When You Hate to Cook - No. 149
A simple but good skillet mac & cheese might change your mind.
Writing this newsletter on 9/11 was a sad reminder of that day, 21 years ago, when the world stopped. Blue skies, normal lives, then it all changed. We will remember. And I found it hard to keep my eyes off the news this past week following Queen Elizabeth II’s death. This Thursday, I try my hands at a lovely British pudding to ‘’honour’’ her.
When I fall into a cooking rut, I go grocery shopping. I know, it’s counter to everything experts tell us about impulse buying, but for inspiration I head to a farmer’s market, Trader Joe’s, a corner greengrocer, or even Costco to experience the sights, smells, and temptations.
(Sadly, I don’t feel this way at my local Kroger where shopping is more of a military exercise than sensual experience.)
Just a week or so ago, a new subscriber named Sarah writes in the comments, ‘’I do love to read about food because I love to eat 😊 And I am very lucky in that after I had our first child eight years ago, my husband took over all the cooking (it was either that or starve, as I just couldn't do it all) and it has become one of his serious hobbies. I try to give him a break when I can, once or twice a week, which is why your Costco post was so impactful—I make lots of modified Costco meals and the new ideas were so helpful.’’
You think I don’t read your comments?
I love your comments, and I didn’t realize my cooking strategy involved ‘’modified Costco meals.’’ But it does.
As much as I love being in the kitchen measuring, smelling, tasting, and watching the cakes bake, I love a good shortcut. But I don’t hate cooking. I cook for the same reason Sarah cooks when she has to. I love to eat.
Peg, on the other hand, hated to cook
A clever advertising copywriter in Portland, Oregon, Peg Bracken wrote the I Hate to Cook Book in 1960. She would have rather dined out than bake a meatloaf at home, or more to the point, rather wrapped her hand around a dry Martini than wet flounder. So like some feminist Don Draper (is that possible?) she took to the kitchen with her friends she called the Hags and instructed us in good humor how to cook when you hate it.
I don’t know about you, but when Peg talks, I listen.
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Essentially, Peg Bracken’s plan was to fake it, stay in the kitchen long enough to make dinner, or at least look like she was making dinner. Many recipes are based on cans of soup, indicative, too, of the ‘60s, and she masqueraded store-bought rolls as her own. Who cares? (Did she pop a Stouffer’s lasagna into her own 13- by 9-pan as I have done on one occasion?)
As an author, I’m gobsmacked a woman who abhored the kitchen could create 180 recipes and have them kitchen-tested by other ‘’housewives who used to feel hostile to the kitchen,’’ too—an organizational feat!
Peg didn’t want to get too good at cooking enchiladas or her husband wouldn’t take her out for them. She didn’t know tomatoes and basil were meant for each other, and even if she had been told, she said she would have forgotten it. And she didn’t know the size of her mixing bowls - I only know the size when it’s printed on the bottom - so why all the exactitude in recipes, she wondered. And no cooking utensils for Christmas, said the Grinch.
In order to make it into the book a recipe had to pass her test: taste good, be easy to make, involve a meat and vegetable in one dish, be made ahead if possible, and never call for bouquet garni.
Here are some of Peg’s best dinner ideas. My comments are in parentheses:
Sweep Steak: 1 pot roast and a package of onion soup mix. Bake in foil at 300 degrees for 3 hours. (Place the foil-wrapped meat in a pan first if you don’t want to clean your oven.)
Saturday Chicken: 1 cut-up chicken, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 cup cream, salt, paprika, chopped parsley. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees 1 1/2 hours. (I know this recipe, but I believe we served it on Tuesdays. We always browned the chicken pieces first, then added sautéed mushrooms, a dash of sherry, everything else Peg mentions, and cooked it covered.)
Ben’s Beans: ‘’He sautes a little can or two of mushroom pieces in a little butter, adds cooked green beans, salt, pepper. Then over low heat, he stirs in enough sour cream to make a sauce, heats it through, and serves it up.’’
Painless Spinach: Cook a package of frozen spinach and drain. ‘’Then sizzle a garlic clove in 1 tablespoon butter, remove the clove, and put the spinach in. Let it simmer for five minutes. Just before you serve it, salt and pepper it lightly and add a good squeeze of lemon juice.’’ (Use fresh spinach, leave the garlic in the pan, and if you are craving creamy, add a blob of cream cheese and a spoonful of grated Parm at the end.)
Crisscross Potatoes: ‘’Cut middle-sized baking potatoes in half, the long way. With a knife, score the cut sides crisscross fashion, about a quarter of an inch deep. Mix a little salt and dry mustard with butter—allowing a scant tablespoon of butter for each potato half—and spread this on the potatoes. Bake them as usual, anywhere from 350 degrees to 475 degrees for an hour.’’ (I’d go with 375 to 400 degrees for an hour, maybe less. I’d omit the dry mustard, but add black pepper and garlic, and Parm.)
Leftover food comes with guilt
If you can’t bring yourself to dispose of it, Peg said, ‘’put it in the refrigerator, and there it stays, moving slowly toward the rear as it is displaced by other little glass jars half full of leftover ham loaf and other things. And there it remains until refrigerator-cleaning day, at which time you gather it up along with its little fur-bearing friends, and with a great lightening of spirit, throw it away.’’
What about leftover cake?
‘’This is like telling you what to do with your leftover whisky. Cake isn’t a leftover. Cake is cake, and it is either eaten or it isn’t eaten; and if the family didn’t go for that Mocha Frosting, you give the rest of the cake to the neighbor or to the lady downstairs before it gets stale…
‘’Maybe she’ll even throw it away.’’
What do you cook when you don’t feel like cooking?
Sarah’s Peg Bracken move is what she calls "snack dinner.’’
It’s ‘’basically an unfancy charcuterie board with whatever's on hand for two small children and two adults. Always cheese and crackers, olives, and cured meat, with whatever else I can find to throw on there.‘’
Not quite in the mood to cook dinner, I reached for a copy of my book, The Dinner Doctor. Every trick I had was in that book, the ways I got three children to eat supper, and how I made cooking for company look so easy, beginning with just a box or bag of something.
But, you know, cooking isn’t easy. You’ve got to want to do it because of the time involved, the expense, and the boredom that can set in if you cook the same thing over and over. But this is why we have food newsletters! And cookbooks! And magazines and good friends and those inspirational trips to the store…
To end on a high note, I just read a lovely piece over on Mark Bittman’s newsletter, written by Mike Diago, and apologies if there is a paywall. Mike is a social worker in a high school in northern Westchester County, New York. He started working with troubled teens during the pandemic, and he’s continued to get to know a group of students who enjoy cooking. They formed a cooking club. Cooking may seem like drudgery to some, but to others it’s a balm for their mental health.
I don’t know what I would have done without cooking and baking to make me more confident as a pre-teen. Cooking is creative, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just like we don’t have to be either.
And maybe that’s where Peg and I are more alike than different. I’ve always cooked for other people who needed to be fed. (I bet she did, too.) It’s part of my story, and I instinctively share recipes with others. I’m sharing a skillet mac and cheese with you today.
Peg shared recipes, too, when she wrote this cookbook, which sold more than three million copies. Like I said, Peg was clever.
Coming Thursday for Paid Subscribers
My tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. It’s called A Queen of Puddings. I’ve been baking so many meringue pies working on this baking cookbook that attempting unknown territory on a random Thursday didn’t seem difficult to tackle…I could have shared a recipe for Coronation Chicken, that’s a goodie. It supposedly was the chicken salad (with curry seasonings) prepared for the Queen on her coronation in 1953. I’ll bet my British readers know it!
Thanks to Nashville artist, author, and fabric designer Anna Maria Horner who texted me over the weekend because she was making this mac and cheese to go with salmon and a green apple salad recipe she had been served in Sydney, Australia. I added the sliced tomatoes in an attempt to try something new, and I’ll bet knowing Anna Maria’s eye for color, that’s what drew her in.
Hope you have a good week!
- xo, Anne
My Skillet Mac and Cheese
Children gladly offer their opinions of food if it doesn’t suit them. I learned this by trying to please my children with homemade mac and cheese. Saucy, baked, crispy on top, doctored up from the box, I just never seemed able to make a mac and cheese that suited them. Until I created this recipe blueprint that uses the pasta you like, enough sauce to make it saucy enough for those not patient enough to allow mac and cheese time to bake in the oven, and crunchy bread crumbs that garnish a baked mac and cheese for those who do. And when sliced tomatoes are placed underneath the bread crumb topping, well, it’s a beautiful site to behold! Promise your kids will love it, plus, it goes straight from oven to table!
Makes 8 servings
Prep: 40 to 45 minutes
Bake: 10 to 12 minutes
8 ounces macaroni or whole wheat penne rigate
Water for the pot
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces extra sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
4 ounces mild Cheddar cheese, shredded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced
For the pasta, use 8 ounces of your favorite pasta - white or wheat, macaroni or penne. Follow the cooking times on the package of pasta, because times differ. Macaroni cooks in 5 minutes where whole wheat penne needs 12 to 15 to cook to al dents. Place 8 cups water in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add salt to the water. When the water comes to a boil, stir in the pasta, and then turn down the heat a little, keeping the water at a boil, but not boiling over the pot. Stir the pasta so it doesn’t stick, and place the lid half on and half off the pot. Let the pasta cook this way until al dente, following package directions. Drain the pasta and run cold water through it to stop the cooking process. Drain the pasta again, and set aside.
For the topping, place the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until melted, and then add the olive oil. Stir in the panko and cook until the panko crumbs turn golden brown, about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat, and transfer the panko to a small bowl. Stir in the Parmesan, then add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Wipe out the skillet, and place the 4 tablespoons butter for the sauce in the skillet. The heat is off, but the skillet is still warm, so the butter will melt. If it doesn’t melt all the way, turn the heat to low to melt the butter. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Whisk in the milk and cream a third at a time, whisking each time until smooth. Adjust the heat under the skillet so that the sauce barely simmers as it thickens. When the sauce has cooked 7 to 8 minutes, turn off the heat and season the sauce with nutmeg and cayenne. Stir in the cheeses, a bit at a time, stirring until all the cheese has melted. Taste the sauce, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Fold the pasta into the sauce. Wipe the edges of the skillet clean with paper towel. If desired, place slices of fresh tomato on top of the pasta and sauce. Scatter the bread crumbs on top. Place the pan in the oven.
Bake until the mac and cheese is bubbly and the topping is well browned, 10 to 12 minutes.
Thank you for these shortcuts. I love a good simple recipe. We can’t go all out all the time! I am also hooked on your writing. It’s always an excellent read. Thank you.
Best quote ‘’This is like telling you what to do with your leftover whisky. Cake isn’t a leftover. Cake is cake, and it is either eaten or it isn’t .....” we never have extra cake. We work hard to savor it and not be a teenage boy and eat it all in one day.