad for two to four people. (It cost me $1.25 at Whole Foods.)

And, since wine also aids in digestion and has been shown to have healthful benefits, I'd recommend that wine accompany this dinner. The type of cheese you choose will determine the wine you pick. If you go for a goat, bleu, or decide to substitute the very strong pecorino-romano for the parmesan, then pick a hearty red. A cabernet or a merlot should go nicely with those.

Since I chose a variety of mild cheeses, I also chose a lighter white wine. The Whole Foods house brand (365) has a white bordeaux which cost $6.99 and went nicely with the vinaigrette and the cheese. It was a very drinkable wine and very reasonably priced. And if you spend less on wine, you can spend more on the cheese, right?

Stove-top Vegetarian Macaroni and Cheese* (with notes for oven-baked at the end)
(3-4 servings)

8 ounces of macaroni, shells, or other pasta. You want it to be bite-sized and have lots of curves or texture for the cheese to stick to.
1 small onion or 2 shallots
1 celery stalk (or carrot or fennel, something with a little crunch)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (don't waste your time with that fake stuff)
1/2 cup of milk (I used 2%; whole milk or cream would be fine also. Keep your skim for something else.)
1 ounce parmesan, freshly shredded
2 ounces medium-hard cheese, freshly shredded
2 ounces of two types of soft cheese

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Put your butter in a large saucepan and melt slowly over low heat. Meanwhile, slice the shallot or onion into thin slices and then mince finely. (It only took me 2 minutes and 15 seconds to peel, slice, and mince the onion.) Slice and mince the celery and add both to the butter, stirring every 3-4 minutes. You don't want the vegetables to brown, just soften. While the butter cooks, shred your hard and medium-hard cheese. If your soft cheese is really soft just cut it into smaller pieces to make it melt more evenly.

Make the salad (below).

Once the vegetable/butter mixture has cooked for at least 10 minutes, you're ready to begin the rest of the food prep. These last few steps should be done quickly so the food can be served before the cheese cools and becomes thick. Add your noodles to the boiling water and stir occasionally, following the box directions for time. (I'd recommend heating your oven to about 150 degrees and putting your serving bowl into the oven while the pasta cooks. This will prevent the cheese from getting clumpy and cold when it hits the bowl.)

Stir the milk into the butter/vegetable mixture, then stir in your cheese. Stir constantly to prevent the cheese from clumping or sticking to the bottom of the pan. By the time the cheese has melted, your pasta should be cooked. Drain off the water and pour the noodles into the serving bowl. Stir the melted cheese mixture into your pasta and serve immediately.

If you prefer the baked variety you can use this recipe with a few additions/substitutions. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and grease a casserole dish. Only cook the pasta about halfway. Stir 1 cup of milk into the butter/vegetable mixture. If you're that worried about fat you can use 1/2 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of pasta water. Reserve a small handful of the shredded cheese to sprinkle on top which can be mixed with 1/4 cup of bread crumbs to make a crust. Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes or until the top gets slightly brown.

* If you want meat in your food, stir in a can (or foil-sealed bag) of tuna, mix in some ham, fry some pancetta or bacon till crispy then drain and stir in, or use that leftover rotisserie chicken, bit of leftover porkchop or steak from your last dinner out.

Impressive Vinaigrette
1 small garlic clove
salt
pepper
1 tablespoon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons vinegar

1/4 pound of mixed greens
1 small carrot
1 very small cucumber or part of a larger one
Handful of cherry tomatoes, or one small tomato cut in cubes

Either mince the garlic or run it through a garlic press and put it into a glass, wood or ceramic serving bowl (metal may react to the vinegar.) Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt and several pinches of fresh-ground pepper (about 1/8 teaspoon if you don't have a grinder). Use the back of a sturdy spoon to mix the garlic with the salt and pepper until it becomes a paste. This step creates a reaction which removes the bitter flavor from the garlic, so for the sake of love, don't skip it! Add the mustard, oil, and vinegar, and stir rapidly with your spoon. Add your carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes now and coat with the dressing. Rinse your greens, shake off the excess water, and put in the bowl. Using freshly washed hands, toss the salad until everything is coated evenly. Adding the smaller ingredients first helps to distribute the dressing and should keep the chunks from sinking to the bottom of the bowl.

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