The true worth of this dish depends on the storyteller. The parents dub this dish “The $50.00 Mac and Cheese,” as they mockingly add a few singsong “oohs” and “aahs” with snickering laughter. However, when I serve them the dish, there isn’t a word heard, because their mouths are full of cheesy pasta. Forks scraping the plates, glassware chiming, and lip smacking chewing sounds are the only audible sounds heard at the dinner table. Such sounds without words communicate an extremely successful dish. As the parents tell their side of the story, my smile is a forced patience. I have my opinion. This is my food blog, thus only one side to the three views is told.
One holiday, Dad asks me to make the Macaroni and Cheese. “Okay, but the cheese I use comes from a specialty grocery store,” I told Dad over the phone while still in New York. “I need the sharpest white cheddar without the annatto color, Parmigiano-Reggiano and aged Gouda.” Some commercially made cheddar cheeses are orange because of the added annatto coloring. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is only made in areas in Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia, Italy. The same type of cheese made outside these regions is called Parmesan.* Aged Gouda provides a sweeter, sharper taste with tiny crystallize, salty flakes seen randomly throughout the cheese. I continue talking to Dad, “Please, go to that specialty store on Laskin Road, for your favorite grocery store doesn’t have a fine cheese section… Love you!” Our phones click off as we say our good-byes. A few days later, I arrive home in Virginia. The refrigerator reveals an orange Cheddar and Parmesan cheese. “What happened to the cheese I requested?” I asked. Dad responds, “We couldn’t find… What was the third cheese, again,” he continues, “Everything is at the grocery store… Why is your cheese not there?” I told him, “I know where to buy the cheeses that are needed… They’re at a specialty grocery store on Laskin Road.”
In truth, mega large grocery stores are where most people do their food shopping, including my parents and on many occasions, myself. As a “Foodie” in New York, the artisan and cultural stores offer the finest culinary ingredients and dishes. Fresh mozzarella and homemade pasta is found in Italian neighborhoods and shops. Asian ingredients, such as miso paste, fish sauce, rice vinegar, noodles, soy sauce, water spinach, and loose-leaf tea are found in Chinatown (either in New York City or Brooklyn). A former co-worker picks up Thai curry paste for me in Indian neighborhoods in Queens. Walking around Brooklyn, there are plenty of Jamaican vendors using a machete to chop the top of a green coconut. With a straw inserted in a choppily carved out hole, the fresh, mildly sweet juice is immediately enjoyed in summer heat. Flours, large olives, preserved lemons, nuts, spices and dried fruit are found in Arabic stores on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Throughout the city, there are shops that specialize exclusively in imported loose-leaf teas, coffee beans, spices, or olive oil. Brooklyn is a foodie’s dream, in which entrepreneurs sell homemade granola, pickles, salsas, beer, wine, pastries, and so forth. Farmer’s market sell not only seasonal produce, for they have bread, flours, dried beans, diary, meat, plants, jams, herbs, pastry, beeswax candles, local honey and much more.
When food writers proclaim Americans are too far removed from the source of food, it is almost true. If someone truly cares about their health, they’ll start reading the ingredients of most food labels on packages instead of completely trusting the advertising copy. It is a cerebral experience to shop and discover the stories behind the food and ingredients at artisan and specialty stores around the city, but New York isn’t the only artisan food city in the country. Almost everyone across the country lives close to a farm. Logically, it’s the best source of the finest seasonal produce, diary or meat. Without sounding judgmental, I encourage non-foodie friends to try their grocery shopping at smaller shops or a farmer’s market. Of course, there is someone reading this site, and labeling this post as a foodie snob story. After all, foodies are a small percentage of the rest of the population. Shopping for ingredients from various stores is considered an alternative lifestyle.
It’s not worth the energy of arguing with people. They’re either going to love learning about food or not. My passion for food comes from Dad, who is an extremely talented and skilled cook. One of our differences in cooking is the way we shop for ingredients. He prefers the one-stop, larger grocery store. When I recommend a finer grocery store, my request comes off as being an elitist food snob to him.
“It is a cerebral experience to shop and discover the stories behind the food and ingredients at artisan and specialty stores around the city, but New York isn’t the only artisan food city in the country. Almost everyone across the country lives close to a farm. Logically, it’s the best source of the finest seasonal produce, diary or meat.”
Being in New York, I don’t own a car. When I visit Virginia, my transportation depends on the sister or Mom. After discovering I had to buy the correct cheeses, Mom generously drives me to a store. Like Dad, she believes I’m being a ridiculous food snob. The first stop is at a mega-large store that sells not only food, but it has household products, furniture, drinks, eye doctors, a dentist, salons, toiletries, prescription drugs, and much more. She’s right; this store has the cheeses needed for the Mac and Cheese dish. It’s the same American annatto colored cheddar and Wisconsin made Parmesan that Dad previously brought. In addition, their Gouda isn’t aged. They’re inexpensive brands, and the quality is average. Against additional recommendations, Mom insists on traveling to two additional stores that offer the same selection of average cheeses. Finally, Mom agrees to go to the originally suggested store on Laskin Road. Once there, I walk in and out of the store in less than 15 minutes with all the originally requested cheeses, including organic milk and penne pasta. Mom buys a better brand of Green Tea.
At home, a béchamel sauce for the Mac and Cheese is quickly whisked smoothly. It’s the same technique learned from Dad after standing by his side throughout the years. When dinner is served, the parents scrambled to get a scoopful of my baked dish. “Let’s get a taste of this Mac and Cheese to see if it’s worth driving all over town for it!” Mom proclaims. Dad eats a forkful of cheesy pasta, “Welllll… This is really good,” and he silently places another spoonful onto his plate. Mom makes the same acknowledgments against her quiet disbelief. The momentarily happy silence is interrupted when Mom exclaims, “This Mac and Cheese is definitely worth the $50.00!” My head quickly turns in her direction, “What?” I said, “That’s not $50.00!” She explains how much each cheese cost. “Okay, the dish is slightly more, because these are better cheeses, but it’s not worth $50.00! The pasta is one dollar and change!” I said. Mom responds, “Oh, including the extra money of buying these cheeses, the amount of gas used going around town is included in the final cost.” I have a ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ look on my face. “If we’ve went to the original requested store it would’ve not cost extra money!” I said. My mother and I playfully went back and forth with our arguments.
The following year, Dad makes a Mac and Cheese dish. Everyone agrees it’s one of his best versions. We later learn it’s made with the same Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese brought the previous year for my Mac and Cheese dish, for he vacuum-sealed and froze it. His delicious dish was mixed with an orange, sharp cheddar cheese from his favorite grocery store.
The $50 Macaroni and Cheese Dish
2-1/2 cups milk
2 bay leaves
1 lb. penne or elbow pasta; cooked al dente according to the manufacturer’s directions, rinse with cold water and drain, drizzle with olive oil
1/2 stick (4 tbsp.) butter
3 tbsp. flour
Salt and fresh black pepper; to taste
1/8 tsp. smoked spanish paprika
8 to 10 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese; grated
8 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano; grated
8 oz. aged Gouda; grated
Garnish: Bread crumbs, quartered tomatoes or extra grated cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease a baking dish with olive oil or butter.
2. Place milk and bay leaves in a small pot. Before the milk boils, turn heat off. Cover and place milk aside. Mix all the grated cheeses together and place aside.
3. To make a white bechamel sauce: In a medium size saucepan over medium heat, melt butter until it’s foamy. Whisk in the flour. After a few minutes, the mixture will brown. Whisk in a quarter cup of the warm milk that was placed aside in step 2. Mix until smooth. Repeat by adding more milk by a quarter cup, but discard the bay leaves. Whisk the mixture the whole time. Even when all of the milk is added to the sauce, continue whisking until the mixture is thick and smooth. Don’t let it boil.
4. Whisk in a little more than 1/2 the amount of the grated cheeses. Continue whisking until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth.
5. In a large bowl, mix the cheesy, white bechamel sauce, the second half of the grated cheeses (place about a 1/4 cup aside for garnish), and the pasta together.
6. Place Macaroni and Cheese mixture in the buttered baking dish (see step 1).
7. Top with the rest of the 1/4 cup of the grated cheeses. If desired, garnish with bread crumbs or tomato slices (recommend using tomatoes in the summer).
8. Place in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes.
9. Enjoy this comfort dish straight from the oven.
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