Does it feel like the calm before the storm? Thanksgiving is bearing down fast, and cooks are starting to get busy. Here at Food, we’re happy to help, with two sections full of great tips and recipes: next Wednesday, Nov. 20, and again on Sunday, Nov. 24.
In fact, we’ve already started helping, with our annual rundown of places where you can order fresh, local turkeys. In case you missed it, here’s our list.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have plenty of interesting reading to offer you right now that has nothing to do with turkey. For instance: When reporter Tim Carman found out about a local business that sells meals ready to cook, he bought one and made it — then made the same meal two different ways and compared the three for cost, time and taste. Read the results of his labors here., and tips on how to cook smarter.
Also this week, follow Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin to a famous barbecue competition in Tennessee, where he shadows a Virginia team hoping for glory and accepts an unexpected invitation. And Unearthed columnist Tamar Haspel talks to people on both sides of the debate over genetically modified foods and actually finds a patch of common ground.
And then there’s today’s Free Range chat, our weekly hour of schmoozing with you, the reader. We kick it off at noon. The Thanksgiving questions have started to come in over the past couple of weeks, but we’ll talk about anything you want. Cooking instructor Linda Carucci is joining us, providing expert advice on how to up your game in the kitchen.
Just to tide you over, here’s a leftover question from a previous chat:
I have a few favorite types of pre-made frozen macaroni and cheese, but I think I could make my own for less money and freeze them as single servings that would keep for a while. However, I worry about mushy pasta and freezer burn. Do you have any tips for cooking and packaging a serving of homemade mac and cheese that will freeze well AND warm up easily in the microwave?
First, congrats on your good idea. Homemade mac and cheese will be less expensive in the long run than store-bought frozen, even if you buy good-quality cheeses — and maybe even pricey additions such as sausage, shrimp, mushrooms, red bell pepper, shredded chicken, the list goes on and on. (Just like our storehouse of M&C recipes goes on and on, as you’ll see later.)
I just did some quick calculations using our recipe for Classic Macaroni and Cheese. With just the basics — pasta, cheese, milk and a bread crumb topping — it makes 10 generous main-course servings of about 10 ounces each and costs roughly $10 to make. Stouffer’s 40-ounce tub of frozen mac and cheese costs $5.79 at Wegmans, and you’d need 2 1/2 boxes’ worth to get ten 10-ounce servings, which would run you . . . (sound of tapping calculator keys) . . . $14.48. A respectable savings!
Of course, you have to factor in your time, so if you’re a highly compensated CEO who doesn’t like to cook, it definitely wouldn’t be worth it. But if you’re just a regular Joe or Jill who enjoys spending time in front of the stove, it’ll be fun and satisfying.
Macaroni and cheese freezes very well. I ought to know; I worked on a big mac and cheese project last year and was eating the research materials for months afterwards. You don’t need to do anything special when preparing whichever recipe you choose; just make sure that when you cook your pasta, you keep it al dente. That will help stave off the mushiness you’re concerned about. Another thing: I haven’t really noticed this, but some cooks believe that the cooked pasta absorbs too much of the sauce over time and makes the dish dry. The antidote is to cut back slightly on the amount of pasta, to increase the ratio of cheese to mac. If you find that your defrosted portions are too dry, try that technique.
I hate, hate, hate freezer burn. To thwart it, I bake and cool my mac and cheese, then cut individual portions. I double-wrap them in plastic wrap, then add a single layer of aluminum foil, and for good measure I zip them into plastic freezer bags — labeled and dated, of course. Six months is the recommended freezing limit, though I have eaten mine beyond that and they’ve been fine.
Defrosting almost any food is best done overnight in the refrigerator, and that’s true for mac and cheese. But if you haven’t planned that far ahead, no problem. You can reheat in the microwave on low power, cutting the portion in half after a while to expose the center. A slightly better, though slower, option is to remove the plastic wrap and return the food to the aluminum foil, and reheat in the oven. It doesn’t seem to get as dried-out that way, and I think the flavor is better. Plus, if you have a crumb topping, you can peel back the foil for the final few minutes and get it nice and crisp.
Now, which recipe to use? Besides the Classic Macaroni and Cheese I mentioned earlier, our Recipe Finder is full of ’em. We’ve got macaroni and cheese that tastes like Buffalo wings, we’ve got mac and cheese with squash, we’ve got it with lobster, we have an Indian version, we have a low-fat version. That’s enough to keep you busy, and to keep your freezer full.