Friday, November 21, 2014

Leftover Rescue: Mac and Cheese

It came from the back of the fridge: the unholy offspring of powdered processed cheese and a poorly calculated estimate of the number of servings required. It lurked behind the day-old meatloaf, waiting, silent and yellow. She knew she could not ignore it forever... 

Pityingly she glanced at her toddler, playing without a care in the next room. For one moment, the girl looked back, her deep brown eyes so expectant and trusting. "You hungry, baby?" Mommy asked, with an immediate twinge of guilt. The excited response of her little innocent barely eased her conscience. But even this was a paltry solution. That was a 5 cup leftover container, and it was full to the accursed brim. Could she really subject her precious girl to day after day of such torture? Sure, she  likely wouldn't complain, wouldn't even fathom how awful it was. That would be too cruel. No, Mommy would have to shoulder most of the burden herself. Taking a deep sustaining breath, she opened the door and reached a trembling hand into the cold, forbidding recesses of the refrigerator...

How many times has this horror story played itself out in your kitchen? As hard as I try to avoid it there are many times I either overestimate my kid's appetite or the number of folks I'll be feeding and end up with way too much of what my brother used to call the "yellow death:" leftover mac and cheese. While my budget-conscience heart can't bear to toss it out, my sensitive taste buds can't bear to endure the torment. Knowing I have leftover mac and cheese reminds me of that scene in Ghostbusters when Dana opens the fridge and confronts a demon, and I start thinking I'd much rather employ an exorcist than the microwave.

Recently, however, I discovered a tasty solution. Yes, I said tasty, and yes, I'm still talking about leftover mac and cheese. It's so tasty, in fact, that my toddler refused her microwaved bowl of mac and cheese and downed so much of my plate that I had to cook up a second batch, and the two of us finished off the whole daunting amount in one lunchtime. 

The secret to success lies not so much in how you reheat it as in how you cook it in the first place. Never cook mac and cheese for the full 7 minutes recommended on the box! I don't know who determined that as the cooking time, but in my opinion, it turns the noodles into a mushy disgusting mess. Perhaps it's good for babies just starting to cut their teeth, but no one older with any taste could love it. I always cook mine for a mere 4 minutes and strain immediately. This leaves the pasta with a pleasant "al dente" texture which on it's own will make your boxed mac and cheese 10 times better, and makes it sturdy enough to reheat as the pasta will soften even more in the process.

It's totally simple: just fry the pasta in a nonstick pan, no oil required (that's already there in spades). Avoid stirring too much, but turn the noodles occasionally in hash brown fashion, allowing them to get nicely crispy. After moving to a plate, I like to garnish mine with a drizzle of barbecue sauce, but if you prefer ketchup, that works, too. That was, after all, my old cover-up solution for leftover mac and cheese. Ketchup covers a great multitude of sins, or at least sort of conceals them.

Alternately, if you'd rather just try to revive your mac and cheese to its original, traditional state, don't bother with the microwave. Return it to a pot, add a few drops of milk and stir gently over low heat until it breaks up. If you need to add a little more milk, just do so sparingly so it doesn't get too runny. The cheese should return to a decently creamy state in a short amount of time. Cook just until warmed through and serve. It will taste almost as good as fresh, although the pasta will be softer than it was.

So next time you find your fridge haunted by the yellow death, give this a try. After that, you may find yourself cooking up a whole extra box just to have leftovers again!