Is there anything more comforting than mac and cheese? The warm ooey gooey cheesy goodness is hard to beat. My favorite mac and cheese recipe is a show-stopper with substantially more cheese than pasta in the recipe, but it’s the kind of dish I make only once or twice a year for a special occasion. If you’re looking for an everyday mac and cheese, this lightened up version may be just the thing.
I’ve taken a three-pronged approach to lightening things up. First, the pasta. I used a combination of regular pasta (gemelli, I think those twists are called) and chickpea fusilli. Legume pasta is all the rage where I live, and it’s so great to see such a selection on the shelves these days, from red lentil penne to black bean spaghetti, there are so many to try. Using part legume pasta means you substantially bump up the protein and fiber content of the dish. You could certainly use all legume pasta, but if you’re trying to get the dish past a discerning palate they may find the taste and texture too “healthy,” if you know what I mean. I like to use a blend to start, and once people are used to the taste I’ll increase the percentage of legume pasta.
Then there’s the sauce. We start with a smaller amount of classic cheese sauce, then pump up the volume by stirring cauliflower puree through the mix. The neutral flavor and velvety texture of the cauliflower puree is a perfect match, and using a strongly flavored cheese like Parmesan in the sauce ensures that the cheese flavor doesn’t get dulled down.
And lastly, the remaining cauliflower florets get broken down into bite sized pieces and stirred in with the pasta, bumping up the vegetable content of the dish. It’s like a beautiful marriage between mac and cheese and the classic British cauliflower cheese, and the result is a comforting and healthful dish you can feel good about serving any day of the week.
- 12 ounces rotini or 6 ounces rotini and 6 ounces legume pasta
- 1 medium cauliflower broken into florets
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- 1 cup 1% milk
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- Preheat your oven to 375°F. Butter a baking dish, and set it aside.
- Set a large pot of water over high heat. When it comes to a boil, salt it well and add the pasta. Boil until al dente, about 10-12 minutes depending on the pasta. Drain the pasta well and set aside.
- Place a steamer basket over a pot of boiling water, and steam the cauliflower florets until they are tender. Remove from the heat and run under cold water to cool.
- Take half of the steamed cauliflower and place into the bowl of a food processor fitted with an S-blade, or a blender. Add a bit of the water from the steamer, and blend until it becomes a smooth puree. If it's the texture of cauliflower rice, add more water to thin and smooth the puree.
- Break the remaining cauliflower into bite sized pieces and set aside.
- Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized pan. Add the flour, and whisk into a roux. Let it cook, whisking constantly, for about 1 minute. Slowly add the milk, whisking well as you go.
- Allow the mixture to come to a simmer, whisking all the while, until it begins to thicken. Add the cheeses to the sauce, and whisk until smooth. Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups cauliflower puree to the cheese sauce, and whisk to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Mix the cauliflower cheese sauce into the cooked pasta, and stir in the remaining cauliflower florets. Pour the whole mixture into the prepared baking dish.
- In a small bowl combine the panko bread crumbs with the olive oil and sea salt. Sprinkle this mixture over the pasta dish.
- Bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, until the top is slightly browned.
- Remove from the oven and let rest for about 5 minutes before serving.