It’s still January, winter has a long way to go and we in the Northeast are gearing up for more snow and frigid temperatures this week. This has me thinking comfort food. Something rich and creamy, stick-to-your-ribs, makes the entire house smell divine, kid-friendly and leaves enough left over for the next night. Homemade Mac and Cheese fits the bill. But, traditional recipes are pretty heavy on the calorie and fat count and non-existent on the veggie count. I don’t let that stop me. A few substitutions, fat-laden eliminations, and vegetable additions and you can have Mac and Cheese that satisfies everyone at the table while feeling good about it.
The foundation for my base recipe is credited to my trusty “Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook”. This handy book isn’t sophisticated or “light” cooking but it’s perfect to serve as a starting point for the most common home-cooked meals. Once you know the proportion of ingredients and the techniques used to create the dish, then you can substitute ingredients to make it lower in calories or fat, meatless, kid-friendly, veggie-friendly or play with herbs and spices to give it an ethnic flair. Betty’s Mac and Cheese calls for regular pasta, whole milk, full-fat cheese and very little in the way of flavor additions. The result for hers is bland in flavor yet so rich and creamy in texture that it’s still satisfying. For my base recipe, I keep the proportions of the main ingredients the same but substitute healthier versions of them. I also boost the flavor by substituting bolder cheeses and adding more herbs and spices. The most valuable part of Betty’s recipe are the instructions for creating the roux for the cheese sauce. They’re easy to follow but necessary to get the desired creamy result. While my basic Mac and Cheese is delicious and satisfying, I prefer the two variations that include the vegetables. The veggies add another layer of flavor and texture to the dish, I miss them when they’re not in there.
Fit & Happier Mac and Cheese
Ingredients: 8 oz uncooked 100% whole grain elbow macaroni, 4 T unsalted butter, 1/4 c all-purpose flour, 1/2 t salt, 1/4 t pepper, 1/4 t ground mustard, 1/2 t Worcestershire sauce, 2 c fat-free milk, 2 c (8 oz) low-fat (made with 2% milk) shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese, 2 T grated parmesan, 1 t powdered garlic, 1 T minced dried onion, 2 t salt-free herb blend (such as Mrs Dash), 1/4 c part-skim shredded mozzarella, 2 T panko bread crumbs (optional) for crunchy texture
Instructions: Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook macaroni according to package instructions, subtract 2 minutes from lowest cooking time. (If instructions call for boiling pasta 5-7 minutes, boil for only 3 minutes. Pasta will finish cooking in the oven.)
While pasta is being prepared, melt butter in 3 Qt sauce pan over low heat. Stir in flour, salt, pepper and mustard. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and bubbly. Increase heat to medium and immediately add milk, pouring slowly, while stirring. Add Worcestershire sauce and heat mixture to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for 1 minute. Reduce heat to low and add cheddar, parmesan, powdered garlic, dried onion and herb blend. Stir until cheese is melted. Keep warm until pasta is done cooking and has been drained.
Place drained pasta and cheese sauce into ungreased 2 Qt casserole, mix thoroughly. Sprinkle mozzarella and panko evenly on top. Bake uncovered 20-25 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown on top. Serve with fresh tossed salad. (Serving size is 3/4 C)
Vegged-Out Mac and Cheese
Sautee (in olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper) or roast (see recipe here) your favorite vegetables and stir into the casserole just before putting in the oven. Some of our favorite sautéed additions are onions, fresh garlic, chopped kale (or spinach, mustard or turnip greens) and mushrooms (such as shiitake, portobello or oyster). Good roasted options are Brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli and fennel.
Hidden Veggie Treasures Mac and Cheese
This is perfect for the vegetable-phobes in your house. Cook and puree orange or color-neutral vegetables such as butternut squash, sweet potato, pumpkin (you can use canned) or cauliflower. Add the pureed veggies to the warm cheese sauce; heat and stir until fully incorporated. Orange or color-neutral vegetables blend into the already yellow-orange cheese sauce, fooling even the most finicky eaters.
More Add-In Ideas
For a protein and fiber boost: add your favorite beans (such as cannellini, chickpeas or edamame)
For Italian-style freshness: add sun-dried tomatoes to the mixture before baking and sprinkle chopped fresh basil on top just before serving
For bacon-y smokiness without the fat: add smoked paprika to the cheese sauce
For some heat: incorporate chili powder or chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce.
I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. Give it a try, add your own style and taste and let me know what you think.
Author’s Note: I am an exercise professional, not a nutrition professional. My food recommendations are based on the most current science-backed information provided by nutrition professionals in the fitness industry publications I receive and my personal experience. Mine are general recommendations that are in line with the guidelines published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services for apparently healthy individuals. If you have a health condition that requires dietary restrictions, I recommend consulting a medical doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet.