Handy kitchen hacks save time and effort

March 3, 2023

The word “hack” has certainly evolved over time. Originally, the word hackney referred to a horse of ordinary size, then it was shortened to hack, meaning a cab, and then morphed into a term for someone who wasn’t very good at what they did. As a verb, it meant to chop roughly with multiple cuts, as in hacking overgrown vines or dead branches. With the advent of the computer age, hacking became the act of gaining unauthorized access to data in a system, usually for nefarious purposes.

Recently, we’ve seen the noun hack used as a synonym for shortcut, as in life hacks and kitchen hacks. An example of the first is to use a clothes-pin to hold a nail as you hammer it in place, avoiding the chance of smashing your finger. Kitchen hacks can be found all over the internet, ranging from simplified recipes to specific techniques that make food preparation easier or faster.

One example is how to get more juice from a lemon or lime: microwave the fruit for seven or eight seconds; roll it back and forth under your palm on the counter; then cut in half and squeeze, getting more juice with less effort. Another quick tip is to use your pizza cutter instead of a paring knife to mince herbs like chives. To make perfect potato wedges with less cutting, use an apple slicer. And, when bringing water to a boil, cover the pan to trap more heat.

One of the most delicious recipe hacks my friend Lina recently introduced to me is one-pot macaroni and cheese. Unless resorting to pre-packaged products, the usual first step to macaroni and cheese is making a flour-based white sauce. This is whisked with cheese while the macaroni boils in a separate pan. Finally, the pasta and sauce are combined, often in another pan or serving bowl.

To make the dish in the photo, you need only a single saucepan, in which you boil the pasta, stir in the cheese and you’re ready to go. The reason this works is because instead of using flour to thicken the sauce, you rely on concentrated, starchy pasta water. However, there are a few tips to consider in order to make this come out satisfyingly smooth and creamy.

The shape of pasta is critical. You need to control how much liquid is absorbed by the time it reaches the desired al dente texture, and you need curls or whorls or twists in the pasta shape to give the sauce places to cling. The best choices are fusilli, cavatappi and shells, all of which need about 8 to 10 minutes of cooking time. Make sure the water-and-milk mixture comes to a rolling boil before adding the dry pasta. To keep the liquid from boiling over, place a wooden spoon across the top of the pan.

Cheese, as the key ingredient in this dish, is also an important factor. I have seen combinations of sharp cheddar and American as well as sharp cheddar and Parmesan, and others, such as fontina. No matter which, you will want to shred or grate a block of cheese, rather than purchasing pre-shredded packaged cheese, in order to avoid anti-caking agents. Be careful about adding salt, as the cheese will probably deliver most of what you’ll need.

Other ingredients are purely optional. Some cooks like to add a bit of Dijon mustard or garlic powder to deepen the flavor profile. My only extra is a grating of fresh black pepper over the top, as seen in the photo. Other variations can include the addition of cooked bacon or pancetta, steamed shrimp or shredded chicken. Lightly cooked vegetables such as mushrooms, asparagus and broccoli can create color and flavor interest. I’ve included the basic recipe for Lina’s mac and cheese, and two other easy pasta dishes.

Lina’s One Pot Mac & Cheese

1 1/2 C water
1 C whole milk
2 C pasta
1 C grated American cheese
1 C grated Cheddar cheese
freshly ground black pepper

Pour water and milk into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook until al dente and about 1/2 C of liquid remains, 8 to 10 minutes, depending on pasta shape. Reduce heat to low and add American cheese, stirring until melted. Remove from heat and add cheddar, stirring until smooth. Season to taste with pepper. Yield 2 to 3 servings.

One Pot Chicken Penne

2 chicken breast halves
1 onion
2 T olive oil
3 C chicken stock
2 C penne pasta
3 C baby spinach
3 T mayonnaise
2 T grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground black pepper

Cube chicken and dice onions. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium. Add chicken and onion to skillet and cook until chicken starts to brown, stirring often. Add stock and bring to a boil over high. Add pasta and spinach; cook until pasta is barely al dente and about 1/2 C of liquid remains, about 10 minutes. Whisk in mayonnaise, stirring until a smooth sauce forms. Garnish with cheese and pepper to serve. Yield: 2 to 3 servings.

Cacio e pepe*

2 T salt
8 oz bucatini pasta
2 T butter
1 t freshly ground black pepper
2 oz finely grated Pecorino-Romano cheese

Fill a large pot 2/3 full with water and add salt. Bring to a rolling boil over hight heat. Add pasta and cook until al dente. While pasta cooks, melt butter in a skillet over low heat. Add pepper and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds; remove from heat. When pasta is ready, use tongs to transfer the pasta from the pot into the skillet, along with 1/3 C cooking water. Add half the cheese and toss briefly to combine. Add remaining cheese and continue tossing until cheese is melted and sauce is glossy. Serve immediately. Yield: 2 to3 servings. *Adapted from


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