I just don’t like these new Mac & Cheese recipes! Is that wrong?

One of my ongoing cooking challenges has been to make a “good” Mac & Cheese.  In the past year or so I think I’ve labored over this bastion of old time comfort/diner food at least a dozen times or so, not once enjoying what I would consider success.

Making any scratch Mac & Cheese involves conjuring up a flavorful cheese sauce by cooking a bechamel-like cheese concoction, mixing it with a quantity of cooked pasta, either elbows, shells, or penne, then baking it.  Bam! Simple, huh?

I came to the realization last night that my expectations of a certain result, a flavor profile that would satisfy ME, were simply off track.  It isn’t because I was making it wrong, I was just making it with the desire for a different taste or outcome than I have been getting.

Let’s face it, Macaroni and Cheese has been around for a long time.  Recipes are all over food magazines and food sites and now served in trendier places than your favorite greasy spoons.  However, these recipes, though sounding intriguing, don’t produce a “traditional”, the-way-mamma-used-to-make-it result.  These nouveau renditions have introduced a plethora of “untraditional” cheeses and ingredients like goat cheese, Asiago cheese, Fontina, Gouda, and yes, sometimes cheddar and American.  These last two cheeses is where I should start and stop in my quest for the perfect Mac & Cheese.  So you see, my “failed” versions (including the one I spent a couple hours on last night) are far from failures.  I have simply been expecting a different outcome.

Mind you, I am not yet ready to head back to the blue box of Kraft yak,  I just think I need to shift gears, realign my flavor buds, and attempt a truly old fashioned recipe.  The version I made last night probably tasted exactly like it was supposed to taste.  The short take on the recipe:  steeping the half and half with garlic and fresh thyme, rendering down pancetta and using the fat from that to make the roux, and using a combination of seven cheeses (as mentioned above).  Why would I expect it to taste like my old favorite?  It’s an entirely different animal this new kind of Mac & Cheese.  Each time I taste one of my new recipes my first inclination is to do the Skip Hansen Two-Step Shuffle towards the stainless steel receptacle!  And that is exactly what I did.  It didn’t taste bad, it just didn’t taste like I expected it to.  Imagine that…I’m still throttled by my own misguided, self-destructing expectations at this late age!  And the worse part: I stew on them (pardon the pun) and it’s only cooking!!!  I’m up and writing about it at four in the morning for gosh sakes.

I think the Mac & Cheese I made last night would satisfy any number of trendy food fans in any number of trendy little bistros.  I’m sure of that as most of the recipes from which I “borrowed” ingredients are from places that supposedly serve this stuff to elated customers looking for something new not traditional. It tasted exactly like it was supposed to taste:  though smooth, it was too tart and cheesy for my liking.  Asiago, Parmigianno-Reggiano, and Sharp English White Cheddar have those flavor profiles.  End of story (?)  Not quite.

Though it is the end of this blog entry, the story won’t end here.  I will endeavor to simplify a new recipe for Mac & Cheese (from scratch) and try again soon.  I’m thinking milder, yellow cheddar and perhaps an old staple:  Velvetta.  Did I just say Velvetta?  Yep.  I’ll save those other elegant cheeses for other culinary adventures, but not for Mac & Cheese.

It sounded good…it just didn’t taste good…not matter how many times I tried. Geeze, I’m stubborn.  It only took a dozen or so times to figure out this one!

This ain’t your Father’s rib eye!

This’ll be short and sweet.

I love to eat meat.  Most of us (honestly) do.  Fact is, I simply do not eat near as much meat as I used to, for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s just not a good idea for me to consume large quantities of steer flesh any longer…’nuff said for now on the health issues.  Secondly, I would rather pass on most beef found in the grocery store because it’s just not raised right, cut right, or (heavens) aged at all!  Good aged beef is superb.  “New” beef purchased as a so-called steak in the store is simply not very flavorful.  Bottom line:  I’d rather not subject myself to it, however seldom, if it ain’t good.

On a medical side note, I underwent an Endoscopy last week (the camera down the gullet to photograph the interior of your stomach).  I fully expected the doc to tell me afterwards, “Mr. Hansen, your stomach is perfectly normal.  However, we did have to remove approximately 6 pounds of undigested meat!”  Realistically, I suppose that crap will be found in my colon during the colonoscopy next week…not in my stomach.

So, side from a couple of meals a week, I now eat mostly chicken and fish for protein.  Yesterday, however, I broke down and bought a good looking rib steak (about 1 pound) at an upscale grocery with an actual butcher department to share with Loretta for dinner tonight.  Yes, we share that amount and still have half left over for the next day.  Sadly, I am no longer able to (or have want to) down beef in measurements of pounds.  Four ounces does me just fine now.  Four ounces of GOOD beef.

Here’s my beef in this blog.  The most flavorful steak on a grill is the rib steak, or, what they now call a rib eye.  The Prime Rib Roast is really the best, but requires a larger amount in one hunk and needs to be slow cooked to rare…blah, blah, blah, etc, etc.  How to cook a prime rib properly will come in a later blog.  So…here’s the story…what they sell in stores and call a rib eye is actually a boneless rib steak.  Perhaps the Ag Department has looked the other way for years or just allowed meat cutters to change the nomenclature, but a boneless rib steak is not a rib eye.  A rib eye is the center cut from a rib steak.  The bone and outside flap is removed (even though it is more flavorful than the eye) and it is labeled a “Rib Eye Steak”.

Really, the best way to buy this particular cut of meat other on a Prime Rib is to buy a full on, bone-in rib steak…and cook it hot and fast on a BBQ!  Furthermore, if it ain’t at least 1 1/2 inches thick, you are wasting your money.  By the way, the same goes for a New York.  Buy it cut thick with the bone on…and it’s called a Kansas City Strip.  Ask the butcher.  If he doesn’t know what a Kansas City Strip is (or a real rib eye for that matter), question his credentials and find another butcher.  If you want a real rib eye, ask him to custom cut you one at least 1 1/2 inches thick, with no more than a 1/4 inch of fat, and remove that outside flap.  Now…you got a real rib eye!

As far a cooking one of these bad boys (or any other nice cut of beef)…do it hot and fast, turn it only once (with tongs), never f***ing poke it with a fork while it’s cooking (the humanity of it all), and remove it from the heat at an internal temperature of no more than 135 degrees (medium rare).  Let it rest for at least five minutes, then slice in.  As a point of fact, most good steak houses will not cook your steak past medium rare without a disclaimer: “Any steaks cooked more than MR will not be guaranteed”…end o’ story.  Visually, medium rare is charred on the outside and an even pink all the way through.  If there is a slight amount of red in the middle, so be it.  A lot of red in the middle and you have yourself a rare steak.  And, by the way, that is way ALL prime rib is cooked…rare.  If you want your cut more than rare, they will throw it on the broiler or plop it in the au jus for a couple on minutes.  Again, not guaranteeing tenderness.

Personally, regarding seasonings, I use salt, fresh ground pepper, and a sprinkling of my own seasoning mix.  Not seasoned salt, a seasoning mix.

If you have the time, age your steak yourself by removing it from the package, placing it on a plate, and covering the plate with a Tupperware cover with holes in it.  How long?  As long as you can before it starts to smell “different”…a week works fine.  Sounds like a pain in the ass, right?  If so, then ask yourself this question:  Is it worth it to have a flavorful, tender steak you paid about $10 a pound for?  Me thinks yes.

Bon Apetit

My revised Bucket List…in reverse.

A few years ago (my 55th b-day I think) I made a 55 item bucket list.  It was a lofty list with things-to-do before I die.  Lofty because of the scope and cost of some of the items.  Though some may have been more than just lofty, most were realistic at that time.

Today, however, that list must be revised for financial and, more importantly, health reasons.  I just won’t be able to accomplish many of these.  I won’t relist all 55, just a few that will not happen.

  1. Climb Half Dome in Yosemite.
  2. Fly in a Navy F-14 fighter jet.
  3.  Open my own restaurant.
  4. Skydive?  (I left a question mark on this since it could happen if my balls don’t completely disappear)

This strike through list is small I know.  I may have to add to it as years go by.

So now, here is an edited version of what I would like to do, or accomplish, or places to which I would like to travel before I check out.

  1.  Go to Denmark (the country of half of my grand parent’s birth).
  2. Buy and ride another Harley (I’ve had 3 in the last 10 years), it’s time for another.
  3. Ride to Sturgis.
  4. Write a book.
  5. Publish a book of photographs.
  6. Buy an RV and travel.
  7. Get to Seattle more often (to visit my daughter, grandson, and son-in-law).
  8. Visit my mother, sisters, and son more on the Central Coast.
  9.  Make a living with my photography.
  10. Adopt another greyhound.
  11. Go fly fishing.
  12. Go to Disneyland (again).
  13. Move out of Modesto and nearer the ocean.
  14. Start and successfully maintain a large salt water aquarium.
  15. Learn to cook better.
  16. Be a better husband.
  17. Be a better father.
  18. Be a better son.
  19. Be a better brother.
  20. Be a better friend.
  21. Not sweat the small or big stuff any longer.
  22. Be happy with myself.

I don’t see any compelling reasons why most of these are not completely realistic at this point in my life.  A few may require a couple of bucks, most will only require the desire, getting off my ass, and follow through.

And you?

A few words about java…

We all know the biggest scam in the world, second only to that diddy about the devil (that he doesn’t exist),  or some recent Ponzi schemes, is the coffee scam…  the one in which we willingly pay four dollars or more for a paper cup full of the brown stuff.  It is genius.

The notion that these four dollar cups of coffee are better than what we have at home or were raised with is a bit absurd.  To put this in proper perspective, let’s step back in time a bit.

For me, the best cup of coffee I ever had was made in my ex-mother-in-law’s kitchen…in an old, tin, stove top percolator.  It was the only coffee I could actually enjoy BLACK!  By the way, the second best cup I ever had was made in my ex-sister-in-law’s kitchen, also using an old, tin stove top percolator.  Only with her coffee, I added fresh, whole dairy milk, only hours from being coaxed out of a nearby Holstein cow…and still, no sugar.

This coffee debate will rage on as long a there are Starbucks and Seattle’s Best places to dispense java.  Arguably, many aficianados claim the French press method is best.  The down side here is the fact that by the time this coffee reaches your lips (after pressing and steeping) it just isn’t hot enough any longer for some tastes.

At home, we have been using a Cuisinart coffee maker for quite some time.  After experimenting over the years with many different brands and grinds, we still return to our favorite:  Yuban.  Although Yuban is usually a bit more expensive than the store brands or Folgers, we like it.  Yuban is still more economical than the grind-it-yourself beans from Hawaii, Nigeria, or who knows where.  It just tastes good.

I keep threatening to buy a stove top or even an electric percolator, but I’ve hesitated.  I’m quite confident that a brand new percolator will not produce the results I enjoyed from my ex-mother-in-law’s aging tin appliance.  There has to be something said for a properly aged percolator – there has to be a flavor element factored in from years of use and “seasoning” just like good, old frying pans and grills.

My Mom used to make great coffee, but has since settled for the convenience of Folgers crystals!  Honestly, it is not bad…just not great coffee.

Over the years, Loretta has become (for lack of better word) addicted to adding some sort of Hazelnut coffee creamer to hers.  So have I until recently.  I reintroduced plain half and half (or cream at times) with real sugar to our kitchen and she seems to like it.  I said, “You might like this especially when we are spending more for Yuban!”  She agreed.

At work in the break room there is a Mr. Coffee maker.  I don’t touch that stuff for two simple reasons.  It tastes like battery acid, and, Lord knows what is inside this thing.  In our house, we clean out the coffee maker at least once a week (with one batch per day being produced).  At work perhaps a dozen or more are run through it per day.  My gosh, it must be teaming with accumulated, slimy sludge.  The humanity of it all!  Of course, most of the cups of coffee from this infernal nightmare of a coffee maker are pounded down, not for pure coffee enjoyment, but for the effect of the caffeine. I’m guessing if you drink enough of it, the caffeine will kill whatever is living inside this bacteria laden haunted house.

Whether you imbibe your coffee for the pure taste of slow roasted Colombian grown beans (Thanks, Juan Valdez), or just for the jolting effect of caffeine, keep this in mind.  Every year, surveys indicate the number one preferred cup of coffee comes from Denny’s.  And Denny’s uses a commercial brand called Farmers Brothers purported to be made of coffee essence soaked pieces of paper.  With this information and a quarter, you can get a cup of coffee (50 years ago!).

Arrrgh! It’s friggin’ hot. Let’s go swimming!

Arrrgh!  It’s friggin’ hot again.  Let’s go swimming!

Born in south Dakota but raised in Southern  California, I never had to endure the other end of the temperature scale that comes with living in one of the tundra states.  For a bevy of reasons I never really explored with them, my parents loaded up a late forties Oldsmobile with baby me and all their other cherished belongings, bid farewell to their sisters and brothers  and migrated to the San Fernando Valley.  They also said good bye to the oppressive Sioux Falls winters.  It was 1952.

As a child all I ever knew was mild, sometimes rainy  winters and the balmy summers of Southern California.  The coming of summer would bring an occasional week or two of the hot stuff.  But for the most part, the weather was beautiful.  Let’s face it, the post war mass immigration to the west coast was brought on not only by work opportunities burgeoning in Los Angeles but by the desirable weather.  After two years in the Navy and Korea, my father bailed from his (and my) birth state and sought out employment in the fledgling computer industry…and headed to sunny SoCal.  From the early fifties to the late seventies he supported his growing family by working for the likes of IBM and others.

Back to the Arrrgh!  It’s friggin’ hot again.

As a child, the heat that came with summer was a welcome respite from the wet Springs that California presented.  And even though I cherished the rain (and still do to this day), the warmth of summer and all that came with it was even more coveted.  As with most kids I loved the summer!  Summer meant a long-awaited hiatus from school, vacations at the lake and the beach, daily excursions to the ocean, and swimming in our pool.  Yes, my Dad had a pool built in our brand new West San Fernando Valley tract home as soon as we moved in.  It was 1957.

I think more than anything else, my memories of summer are infused with those times in the swimming pool.  My two sisters and I remained pretty much waterlogged from June to September.

Our family was the first in our neighborhood to get a pool.  Many others were dug and built by our neighbors as the years went by.  Consequently, until the swimming pools began to flourish, it was ours that remained the neighborhood swimming hole for a few years.  We were very popular kids.

That fifteen by thirty foot cement and gunite hole in the ground provided many years of entertainment not only for us but for our parents as well.  Mom and Dad put on some great pool parties.  Our backyard was party central.  My father even build a redwood gazebo at one end of the yard complete with dried palm fronds (gathered by him and I from a nearby date palm grove), hand-carved tiki faces, and flaming tiki torches.  On any given summer weekend, what seemed like throngs of adults and their children descended upon the Hansen Family backyard.  They were usually impromptu pot luck affairs but Dad provided the hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, and steaks.  Our redwood picnic table nestled under the south sea style gazebo was filled with net-covered bowls of chips, potato salads, platters of sliced watermelon, and condiments for the burgers.  Nearby Coleman coolers were packed with ice and frosty bottles of Royal Crown Cola (a Hansen staple back then) and Miller High Life (another family staple as it was Dad’s  favorite beer).  The smell of BBQ smoke wafted throughout the yard – all charcoal all the time, no gas BBQs back then. My dad even dragged our mahogany Magnavox Hi-Fi console to the patio (no stereo back then, it was mono but it had a huge speaker) blaring records from Glenn Miller, Patsy Cline, Louis Prima and, of course, Frank Sinatra.  The adults in their big sunglasses and straw hats would sit in the chaise lounges drinking, smoking, and chatting while the kids languished in the pool on a multitude of inflatable pool toys…jumping, splashing, and squealing.  Every once in a while an inebriated guest (mostly male) would reluctantly end up in the pool still wearing their shirt or other fashionable terrycloth cover up.  If one went in, it was usually followed by at least one other in retribution.  A few head dunkings would ensue as well, though most never really got out of hand – most of them anyway.

The adults all seemed so old to me back then.  I’m sure they were no older than their late twenties or early thirties.  I do remember many of their names to this day, but they shall remain anonymous for historical accuracy.  Speaking of historical accuracy, many of these poolside parties were archived through the lens of my father’s Kodak 8mm Brownie movie camera.  The countless rolls of those films now since preserved to VHS tape and awaiting transfer to DVD.  Watching those soundless movies today is priceless.  Yet, even though soundless I can still hear the music playing in my mind as I watch some of the more daring parents dancing with one another (usually with someone else’s spouse) on the red and black colored pool deck.  Kids would get in on this by standing on their parent’s feet wanting to be a part of the elder’s fun.

For the most part, the women remained out of the pool wishing to maintain their stylish bouffant hair styles.  The guys all seemed to make a big splash at least once, usually taking a long run and leaping halfway into the pool amongst all the dog-paddling children.  A cannon ball ‘dive’ by a full sized human provided cheers and laughs for all until that same human thought it even more fun to begin splashing the dry-haired ladies sitting in the chaise lounges.  There would be some momentary scouldings thrown at the perpetrator who would then slosh up the steps out of the pool, give his spouse a wet hug, and pick up his cocktail once again.  All was forgiven for now…until he got home I’m sure!

The camping trips and drives to Zuma Beach for the day were great.  But times in and around our swimming pool is what summer was all about.  Wrinkled finger tips and toes, the smell of chlorine on your skin, and even green hair meant summer was well under way.  The green hair?  Yep.  My sisters had blonde hair until adulthood.  After a few weeks of chlorinated pool water and plenty of sunshine…it turned a greenish hue!  My hair was brown by then so it didn’t show any of those effects.

At this point in my life, I don’t live in a house with a swimming pool just outside the back patio door.  I probably won’t do any swimming unless we take one of those two day trips to a motel in Monterey or Santa Cruz.  I will not endure the grotesque environment that comes with swimming in a large public pool!  I know what those kids are doing the moment they jump in, it’s what I used to do…pee, or worse.  There is not enough chlorine in the world to provide me with any peace of mind sloshing around in that kind of open sewer.

I do miss swimming in our pool.  But here and now…there is always the ubiquitous A/C, something one must not be without in the Central Valley of Northern Cal.  It is July 3rd and the temperature is supposed to rise into the low 100’s this weekend.  Perhaps I will resurrect a VHS player from the confines of the garage storage and relive, at least for a few moments, those cherished times in the pool in Southern California.  Where did I put that thing anyway?

Sorry, this still of Ludivine Sagnier from the movie Swimming Pool has nothing whatsoever to do with my memories of our swimming pool.  I thought it would dress up this post!