Best Mac ‘n’ Cheese ever!
And because it’s a vegetable, it has no calories!
From all our time in Georgia, two places stand out for parading before you some of the best and most genuine down-home southern cooking you’ll ever have: The Blue Willow Inn, in the town of Social Circle, Georgia, and Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta.
Left, a vertically disoriented shot I took of the Blue Willow Inn’s veranda, in Social Circle, Georgia. The food inside was insanely good. The patrons inside were mostly gray or blue haired, not dressed for New York City, and generally portly. On the right, Mary Mac’s perfect fried green tomatoes (their pic). You can sit and have a two hour lunch and gain five pounds in one sitting.
My lunch at Mary Mac’s Tea Room
My wife and I joined a couple of friends for lunch one sunny spring day at this Atlanta institution (and enduring monument to southern culinary indulgence) on Ponce de Leon Avenue near downtown, got a table, checked the menu, made up our minds, and soon enough the waitress came by. “Y’all decided yet?”
We had. I went last.
Just so you know, Mary Mac’s Tea Room has as much to do with “tea” as McDonald’s has to do with lemongrass soup.
“Pot likker with cracklin bread to start.”
“Good choice. Pot –“
“And some fried green tomatoes.”
“And… Chicken fried chicken with white pepper gravy. Looks great.”
“Very good.” She wrote.
“Just for fun, the four-piece fried chicken.” I could hear my wife’s eyebrows arching.
“Chicken fried chicken and the four piece fried chicken?” the waitress said.
“Yes. Plus biscuits and pea gravy. And some hush puppies on the side. – we’ll share.”
“Hush puppies all around.”
“And some scrapple?”
“No that was breakfast – sorry.”
“Well then, some cheese grits.”
“Cheese grits. Vegetable?” she asked.
“Mac ‘n’ cheese. Oh, and some creamed corn and fried okra. Yum.”
She wrote and then shook her hand violently to get rid of what I took to be an attack of writer’s cramp, smiled, and headed off to what I could only assume to be a dumfounded kitchen staff. Memory doesn’t always serve me well, and I may not have ordered exactly all of that, but it couldn’t have been too far off because when we finally stopped eating and struggled to our feet to waddle, nay, waft, out of the restaurant toward our cars and drive home with our deep longing sighs of gluttonous remorse, and when I stepped on the scales in the bathroom, there it was: five more pounds.
No matter. The absolute best thing about real southern cooking is how incredibly delicious it is. That’s the whole point. Flavor. Mouth feel. Taste. Deliciousness. Of course much of it is fried, in one way or another, and as often as not the frying medium is peanut oil – not canola or corn oil or sunflower or safflower oil, but peanut oil – which has a slightly nutty flavor (from peanuts? go figure!), a lower than average flash point, and makes things crispier and crunchier than other oils. So when we fry, say, haddock at home here on the banks of the Weskeag River, or scallops or chunks of chicken, it’s in a blend of half canola and half peanut oil to give it that extra crunch. The downside? Peanut oil is a bit pricy, and it’s not so good for you. But man, it’s the only way to go with so many fried things, like fish and chicken.
So where are we, a few months into my second year of blogging? It’s all about what I’d like you to get from all this. I’d like you to get a sense of my affection and admiration for this country, all parts and compass points of it, and so many people I’ve met in it I’d never know unless I’d traveled. I’d like you to get to crack a smile and a chuckle now and then. I’d like you to be, at times, as fascinated as I am by the outer edges of science and thought and irony. And I’d like you to eat with as much pleasure and gusto and sense of adventure as I have. I guess that’s the blog credo. Love, thought, food. Nice little trinity there.
My son did graduate work at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and at one point one of his housemates and friends was a fellow names Matt Lee, who, later with his brother Ted, wrote what many consider to be the definitive book on southern cooking – The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. – which has won multiple awards (including the James Beard Cookbook of the Year for 2007). It’s nearly 600 pages long and is lovingly crafted and written and it has the best mac ‘n’ cheese recipe you’ll ever find, if you make just one tiny adjustment: skip the gruyere cheese and stick with cheddar.
Here’s my version, and it elicits from our guests deep sighs of ineluctable pleasure.
Note that the recipe below is a new plug-in feature from WordPress, the blog people. It’s handy, but it doesn’t let me do much. In fact, if I want to italicize any single word, it’ll cost me $24.95 to upgrade! $24.95 to italicize a single word??!! C’mon, people!!
I may go back to the old way, we’ll see.
- 3 tbsps. butter
- 3 tbsps. flour
- 3 cups milk (yes, this is a lot of milk for a roux, but remember it all bakes uncovered so the roux will thicken quite a bit)
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 lbs. (about 12 cups) grated sharp cheddar (we use "Seriously sharp" Cabot)
- 1 lb. elbow macaroni
- black pepper
- Other ingredients as you wish: ham, hot dog pieces, sausage, etc.
- The baseline fundamental for a perfect macaroni and cheese is the roux. You gotta have roux!! Second to that is lots of cheese. Tons of cheese. Meaning Two pounds of extra sharp cheddar.
- Boil the macaroni in salted water till it's al dente - about 7 minutes. Drain, and set aside in a large bowl.
- In a large skillet, melt the butter on low heat and whisk in the flour, stirring continuously for about 3 mins. until the roux browns. Add the milk, bay leaves, and a dash of salt, turn the heat up to medium and simmer gently for about 10 mins. until the sauce thickens a bit. Remove the bay leaves. Lower the heat to sim and add half of the grated cheese, stirring until it's fully melted.
- Pour all the sauce into the bowl of macaroni and stir. Spoon about half of the mac and cheese into a large, buttered (or oiled) casserole. Take most of the remaining grated cheddar and spread it over. Now spoon out the rest of the mac and cheese into the casserole, and sprinkle the remaining grated cheddar on top. Bake at 350, uncovered for 30 mins. If you want, crisp up the top of the mac and cheese under the broiler for about 2 mins.
- ☞ Variations/add ons: add crumbled sausage, diced ham, Little Smokey sausages, or chopped hot dogs.
You’ll notice in my photo little green flecks on top. These are chopped bits of hot jalapenos, which we decided to throw in at the last minute. Very hot peppers has the effect of keeping you from eating the dish too quickly, which is what most people will want to do. Also, this is (for want of a better word) a bifurcated mac ‘n’ cheese casserole, with elbow macaroni on the left side and gluten-free Ronzoni penne pasta on the right (since I try to avoid gluten). No matter – whatever pasta you use, this is so so so good.
Tick season is upon us again. Think I’ll be doing that next time…