comfort and compromise

The first time I tried to go vegetarian, my unstated intention was to eat Kraft Mac-n-Cheese every single night. My parents quickly figured this out and put the kibosh on my plan, for health reasons. They're not the boss of me anymore. In college, I would rejoin the vegetarian ranks—where I still am today. Unfortunately, I eventually grew up and acquired taste buds, so the Kraft variety no longer cuts it. 

I don't know many vegetarians who don't take their mac-n-cheese seriously. In my stubborn way, though, I don't want a bunch of other stuff or weird cheeses. This is supposed to be comfort food. Which is like code for 'not very healthy', as my parents rightly cited. So in my middle aged, worried-about-my-gut years, I've compromised on my mac's purity to make it a somewhat more sensible meal. Which is more to say that I've added some of that other stuff to make it nutritionally valuable (rather cut back on the fatty cheese sauce—I'm not insane).

Although I eat dairy, I don't often keep regular milk around. In this recipe, I'd say the real deal is important. The amount of time it takes a soy or almond milk roux to thicken is interminable—your stirring arm might fall off. My partner is also celiac, but a good gluten free pasta works great in this. I now use Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour in the roux with no noticeable difference. 

If you're young and brave, leave out the tofu and the cauliflower, but double up on the noodles, for more classic mac stylings.

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1½ tbs. smoked paprika
1 lg. onion, halved and thinly sliced
8 oz. elbow pasta
1 pkg. tofu, cubed
5 tbs. butter
6 tbs. flour
1½ tsp. mustard powder
5 cups milk
8 oz. extra sharp cheddar, grated
8 oz. smoked goude, grated
salt, pepper, olive oil

PHASE 1: overture and prep
In a mixing bowl. Toss the cauliflower with the paprika, a healthy splash of olive oil and some salt. Put that in a 9x12" casserole dish. Set the oven to 400 and roast it all in there, uncovered until the cauliflower is not only cooked, but browning.

While that's happening, heat the onions in a pan over med-low heat, covered. Check on them periodically but not often. You want them to turn translucent and sweat it out, then cook off most of that sweat without drying out too quickly. If you pull the lid off all the time, steam just escapes rather than cooking in. When they've dried out enough to just starting to stick the bottom of the pan, uncover it, reduce the heat slightly, and pour a generous tablespoon of olive oil over them along with a good dash of salt. They should turn golden quickly. When you are satisfied with their caramelization, remove the pan from the heat and set 'em aside.

While you've got your onion sauna going, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Once you've got full bubbles, add the poast and cook uuntil it's al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop it softening too much, after the fact.

If you're using plain tofu. During all of this I would drain and sear it. Smoked or pre-baked tofu, can be used as is.

PHASE 2: symphony of cheese
Combine the flour, 1 tsp of salt and the mustard powder in small bowl. In the now-empty pasta pot, melt the butter over med-low heat. Let it get foamy—but you're not trying to brown it. Add the dry ingredient mixture and whisk constantly for a minute or so, until its yellow color deepens  a bit. Start pouring in the milk, stirring aggressively at first. 

Bring this mixture to a boil then reduce it immediately to a simmer. You have to whisk this constantly or it will quickly develop a gross skein on the top. After 10 minutes or so, it should be the consistency of heavy cream. Turn off the heat and fold in the grated cheeses. Stir this to combine—it will melt rapidly.

PHASE 3: coda and contentment
Add the cooked noodles, roasted cauliflower and tofu to your cheese sauce. Stir to combine. Transfer this to the casserole pan you roasted the cauliflower in, and then top it off with the caramelized onions. Finish with some fresh ground pepper and place it in the oven, uncovered for 10 minutes or so, until the cheese sauce on top starts to brown a little. Remove it, but let it cool for a few minutes before serving.

A lot of the items in each phase above can be done simultaneously, so this all actually comes together a lot quicker than you would expect. Not Kraft quick, but it can be done in an hour, flat, once you've got it down.


Originally this post seemed to beg for  a soundtrack of AM-radio styled sophistipop, but I kind of did that already… Instead, I've included some vintage soul jazz that rides the line between funk and exotica.