Miss Jenny

April 26th, 2013 · 36 Comments · Pasta, Vegetarian

For as long as I can remember my mother has called me “Miss Jenny.” Not all the time and not necessarily in public, but often enough so that I don’t notice unless I really stop and think about it. As an endearing as the little nickname is, I’m convinced my mom started calling me that not to be cute, but because it was part of a bigger plan she had for me.

Right after college, Mom had a roommate named Jane. To the rest of the world, though, Jane was known as “Miss Janey” the host of Pittsburgh’s Romper Room show. She was a celebrity among preschoolers (I feel certain I might hear from a few of you on this one) as well as in the greater Western Pennsylvania region, and to my mom, who at the time had a desk job at U.S. Steel, no one was more glamorous. On top of being a TV star, Miss Janey was warm, witty, and beautiful. Full of life was the term she’d use.  ”Oh Jenny,” my mom would say. “She was just like you.” And just like that I’d imagine myself as Miss Jenny the celebrity TV host.

Moms are smart that way.

There would be more plans. My mother would go out of her way at the Grand Union to point out Geraldine Ferraro on the cover of Newsweek, and tell my sister and me whenever the occasion presented itself: “You could be the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court if you wanted to be.” (Until 1981 at which point we learned we’d have to settle for Second.) My mother made sure to steer me in the direction of some wildcard careers, too, pointing out that I’d make a great eye surgeon because “Oh Jenny, you’re so good with your fingers,” and once even making me sit down to draw a cartoon for the New Yorker because “Oh Jenny, you can draw better than any of these guys.” A real estate lawyer whose idea of fun was (still is) pouring through a densely-typed annotated contract, she didn’t quite grasp that the creative industries could sometimes be a little more complicated than that.

Her relentless career-mapping didn’t stop just because I became a grown-up. If anything, it ramped up. When I was just starting out in magazines — I mean just starting out, like bottom-of-the-barrel starting out — she sent me an article in the New York Times that profiled the newly appointed glamorous editor-in-chief of a super high-end lifestyle magazine. (Back when there were such things.) This editor just had a baby and I remember reps from Prada and Calvin Klein falling all over themselves figuring out what to send the little boy for a gift. The editor was a Big Deal and her appointment was Big News. But according to my mom, whoever hired her for the job had made a mistake by not interviewing me, the girl who was in charge of editing the programming schedule for a cable TV guide.

“You would’ve been perfect for that job, Jenny. She reminded me of you. She sounds just like you.”

And then a few weeks ago, during a cold spell in February, Mom called to tell me that she had just watched someone on the Today show making macaroni and cheese — all in one pot apparently. “Oh you would’ve loved her. She was so natural and funny. I think maybe you should try to watch it. She was sweet. Just a doll. She was just like you.”

The seed she planted that time was probably not what she had hoped for. Instead of unleashing my inner Miss Jenny, I instead found myself obsessing over the idea of a one-pot baked macaroni and cheese. My nine-year-old loves Mac & Cheese but for whatever reason I find myself avoiding a homemade batch because of all the gear involved. I started experimenting, spending more time in the kitchen that I would ever admit to Sandra Day O’Connor (or my mother). I discovered that it was a great recipe for salvaging leftover heels of cheese (almost any combo of hard cheeses worked) and though I never quite pared it down to ONE pot, I streamlined it to the point where all the prep work could be done in the time it took for the pasta to cook. Which means I have that much more time to work on my New Yorker cartoons.

Please see Dinner: The Playbook for the Macaroni & Cheese recipe.

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Aren’t You Impressed?

August 10th, 2011 · 19 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Vegetarian

How…why….does one find oneself prepping homemade macaroni and cheese in a 425° oven on a 100° day when there is a perfectly fine box of 10-minute stovetop Annie’s Mac & Cheese in the pull-out pantry? It seemed so logical the day before when I made dinner plans out with my friend Elizabeth and her husband. I had a babysitter booked so I suggested they drop their kids at our place while the four grown-ups went out to a local Italian spot. I’ll make sure there’s dinner here for the kids, I offered. “George likes macaroni and cheese, right?”

“It’s his favorite thing,” said Elizabeth.

It’s not that I like Elizabeth more than most of my friends, but…well, maybe I do. And maybe that’s why, when she and her husband come over, I find myself splurging for the truffled Pecorino on the cheese plate instead of the aged gouda, or going out of my way to track down the delicate farmer’s market kale instead of the tougher Stop-and-Shoppy kind. Do you have friends like this? Who you want to impress? I mean, Who bring out the best in you? Everybody does, right? This is what I convinced myself when I was whisking up the bechamel at 5:00, boiling gemelli, cranking my oven past the 400-degree mark — because apparently 15 out of 20 days over 90 degrees in New York has not been hot enough for me. But, I have to say, 45 minutes later I did have a damn good looking baking dish of golden, bubbly mac-and-cheese to serve Elizabeth’s boys. So what if Elizabeth herself wouldn’t be eating it — she would see my macaroni magnum opus when she dropped them off and…I had to wonder where this thought was leading me. She’d see it and…what? Like me more? Seriously. Why? What the…? Who am I cooking for? What am I trying to prove? What is wrong with women? I don’t know a single man who would find himself in this position. Do you?

I got a call right before Elizabeth was due at my house. She was running late at work so her babysitter would drop the boys off and she would meet us at the restaurant. “Hope that’s OK!”

No. Nothing about this was OK. At all.

Mac & Cheese Notes

I followed Bittman’s recipe to the letter for this one. Except at the end, I use my friend Kate’s trick and crumble potato chips into the bread crumb topping. Also, I like prepping the M&C in advance when I’m entertaining families — it’s a nice “bridge” dish that can be the main for the kids and a side for the grown-ups. (Especially if BBQ chicken is on the menu.) Just prepare until the point where you top with bread crumbs, then refrigerate, pull out about an hour before you want to serve, and continue with instructions.

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