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.

 

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.

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.

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!