When thinking about some of my friends, several fellow chefs and serious cooks. It's funny how we each have our different style. Not style in terms of foods we like to cook (the number one question I always get when people find out I used to cook for a living is "What kind of food did you cook". Um, edible? All of them? As if a chef is a restaurant and will specialize in a cuisine) but style in terms of what's our modus operandi when it comes to creating/cooking a dish. One is all about classical technique, another about combining familiar ingredients in new ways, adding new flavors to familiar dishes, another about cutting edge technique. Which tends to make me feel both sloppy and uncreative. I have vast holes in my repetoire of classical dishes, resist buying an obscure ingredient I'm only going to use this once, and while I often like thinking about flipping a dish in a different direction, when it's time to actually make something, sometimes that sounds like an awful lot of work.
My skills lie in two different areas. One, terribly non-sexy, is efficiency. Trust me, you rarely win adulation by being efficient in the kitchen. But, hey, I used to have to cook a ton of food in people's homes in a very limited time span, which included hauling my own equipment and tools into their kitchen. I got really good at "I can make this menu with two pots, a bowl and a spoon." Because every thing I used had to be carried in and carried out. And I didn't have anyone cleaning up after me. I needed to get in, cook a bunch of meals, clean up and get out, all in a couple of hours. So, I got good at not using a lot of tools/pans, not having much room to spread out, not making a mess. Figuring out how to get things to cook quickly and in tandem. How to cut and prep things in an order that minimized cutting board and knife washing.
My other skill/interest is in making flavors pop. What can I do to make this ingredient, this dish, taste the biggest. Because I was often cooking for people who were trying to eat more healthily, I couldn't just turn to fat and salt. Plus, they were going freeze most of what I cooked for them, or at least reheat it, so delicate and subtle was going to get lost. ( Now for the actual cooking part )
Recently I had to depart from my usual mac & cheese recipe because my oven igniter broke. I was committed to making it, but was now going to have to make it in a crockpot. I was suspicious. Was it going to be okay? The same? I didn't know and I had a tight deadline with lots to do, so when I saw a recipe for Mac & Cheese in a crockpot with bacon and caramelized onions, I thought oh, well, bacon and onions will cover up for a lot of sins, just in case the crockpot thing makes it weird. (Wait, you were a chef and you're looking at someone else's recipe? Yeah. Wanna make something of it? It's called inspiration, priming the pump, getting your head in the right place. Especially since that's not my day job anymore, I need help getting my brain in the right place. And I've come to crockpots very late in life and still don't have a visceral feel for liquid ratios yet.)
Anyway, so here's what my brain did to the recipe:
It called for 16 strips of applewood smoked bacon, cooked in a skillet until crisp and then crumbled. Okay, look, you're going to put a pound of bacon in the middle of 2.5 pounds of pasta and two pounds of cheese, no one is going to be able to tell what expletive wood was used to smoke that bacon. Seriously. A good bacon, that's what's important. It was my freezer, so it was probably Nodine's or Nueske's, but I may have been slumming it with Niman. And yeah, it was in the freezer -- because if your goal is to crumble the bacon at the end...why start with slices? That's dumb. You wind up with that alternating crisp and fat, which is great for eating bacon, but not for bacon bits. Freeze the bacon, dice it and THEN saute it. Every expletive little bit will then be coated evenly in bacon fat and be brilliantly crispy and browned. So, let's do that and then save your bacon fat.
Then it told me to caramelize 4 large sweet onions, diced. AND add sugar to help with the caramelization. No, no, no. Don't waste a sweet onion on caramelization. Use regular onions (which are smaller, so it was was more like 6) saute them down long and slow, and yes, a little sugar helps. You probably thought I was going to use the bacon fat to saute the onions. You certainly could, oh, onions and bacon fat love each other! But think about the dish. I'm already dropping bacon flavor bacon bits randomly throughout the dish. Dropping bacon flavored onion bits...well, it's redundant, isn't it? Your palate is going to like the contrast between the bacon bits and the onion bits. It's like a good dinner party -- if everyone has the same opinion on everything, it's going to be boring.
Then make the white sauce. A stick of butter, 6 tbs flour, 3 cups each milk and chicken broth. That's all well and good and I support the mix of chicken broth and milk to make things less cloying than six cups of straight dairy. Here's where the bacon fat comes into play, though, because I'm going to add, it's probably about 2 Tbs of bacon fat leftover and another Tbs of flour to make that white sauce. It then wants me to flavor it with 8 drops of Tabasco. Well, that's cool...but seriously, let's pump that up a bit. You also need a good teaspoon or two of Worcestershire sauce to add depth, and then a tablespoon or more of dry mustard (or 1-2 tsp of wet smooth mustard) to give it tang.
It calls for 10 cups of shredded cheese, mixed mild and sharp. Back away from the pre-shredded cheese. Please. It's got all sorts of crap in there to keep it from sticking together. If you don't have a food processor to shred your cheese, then find a ten year old you can pay in Reeses Peanut Butter Cups. Use that as an excuse to sit on your keister and watch television while you shred the cheese on a grater. And I don't understand why you'd even bother with mild unless you're cooking for small children. Sharp all the way, my friend.
Then make the pasta (for the record, the recipe wants me to put the dry pasta, along with all of the other ingredients, into the crockpot together and let them cook together for 4-5 hours on low. My gut doesn't like what that may do to the texture of the pasta. I could well be wrong, but I don't have time...nor the desire to waste 2 pounds of cheese on sub-par. So, I'm going to indulge my inner control freak and cook it to the underdone side of al dente) which calls for 2 boxes of elbows. You can certainly use elbows, although it's going to make me think that secretly you're wishing for Kraft Mac & Cheese and that makes me cry inside. My nostalgic favorite is shells, but rotini or gobetti are best. Elbows. Feh. You want something with nooks that can hold the cheese sauce and deliver little pockets of flavor to your mouth. Plus, I've got a ton of people to feed, so I'm going to cook 3 boxes, which, depending on the pasta and the crockpot is enough to fill it or a little extra. And the ratio of stuff to pasta is still fine.
And then it wants me to alternate layers of pasta with the cheese, sauce, bacon and onions. Which I do, because this is a ton of food -- but the recipe then wants me to just sprinkle some more cheese on top and then walk away. Pah. I set aside some cheese and sauce to top it with and then I dig in with a wooden spoon and mix it all up to make sure every bite of it will be splendid. I'm not making lasagna here, make sure that pasta's well coated. And then pour the remaining sauce over top to make sure the noodles are coated and then the cheese on top. And cook it on low for maybe 3-4 hours since the pasta's already cooked.
Now, this hurts the part of my brain that craves efficiency -- that was a lot of separate steps and more pots and pans than I'd normally like to use. But, oh, my, it was worth it.