Healthy Mac-N-Cheese

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I grew up on Kraft Mac-n-Cheese in the blue box. I would only eat the elbow shapes and my brother would only have the spirals. It is now my comfort food when I am hungover. It is also the reason I gained so much weight in 2001 as I ate it 2 times a week for lunch (Yes the entire box in one go. I had branched out to shapes by that point too).

A friend clued me in to this recipe for healthy mac-n-cheese. Although not as emotionally satisfying as Kraft, it was still delish and filling.

It can be a little expensive and use lots of pans so here are some tips I found in the reviews that would help. I put my modifications in ( ). Basically it is a versatile recipe, but remember if you use different cheeses than those listed, the calorie count will go up.

• Cook only 12 oz. pasta & drain. Use same pot to simmer pre-cut and peeled squash (found it in Walmart's produce dept.) in stock, garlic, bay leaf and 1 2/3 cups milk with cover on the pot, and let cool. Remove bay leaf and blend. Then use same pot to mix up with a 2 cup bag of store-brand Italian cheese. Mix in dried Italian seasoning and lemon-pepper, dash of ground red pepper, then turn into baking pan and top with panko and store-brand Parmesan. Then MOST IMPORTANT--cover and bake. It was not dry at all because I increased milk and decreased pasta, simmered squash with cover on, and baked with cover on. Delicious!

• Use frozen pre-cut squash (I did this)

• I was skeptical but thought the reduction in calories was definitely a worthwhile reason to at least give this a shot. The only real modification I made was using Swiss instead of Gruyere simply because I have found that in recipes like this, Swiss works just fine as a cheaper alternative to Gruyere. Additionally, I did add slightly more milk than it called for, but no more than maybe 1/2 cup. As far as personal touches, I did add some peas and crab meat to the dish to make it more of a main course rather than a side dish. The flavor of the sauce was truly outstanding and while it isn't overwhelmingly cheesy, I love the nuttiness of the squash and Swiss cheese. Super good and it sure doesn't taste like it is missing any of those calories. We will most certainly be making the dish again. Oh and I did omit the parsley because I just don't care for it on anything.

• Buy shredded cheese (we did this and it saved so much time!)

• This is a great recipe, but I agree with some of the other reviews - it is expensive to buy all the cheeses and it does get very dry. However, I've learned that many Cooking Light pasta recipes dry out while baking, so I've learned to add more milk and Greek yogurt to counteract that. Also, the time to prepare is always longer than the recipe says, in this case, due to the butternut squash which is really hard to peel and cut.

• Such a delicious, light alternative to traditional, southern-style homemade mac n cheese. It was a bit labor intensive but not bad considering we got two meals out of it (two adults and three children). The taste is subtle and mature, like grown up kid food. You would never guess there was so much squash in there! We used whole wheat penne instead of cavatappi, and a fresh 3 cheese blend (Parmesan, Romano, Asiago) in lieu of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. I also shortened the baking time to 15 minutes and found it quite adequate (watch for the bubbling, just as the recipe said, and you won't over bake it). Make sure you brown the panko well for an extra little taste infusion. My kids scarfed this up, and we'll be adding it to our rotation. No, it doesn't taste like the boxed stuff--it's better!

• Super easy-if you boil the pasta first (you only need to cook it about half the time the package says since they will keep cooking in the oven), then cook the squash in the same pot and use an immersion blender, you've got hardly any dishes. Substituted a minced shallot for the garlic, and used a mix of Romano and fontina cheese and a little less pasta than it called for to keep it saucier. I also nixed the topping and mixed in some steamed broccoli at the end. Yum!

• I had some leftover squash from a different recipe and decided it was a good excuse to try this recipe. I had a bit of a head start on it, since my squash was already, well, squashed. I still added the milk, broth, etc. I did cook the noodles ahead of time as directed. I did cut corners money wise by choosing other cheeses. I chose Swiss, asiago, and mozzarella. I cooked everything in my dutch oven and then used my immersion blender to create the sauce consistency. Because people were indicating the final product was dry, I decided to add the cooked noodles to my dutch oven and add the cooked panko on top. It's been my experience in the past that if mac and cheese is baked in a dish that is too shallow it can dry out quicker. Not sure if there is any real science to it, however I baked it in the oven as directed and it came out gooey. So, the method seems to have been successful.

And finally the recipe! I took a photo on my phone of the finished product but the quality wasn't very good. The next time we prepare this, I will bring out the SLR.

3 cups cubed peeled butternut squash (about 1 [1-pound] squash) (I used a bag of pre-cut frozen which I cooked in microwave)
1 1/4 cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth (I used vegetable broth from cube)
1 1/2 cups fat-free milk
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fat-free Greek yogurt
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) shredded Gruyère cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) grated pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup (1 ounce) finely grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
1 pound uncooked cavatappi (We used penne and a little less than 1 pound. If you cook ahead, rinse with cold water or add a little it of oil to prevent the pasta from sticking to each other)
Cooking spray
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) (With an impulse purchase, I got flavored Jamie Oliver breadcrumbs. They ended up over-powering the flavors of the pricey cheese but added a nice texture.)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (Omitted)


1. Preheat oven to 375°.

2. Combine squash, broth, milk, and garlic in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until squash is tender when pierced with a fork, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat.

3. Place the hot squash mixture in a blender. Add salt, pepper, and Greek yogurt. Remove the center piece of blender lid (to allow steam to escape); secure blender lid on blender. Place a clean towel over opening in blender lid (to avoid splatters). Blend until smooth. Place blended squash mixture in a bowl; stir in Gruyère, pecorino Romano, and 2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir until combined.

4. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain well. Add pasta to squash mixture, and stir until combined. Spread mixture evenly into a 13 x 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish coated with cooking spray.

5. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add panko, and cook for 2 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from heat; stir in remaining 2 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the hot pasta mixture. Lightly coat topping with cooking spray.

6. Bake at 375° for 25 minutes or until bubbly. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve immediately. (we put some in the fridge and it reheated well)

Sidney Fry, MS, RD, Cooking Light

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