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Stirring the Pot: Guiltless and Often Tastier Shortcuts

Macaroni-and-cheese night was always a huge hit when my kids were growing up. I put up a big pot of water to boil for the pasta. Into a separate saucepan went butter and flour — let the roux begin! I mashed out the lumps and waited for the nutty golden-brown color that signaled the roux was ready, then poured in milk. Gently and vigilantly I stirred. The alchemy of butter, flour, and milk created a silky, thick blanket that would eventually coat the pasta. And as if this weren’t already an embarrassment of riches, in went an abundance of cheddar, and, finally, that surprising — but essential — dash of freshly grated nutmeg. The pasta got drained, sauce was stirred in, and every noodle was coated. Dinner was ready. No need for a breadcrumb topping or baking — that just dries things out anyway. Happy children, or so I thought …

One fateful day, short on time and racing through the supermarket, not knowing what possessed me, I eyed a block of Velveeta and threw it in my cart. I got home, boiled and drained the pasta, and melted that impossibly orange block with some milk. Everything got mixed together and dinner was served. And wouldn’t you know it? A unanimous cry went up: “Mom, this is the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever made!”

Admittedly, not my finest hour. This detour from Mother of the Year was repeated more times than I am proud to remember. In my defense, though, I come by this honestly. How well I remember when my mother stapled the unraveling hem of my favorite kilt skirt in second grade. A needle and thread? Why bother? Maybe those staples did poke into the backs of my thighs, but they did the trick and in record time!

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So, I don’t feel too bad when I tire of a book and just skim for the good parts and the last paragraph. Or better yet, when I have my daughter Eve condense and summarize books one and two of Outlander in advance of the television series. We make delightful conversation, and I am spared slogging through 2,000 pages of highland history. 

I confess to not moving the picture frames when I dust, to literally sweeping crumbs under the rug, and to reaching for a bag of frozen chopped onions in lieu of the tedium of cutting a fresh one by hand. I have even figured out how to justify driving my car the two miles into town rather than ride my bike when it’s a beautiful day.

There are some shortcuts, however, that don’t require an apology. For years, my beef stews were always hit or miss. The meat wasn’t tender, the sauce was too thin, there were too many vegetables (or too few), or the flavor was bland. Until — drum roll — my eureka moment: A jar of salsa in my cupboard winked at me. Of course! Salsa has all sorts of ingredients that a stew needs — tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, spices — and they’re already all chopped up and ready. So, I browned stew beef, added the salsa, poured in a few bottles of beer for flavor and tenderizing, and simmered everything for a few hours on the stove. Best beef stew I ever made!

Macaroni and cheese. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Macaroni and cheese. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Macaroni and Cheese

1 pound elbow macaroni
3 tablespoons salt (for pasta water)
1 stick butter
1/2 cup flour
5 cups whole milk
5 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste

Salt the water generously. (It should taste like ocean water.) Otherwise, cook pasta according to package directions.

While the water comes to a boil, prepare the roux.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Sprinkle in the flour and begin to stir, smoothing out any clumps that form. When the flour is completely incorporated and the roux has a golden hue, pour in the milk. Stir gently. At this point, the water will be boiling; throw in the noodles.

Continue to cook the roux and milk mixture over a low flame, stirring frequently, until it thickens. This can take about 10 to 15 minutes. (Keep an eye on the pasta and drain when tender.) When the milk is the consistency of heavy cream, add the cheese and stir until it melts. Add nutmeg. Taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Pour the sauce over the pasta and mix well. Serve immediately.

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Beef stew. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Beef stew. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Beef Stew

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (feel free to use frozen!)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds cubed stew beef
1 16-ounce jar salsa (mild, medium, chipotle — your choice. Just watch out for hot and spicy salsa: The spiciness intensifies as the sauce reduces.)
2 bottles beer (I like using Upland wheat ale.)
1 medium potato, peeled and diced (optional)

Heat olive oil in a wide-bottomed pot with tall sides. Add onion and salt and sauté until onion softens and begins to brown (about five minutes). Push onions to the side of the pan and add the beef. Brown beef on all sides. Do not to overcrowd the beef (you might want to do this in batches depending on the size of your pot). Mix onions back in with the beef and pour in salsa and beer, stirring to combine. Bring mixture to a boil, then lower heat. Cover partially to allow steam to escape. Cook for two hours, stirring occasionally. Taste the sauce. If it is too spicy or salty, add the potato to tame the sauce a bit. Cook uncovered for ten more minutes so that the potato softens and the sauce is thick and rich.

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Ruthie Cohen
Ruthie Cohen moved from New Jersey to Bloomington in November 2011. Every day she marvels at her good fortune to be living in this gem of a town. When she is not devising recipes in her kitchen and feeding her friends, Ruthie practices and teaches yoga at Ekah and Vibe Studios.
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