When I left for college, I always requested it when I came home for visits (with a side of lima beans - don’t ask me why, but I love lima beans!) And, my mom, being the mom she is, always obliged.
When I started trying to eat more healthfully, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy many of the foods I loved, mac and cheese being one of them. But, as I learned more about cooking and health, I started to realize that with a bit of creativity, you can make “healthy” versions of a lot of unhealthy dishes that are just as good, if not better, than the original.
One technique I discovered for cheese sauce is using pureed vegetables to stretch them, simultaneously cutting calories and adding good veggie nutrients. A popular veggie substitute is cauliflower - I found multiple recipes calling for this trick, and the reviews all seemed pretty positive, so a couple of months ago I decided to give it a go.
Cheese blend on the right, secret ingredient on the left.
Making a cheese sauce!
I have to admit, I was a little skeptical at first. As many meals can be for many people, for me, my mom’s mac and cheese is more than just a delicious dinner - it has nostalgia and comfort and home-iness in every bite. At best, I was expecting the low-cal version to be a passable substitute; something that I could go to fill my cravings, but never the real deal.
I combined two recipes - one from the Food Network and one from the NY Times. One major change I made was substituting full fat blue cheese for half of the reduced-fat cheddar called for in the recipe. It didn’t increase the calories too much, and the bite from the blue cheese gave the mac and cheese the rich, authentic flavor I was craving.
Can't wait to dig into this deliciousness!
The moment I took the first bite, I knew that I’d done it. Silly as it may sound, I think I achieved what cooking is all about - I created a dish both rich and comforting, one which evoked all the memories of childhood and home. The sauce melted in my mouth, with the texture that comes from using real melted cheese instead of a boxed mix. The flavor was spot-on - I couldn’t taste the cauliflower at all. Each mouthful was just the creamy goodness that both my stomach and my mind were dreaming of. The fact that it was about half the calories of the original were just the cherry on top.
The only way this dish could possibly be made better is if my mom makes it for me the next time I’m home :)
Almost As Good as My Mom’s Mac and Cheese (with Secret Cauliflower)
Adapted from The New York Times and The Food Network
Makes 6 servings
8 oz pasta (shells, elbows, or rotini are good)
1 tbsp margarine
2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup skim milk
1/2 tsp mustard powder
1/4 tsp cayenne (the original recipe just calls for a pinch, but I like a little kick)
freshly grated nutmeg
1 small clove garlic, grated
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups cauliflower florets (about 1/2 head)
3 oz 75% reduced fat sharp cheddar (I used Cabot)
3 oz blue cheese
2 oz fat-free cream cheese
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
1/2 - 1/3 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350F.
Boil salted water. Cook cauliflower until very tender, 8-10 min. Remove with slotted spoon - set aside. Add pasta to water, cook to al dente (10 minutes). Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water.
Meanwhile, prep a 8-inch glass square baking dish with butter or cooking spray.
Over medium-low heat, melt the margarine in a large saucepan. Add flour and salt and stir constantly for several minutes to make a roux (it will get very thick and the flour will get a little brown).
Slowly pour in the milk, stirring constantly until thickened slightly, about 6 minutes. Add cheese. Whisk until cheese melts. Add cauliflower and puree with immersion blender until smooth (if you don't have an immersion blender, you could puree the cauliflower ahead of time in a food processor or blender). If you need to thin the sauce, add a little of the reserved pasta water. Mix sauce with pasta.
Pour into prepared baking dish. Bake, covered, for 35-40 minutes. Remove foil, add breadcrumbs, and bake uncovered, 5 minutes more. Serve and enjoy! (I like hot sauce on mine, too. Check it out :) )