In that infinite suburbia beyond New York where supermarkets are really huge, housewives actually cook, and you never find a Chinese-takeout menu slipped under your door, a curious industry has taken root—one that helps beleaguered soccer moms get food on the table lickety-split. These commissary kitchens do all the prepping, chopping, peeling, and mincing; all the clientele need do is book a two-hour time slot to assemble the ingredients according to preselected recipes and stock their freezers for a week. With the recent opening of the bright, cheerful flagship of Really Cool Foods, Manhattan has a shortcut canteen of its own, although this one sells color-coded, parboiled, plastic-wrapped recipe components, and lets the customer do all the assembling at home (in an advertised twenty minutes or less). The assumption behind a venture like this, of course, is that New Yorkers might like to eat, but they don’t really like to cook, and that a vast untapped niche exists between the toil and trouble of cooking from scratch and the ease (laziness?) of delivery. This isn’t the first local attempt at convenience cooking; Artiko, a New Rochelle–based emporium of flash-frozen foods, got a rather chilly Manhattan reception, closing its uptown branch not long ago. But Really Cool Foods is hedging its bets with an appealing selection of high-end groceries (Bread Alone baguettes, Point Reyes blue cheese, boutique olive oil), plus cookbooks, cookware, and that Manhattan manna, organic pet food. To see how the shop’s component cooking compares to the old-fashioned kind in price, effort, and taste, we made that homiest of dishes, macaroni and cheese, both ways. And then, for good measure, we ordered our favorite takeout version.
THE QUICKReally Cool Foods
1059 Third Ave., nr. 63rd St.; 212-605-0900
Ingredients: Individual packages of precooked pasta (penne or bow ties), cream sauce, shredded Cheddar and Gruyère, grated Parmesan, fresh herbs (optional), and panko—prepped in a commercial kitchen in Syosset, on Long Island.
Shopping Time: Twenty minutes, including a few moments of confusion spent unavoidably retracing our footsteps between various color-coded departments to gather ingredients.
Prep and Cooking Time: Purported: 30 minutes or less. Actual: 35 minutes.
Cleanup: A breeze. One pot, a wooden spoon, and a casserole.
Cost of ingredients: $39.70 (including optional fresh herbs).
Verdict: Simple enough for a small child to prepare. The pasta was carefully precooked, maybe even a little shy of al dente to allow for additional cooking time, but, oddly, was only available in four-ounce containers while the recipe called for twenty ounces. (The excess packaging doesn’t jibe with the store’s trumpeted “environmentally appropriate” credo.) Taste-wise, it was better than you’d expect—rich and gooey with a thick, crunchy panko crust—and by no means an embarrassment to present at the table. There are, however, two schools of thought concerning mac ’n’ cheese: the creamy, white-sauce-favoring school, to which Really Cool Foods belongs, and the relentlessly cheesy school. Stubborn members of the latter camp would most likely have unkind words to say about the Really Cool Foods version.
Rank: A respectable third place (and if cleanup is a domestic hot-button issue, you might rank it higher).
THE SLOWDavid Rosengarten’s Macaroni and Cheese
From his cookbook, It’s All American Food
Ingredients: We strove for perfection, selecting pricey, fancy-pants products we thought would make for the ultimate mac ’n’ cheese: Setaro pasta (look for the “maccheroncini,” which are like elbows but with ridges), bread crumbs, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (aged 33 months) from Buonitalia; and Fiscalini raw-milk Cheddar, Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar, crème fraîche, French butter, and Ronnybrook milk from Balducci’s.
Shopping Time: 26 minutes, not including a leisurely espresso break at Buonitalia.
Prep and Cooking Time: One hour, fifteen minutes.
Cleanup: Moderately busy but nothing too strenuous.
Cost of ingredients: $55.56 if your cupboard is bare (with a lot left over, condiment- and spice-wise, for future use).
Verdict: Delicious. The recipe, writes Rosengarten, is intended to bridge the gulf between the creamy school and the cheesy school, and it succeeds. The sauce is rich and creamy but fairly sharp, the fresh herb Parmigiano-Reggiano-and-paprika-laced bread crumbs make for a beautiful golden-brown crust, and adding crème fraîche to the sauce is a nice gooey textural innovation. As expected, Setaro’s maccheroncini is an ideal sauce-gripping pasta shape for mac ’n’ cheese.
Rank: A strong second.
THE PHONED-INBlue Smoke Catering
116 E. 27th St., nr. Lexington Ave. 212-447-6058
Ingredients: Standard elbow macaroni and (we’re guessing) two types of cheese: Cheddar and, because it maintains its supreme meltiness so well, good old American.
Waiting Time: Twenty minutes, even though we placed the order in advance.
Cleanup: Virtually none, except washing the aluminum-foil container and depositing it in the proper recycling bin.
Cost: $19 for a two-pound container; $39 for five pounds.
Verdict: Truth be told, we predicted that this, our gold—or make that Velveeta-orange—standard of mac-’n’-cheese excellence, would emerge victorious, and it did. It’s a simple thing of cheesy beauty: no bread crumbs, no herbs, no spices (although we recommend sprinkling liberally with Blue Smoke Magic Dust while dining at the restaurant). Just a judiciously high ratio of cheese to noodle with an intense tangy flavor that tastes like artisanal Cheez Whiz, if you can imagine that.