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No plain ol' mac and cheese for Linda Leake. Who'd want that?
The LaFayette, Ga., woman says she gets repeated calls for Glorified Macaroni, a recipe handed down from her mother that transforms ordinary shell macaroni into a heavenly casserole with sautéed vegetables, condensed soups and nuts.
"I love to cook," says Leake, 64, a former school teacher. "I got it from my mother."
However, she's even taken Edith Adkins Leake's recipe - lovingly typed by her school superintendent father in a now-coverless small binder complete with food stains on every page - and ramped it up a bit.
Where her mother sautéed, or "steamed" onions, mushrooms and green peppers, Leake adds orange and red peppers and almonds as "something different or unusual" in a macaroni casserole.
She makes the dish when "friends and relatives need it," for family reunions, church dinners and has submitted it for a church cookbook. On a recent morning, Leake was making the dish in the East Brainerd home of longtime friend Sherri Evans because the latter had company coming. Leake says the two go back to college days in the mid-1970s at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, when both were students in education.
But even with the typed recipe in hand, Leake says, "I don't always go from a recipe. I don't always measure things out." The amount of medium shell macaroni, for instance, is up to the cook. Her recipe calls for an 8-ounce box or 12-ounce box, but she used a one-pound box for Evans' casserole.
When the macaroni is put on to boil - Leake prefers a pot of salted water with a closed lid for perfect al dente texture - she chops the onion, peppers and mushrooms and puts them on with the almonds to sauté in olive oil. Though a can of mushrooms may be used for the sauté, she says, she favors fresh and used baby bella mushrooms in the dish she made for Evans.
When the pasta is complete, drained and rinsed, and the veggies are done, the two are combined. Since Leake was making it for a friend, she mixed it all in a disposable aluminum pan, which also is convenient because the dish freezes "immensely well."
"I figure, 'Why not just throw it together and deal with it?'" she says.
The soups, pimentos (with or without the juice), mayonnaise (reduced fat with olive oil in Evans' dish) and cheese are then added, with cheese going in last to help bind the ingredients, Leake says. Some almonds may be reserved to put on top, she says.
The dish is cooked in a 350-degree oven until it bubbles, she says. The time depends on the oven, she says, but is generally 20 to 30 minutes.
Though it can be a main-dish meal, a tossed salad is a good accompaniment, she says.
"Mother went the long way to cook," Leake says. "I look for the shortcuts. I go by looks a lot."
8-ounce or 12-ounce box medium shell macaroni
Extra virgin olive oil (for sautéing)
2 large green bell peppers, chopped
3 or 4 baby bell red peppers, chopped, (or large peppers, to taste)
3 or 4 baby bell orange peppers, chopped (or large peppers, to taste)
1 medium onion (Vidalia in season), chopped
1 large can mushroom stems and pieces (or fresh mushrooms, chopped)
Sliced almonds (to taste)
10 3/4-ounce can cream of celery soup
26-ounce can cream of mushroom soup
4-ounce jar pimentos (with or without juice)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 cup (or more, to taste) grated sharp cheddar cheese
Cook macaroni for 5 minutes in salted boiling water. Drain. Rinse in colander with cold water. While macaroni is cooking, chop vegetables and steam onions, peppers, mushrooms and almonds in olive oil until tender. Combine macaroni and veggies in large baking dish. Add soups, mayonnaise, pimentos and cheese. Mix together. Add additional almonds if desired. Cook at 350 degrees until mixture bubbles.