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Homemade comfort foods are best

My sons love chicken strips and macaroni and cheese. Even more if they’re homemade.

Don’t homemade versions of these boxed and bagged favorites contradict convenience? These are meals, after all, most often heated or mixed up quickly to serve on busy nights to clamoring children.

But I contest that the additional time to offer something better is mostly mental. Preplanning by as little as an hour, given a well-stocked pantry and freezer, can deliver a dinner that has big-time appeal — to both kids and grownups.

The last time I made chicken strips came at my son’s request. I gave him a choice, after serving a dinner I knew he didn’t particularly love, to pick the next night’s dinner: either chicken strips or chicken tacos. I knew the freezer contained some boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins, which thaw overnight in the fridge.

Making chicken strips — or any other breaded meat — entails a basic coating process: flour dredge, egg wash and breadcrumbs. If you prefer oven baking to frying, choose panko breadcrumbs, which are crisp before any heat or fat is applied. It takes just a spritz of oil on the surfaces once the strips are arranged on baking sheets, to ensure browning. I recently purchased a can of pressurized avocado oil that’s a better alternative to nonstick sprays containing chemicals and propellants.

Chemical ingredients aren’t the only reason — or even the primary reason — behind my resolve to devise dinners that are outside the box. Foods marketed for convenience are more expensive, pound for pound, than making them from whole ingredients. And the packaging is wasteful, a sorry environmental legacy for our children.

Short of raising chickens that lay your eggs, as well as growing wheat for milling into flour, from-scratch cooking still involves some packaging. But it’s pretty obvious how the ethic minimizes trash per mealtime serving.

Speaking of servings: For the same price as a box of macaroni and cheese that feeds two kids, I can purchase a box of pasta that feeds 8 hearty appetites when combined with a cheese-enriched béchamel sauce. Sure, I have to spend a couple of dollars on milk, butter and flour, plus a few more dollars on cheese. But by my math, I’m close to even, and my family isn’t getting gratuitous corn starch, lecithin, thickeners and anticaking agents.

The most compelling testimonial? Accolades from diners. “Mom, this is soooooooo gooooooooddd!” my sons rave, with a fervor that doesn’t follow boxed macaroni and cheese.

So does that mean boxed and bagged convenience foods don’t find their way into my house? As much as I’m a proponent of whole foods, I succumb to life’s pressures sometimes. I stock up by the dozen on boxes of macaroni and cheese on sale. And if I see rock-bottom prices on organic chicken strips or fish sticks, I stash those in the freezer for emergencies. Every family has its coping mechanisms.

But comfort food goes a long way in trying times. Here is my favorite, oven-baked but ultra-creamy macaroni and cheese. The key is to increase the ratio of sauce to noodles in typical recipes. If the macaroni looks so soupy when it goes into the oven that you’re worried it will never firm up, you’ve got it right.

My preferred menu with mac-and-cheese is sheet-pan, crispy-skin chicken thighs and sautéed collard greens. When I’ve got only boneless, skinless cuts on hand, this basic breading warms their reception. And in the realm of one-dish meals, this tuna-noodle casserole is practically gourmet fare with olive-oil packed Oregon coast albacore.

Better-Than-Boxed Macaroni and Cheese

10 ounces elbow macaroni

6 tablespoons butter, divided, plus more for preparing baking dish

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2-1/2 cups whole milk

1 cup finely diced Monterey jack cheese

1 cup finely diced Havarti cheese

1/2 cup finely diced Gouda cheese, rind removed

(Note: Feel free to adjust relative quantities of cheese types, according to your family’s taste and budget; if you want a stronger flavor, use more Gouda, or substitute Gruyere for Havarti)

1/2 teaspoon white pepper (optional)

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Salt, to taste

1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (may substitute 1/2 cup panko)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-1/2-quart casserole dish or 9-inch square cake pan.

Cook the macaroni in a pot of boiling, salted water until al dente; drain and set aside.

While pasta is cooking, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a deep, medium saucepan. Add the flour and cook, stirring continuously, over medium heat for about a minute. Remove pot from heat and gradually whisk in the milk. Return pot to medium heat and gently bring milk to a simmer. Stir continuously until mixture is thickened.

Drop the cheeses, a handful at a time, into sauce, stirring continuously. Allow each addition of cheese to melt into sauce before adding another. Once all cheese has been incorporated, season sauce to taste with the white pepper and cayenne, if using, as well as the dry mustard and nutmeg. Taste for salt (cheese is salty) and lightly season, if needed.

Add half of cooked macaroni to buttered baking dish, then half of cheese sauce; gently stir to combine, being careful not to scrape butter from bottom of dish. Repeat with remaining macaroni and sauce. Cover dish with lid or aluminum foil and place in preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet. Add the fresh breadcrumbs to melted butter and allow to toast over medium heat, stirring occasionally for several minutes, until lightly golden and slightly crisp. If using panko, do not toast in butter.

Remove cover from casserole dish and sprinkle breadcrumbs or panko evenly over surface of macaroni and cheese. Return dish, uncovered, to oven and continue to bake for 20 more minutes, or until edges are slightly browned and bubbling.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Better-Than-Bagged Chicken Strips

For 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken, measure onto separate plates (or any wide, shallow container) 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 1 cup panko (may substitute fine, dry breadcrumbs or mix a combination). In a wide bowl, whisk 1 egg with 1 tablespoon water.

Season the flour with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Season the panko with 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika and 1/4 teaspoon each granulated garlic, onion powder and dry mustard, plus 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, if desired.

Cut large chicken pieces (breasts and thighs) into sizes appropriate for your family, usually about 5 to 6 inches long by 2 to 3 inches across. Trim away any excess fat or tendons.

Using a fork to spear chicken pieces, dredge first through the flour, ensuring it’s entirely coated on both sides, then through the egg, making sure flour coating is evenly moistened, then through the panko, patting onto chicken as needed to ensure it adheres evenly. If you really want to be neat and avoid clumps of crumbs, use separate forks for flour, egg and panko. Add more panko, stirring to combine with spices, as needed.

If time permits, allow breaded chicken to rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator, which firms it up and keeps it from flaking off during cooking and eating.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a baking sheet, arrange chicken strips and spritz with pressurized oil or, less preferably, nonstick spray. Bake in preheated oven, flipping when the first side is nicely golden brown and continuing to cook until the second side is golden brown and the chicken cooked through.

Serve with ketchup, ranch or other dipping sauces of choice. Makes 4 servings.

Tuna Casserole with Leeks and Dill

8 ounces wide egg noodles

2 cups thinly sliced leeks (white and pale-green parts; from 2 medium leeks)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for preparing baking dish

1/4 teaspoon celery seeds

Kosher salt, as needed

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup half-and-half

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground pepper, preferably white, to taste

1 tablespoon dried dill (may substitute 2 tablespoons fresh, if available)

1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

1/2 cup coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (may substitute Swiss or Monterey jack)

2 (5- to 6-ounce) cans good-quality albacore tuna, preferably packed in olive oil

1 cup french-fried onions or crushed plain potato chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-by-8-inch baking dish.

Cook the noodles in boiling, salted water until al dente; reserve 3/4 cup cooking water and drain.

Meanwhile, rinse the leeks well under running water and wrap in a towel or spin dry. Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add sliced leeks and the celery seeds to butter; stir and sprinkle lightly with salt. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover saucepan and allow leeks to cook until tender, but not brown, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes.

Add the flour to leeks, increase heat to medium and stir for 1 minute. Gradually add the milk and half-and-half, stirring. Bring milk to a simmer, stirring, and continue to simmer until thickened, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Season sauce to taste with salt, the pepper, dill and Old Bay.

Add half of noodles to buttered dish and sprinkle with half of the cheese. Pour on half of dill sauce and stir gently to combine, being careful not to scrape butter on bottom of dish. Add the tuna, remaining noodles, cheese and sauce; gently fold tuna into noodles and sauce, adding reserved pasta-cooking water by tablespoons to loosen mixture until moist and creamy.

Cover casserole with foil and bake in preheated oven for about 20 minutes. Remove foil and sprinkle casserole evenly with the french-fried onions or potato chips. Continue to bake, uncovered, until edges are lightly browned and bubbling, for about 10 more minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appétit magazine’s “Pasta Favorites” special edition.