I grew up on macaroni and cheese. In my Italian family, my mom showed her love through pasta, homemade sauce and plenty of cheese. She knew that comfort was achieved through chewy pasta and a creamy cheese sauce, whether you had a tough day at school or a sore throat. So it’s no surprise that I’ve followed a similar comfort food path as an adult. Long days, arguments and dreary weather are all solved with bowls of piping-hot, luscious macaroni. It’s “I love you” without having to utter a single word.
While I love the familiar taste of homemade mac and cheese, I wanted to create a version I could serve frequently to my family, without any guilt. While this recipe isn’t completely virtuous, it’s much better than any traditional version, as it contains two servings of vegetables in every bowl. The base is a silky cauliflower cream sauce that provides body and texture — without a drop of flour or cream. Pureed, heated, then mixed with a generous handful of grated sharp cheddar, it’s the perfect compromise to a heavy cream sauce. If you’ve had cauliflower rice or cauliflower mashed potatoes, you know how versatile the vegetable can be. While there is a faint hint of cauliflower in the sauce, this recipe takes full advantage of cauliflower’s bland flavor. I’ve made this recipe for just about everyone, and everyone says the sauce tastes similar to one made from cream and butter. To up the vegetable content, I add in fresh spinach leaves just before the pasta is done cooking. You can use any vegetable your family enjoys; try kale, peas or chopped broccoli!
Whatever the reason, whatever the occasion, a bowl of this mac and cheese will always spell comfort.
Stovetop White Cheddar Mac
Yield: 4 servings
3 cups cauliflower florets
3 cups water
8 ounces (1/2 pound) mini shells, mini penne, wheels or other small pasta shape
3 cups baby spinach leaves
1 tablespoon butter
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup low-fat milk
1 1/2 cup shredded white cheddar cheese
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
In a medium saucepan, bring the cauliflower and 3 cups water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and steam for 10 to 15 minutes until cauliflower is very soft. Remove from heat, drain and set aside.
While the cauliflower is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente according to package directions. Just before pasta is set to be done, add the spinach and cook until just wilted, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Drain in a colander and set aside.
In the empty pot in which you cooked the pasta, melt the butter over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook until garlic is soft but not burnt, about 2 minutes.
Add the cooked garlic, steamed cauliflower, salt and pepper, milk, and 1/2 cup water to a high-powered blender, then puree until creamy and smooth. Depending on the power of your blender, you may need to add more water.
Return the cauliflower sauce back to the saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the shredded cheddar cheese and stir until melted. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then stir in the cooked noodles, spinach and Parmesan. Serve immediately.
Per serving: Calories 287; Fat 6 g (Saturated 3 g); Cholesterol 14 mg; Sodium 410 mg; Carbohydrate 47 g; Fiber 4 g; Sugars 5 g; Protein 12 g
Note: If you prefer your macaroni baked, add 1/4 cup more milk to the cauliflower mixture. Place the pasta and sauce in a casserole dish. Top with 1/4 cup breadcrumbs mixed with 1/8 cup grated Parmesan cheese, then bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees F.
Alex Caspero MA, RD, RYT is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Yoga Teacher. She is the founder of Delish Knowledge (delishknowledge.com), a resource for healthy, whole-food vegetarian recipes. In her private coaching practice, she helps individuals find their “Happy Weight.”