When you’re down and confused and you don’t remember who you’re talking to. When your baby’s so far away that she might just as well be busted flat in Baton Rouge. When freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; when you keep your red, red wine close to you because something’s tearing apart your blue, blue heart.
When it’s time to laugh and cry about it all again, when you’re so lonesome you could cry, when your sweetheart sends you a letter of goodbye, when you’re so vain – or depressed – that you probably think this column is about you.
When nothing but soul food can console you. That’s when there’s only one dish that’s going to warm your heart and make you feel right again. Macaroni cheese.
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn than macaroni cheese is popular among Country & Western songwriters. It’s just the thing after a night on stage pouring your heart out to your foot-stompin’, hair-tuggin’, breast-beatin’ fans about how your wife ran off with the handsome cowboy from the neighbouring ranch, the dog died of a broken heart (country singers’ dogs do that if they haven’t already fled to the neighbouring county to get away from all the goddamn caterwauling), or the lowlife yeller bastard you married left you for some tight-jeans-wearin’, over-mascara’d cow(girl) he met at the hoedown.
Macaroni cheese goes down well at Good Ole Party conventions too. Those Republicans are a grouchy lot, and Sarah Palin and her army of gridiron football moms must be dab hands at cooking up a great dollop of mac cheese to soothe their gung-ho husbands and sons after another hard day of whingeing about the goddamn lily-livered liberals.
Tom Cruise could probably use some right now, but not Katie Holmes, she’s looking perky.
Macaroni cheese is also just the thing if you’re Greek. If you are, you probably can’t afford brinjals, and especially not lamb mince, or for that matter youvetsi (a lamb dish) or kleftiko (a lamb dish) or, you know, Greek Lamb. All very depressing. But never mind, macaroni cheese is cheap and easy to make, and it makes you feel much better about the state of the drachma (euro, whatever).
Closer to home in South Africa, macaroni cheese can be brought out to ease our troubled minds at the end of a day when we’ve been traumatised by the latest corruption scandal, which means that you can pretty much eat if every night.
Having said that, macaroni cheese does not have to be a stodgy, floury, slurpy glob of vaguely cheesy-tasting white sauce run through with chewy, half-cooked macaroni. Which it often is. That’s what you get when you see macaroni cheese as something to be thrown together in half an hour after you get home from work, right? I hear brows furrowing everywhere.
No no no. Macaroni cheese takes time. You can do a roast and three veg in the time it should take to make macaroni cheese.
500g macaroni, cooked al dente in briskly boiling water and drained
1 large onion
3 or 4 spring onions, sliced
3 or 4 large (or 4-6 smaller) very ripe tomatoes, halved
2-3 cloves garlic (optional)
1 red chilli (optional)
1 Tbs tomato paste (Italian, in a tube, is best)
2 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs butter
2 Tbs flour or chickpea flour
1 litre full cream milk OR 800ml milk and 200ml cream
300g mature cheddar cheese or other strongly-flavoured cheese of your choice, such as Gruyere
Parmesan for grating on top (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
First, roast your veg. Yes, roast your veg. Trust me, it makes a world of difference to the flavour. Quarter onion, slice spring onions, peel whole garlic, halve tomatoes, drizzle with olive oil and toss in a roastiung pan. The chilli can go in too if you’re using it. Roast for an hour or so at 180°C, tossing now and then. If anything starts to catch or burn, take that element out. Then remove to a pot and mash to a pulp, adding a squirt or two of tomato paste. Discard the tomato skins if you’re feeling pretentious or you have snobs coming round. (For macaroni cheese?) Season with salt and pepper. Keep aside.
Bring the milk to a boil on the stove top but don’t let it scald. You have to watch this constantly, Daisy. Milk will boil over and no, you can’t use the egg timer. Melt the butter in another saucepan (big enough to hold all the boiled milk). Away from the heat, vigorously stir the flour into the melted butter, return to a moderate heat and add the milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until all the milk has been absorbed and you have a thick white sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and stir in 200g of the Cheddar, grated, until it melts to become a lovely cheese sauce. Add the pulped tomato mix to this and stir well.
Pour the cooked and drained macaroni into a greased oven dish. Pour the sauce over this and toss from the outside in, using two wooden spoons, and make sure all of the macaroni is well coated with the sauce.
Grate the remainder of the cheese all over the top. You can use a sprinkling of Parmesan over the Cheddar if you like, for additional tang. Or just use Parmesan for a crust. Bake in the oven until it’s golden brown.
Serve it to the maudlin, the sad, Leonard Cohen, the miserable, the pathetic, Tom Cruise, the fatigued, the tired of life, the sequestrated, whoever’s running Greece this week, or just yourself if you feel like a bit of a pampering. Now take a long hot candle-lit bath with a glass of wine to hand. It’s called life, and it doesn’t cost much.
First published in Weekend Argus July 2012