All cooks have their own version of macaroni and cheese, that perennial favorite that everyone loves—including me. So I was thrilled when that was the first team challenge on The Taste. And how fun to see the Domestic Goddess make mac and cheese in her own kitchen!
Anyway, after watching me on the show last night, one of my Twitter followers quipped “Did you put anything healthy in your mac+cheese? Is that possible?”
The simple response, as many of my regular readers will anticipate, is yes. (Occupational hazard.) Not that it’s always necessary, mind you. See, for example, my recipe for maple walnut ice cream. But it’s certainly possible.
Yet I think the more important answer to the question is that decadent dishes like mac and cheese absolutely fit into Cooking & Eating the PK Way, which is my food-loving philosophy that keeps pleasure and taste at the center of the plate (while also looking like this). There’s no need for total deprivation when it comes to diet, and that in and of itself can facilitate an unhealthy relationship with food, trigger binge eating, and so forth. That said, macaroni and cheese is not my regular menu item given its massive amount of, well, cheese. (More examples of the things I regularly cook are here.) Moderation is key when it comes to meals like these; my recommendation is to keep mac and cheese as a special treat. I, for example, make it only a few times a year. I adore the classic cheddar-based version—confession: I still get occasional hankerings for Stouffer’s from my grad student days—but today’s recipe includes other cheeses, too. Ravishing additions like caramelized onions, blue cheese, and a crispy garlic and herb crumb topping come together in a sexy adult variation that’s definitely not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese.
So enjoy this lighter-than-usual-yet-still-creamy-and-delicious dish of indulgence—and do so guilt-free! It is definitely nutrition doctor approved.
Just, you know, not all the time.
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Macaroni & Cheese
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (or more)
- 2 cups onions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons thyme leaves, fresh (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
- Salt and black pepper, to season
- 2 cups vegetable stock, homemade or no-sodium store bought
- 1/4 cup dry vermouth (or white wine)
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 12 ounces whole wheat elbow macaroni (or other pasta of your choice)
- 1 1/2 cups white cheddar, grated
- 1 1/2 tablespoons corn starch
- 1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon dried mustard powder
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 1/4 cups blue cheese, crumbled (about 8 ounces)
- 1 cup green peas (optional)
Crispy Crumb Topping
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, approximately
- 2 pieces whole wheat bread, pulsed or grated into fine crumbs
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- 2 tablespoons toasted hazelnuts, chopped (almonds or pecans also work)
Caramelize the allium. Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-low and add in onions and shallots. Season with salt and pepper and toss until coated. Cook down slowly until brown and deliciously sweet, stirring occasionally, and toss in the thyme leaves during the final minutes. Drizzle in a bit more EVOO if needed during cooking to prevent the onions from sticking to the pan and drying out. (More instructions here on how to caramelize onions.)
Make the pasta and sauce. While the onions are doing their thing, smash your garlic cloves with the back of a knife, remove the skins, and throw into a saucepan with the vermouth, vegetable stock, and rosemary. Bring to a boil then simmer for about 10 minutes or so. Note that the goal is to infuse the stock with garlic and rosemary, not reduce it substantially. While the sauce simmers, fill a pot with water and a few big pinches of salt and bring to a boil. Follow the directions on the package and cook your pasta of choice until a few minutes firmer than al dente; it will absorb the sauce and become more tender during cooking. In a large bowl, grate the cheddar cheese and toss it with corn starch, then pour in the herbaceous stock and whisk. (Note that this is not a thick béchamel sauce; the mixture will still be thin at this point.) Stir in the mascarpone, dried mustard, and white pepper.
Prepare the crispy topping. Pulse the bread into fine crumbs; you’ll have about 1 cup or so. Heat the olive oil to medium-high and add the garlic, stirring until fragrant, and then the breadcrumbs. Sauté until golden and crispy, about 4 minutes or so. Add nuts and parsley, mixing an additional minute or two to combine.
Put it together. Stir the drained pasta into the cheese sauce then add the crumbled blue cheese, caramelized onions, and peas (if using), just until combined. Pour the mixture into a large casserole or fun, individual-sized serving dishes that have been lightly coated with olive oil or cooking spray. Scatter the top(s) with the crispy crumbs.
Bake in an preheated 375 degree F oven about 20-40 minutes (a deep casserole will take closer to 40 minutes), until mixture is hot and bubbling. If crumbs are getting too brown, cover with foil until cooked
Let the mac and cheese rest a few minutes then serve.
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If you’re still reading—and thanks for that!—then you caught the various alterations that make my version better-for-you-and-the-planet-too: I swapped nutritious whole grain for typical white for both the pasta and bread crumbs; switched heart-healthy olive oil for butter; selected homemade veggie stock rather than full-sodium store-bought chicken broth; and included veggies like onions and peas for balance and texture. (My hubby has an affection for peas, and I love to see the green pops of color.) And I used Nigella’s tip of starting with a stock, which lets the flavors sing rather than burying everything in uber-creamy cheesiness. (Though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that once in a while, as she and I both fully agree, and you can make this dish a lot richer by starting with a traditional roux and adding even more cheese.) Finally, including some toasted nuts in the topping brings in even more vitamins and minerals with a little bit of extra crunch to boot.
The result? The earthy, herbaceous notes of this dish come together delectably in a sophisticated take on mac and cheese that’s almost dinner party worthy.
And if this dish doesn’t quite work for you, since some people don’t care for blue, either use all cheddar or swap in Swiss or gouda. And include the veggies that make you and yours happy. Make it your way!
Or, you know, there’s always Stouffer’s.
I hear that.
Note. This is the version of the dish I make in my own kitchen based on the ingredients I use regularly, like whole grain pasta and bread and homemade vegetable stock. I made minor changes to my regular recipe on the show based on the pantry items available. Also—repeat after me—whole grain pasta doesn’t suck, and this dish is the perfect foil since it has other nutty, earthy elements to it (like blue cheese and nuts). Give it a shot, or start swapping in whole grain for regular until your palate adjusts to the more pronounced flavor of whole grain pasta; it will happen.
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Dr. P. K. Newby is a nutrition scientist and educator with expertise in the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases through diet and the relations between agriculture, food production, and public health. She brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability through her writing and videos to help people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. Her first book Foods for Health is onsale at local bookstores and here.
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