I hardly know where to start. There is so much to say about what is happening in the hospitality industry right now, an industry that has little safety net when it comes to operating margins and the livelihood of its hourly workers, the heart and soul of every restaurant, bar, and hotel. As of Monday, March 16, restaurants and bars in many cities and states have been closed to in-house dining, but many are still providing pick-up and delivery service as they practice responsible social distancing. (An up-to-the-moment aggregator of which restaurants are participating in the Chicago area can be found here. and in the San Francisco Bay Area, here.) All that being said, if you are in a position to order in occasionally over these next few weeks, your patronage will keep many of these restaurants — and the people who work there — afloat.
Along with restaurants and cultural institutions shutting down service for the foreseeable future, schools are closed, and kids of all ages are home, from toddlers to college students. One of the few bright lights in the darkness of a pandemic is the opportunity to spend time with each other. In our house, with two adult “children,” this means lots of cooking, baking, and eating (offset by a daily walk, streaming Zumba classes, and the used Peloton we happily bought a few months ago). Comfort food is the name of the game these days, Whole 30 be damned. To that end, I recommend that you involve the whole family in the process of putting meals on the table, whether that be washing produce, chopping food, setting the table, or cleaning up afterward. No one gets a pass! It’s a communal event, and one of the few things to provide a semblance of normalcy these days.
Need a little inspiration? Here is my family’s all-time beloved recipe, and a few of my favorite cooking websites with well-tested, dependable recipes that won’t waste your time or money. And James Beard Award-winning chef Sarah Stegner (Prairie Grass Café, Northbrook, IL) is making herself available from 2-4 pm daily to answer cooking and meal prep questions (847-920-8437) that might come up for you while you’re in the kitchen. Common Threads also offers great resources for kids and families.
We could all use a little extra TLC these days. Be kind to each other and stay connected — we may be keeping to ourselves out of necessity, but we can reach out in other ways.
Julie’s Best Mac & Cheese
- 1 pound dried whole-wheat pasta shapes (farfalle, shells and fusilli all work well)
- 3 cups 2-percent milk
- 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (freshly grated cheese is best!)
- 1 pound extra-sharp or medium cheddar cheese, grated (I sometimes sub in half Gouda cheese here)
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 cup whole-wheat panko crumbs, or sub 32 Wheat-thins or the like
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons grated parmesan or Pecorino Romano
- ¼ – ½ teaspoon ground paprika
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt generously and add pasta. Cook, uncovered, until pasta is al dente (see package directions as each pasta shape has a different cooking time). Drain immediately. If preparing ahead, cool on a large sheet pan then toss with a little bit of oil to avoid sticking.
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Adjust oven rack to middle position.
- Combine milk and broth in a large Pyrex measuring cup. Microwave until hot (or heat in a small pan).
- Meanwhile, melt butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Whisk in flour, then add in hot milk/broth all at once. Whisk to avoid clumping. Cook, whisking, until bubbly and thick, about 4–5 minutes (it will depend on how hot your milk is to begin with). Remove from heat.
- Whisk in mustard and Parmesan cheese, then the cheddar (and Gouda, if using). Combine until all cheese has melted into the sauce. Combine with pasta and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
- Pour into an oiled or buttered 9” x 13” baking dish.
- For topping, combine melted butter, panko or cracker crumbs, and grated cheese. Spread evenly over top of mac and cheese. Sprinkle with paprika, then place in oven. Bake about 25 minutes, until top is browned and casserole is hot and bubbly. Serve warm.
My Go-To Recipe Websites
This website is a godsend. Deb Perelman is my home-cooking guru, and her recipes never disappoint. As a working mom, she has inventive comfort food amply covered. Search for her Chicken, Leek, and Rice Soup; Quick Pasta and Chickpeas (a real cook-from-the-pantry winner); or the Corn, Cheddar, and Scallion Strata.
Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street website is the place to go to really learn how to cook. And through April, they are making their online cooking school free through the end of April. The Art of Kitchen Improv teaches you to master cooking without using recipes, while Some Like It Hot delves into understanding spice. A treasure trove of recipes and techniques.
If you’re a vegetarian/vegan family, this site is the one for you (not all recipes are vegetarian, mind you, but the category goes fairly deep, and it tends to skew healthy). 16 Magical Ways to Use Your Instant Pot, 5-Ingredient Dinners, and Everyday Breakfasts are all great jumping off points for this website.
For the last 10 years, this James Beard Award-winning, crowd-sourcing website has been followed by millions of obsessive home chefs, who trust their crack team of test kitchen acolytes to make sure that everything is as yummy as possible. Some ideas for your search: 11 Dinners Already Hanging Out in Your Pantry; Casseroles & Gratins; and a great selection of “On the Cheap Recipes.”
Flour is a hot commodity right now, as everyone wants to stress/comfort bake. You can mail-order KA’s superior flour and other products directly from the site, delivered to your door, and that’s great news because you will want to bake ALL THE THINGS in the recipe section, especially after watching some of their video tutorials. Check out the Cold Weather Classics recipes, Classic Cookie Collection, and Last-Minute Miracles as you scroll through the site.
Enjoying cooking with your kids? Send us pictures of you and your kids cooking together.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.