What kid, honestly, doesn’t love macaroni and cheese? I am happy to report that I have never made the infamous blue box for Sous Chef, instead making macaroni and cheese from scratch. I’m partial to America’s Test Kitchen’s “Classic Macaroni and Cheese”; it relies on a bechamel sauce and is utterly delicious, not to mention simple. Of course, it does take a little longer than the boxed stuff, but I have no problem with that; I enjoy cooking, and we all (yes, even Sous Chef!) enjoy the leftovers. In fact, she requests macaroni and cheese for lunch (and dinner…) even after the leftovers are gone. I am more than happy to make macaroni and cheese from scratch.
However, Sous Chef has eaten boxed macaroni and cheese at least once (possibly more at friends’ houses) and I was so stunned that I didn’t even know how to respond.
We were eating at La Jolla Groves, a local restaurant that touts fresh, in-season, and local ingredients. On their website, they claim to make “Insanely good food. Healthier ingredients.” With a claim like that, I had no problem ordering Sous Chef the kid’s macaroni and cheese off the menu, where it describes it as “Just like Mom makes.” Being naive, I assumed it would be a delicious, yet straight-forward, from-scratch mac and cheese. After all, that’s how this mom makes it! What came out was the entire box (yes! cups of the stuff!) of macaroni and cheese, without any attempt to disguise it, just slopped in a large, beautiful white dinner plate.
Now, I understand that they probably justify this because kids are used to the boxed stuff, and it’s a way of giving them a meal they are familiar with and will, therefore, more likely eat. For the most part, this probably saves parents from fighting with their children while they are at dinner. I also understand that children certainly aren’t their targeted diners, but my rule of thumb when considering whether or not my daughters might be welcome at a restaurant is to check for a children’s menu–if a restaurant has a published children’s menu, and not something cobbled together when parents ask a server what might be available for a child, I assume children are, at the very least, tolerated, if not welcomed. And no, I’m not one of those parents who never leaves her children home; that night was a mother’s day dinner for my mom, and she really wanted everyone there, including Sous Chef.
I, though, was so offended and so caught off guard that I couldn’t even complain to the waiter. Sous Chef didn’t really care for it, and I didn’t push her to eat it, instead encouraging her to eat more of my mushroom soup. We paid a whopping $5 for that bowl of garbage because I didn’t have the nerve to complain. I was flabbergasted that a restaurant that claims to make healthy food (true, not everything on their menu is innocent, but it does seem to be on the lighter end) would even consider serving something as processed as Kraft mac and cheese.
We’ve only been back to La Jolla Groves with Sous Chef once, and we order her a cup of mushroom soup. She really likes it and will eat it. It’s more cost-efficient, and I feel far better about letting her eat that than the processed garbage that appears on the children’s menu. But, I recognize this isn’t an option for everyone–Sous Chef is pretty unique in that she will eat the soup, despite its grown up taste.
I generally like La Jolla Groves. But that was a real turn off for me, and I find myself favoring other local restaurants far more. Right now, we really like the Heirloom Restaurant Group: Communal, Pizzeria 712, and Mountain West Burrito. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that even though there are some menu items I really like, it’s just not high on my list. And since we don’t get out much, we don’t get there very often. I’m sure I’ll be back. But I won’t be ordering anything off the children’s menu! Instead, I’ll continue making my Sous Chef macaroni and cheese from scratch. It’s delicious and comes without processed garbage, just the way I like my food.
Macaroni and Cheese
adapted from America’s Test Kitchen (I’ve seen this “Classic” version in several Cook’s Illustrated magazine publications from Sam’s Club, as well as in their The New Best Recipe book)
6 bread heels, preferably whole-wheat (I keep a bag of heels in the freezer for fresh bread crumbs anytime)
5 tablespoons butter, plus 3 tablespoons chilled and cut into pieces
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon salt, plus 1 teaspoon
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 tablespoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 cups milk
8 ounces colby jack cheese, shredded
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Pulse the heels of bread and the 3 tablespoons of chilled butter in a food processor until they are crumbs. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 375. Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the macaroni and salt and cook until tender, stirring occasionally. Drain and set aside.
In the same pot, melt the 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the flour, mustard, cayenne pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, whisking constantly, until it is fragrant and deeper in color, 1-2 minutes. Whisk in the milk slowly, then bring to a boil whisking regularly, stirring the bottom well. Simmer over medium-low to medium until it has thickened, about 6-8 minutes. Stir in the cheese until it has melted, then add the macaroni to the sauce and stir. Continue cooking until it steams, then remove the pot from the heat.
Transfer the macaroni and cheese to a 9×13 pan (preferably broiler safe!), top with breadcrumbs, then transfer to the oven. Bake the casserole for 5-7 minutes, until the sauce bubbles, then turn on the broiler. Broil for 2-3 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are browned.
Remove the casserole from the oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving, if you can wait that long.