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Queen and Diva's mac 'n' cheese

Queen and Diva's mac 'n' cheese
Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

Every year at my house, we host what we call the "Long Table Thanksgiving."

It's a simple tradition, and it does a lot to minimize holiday stress. We provide the birds, and everyone else brings a side dish.

Oh, and we eat at a very long table.

These Thanksgivings started out small enough, a modest gathering of family and friends. That first year, we had just under 20 guests. We were able to fit everyone into the tiny dining area of our little Craftsman bungalow -- it might have been a bit of a squeeze, but we prefer to remember it as "intimate." The following year, our number grew by a few guests. We moved some furniture around so the dinner could spill into the living room, to give everyone a little breathing room.

Every Thanksgiving since, our gathering has grown a little more. This past year, we had more than 60 guests.

A few years ago, we finally had the sense to move the festivities out to the backyard. We rented a few tables and chairs and set them up along the driveway, and the Long Table was born.

And it's worked. Count it as one of the blessings of living in Southern California: The weather is almost always cooperative, and a fall evening can be particularly nice. We'll sit down to eat just as dusk begins to set in, the tables banked on one side with crape myrtles and on the other side with cape honeysuckle, its fiery orange blossoms seeming even brighter in the warm glow of the setting sun.

The Long Table continues to grow, and that growth is the heart of our tradition: Everyone is welcome at the Long Table, and no one is turned away.

My partner, Valerie, and I have been together more than 10 years, and while we've been lucky enough to spend our holidays with our combined families, some of our friends have not. Melting pot and magnet that L.A. is, some of our friends may not have local family and can't afford to return home for the holiday, others don't yet have roots and places to go. And still others, for whatever reason, are unable to go home with the ones they love to spend the holiday.

Over the years, our Long Table has been graced with a wonderfully diverse group of people. Glancing down the table, you might at first think Norman Rockwell meets Fellini: You'll see ministers, professors and actors; families with kids or grandparents; couples; old friends and new; gay and straight; guests of every color, race and creed.

And as you start to take in the chatter, you'll hear small talk and serious conversations, dialogue driven by every political and religious persuasion, sometimes serious, sometimes light, warmed with smiles and peppered with laughter. I'll never forget the year my grandmother bonded with one of our close friends, a professional drag queen, over makeup tips.

Val and I may host the Long Table, but we can't claim ownership of it. It belongs to the group, and it evolves from year to year as our gathering grows.

But we do provide the space and the tables. And the turkeys.

We cooked five turkeys last year. Every year I roast a turducken, which -- colossal meat-fest that it is (picture a chicken stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a turkey) -- was just enough by itself to feed our group for the first couple of years. Eventually, I added a barbecued turkey. (I learned quickly that you have to be creative when you're hosting these large gatherings. We have a small kitchen and only one oven. As the gathering moved outside, so did a lot of my cooking.)

Before too long, we added deep-fried turkeys to the mix. A friend and I will set up a couple of deep-fryers on the back lawn shortly before everyone starts to arrive. Val, a lawyer whose specialty includes homeowner insurance, always cringes a little and looks the other way as we fire up the burners and get the oil going. The turkeys cook quickly, in under an hour, and can be entertaining to watch, particularly for the newer guests.

Everyone else takes care of the sides and dessert. Guests may bring a cherished recipe from their childhood or a dish they've continued to perfect for every gathering. The dishes are often classic comfort food, sometimes heavy on the cream of mushroom soup, crackers or French-fried onions. There is no shortage of Velveeta at our table. These are dishes from home, and they speak to the cooks' memories, not their gourmet aspirations.

Marc always makes a dish or two from his mother's worn recipe booklet, her corn pudding lightly sweet, a bygone classic. Ron will prepare the wild rice dressing he grew up with in Minnesota, reminiscing how, as a young boy, his father would take him out in a canoe and teach him how to harvest wild rice on the river, knocking it down into the boat. Others, like Andrea, Sharon, Johnny and Sean, have a staple dish we count on every year: broccoli casserole, ambrosia, spinach balls and mac 'n' cheese.

We've come to count on these dishes -- expect them, even -- as staples at our gatherings, and the Long Table would not be complete without them. Or the hands that prepared them.

The successful outdoor feast

These are some of the things I've learned hosting my Thanksgiving potlucks outdoors for a large gathering:

Invitations: Send online invitations so people can respond at a common site, such as Evite, Pingg and Crusher, and indicate which dish they'll be bringing. This is a great way for both you and your guests to keep a running tally of what you will have and what is still needed. Many online invitations offer specific potluck options in which you indicate what you need, and guests check items off the list.

Safety: Food can cool quickly if kept outdoors. Have guests bring dishes that are not temperature-sensitive. Or for sensitive foods, be sure to keep space in your kitchen (a warm oven for warm dishes, and plenty of refrigerator space for cold).

Do-Ahead: Have your guests prepare the dishes before they arrive so you don't have to worry about providing cooking space and related cleanup.

Stocking up: Depending on the size of your party, have each of your guests bring enough of a dish for at least six to eight servings. You may want to have more than one guest cover staples, such as mashed potatoes, that everyone will want. Ask guests to bring more side dishes than desserts, and be sure some of the guests bring light dishes, such as salads.

Setting the table: Get a rough head count as soon as you can, and place your order for linens and other place settings with a party supply company as far in advance as possible to ensure you can reserve the number of items you need. Plan to rent a few extra chairs, just in case.

Serving spoons and utensils: Guests may not bring a serving spoon or utensil to go with their dish. Keep extras on hand. If needed, you can rent these from your party supply company or buy inexpensive servingware at restaurant supply companies.

Glassware, plates and silverware: Consider whether you want formal or disposable. You can rent china and glassware from a party supply company or purchase disposable items from a party store -- a big plus with disposable is you do not have to wash anything, and you don't have to worry about breakage. Finally, be sure you have plenty of silverware -- you will need things like forks for dinner and dessert.

Beverages and ice chests: Have guests bring a beverage along with their dish. Be sure to have water and sodas on hand, and plenty of ice. Buy your ice early in the day, before things get crazy, and stock up your ice chests (chill sodas and water, extra ice for drinks).

Cleanup: No one wants to clean up after a party, much less a big dinner. Have plenty of trash cans available during the event, and give yourself some time the next morning for cleanup.

-- Noelle Carter

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Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes | Serves 12 to 16
Note: From Sebrena Smith and Sean Swayze.
  • 1 pound bag elbow macaroni
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
  • 3/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 pound Velveeta
  • 1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1/4 cup milk, or to taste
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese, divided
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided
  • 8 ounces goat cheese

Step 1Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the macaroni according to the instructions on the package until al dente. Drain.

Step 2While the noodles are cooking, in a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk in the sour cream and melted butter.

Step 3Stir the macaroni into the bowl with the egg mixture and set aside.

Step 4In a large saucepan, heat the Velveeta, cream of mushroom soup and the milk over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the Velveeta is melted and incorporated with the soup and milk to form a nice sauce consistency. Add additional milk to thin if the sauce is too thick. Remove from heat.

Step 5Stir the sauce in with the macaroni, then stir in half (1 cup each) of the cheddar and jack cheeses. Place the macaroni mixture into a greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish.

Step 6Spoon the goat cheese in dollops over the macaroni mixture, then sprinkle over the remaining cheddar and jack cheeses.

Step 7Bake until the cheese topping is melted and the sauce is bubbly, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove and cool slightly before serving.

Each of 16 servings:
458 calories; 20 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 30 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 110 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,023 mg sodium.
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