Wednesday, July 28, 2010
1 Recipe #151: Gourmet Macaroni & Cheese
What could be more quintessentially American -- or should I say, quintessential to the American childhood experience -- than "Mac (Macaroni) & Cheese"?!
To be honest, I never thought I'd be adding a macaroni & cheese recipe to this blog, especially after what I wrote in this post, but then again, stranger things have happened. ;) However, I'm hardly going against my earlier stated motto, (i.e., "Life is short, so why only eat hamburgers or mac & cheese?" ;) ). Frankly, previous to last night's recipe testing, I don't even remember the last time I actually ate macaroni & cheese. That's because it's usually made (by others) in incredibly fattening ways, so I tend to avoid it if it's served at a party or buffet. :) However, I'm offering you a healthy homemade alternative that satisfies the taste buds as well, so sure, why not indulge in a guilt-free fashion once in a while. :) And, true to form, this "ain't no ordinary mac 'n' cheese recipe." :) It's a little bit less traditional than your typical macaroni & cheese recipe, made a little bit more sophisticated for us adults. ;)
The good news is that this recipe has far less butter than most existing recipes out there, just a hint for flavor -- and there's absolutely NO cream or flabby, rubbery-tasting slices of processed American cheese, etc. -- so it's a LOT healthier, (not to mention MUCH better-tasting!), than most versions that rely heavily on these ingredients.
It still tastes incredibly rich & creamy. I know, hard to believe, but I swear, it's true. :) Also, the sauce has a surprisingly thick consistency. A lot of "health food" recipes I've seen out there seem to rely on ingredients like cottage cheese or use all skim milk -- The first seems like it'd make the sauce too lumpy while the latter by itself probably isn't going to make the sauce thick enough. The secret to this recipe's sauce is the addition of a bit of flour, which acts as a very effective thickening agent. There's also a pinch of mustard in there too. Sounds strange, I know, but it really does enhance the flavor considerably.
I was really pleased with how this recipe turned out. Hope you will be too!
Gourmet Macaroni & Cheese
1 c. dry, uncooked Barilla Plus elbow macaroni pasta
4 c. lightly salted water
drop of olive oil (to keep pasta from sticking together & to sides of pot)
1/2 tsp. unsalted butter
1/2 Tbsp. freshly grated/shredded Asiago cheese (or Parmigiano-Reggiano, if you prefer)
1 Tbsp. plain bread crumbs (use panko, Japanese bread crumbs, or make yourself from leftover, stale bread)
1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 Tbsp. unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 c. skim milk
1/4 c. light nondairy creamer
3/4 c. reduced-fat cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/4 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/8 tsp. dried, ground (yellow) mustard
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
Directions: Bring lightly salted water to a rolling boil in a medium-sized pot. Add pasta & cook until al dente, about 9-11 minutes. While pasta is cooking, make the topping: Melt butter in a nonstick sauté pan on medium heat. Add Asiago & let it melt for about 30-60 seconds. Turn up heat to medium-high & then add bread crumbs & brown, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat & set aside. Drain pasta well & set aside. Next, make sauce: In the same pot used to boil the pasta, melt butter & rapidly whisk in flour, until the mixture forms a light roux. Then immediately turn down heat to medium-low. Keep whisking at a brisk pace, adding milk & creamer, & then cheddar. Whisk until melted & then remove from heat. Stir in all dry spices/herbs, add in pasta & gently stir to combine. Then transfer pasta mixture to a small, heat proof casserole dish, using a heat-proof spatula to scoop out the rest of the cheese sauce from the pot. Top with bread crumbs & bake for 25-30 minutes on 375°F, or until topping has adequately browned. (Optional: Season with a dash of paprika & garnish with a sprig of parsley or some chives.) Serve & enjoy!
Yield: Serves 2 as a main course, or 3, if you plan to serve it with a salad or vegetable side. Serves 4-5 as a side dish, depending upon how hungry you are. :)
Variations: When I first made this recipe in my test kitchen, I didn't have any elbow macaroni in my pantry at the time, so I substituted farfalle (bowtie pasta) for some added interest. You could also use shells (conchiglie), or any other type of pasta you choose: Other fun suggestions include catavappi, fiori, gemelli, orecchiette, rotini, rotelle, etc. (For a fairly comprehensive guide to various pasta shape options, check out this link.)
Please note that if you use other pasta shapes, you might need to adjust the amount of cheese sauce you make. I found that when I used farfalle I didn't need to make as much cheese sauce as when I made the dish with elbow macaroni. The elbow macaroni might be smaller, but after it's cooked, it has more total surface area. :)
Other ideas include using multicolored pasta or adding vegetables for nutritional value: halved cherry or grape tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, olives, red bell pepper, zucchini, asparagus, butternut squash, etc. (Just toss in the vegetables when you're baking the macaroni in the oven.) If you use the butternut squash, you might be able to get away with skipping the step of making the roux, since butternut squash is extremely creamy in its own right.
You could also try some additional spices like marjoram, fresh sage, &/or fresh rosemary. Or, bring on the heat with some red pepper flakes, ground cayenne pepper, or jalapeños. You could also try substituting low-fat buttermilk, part-skim nonfat ricotta, &/or nonfat Greek yoghurt for either some or all of the creamer &/or milk. Alternatively, try using a different kind of lowfat cheese like Monterey (Pepper) Jack, mozarella, feta cheese, etc. Or, for a vegan version, try substituting low-fat soy milk or tofu for the roux, milk, & creamer, & soy cheese for the cheddar.
Of course, I've given you the basic template (above), so feel free to experiment & do your own thing. Variations on a theme are always fun to do. :)