A hundred thousand years ago when I left home for college, one of the things I was looking forward to most was having my own! kitchen! Yes, I had made the wise and well-considered decision (ahem) to choose Kresge College as my home base at UC Santa Cruz, for no better or worse reason than that it consisted of apartments rather than dorm rooms. I would have a kitchen (which I would have to share with roommates, and clean). I would have a bathroom (ditto, and ditto). It would be awesome, I was sure.*
Cue young Molly in the pocket-sized kitchen, one day later, embarking on her very first independent unsupervised away-from-home cooking project. I thought, naturally, that the dish that would best embody freedom, vegetarianism, concern for the Earth and all that other Kresge College-related crap was… my mom's macaroni and cheese.
Ah, my mom's macaroni and cheese! None of that toxic orange from-a-box garbage, nor that sad faux mix-hot-mac-and-grated-Cheddar creation that passed for proper macaroni and cheese at many of my friends' houses. No, this was the real thing. Start with a roux (a very, very buttery roux). Whisk it well. Cook it long. Add plenty of milk and a lavish, ridiculous, borderline ludicrous amount of cheese. Whisk and cook and thicken and season, and then fold it into a bunch of hot perfectly al dente macaroni and stir briskly, yet tenderly, like a 1950s-era maternity nurse, and then put breadcrumbs and more butter (yes! why not?) on top and bake it 'til the whole house smells like Paradise and good heavens I think my mouth is starting to water writing about it even now.
Of course, I didn't actually know how to make my mom's macaroni and cheese. So I placed the first in an infinite series of calls home.
Mom may have been a little surprised to hear from me quite so soon after she'd dispatched me to college, but she was quite glad to share with me the recipe. Which I wrote down in a little maroon vinyl binder. Which I added to over the years. And which still rests happily among my ever-expanding collection of cookbooks.
Anyway… yeah. Happiness consisted, for me at seventeen anyway, largely in knowing how to make a proper white sauce (which, when you add cheese, obv becomes a proper cheese sauce). And it is the direct descendant of that long-ago pan of macaroni and cheese (most of which I ate immediately, all by myself, if memory serves) that goes into this simple vegetable soup and immediately transforms it from serviceable-and-healthy to something-you'd-actually-want-to-eat.
Serves a lot. Maybe eight? How hungry is everyone?
2 Tbsp butter (or olive oil… but seriously, use butter, it's not like this is health food here)
1 medium onion, diced
4 small to medium carrots, peeled and diced
3 small to medium ribs celery, diced
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 tsp salt
4 Tbsp butter (use all of it; don't skimp)
4 Tbsp flour
2 cups milk–pour it and set it aside when you start sauteing the vegetables so it's of a temperature to incorporate nicely into the sauce
2 cups shredded cheese–Cheddar or jack, or whatever, really. This would probably be transcendently yummy with Gruyere.
More salt and pepper as needed
Optional: a little nutmeg
Heat the 2 Tbsp butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, until well softened, about 5 minutes.
Add potatoes, broth and salt. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are super-duper tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
About 10 minutes before you anticipate the potatoes being done, make the cheese sauce: Melt the 4 Tbsp butter in a heavy skillet. Whisk in the flour; cook over medium heat, whisking without ceasing, for about 3 minutes. Everything should smell toasty and delicious. Whisk in the milk; continue stirring until very smooth. Whisk in the cheese, a handful at a time, stirring after each addition until it's completely melted. When all the cheese and milk are incorporated, cook and stir a couple minutes more until slightly thickened. Season it with a little salt and pepper. If the veggies aren't done yet when the sauce is finished, keep it warm over low heat and stir it a couple of times every minute.
When all is finished cooking, stir the cheese sauce into the soup. Taste; correct seasoning; add a little nutmeg if you like; serve it forth.
*The awesomeness, as it turned out, was distinctly tempered with suckitude. But that's another tale and will be told another time.