Mac N’ Cheese to the Rescue: Catching Up With Kristen Kuchar
During her Poor Taste tenure, Kristen Kuchar tackled a lot of things. She chronicled Chicago’s turbulent food scene, drank her way through the Golden Globes, tackled Thanksgiving beer pairings, and hunted down the best beef sandwiches on earth. Despite her many hits, she’ll forever be known around these parts as the queen of mac n’ cheese after she figured out a bunch of brilliant ways to beat the blue box blues by spicing up Kraft mac n’ cheese. This spring, Kristen release an entire cookbook on the topic, Mac N’ Cheese to the Rescue. We caught up with her for all the cheesy details:
Mac n’ Cheese is one of the ultimate comfort foods. What qualities do you think it takes for a food to reach “comfort” status?
“My first instinct is hearty, warm, rich, filling, and even a bit indulgent. But really, I think comfort food has a lot to do with sentiment. Maybe a childhood favorite you would eat with your family or a regional dish from back home. For me, it’s stuffed shells. Growing up, on Christmas, we would make a huge pot of homemade sauce and lather it on-top of creamy ricotta and mozzarella stuffed shells. It took all day to make and about a second to eat, but it was worth it, and it ultimately inspired my Stuffed Shells Mac recipe in the book.”
In what ways have your travels around the U.S. informed this book?
“I don’t feel like I’ve truly seen a new area unless I see what people are eating. I think it tells the story of the place and is really a unique experience you’ll only have there. One of my favorite things was trying all of the regional barbecue sauces, which inspired my Cowboy Pizza recipe. Some of my other favorite travel recipes are East Coast Mac, Jersey Mac n’ Sausage, South Beach Mac, and Farmers’ Market Pizza, which was inspired by my husband Mark and I visiting farmers’ markets around the country and seeing the unique local produce.
It seems like only yesterday that you wrote, Dressed Up: 5 Easy Ways to Spice Up Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for Poor Taste. How has your mac expertise evolved since that article?
“It’s funny you ask that because I feel like nothing and everything has changed at the same time. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with fantastic professionals in the industry and contribute to dozens of notable food and drink publications, which has immersed me in food culture and pushed me to research and learn so much about it. Since Poor Taste and writing about food, I’ve been covering two overlapping categories: food and travel, and food and beer.
“My cousin Brian introduced me to craft beer several years back and since then, it’s given me an entire new palatable world to explore. With that came learning about pairing beer and food and cooking with beer (like with my St. Patty’s Day Twist Mac). However, things are the same in that I don’t over think food. While I of course appreciate the fine dining experience, I still believe that food doesn’t have to be incredibly expensive and that the culinary world should not be intimidating. Am I a foodie? Probably. But honestly, I love simplicity, and I am anything but pretentious about food. I love using my creativity and passion to have an adventure while cooking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always fun.”
Settle this once and for all: Kraft or Annie’s?
“Both are great. I grew up on Kraft though, so I’ll stick to my roots. I also love making homemade mac n’ cheese and really any of my recipes work with homemade mac as well if you’re looking to jazz it up.”
What’s the oddest recipe in the book?
“The first one that I thought was a bit of a gamble was the Big Apple Salad, with apples, crumbled blue cheese, and bacon, but it turned out great. I would say people might think the breakfast recipes are a little unexpected at first, but they are my favorite section. Combining the mac n’ cheese with eggs is a totally different breakfast than people usually have, and it turns it into a huge portion. My favorite breakfasts are the Fiesta Omelet with chorizo, jalapenos, and sharp cheddar cheese and the Big Fat Greek Breakfast with feta cheese and spinach.”
Did you have any disaster recipes while you were researching this book?
“No disaster per say, but a lot of recipes took a few attempts. I started off by putting too many noodles in my soup recipes, and it soaked up all of the broth.”
Could you share one of your favorite recipes from the book with us?
“That’s a tough one! I love the appetizers and “shareables” because they’re a fun thing to eat with friends. The Spicy Mac Balls are fried mac n’ cheese coated in crispy panko bread crumbs and the Ball Park Mac are bite-sized mac covered in a corn dog like coating. But one meal that sticks out to me is the Chicken Enchilada Mac. I like it a lot because it was inspired by using leftover chicken I had from the day before. Many of the recipes use leftovers actually, because I’m a firm believer if you’re spending time and money cooking something, it absolutely should not get thrown away.
“The ingredients are: 1 box deluxe mac n’ cheese; 1 cup shredded chicken (dark or white meat both work); 1/8 teaspoon each of cumin and cayenne pepper; 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1/3 cup chopped onion (any kind works); ½ cup chopped green or red pepper; 1 jalapeno seeded and chopped; ½ cup of any Mexican cheese blend; 1 12 oz. can of enchilada sauce
“Start by cooking the boxed mac n’ cheese as directed and setting it aside. While it’s cooking, sautee the onions, bell pepper, jalapeno, cumin, and cayenne until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the cooked, shredded chicken and enchilada sauce. Stir in the cheese, mac n’ cheese and chicken mixture until everything is well blended. I love adding guacamole and sour cream on top, too.