A million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and your dial-up Internet still squealed at you for three minutes any time you wanted to get online, my husband and I were dating.
I’ve always loved cooking, and though I simplify and streamline for big batches of lunch, I enjoy actually playing with the ingredients in my full-on dinners. Plus, I wasn’t in medical school at the time, and had no kids, and had only about half of my current hobbies. Seriously, WHAT THE HELL DID I DO WITH MY TIME?
But I digress! He had mentioned his grandmother’s pot roast several times, and I was 21 (and, we’ve established, had absolutely nothing else to do in my day), and ambitious, and I decided to take a stab at the roast. He happened to have a copy of the recipe, so I eagerly offered to make it. He grinned, and warned me that it wasn’t exactly my style. I thought he meant that it was traditional American fare, and I cooked like the foreigner I was, so I scoffed at his warning and grabbed the little index card he offered.
The front of the card read:
“One 3-lb chuck roast, carrots, onions salt, pepper, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce”
Okay! Got it.
I flipped the card over to read the rest of the ingredients. It was blank. To the front again – maybe I missed something? To the back again – blank.
The hubby was right. I was too much of a foreigner to just do salt, pepper, and a dash of Worcestershire. I wanted the garlic cloves, and the thyme, and rosemary, and bay leaves, and red wine, and maybe something spicy, and dammit, I wanted to use my freakin’ pantry. You know … to make his grandma’s traditional pot roast, just like he remembered it.
My hubby laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
Almost twenty years later, I still fail at the real, classic Americana. Which explains my love for this Mac and Cheese recipe from Epicurious, which is all I ever make (though I’ve modified it to fit my taste). It’s freaking delicious, but definitely a little untraditional, using blue cheese, and throwing some veggies in for crunch and color.
In my version, I use half extra sharp cheddar, and half blue, plus the parmesan, and I tweak the quantities of veggies. But no worries if you prefer all cheddar, or Velveeta, or opening a flipping box and a packet of powder. Cut out the bell pepper, open that box! Remember, this is about what you and your family want, and about customizing the system to your needs. (And also a little bit about not having an angry horde of readers want to kill me for suggesting they put blue cheese in their Mac and Cheese).
Trust me, Mac and Cheese muffins are a FABULOUS addition to a cold-weather lunchbox.
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 sticks) butter
- 3 large red bell peppers
- 5 celery stalks
- 3 cups whipping cream
- 3 cups half and half
- 1 pound blue cheese, crumbled
- 1 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 teaspoons celery seeds
- Cayenne pepper
- 5 eggs
- 1 cup chopped celery leaves
- 3 pounds macaroni or penne (elbow macaroni fits into muffin tins more easily than penne does)
- 4 ounces Parmesan cheese
- Use (you guessed it!) your Food Processor to shred all your cheddar (or do it by hand, but you know that's against my religion), and set aside in a bowl.
- (Again!) use your Cuisinart's "thin slice" (2mm) disc attachment to slice all your celery, and then cut your bell peppers into thick broad strips to be diced with your "French fry" attachment disc (you don't have to empty the Food Processor's bowl, just switch out the disc and keep on slicin'!). Or ... you know ... slice and dice by hand.
- Melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat (I use a large Dutch oven for this, in an effort to make the fewest number of pans dirty when I'm batch cooking). Add bell peppers and celery and sauté until just beginning to soften, about 7 minutes. Empty into a bowl, and season with salt and pepper.
- In same (now empty!) Dutch oven, combine cream, half and half and blue cheese. Stir over low heat until cheese melts. Remove from heat. Add celery seeds. Season sauce with cayenne, if using, salt and pepper.
- Beat eggs in medium bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in a ladle of cheese sauce, to temper the eggs (you'll super hate me if I suggest adding not only blue cheese, but also scrambled eggs to your M&C!). Return mixture to saucepan and whisk to blend. Add celery leaves.
- Cook pasta in pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite (8 minutes-ish), stirring occasionally. Drain, and add to the Dutch oven with the sauce. Throw the veggies in, too and stir to blend.
- **** Here's your chance to avoid cooking dinner, by the way! I usually portion out as many muffins as I want, and leave a third or so of the macaroni. I bake the whole thing off in the Dutch oven, so I don't have to worry about dinner for Batch-Cooking Night.
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Scoop about 1/2 cup of mac and cheese into each paper-lined muffin cup, and sprinkle 1/2 - 1 teaspoon of Parmesan over surface of each muffin (or over the entire Dutch oven, if that's what you're using). Bake until pasta is heated through, sauce is bubbling and top is beginning to brown, about 25 minutes.
- The-Best-Freeze-Ahead-Soup-Known-To-Man. No, seriously.
*This soup is perfection as is, but absolutely withstands omissions and substitutions. Whether it’s a vegan thing, a dairy- or gluten-allergy thing, or a “kid hates anything remotely green” thing, I promise you this soup will see your modifications and raise you an OM
- BONUS How-To: Chicken Stock/Vegetable Stock to use in your soup, that will just make you feel sorry for all those suckers eating out of a can – EXTRA BONUS: we’ll do this stove-top, but Ill tell you how to do it with your Instant Pot as well, which is just a whole other level of awesomeness.
- Mini Mac-and-Cheese Muffin Bites.
- Pumpkin Spice Waffles
- Ridiculously-Easy-And-Totally-Worth-It (yes, it’s a theme) Bagel Chips (three ways, people!)
- Chewy Dried Pears
Here’s the list of equipment you’ll need, and a list of equipment that makes life easier.
- Large Stockpot. No need to try to stir slowly to not slosh out of a 10 quart stockpot. Go for this 16 quart stockpot. It’s about $25, and will make your soups and broths far easier.
- Measuring Funnel Pitcher – 3.5 cup
- Muffin tins, for your individual servings of mac and cheese. You will be baking eight tins so you’ll want at least two, but ideally four
- Silicone Muffin Cups for soup – standard size or jumbo
- Paper muffin liners (don’t get the foil wrappers for these! Foil muffin liners + Microwave = bad words in comments on my blog)
- Waffle Maker
- Big Tupperware Bowl
- Gallon Freezer Ziplocks
Strongly suggested, but not absolutely needed:
- Stand-up mixer (it was mentioned in a comment thread earlier this week that some of these lunch batches really won’t fit in a standard 5QT mixing bowl – if you don’t have one already, but are thinking of taking the plunge, consider purchasing a 7QT mixer like mine; I can throw an entire birthday party in there, and everything fits.)
- Food Processor – can’t emphasize this one enough (see? I wasn’t lying in Round 1 when I said we’d be using it!)
- Nesco Food Dehydrator, and remember, the Nesco has extra trays if you need ’em!
- Dutch Oven – 7qt
- Parchment paper
- Jelly Roll Pans – get two
A WORD ON FREEZER SPACE
I admit, I have a lot of freezer space. I live with four adult-sized appetites, and one healthy child-sized one, and I tend to freeze and pack 20 weeks’ worth of food for all the kids at a time. Plus, once upon a time, I used to do this regularly for dinners as well as lunches.
So, I have a freezer upstairs for regularly-used items, then a downstairs freezer for frozen lunches, and a separate chest freezer for when I’m feeling particularly go-getter-y (or for when I make Thanksgiving meals ahead of time because I have the stupid schedule). I call the chest freezer my Sexy Beast, and I make my hubby apologize to it if he doesn’t treat it with an appropriate level of tenderness.
The FDA does specifically say that a closed, full freezer will maintain its temperature for 48 hrs without power (a half-full one will maintain it for 24 hrs), so food does not need to be thawed or refrigerate or transferred anywhere, as long as you kee the doors closed. So even if your power goes out Saturday, your lovingly-prepared lunches should be safe till Monday when the repair guy comes! Just sayin’ …
Now, you certainly don’t have to have this. We’re going to work on how to maximize your packing strategies in order to best use your space, and we’re going to use flash freezing and labeling techniques that make my heart skip more than Ryan Gosling (who, for the record, has NOTHING on vacuum sealing). But you should plan on being able to fit two jelly roll pans or large cookie sheets into your freezer at once at any given time during your prepping. If you can’t do that, it may be worth it for you to take a look at getting yourself a separate freezer – not necessarily your own Sexy Beast, but maybe something a bit smaller and inconspicuous, that can still guard your hard work (and only cost you an extra $0.75 or so per lunch if you hold 4 months’ worth of meals for one person in it, right?).
STILL NEED HELP PACKING LUNCHES?
Check out my feedback on how to pack the lunches, with reviews and discussion on cold foods, hot foods, beverages and lunchboxes! But if you don’t think you can take another second of wading through my never-ending drivel, and just want to cut to the chase to know what my absolute preferences are, here’s the short list:
- For hot foods, Funtainer Food Jar or Stanley Food Jar (sorry, you do need to make this decision yourself based on the details).
- For the rest of your lunch, and cold entrees, EasyLunchboxes system: containers, lunchbox, and mini dippers. Close second: PlanetBox.
- Funtainer water bottles (Doc McStuffin, Wonder Woman).
Sometimes, I come across good deals and want to share them, but I don’t want to send you unwanted emails. If you’d like me to email you when I find something really good (like the Instant Pot that went on sale last week for $69.99) you can sign up for those emails here. These would probably be once or twice a month.
I’M ON INSTAGRAM & TWITTER:
You can follow me on Instagram @emiponcedesouza. You can also follow me on Twitter @poncedesouza. If you share your photos, use the hashtag #EmisLunches, and please tag me!