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Last night, my intention was to make stir-fried vegetables and brown rice for dinner. Then, I had a frustrating day at work and a busy afternoon of last minute details for the Urban Food Fair (see below) and no longer wanted to spend an hour dicing and waiting for the rice to cook. And so I made this. Now, to pull out all the cliches, because they all apply here: this stovetop mac & cheese is comfort food at its best. A hug in a bowl. Dinner like Mom used to make, though in this case it reminds me of the mac & cheese my aunt used to make for us, thick and gooey and so good. I could argue convincingly that it doesn’t take much more time than a box of mac & cheese made on the stovetop, and wouldn’t you rather have cheddar and Jack than powder? You know the answer is yes.

The recipe I am giving you is for the canvas, the base, if you will, which can then be gussied up however you like. I have always been a fan of adding cubed ham, particularly leftover from the big baked Easter or Christmas ham. How about some cooked, crumbled bacon? Peas are a wonderful addition, as are steamed broccoli or asparagus. I like to use pepper Jack (you can sub in Monterey Jack for a milder version) and sometimes play up the spiciness by adding more roasted chiles or a teaspoon of the liquid from a can of chipotles in adobo. I also love, love, love to add diced tomatoes or sweet bell peppers. Mix and match a few of these ingredients, or come up with some of your own; there are so many additions that taste good in a mac & cheese.

So, let me tell you all about why I have been busy and not posting so many recipes lately! (Which WILL change soon.) Tomorrow is the Urban Food Fair I have been helping with for months, hosted by my Backyard Barter group and the Seattle Farm Co-op. I am so excited, buzzing with anticipation for what I think is going to be a really special day. The pie and jam contests (my primary focus) are set, with a slate of awesome judges I love working with and prizes donated by Ballard Market. I wish I could enter…! I am proud to be associated with the hardworking team pulling this night together. If you’re in the Seattle area, please consider coming by! It’s at the Phinney Neighborhood Center from 5-9 on Sunday 10/27. The huge, super-fun barter will be from 5-7; demos on everything from seed saving, making homemade soap, urban foraging and more run from 5-8; the kids’ zone will be open from 5-7; pie walks (who doesn’t love the chance to win PIE?) and raffle prize giveaways will go through the evening; and you can drop off pie or jam between 5 and 6:45 to be judged from 7-8. We’ll have food, drinks, music and end the night with a square dance. So, make a pot of mac & cheese for lunch tomorrow and then head over to Phinney and join the fun. All are welcome.

stovetop mac & cheese

Easy Stovetop Mac & Cheese (serves 4-6, easy to double)

  • 3/4 lb. pasta (rotini, shells or elbows work the best)
  • 2 T. unsalted butter
  • 2 T. flour
  • lots and lots of freshly-ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground yellow mustard, such as Colman’s (optional)
  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 1 1/3 c. medium yellow cheddar or Colby-Jack, shredded
  • 2/3 c. Monterey or pepper Jack, shredded
  • salt to taste

In a large pan of boiling salted water, cook your pasta according to the directions on the package. If you shred your cheese while the water comes to a boil, you can start your cheese sauce just after you add the pasta to the water and have the two elements finish at about the same time.

In another sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter. When it has melted, add the flour to the pan and stir until it dissolves completely, no lumps, and the sauce (which is a roux at this point) begins to brown. Add the pepper and mustard, if using. Slowly whisk in your milk and continue to whisk until the mixture thickens slightly. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the cheese, stirring until it melts into a thick, smooth sauce. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary. Remove from the heat until the pasta is cooked.

When the pasta is done, drain it and then add to the pot of cheese sauce. Stir to coat completely with sauce and stir in any additions you want. Serve immediately.