Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Cheese Sauce and a Moment of Calm

Disclaimer: this is an experiment in writing about food and cooking, so I’m still finding my feet. There’s nothing like a recipe, but I don’t use them anyway, these days. I’ve tried to list all my ingredients and steps and I hope it’s interesting and pleasant, even if it’s not much of a guide. I’m trying to write about how food feels as much as how it’s made, so, please enjoy.

There is something particularly satisfying to me about making, about being able to make a good cheese sauce, smooth, thick, creamy and unbroken. Mom’s from-scratch mac-and-cheese was a delight of childhood, and then for years I made do with Hamburger Helper or other substitutes, afraid to attempt béchamel, since I had heard somewhere and assimilated a misconception that it was very hard. It isn’t, and learning that was a revelation that returned nostalgic comfort to my life as a regular feature. There is very little in this world as comforting as a good cheese sauce, clinging to the same pasta you remember as far back as you remember. So, being able to make that cheese sauce is comforting in the abstract, because it means I can conjure that nostalgia whenever I need to.

The act itself is also powerfully centering, because the key to a good cheese sauce is mindfulness. Making it properly requires being fully in the moment. Cooking can be hectic, and when you’re cooking for a household, even just two, by yourself, it’s easy to have three or four things happening at once, all needing periodic checks to keep them running properly. I know that’s what happens to me, cooking for Amanda and myself. Cheese sauce requires a moment of its own. Everything else must be put off and ignored while things come together. First the roux, fat and flour and stir until it colors. Then the first liquid, nothing hot. You stir until the roux is taken up and whatever you poured in has thickened with it to something like a batter, then thin until it seems correct to add the cheese. The heat must be just so: not low enough that things slow to a crawl, not high enough to break it. You drop in your cheese and stir and let it melt, and for a moment, you can do nothing else.

Today, I made taco mac-and-cheese. I sautéed some ground beef in my dutch oven and seasoned it with chili-powder (another imitation of what mom did when I was young). I pulled the beef out when it was brown and left as much grease as I could. With that and butter I browned and softened onion and bell-pepper and some garlic, at the end. I cooked my pasta (tri-color rotini) and left it draining in the sink. A little more butter and I made my roux, then took it up with a can of diced tomato. I thinned with milk and a little cream, and seasoned with cumin, coriander and some of the adobo sauce from a can of chipotles. I use cheddar cheese, the good stuff from Trader Joe’s and a little cream cheese (always Philadelphia) for creaminess. Once everything was melted, I dropped in the noodles, the beef, and a can of black beans (drained), mixed it up and called it a day. I’ll add some fresh cilantro when I’m ready to eat it.

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