Original, Classical, Quintessential, Traditional Mac ‘n Cheese

In Japan you can buy cheese by the slice. It turns out that one slice (30g of cheese, or about 1 ounce, to be exact) is just the right amount to make a single serving of macaroni and cheese. This is important when cheesperation (desperation due to lack of regular consumption of cheese) sets in. Luckily, the other ingredients required for a simple cheese sauce are readily available in Japanese supermarkets. Thus armed with disproportionately expensive cheese slices (at 100 yen for a single slice, it costs more per kilo than Norwegian Salmon), I learned to whip up a classic bowl of mac ‘n cheese.

I finally perfected this prototypical American dish in South Africa, which is important because South Africans tend towards a very liberal understanding of what constitutes “macaroni and cheese.” It seems to be that any grouping of ingredients, as long as it includes macaroni noodles and cheese, can be called “macaroni and cheese.” While many American recipes are admittedly flexible about permissible inclusions, I would argue that the dish demarcated as “macaroni and cheese” at least requires a cheese sauce. My next requirement is probably more of an opinion– I would say it’s really a tradition– but I would further argue that the cheese sauce should be partially, or even predominantly flavo(u)red with cheddar cheese.

Original, Classical, Quintessential, Traditional Mac ‘n Cheese

Yield: about 4 servings

  • 2 cups [uncooked] macaroni noodles*
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus extra for garnishing
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • salt and pepper

*any noodle with a textured or varied surface, such as shells or fusilli, will also work just fine. Avoid thinner noodles like spaghetti or tagliatelle, since they won’t hold their shape or the sauce as well.

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F). Cook the macaroni noodles in salted water for half the time cited on the package instructions, and then drain and set aside. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Stir in the flour until a uniform paste forms. Slowly add the milk, whisking as you go. Continue stirring slowly but constantly in order to make a smooth sauce. When the mixture starts to thicken, add the paprika, cheddar, and Parmesan, and continue stirring until the cheese is melted and the sauce is thick and uniform. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Combine the par-cooked noodles and the sauce in a baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar cheese over the top of the mixture. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese garnish starts to bubble and brown. Don’t delay, eat right away.

 

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Student Loan Meatballs

My first attempt to make meatballs was part of an elaborate scheme to impress a date. Because I was remitting most of my extra income home to pay my student loans, I didn’t have a lot of spare cash to dine in restaurants in Japan, which is generally pretty pricey unless your date is impressed by Saizeriya or Yoshinoya. I had however, developed what I felt (and still feel) is a fantastic recipe for spaghetti sauce. Armed with this sauce, I carefully researched all kinds of recipes, searching for the ideal combination of spices and flavo(u)rings, and came up with a pretty decent initial meatball construction. Since then, I have come across many meatball theories. By far the best of these is the addition of grated onion and garlic, as opposed to the more conventional diced/minced inclusion.

The grating of the quintessential alliums is preferable for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that grating releases more of the juices of these flavo(u)rful bulbs; we all know that a juicy meatball is the best meatball. The next reason, which is admittedly unimportant or even not preferable to some, is that the addition of grated onion and garlic contributes to a better overall homogeneity in the texture of the meatball. The final reason is perhaps the most crucial for those who are torn between preparing decent-tasting food and cooking for those who dislike onions and/or garlic: grating these vegetables renders them completely undetectable to even the pickiest anti-onion meatball consumer.

 

Student Loan Meatballs 

Yield: about 10 meatballs, or about 5 servings

  • 500g (about 1lb) lean ground beef*
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 small fresh chili, or about 1/2 tsp dried chili flakes
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 tbs olive oil, plus a glug (about 1 tbs) for frying

*If you are using beef, it’s a good idea to use lean (as opposed to extra lean). You want a little bit of fat to keep the meatballs a bit stickier. Alternatively, you can use this recipe with just about any ground meat of your choice. I recently made this with a 50/50 mix of pork and ostrich.

Method

In a mixing bowl, grate the onion and garlic directly into the bowl to catch as much juice as possible. Add the ground meat, herbs and spices, and olive oil. Knead the mixture until it is thoroughly mixed. Doing this with your hands is best, but I guess you can use a fork if you’re feeling delicate or you don’t have immediate access to soap or something. Form the mixture into balls, and place in a sealed container to chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. At this stage, you can also freeze the meatballs for later use (thaw them in the fridge when you’re ready to cook them). Leave the meatballs in the fridge until you’re ready to fry them.

Pre-heat a nonstick frying pan. It’s important to pre-heat the pan so the meatballs “seal” nicely. When the pan is heated (it doesn’t need to be smoking hot, just hot enough so a few drops of water sizzle away), add a glug of oil. Arrange the meatballs with plenty of space between each one, and fry without moving or touching them until the bottom begins to turn golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Carefully rotate the meatballs and continue frying until they are browned on all sides, around 10-15 minutes. Serve them in any way you see fit, such as perched on top of pasta bathed in red sauce.

One Regular Pizza, Hold the Smoothie

Pizza is one of those dishes that has become so varied and has adjusted so easily to different cultural tastes that the concept of authenticity in relation to it is largely obsolete. Of course, pizza has a specific time and place of invention (Naples in the 18th century to be precise, but the first documented use of the word “pizza” was in 997), but most preferences for this food are a far cry from Antica’s recipe.

When I first arrived in South Africa, I was pretty elated to discover that South Africans love pizza, and that there wasn’t any mayonnaise, seaweed, or larval fish on it like so many pizzas in Japan. However, I did find that pizza in the Cape has its own unique features. Although the pizza scene in Cape Town has changed considerably since my arrival (for instance, New York Slice opened on Kloof Street, and more recently in Seapoint), my Midwestern stomach was very disappointed to be presented with many a crackery crust loaded with toppings that I thought belonged in a smoothie, like bananas, avocados, or figs. Not only that, South African pizza-makers seem to be very happy to play around with the rest of the pizza, too; “tomato jam” is a sauce I’ve seen at more than one stylish pizzeria in the City Bowl…

The easygoing Capetownian attitude towards pizza made the Midwesterner in me pine for a chewy crust and a stricter attitude towards toppings. The only way to avoid another paper-thin letdown was to figure out how to make my own. And so, I did.

 

Yield: 1 pizza, serves 2 (or one really hungry person)

For the crust:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon active dry/instant yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • glug of olive oil (for greasing the bowl)

For the sauce: 

About 6 tablespoons of the Red Sauce we Deserve

For the assembly:

  • 150-200g shredded mozzarella (about 1/2-3/4 cup, depends on your preference for cheesiness)
  • toppings of your choice (this can include fruit, you’re the one eating it)

 

Method:

Sift the flour, salt and yeast in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the mixture and add the water. Stir with a fork or a dough-hook until the dough comes together. Roll out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough becomes smooth, elastic and uniform, about 5-8 minutes. Use the oil to grease the bowl, then return dough to bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest for about at least 30 minutes, or until about doubled in size. Alternatively, place the dough in a sealed container (a zip-close bag is a good idea– the dough needs room to expand and release air) in the fridge and store for up to 5 days. If you make the dough in advance, take it out of the fridge about an hour before you want to use it.

Pizza Assembly:

Preheat the oven to as hot as you can get it, at least 250-280C (480-550F). Punch down the dough (you can achieve this by kneading it for 1-2 minutes) into a ball and lay on a floured surface. Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a round. Don’t be afraid to use flour as liberally as needed. To obtain the most consistent shape and thickness, rotate the round about 45 degrees (add flour each time, otherwise it will stick) after about two turns with the rolling pin, and flip the dough over occasionally. Continue this process until you have reached the desired thickness.

Place the dough on a floured (I suggest using polenta instead of regular flour) pizza stone or baking sheet. Spread the sauce evenly, using the back of a spoon,  to about 1-inch (2cm) of the edge of the dough. Sprinkle the cheese over the sauce, and arrange your toppings over the cheese. Feel free to sprinkle the cheese over your toppings, if that’s how you pizza…

Place the pizza in the preheated oven and bake for 7-10 minutes (this will depend on how hot you can get the oven, so keep an eye on the pizza), or until the cheese is bubbly and developing golden-brown spots. Remove from the oven, slice it up, and eat it.

The Red Sauce we Deserve

I ate spaghetti Napoletana at least four nights a week when I lived in Japan. This was not only because it is probably one of my favo(u)rite dishes, but also because it was incredibly cheap to make, even in Japan. While other shapes of noodles in are reasonably rare, and often expensive if available, the price of spaghetti indicates that this noodle has obviously been integrated into the mainstream of Japanese cooking. The other ingredients required (mostly onions and garlic) to make Napoletana sauce are also inexpensive and readily available in even the smallest supermarkets in Japan. It also just so happens that tomatoes, while not a central feature of Japanese cooking, are still one of the more inexpensive items of produce available– especially when considering nutritional value.

Since I started making it in Japan, this recipe has evolved considerably. It is only in the last year or two that it has become constant. I like to think that this sauce has undergone a fundamentalist revolution in my kitchen. While history has shown us that fundamentalism is often a sign of political turmoil, in this case it saved the sauce.

I don’t know much about how the Italian naming convention of sauce works. There’s some story about how specific names for sauce, like Napoletana or marinara, are only used for specific dishes. Whatever this sauce is actually called, I use it most often as pizza sauce, but it works– as I discussed emphatically above– as a pasta sauce too. It also works as a sauce for seafood (think baked fish or potted mussels), or a dipping sauce for bread-sticks and deep-fried mozzarella. Whatever you want to use it for, it also freezes very nicely, so it’s a good use of time to make a huge batch.

 

The Red Sauce we Deserve 

Yield: 2-3 servings of pasta, or 4-5 pizzas

  • 1 can of chopped, peeled tomatoes, or about 1kg (about 2lbs) fresh tomatoes
  • 3-4 fresh, very ripe tomatoes, any variety
  • 1 medium onion
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 fresh chili; or about 1 tsp dried chili flakes
  • 2 tsp dried oregano; or about 6 sprigs fresh
  • 2 tsp dried basil; or a small handful fresh
  • 1 can water (simply fill the empty tomato can with water)
  • glug of olive oil (about 1 tbs)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method

Dice all the vegetables. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, chili, oregano, and basil. If using fresh herbs, do not add them yet. Cook gently until the onions become translucent and the mixture is fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, canned and fresh tomatoes, and water. If using fresh herbs, add them with the tomatoes. Once the sauce begins to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 30-40 minutes.

Optional, but recommended step (especially if you will be using this as pizza sauce): after cooking for 30-40 minutes, remove from the heat for at least 10 minutes. Place in a blender or food processor on the lowest setting for about 30 seconds, or until the sauce just becomes uniform.

Quesadillas with some trimmings

I started making my own flour tortillas about two years ago. There are plenty of decent flour tortillas available in Cape Town, but the price for a pack of eight (around R35-45, or about $3.50) is discouraging. Rolling out a few tortillas is admittedly time-consuming, and in the greater scheme of me using my time wisely, probably not the most lucrative. At the same time, I consider cooking to be a legitimate and reasonably serious hobby, so I do not find it bothersome to spend an extra 30 minutes or so making my own tortillas.

The rest of the components that I like to pair with quesadillas are much less time-consuming; pico de gallo, guacamole for toppings, and seasoned, pan-fried chicken for the filling. The preparation time for these dishes combined (30-40 minutes) takes only a little more time to prepare than the tortillas.

Thus, if you want this to be a moderately quick meal to prepare, go and buy some tortillas. If you live in a place where tortillas are either painfully expensive, or entirely unavailable (the only place I found tortillas in Japan, in a large frozen stack, was at Yamaya), budget yourself about 40 extra minutes to make some tortillas, for a total of about 1 hour 10 minutes of preparation time.

Quesadillas with some trimmings

Yield: about 4 servings

For the tortillas (makes 8 tortillas):

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for cooking

For the filling:

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts*
  • 1 small bell pepper, any colo(u)r
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 fresh chili; or about 1 tsp dried chili flakes
  • 1 small tomato (roma tomatoes are a good size)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1 cup shredded cheese, such as cheddar, edam, american, or any other medium-fat mild cheeses that melt well.
  • glug of cooking oil (I use olive oil, about 1 tbs)
  • salt and pepper to taste

*Any tender, shredded meat will do, it’s up to you. For a vegetarian option, add a bit more cheese and use cooked black or pinto beans. If these varieties aren’t available, kidney beans are a decent substitute.

For the pico de gallo:

  • 1/2 small purple onion (regular onion will suffice)
  • 3-4 medium-sized tomatoes de-seeded; use roma if available (this variety is fleshier, with less seeds and juice)
  • 2-3 tsp lemon or lime juice
  • small handful fresh cilantro/coriander/dhania
  • salt to taste

For the guacamole: 

  • 1-2 avocados, depending on size
  • 1/2 small purple onion (regular onion will suffice)
  • 3-4 tsp lemon or lime juice, depending on avocado size and taste
  • small handful fresh cilantro/coriander/dhania
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: 1/2 small tomato, de-seeded
  • Optional: 1/2 teaspoon chili powder or flakes

Method:

Tortillas:

Take the chicken out of the fridge and let it warm up a bit as you prepare the tortillas. Sift together flour and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the mixture and add water. Stir with a fork or a dough-hook until the dough comes together. Roll out onto a floured surface and knead until dough just comes together, about 1-2 minutes. Use some oil to grease the bowl, then return dough to bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest for about 20-30 minutes.

The Trimmings: 

Once you set aside the dough to rest, get two bowls ready, and put the lemon juice for each dish in the bowls. Chop the onion and place into each bowl (notice that each dish requires 1/2 an onion). Stir the chopped onion into the lemon/lime juice. This is an important step, since the lemon/lime juice will “cook” the lemon, reducing its sharpness. Finely dice the fresh coriander, again placing into each bowl. Chop up the tomatoes, removing the seeds and juice. If you are adding tomatoes to the guacamole, do not it add to the bowl yet.

Guacamole:

Cut the avocado(s) in half and remove the pit. Scoop out the flesh into one of the bowls and mash it up until reasonably smooth and as uniform as you like. Add the salt, pepper, and optional chili flakes and tomatoes and stir until just combined.

Pico de Gallo:

Add the chopped tomatoes to the lemon/lime juice, onion, and coriander mixture, and stir to combine. Add salt to taste.

Tortillas:

Once the trimmings are finished, the dough has probably rested sufficiently. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. On a floured surface, use your hand to flatten each piece into a disk (this will help keep the tortillas round). Don’t be afraid to use flour as liberally as needed. Pre-heat a large frying pan (11-inch at least). Roll out the tortillas using a rolling pin. To obtain the most consistent thickness, rotate the round about 45 degrees (add flour each time, otherwise it will stick) after about two turns with the rolling pin. Be cautious when you rotate the rounds; add flour to avoid any stickiness. You may get pinches/wrinkles if you aren’t rotating enough or adding enough flour. Continue rolling and rotating until the round is about 10 inches in diameter, or can fit comfortably into the pan.

Spread a small glug of oil evenly in the pan. A large, wide, flat spatula will be very beneficial for this process. Fry each tortilla for about 1-2 minutes per side, until small bubbles appear in the dough. Be sure to add more oil for each new tortilla (you don’t need to replenish the oil for each side of each tortilla).

Filling:

Now that the tortillas are finished, heat a glug of cooking oil in another pan (use the tortilla pan for the quesadilla assembly following this). Sprinkle both sides of the chicken with a little salt, pepper, and paprika, and fry until cooked through (about 5-10 minutes depending on the size of the breasts). While the chicken is cooking, chop up the vegetables and shred the cheese for the filling. Once the chicken is cooked through, set aside (ideally in a bowl that will catch the juice). In the same pan, add the chopped onion, garlic, pepper, chili, and tomato. Cook for 1-3 minutes, and then add the cumin, coriander, oregano, and a little more salt and pepper. Continue cooking until some of the liquid from the vegetables starts evaporating, about another 3-5 minutes. As the mixture cooks, shred the chicken with a knife and fork. Add the shredded chicken to the pan, and stir until just combined. Remove from the heat and keep covered.

Quesadilla Assembly: 

In the heated pan you used to make the tortillas, heat a small glug of oil (about 1 tsp). Place one tortilla in the pan and about 1/8 cup of the cheese on the tortilla, spread out to within about 1 inch (about 2 centimeters) of the edge of the tortilla. Spread 1/4 of the chicken mixture over the cheese, and then add another 1/8 cup on top. Place a second tortilla over the mixture, and press down with your hand, or the flat spatula. Keep pressing down, and occasionally rotate, until the bottom tortilla becomes golden brown and slightly crisp, about 4-5 minutes. Flip the quesadilla over and cook the other side until browned and slightly crisp (use the spatula to press down on the side which as been cooked). Repeat this process for the remaining 3 quesadillas.

A good way to keep the quesadillas warm as you fry the others is in a heated oven, at about 100C (200F). To serve, cut the quesadillas into quarters using a pizza-cutter. Dig in!

Lasagne is the plural

I first developed this recipe in Japan, when it was originally deemed, “flying floor lasagne.” I didn’t have an oven. I had a toaster “oven” with a door that barely closed to fit the square baking pan I purchased from a restaurant supply store. Upon the first successful, delicious attempt at “baking” a lasagne in the flimsy aluminum and plastic appliance, the heavy, gorgeous pan of lasagne landed face down on the floor as I attempted to extricate it from the toaster. We definitely scraped as much of it as possible back into the pan and ate it.

This recipe is easy in the sense that there are no complicated techniques involved. However, it is reasonably time consuming, since it is ideal to let the sauce simmer for at least 45 minutes before assembling the dish. Nevertheless, most of the “time” involved in this dish is passive; you can leave the sauce to let it simmer and go do something else, and do the same again once the lasagne is in the oven. The “active” amount of time involved with this dish is probably around 30 minutes, which includes time for hand-shredding the cheese.

Flying Floor Lasagne Ingredients

Yield: 6-8 servings

For the sauce:

  • About 500g (about 1lb) ground beef*
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4-5 sprigs of fresh rosemary, chopped; or about 1 tbs dried
  • 1 fresh chili, chopped; or about 1 tsp dried chili flakes
  • 4-5 sprigs of fresh oregano; or about 2 tsp dried
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 250g (8oz), or one punnet of mushrooms, chopped; optional
  • 6 fresh roma tomatoes if available (other varieties will do just fine)
  • 1 can chopped peeled tomatoes; or at least 1kg fresh tomatoes
  • 1 can water (simply fill the empty tomato can with water)
  • About 1/2 cup (about 125ml) red wine; optional but recommended
  • Two glugs of olive oil (about 2-4 tbs)
  • salt and pepper to taste

For the assembly: 

  • About 300g (about 2 cups shredded) mozzarella, shredded
  • About 100g (about 1/2 cup shredded) pecorino, parmesan, or other hard cheese, shredded
  • 250g (about 1lb) lasagna noodles
  • About 1-2 tsp fresh (chopped) or dried basil

*The leanness of the beef is up to you. You can also substitute ground ostrich or turkey. For a vegetarian option, add an additional punnet of mushrooms.

Method

Sauce: 

Take the beef out of the fridge and let it warm up a bit as you chop the vegetables. First, heat some of the oil (about 1 tbs) and cook the chopped mushrooms until all the liquid evaporates. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and set aside. Heat the rest of the oil on medium heat in a large saucepan, and add the onions, garlic, chili, oregano, and rosemary. Cook gently until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the beef, paprika, and some of the salt and pepper, and allow to brown, another 5-7 minutes. Next, add the wine and simmer until most of the liquid evaporates. Add the fresh and tinned (or entirely fresh) tomatoes and the water. When the sauce starts to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and let it cook for about 45 minutes.

Assembly:

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F). Add the cooked mushrooms into the sauce, and then turn off the heat. Spread a few tablespoons of sauce in the bottom of a baking dish that can fit 3 sheets of lasagna side-by-side (usually 33x23cm, or 9x13in). Place 3 sheets of lasagna over the sauce. Using a cooking spoon or a small ladle, spoon more sauce over the pasta (about 3 scant ladles per layer). Sprinkle some cheese over the sauce, then place more lasagna sheets on top of the cheese. Repeat until you have about 4-5 layers of pasta. You may want to gently push down the pasta sheets after each layer. pour the remaining sauce over the top, and sprinkle any leftover mozzarella with the hard cheese on top. Sprinkle the basil over the cheese. Cover the pan with foil or the matching top, and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil or pan top and Bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese starts to bubble and brown. Enjoy!