The thought of eating macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, tuna salad and chicken pot pies was comforting long before they were called comfort foods. Comfort foods don’t have to be fancy. They’re simple, delicious and usually inexpensive to make.
Tuna, Ramen noodles and hotdogs were a big part of my diet when I was in college. I bought the chunky light tuna back then, not the more expensive and tastier all-white tuna, which, by the way, is not as healthy as the cheaper stuff.
I ate my tuna with saltine crackers, which also were cheap, especially the Brand X kind. I mixed my tuna with pickle relish, shredded cheese, mayo, mustard and at least one hard-boiled egg. Eggs also were cheap back in the Stone Age.
I added lots of black pepper but no salt. It’s not that salt was expensive; it just didn’t need salt. A single can of tuna could make two meals, but I usually ate the whole thing. Tuna is a fish; fish is brain food, and I was a student.
Chicken pot pies were a special treat for a college kid. Again, when I could afford one, I got the cheaper brands, not the good stuff like Marie Callender’s or Stouffer’s. After I got married, it took my wife a while to adjust to my love for tuna and chicken pot pies.
She now makes a homemade pot-pie recipe that’s even better than the premium commercial brands. She still doesn’t share my love for tuna, though.
When my wife serves mashed potatoes, her recipe is really simple. After boiling and straining her potatoes, she mashes them with lots of butter, a little milk and sometimes sour cream or cream cheese. Her gravy depends on the meat she’s serving. If it’s fried chicken, it’s a white gravy made with some of the chicken drippings, all-purpose flour, salt and pepper. If it’s beef roast, it’s a brown gravy made with roast drippings. Sometimes she also adds chopped onions to her gravy.
Her recipe for homemade macaroni and cheese is so close to perfect, she admits she’s afraid to experiment with variations. Because our kids now ask for it whenever they come home with their kids, she’s afraid to change it one iota.
I don’t know everything she puts in her mac and cheese recipe, but there’s got to be something addictive in there. From what I can tell, though, I see only elbow macaroni, an 8-10 ounce block of mild cheddar cheese and an unspecified amount of milk and flour.
She first makes a roux with the milk and some all-purpose flour then adds the cheese and allows it to melt in the slurry. I assume the macaroni is salted while boiling. She pours the strained macaroni in a casserole dish then pours the cheese/milk mixture over it.
I think she lets it cook for a short while at 350 to 375 degrees. Then she takes in out of the oven, tops it with more shredded cheddar and puts it back into the oven until she thinks it is done.
I don’t know any more details than that because she won’t tell me. The secret clearance issued to me by the Army is not valid in her kitchen.
I’ve suggested adding additional cheeses like Monterey Jack, feta or parmesan, and maybe some bacon bits. But a husband has to be careful about suggesting changes to his wife’s cooking. He may end up cooking for himself, so I don’t push the issue.
A few weeks ago, m y wife saw a mac-and-cheese recipe on the Food Network that incorporated the same ingredients I’ve suggested for years. It was easier seeing it on TV than hearing it from me. At least now she’ll think about altering her recipe — but not when the kids are visiting.
Her mac and cheese has got to taste just like it did in their youth, when she served it to them along with her fried chicken, cream-style corn and stir-fry cabbage. I’m comfortable with that.
Email Murray at email@example.com.