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Vegetarian Stovetop Pesto Macaroni and Cheese

Stovetop Pesto Mac Recipe

Stovetop Pesto Mac with BroccoliThis delicious Vegetarian Stovetop Pesto Macaroni and Cheese recipe is originally made on the stove, but can easily be made into a baked casserole, too!

New Years Food Resolutions

January is a funny month. We’re all motivated to lose weight and get healthy and eat light foods. But the weather is gray and cold and makes us want casseroles, mac and cheese, and hot chocolate. I’ve posted some lighter recipes in the past two weeks, but now it’s time for Pesto Mac.

Cheesy, carb-y Pesto Mac.

Yes, the same Pesto Mac I put in my What I Ate This Week last month. Except it’s not the same, because that version was a disaster. I didn’t measure my ingredients when I was making the sauce and it turned out way way WAAAAY too thick. Oops! But now I’ve perfected the recipe. And between working on this Pesto Mac and another mac and cheese recipe for a project I’m doing, I’ve learned a lot about making macaroni and cheese.

Add veggies to make your mac & cheese go further.

Broccoli is probably the most obvious vegetable to add. (They even sell boxed mac and cheese with little bits of dehydrated broccoli!) I also really like adding mushrooms, greens (like kale or spinach), roasted jalapenos or poblanos, cauliflower… anything that goes with the cheese you’re using, really. I mentioned this trick in my Vegetable Baked Ziti recipe—when you add a lot of veggies, you can get more servings out of the recipe. Which, especially with a high calorie dish like mac & cheese, is a good thing!

You don’t need to start with a roux. Really.

I know, this is kind of an unpopular opinion. I’ve posted a roux-less mac and cheese recipe on my blog before and I regularly make cheese sauces without butter. Now, some people say when you skip the roux, your sauce ends up tasting like flour. My opinion is that if you use a good, quality cheese, that’s not true. I like leaving the butter out sometimes to save calories. (This Pesto Mac recipe does start with a roux, though.)

I won’t use pre-shredded cheese anymore.

I have done a lot of experimenting with mac and cheese in the past month, with both bagged pre-shredded cheese and cheese shredded the old-fashioned way—by hand, by me. I think the results are better with cheese I shred myself. Pre-shredded cheese has an anti-caking ingredient added to it, and I really think it makes the resulting sauce a little bit off. I’m still using the bagged parmesan shreds in my mac & cheese, but for the softer cheese, I’ve switched to using the blocks of cheese and shredding them myself.

Stovetop Pesto Mac with Broccoli

Mac and cheese is freezer-friendly (with a few tweaks).

Full disclosure: I have not frozen this Pesto Mac, so I can’t say for sure that this recipe is freezer-friendly, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be. But in general, mac and cheese is a great dish for making in advance and freezing. Here’s how:

  • Cook your pasta about 1 minute less than al dente. So whatever the package instructions indicate for al dente, subtract a minute. The pasta will get softer upon reheating, so if you cook it for the full amount of time, you’ll end up with mushy mac and cheese.
  • Make the sauce thinner. The first few times I froze mac and cheese, I was disappointed in the consistency of the sauce—it wasn’t smooth or creamy. The solution is to make a thin cheese sauce. After adding the milk, as soon as the sauce is smooth and coats the back of a wooden spoon, remove it from the heat and whisk in the cheese.
  • Transfer the mac and cheese to a casserole dish (make sure it’s one that can go freezer-to-oven!), top with breadcrumbs and additional cheese, and cover with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap should be pressed right up against the mac and cheese to prevent ice crystals from forming. Cover with casserole lid and freeze for up to 3 months. (Remember, don’t put hot food in the freezer—it should be chilled first!)
  • To reheat, remove from freezer, take off plastic wrap, and cover with foil. Bake at 350°F for 45–60 minutes; remove foil and bake 15–20 minutes more or until heated through. You can broil for about 5 minutes to brown the breadcrumbs on top.

It’s easy to fake baked mac and cheese.

Toast some panko in a small skillet and sprinkle it on your stovetop mac and cheese. Or top your mac and cheese with some additional shredded cheese, then sprinkle on the toasted panko. That way you get the creamy goodness (and immediate gratification!) of stovetop mac and cheese with the yummy crispy topping of baked mac and cheese. Win-win, right?

So tell me, how do you like your mac and cheese?

Stovetop Pesto Mac Recipe

Vegetarian Stovetop Pesto Macaroni and Cheese

Stovetop macaroni and cheese made with fresh broccoli and a creamy pesto cheese sauce.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 8 oz elbow macaroni
  • 1 large broccoli crown broken into florets
  • 2 cups reduced fat milk warmed
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups fontina cheese shredded
  • 1/2 cups parmesan cheese shredded, divided
  • 1/4 cup pesto
  • salt + pepper to taste

Toasted Panko Topping (Optional)

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup panko toasted

Instructions

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook macaroni according to package directions until al dente. Two minutes before cook time ends, add broccoli. When macaroni is done, drain immediately and set aside.
  • Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add in flour and whisk into butter; continue to heat until mixture is golden brown, 3–5 minutes.
  • Slowly add milk to flour mixture, whisking constantly. Once sauce is smooth, cook until slightly thickened (about 3 minutes), continuing to whisk constantly.
  • Remove sauce from heat. Whisk in fontina and parmesan cheese, pesto, and salt and pepper. Fold in elbow macaroni and broccoli. Divide into bowls and top with toasted panko, if desired.

Toasted Panko Topping

  • Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add panko and cook until golden brown, 3–5 minutes.

Notes

To make this Pesto Mac into a casserole, after pasta and broccoli have been incorporated into the cheese sauce, transfer Pesto Mac to small (about 9 x 9) casserole dish. Top with panko and additional shredded cheese; bake at 350°F for about 20 minutes. If top is not browned, broil for about 5 more minutes.
Craving more veg-friendly recipes? Shop our collection of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks!

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75 Comments

  • Reply
    Anele @ Success Along the Weigh
    January 17, 2013 at 8:07 am

    I will now be thinking of face-planting into this all day long!

  • Reply
    Brian @ A Thought For Food
    January 17, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Looks absolutely delicious to me! Give me a fork!

  • Reply
    Chung-Ah | Damn Delicious
    January 17, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Wowza – I can definitely get on board with this mac & cheese! I love the idea of adding pesto and adding broccoli is also a must!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 17, 2013 at 11:54 am

      Broccoli & cheese is a classic combination, right? 🙂

  • Reply
    Jessi
    January 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Very Informative! I am forever adding extra veggies to everything I make! It is a great way to save money!

  • Reply
    Shirley
    January 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I like the idea of adding cauliflower! And it’s so true, last week I made a spinach salad but I found myself craving something hot and carby. I like my mac and cheese best plain, without lobster or hot dogs. It’s already so rich, the thought of lobster in there grosses me out (though I like lobster on its own).

    • Reply
      Shirley
      January 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

      I should say, without stuff like lobster or hot dogs. Don’t want to make it sound like a traditional thing. Lol!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      One of my favorite restaurants in Madison used to make mac & cheese with tofu in it. And it was so good! It was baked, so it was nice and chewy, probably not much different from adding chicken. But yeah, some add-ins are a little bit over-the-top. 🙂

  • Reply
    Aleks
    January 17, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    oh My god! That must be awesome. I really love broccoli but nowadays it is out of the season in Poland 🙂 So I’m watinig for summer!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 1:07 pm

      I think mushrooms would be a good substitute for broccoli. Or even sun-dried tomatoes!

  • Reply
    Maria Tadic
    January 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    This recipe looks awesome. I attempted to do a lightened up mac and cheese recipe for a post…and omg it was disastrous. Very, very, very disastrous. So this recipe sounds phenomenal. I also loved how you broke down the freezing steps – great info for readers!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      Ha! I lighten up my mac & cheese by leaving out the butter sometimes, but beyond that, it’s tough to find ways to cut calories without affecting the taste too much.

  • Reply
    Christine (Cook the Story)
    January 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    I know what you mean about trying to eat healthy but craving the comfort of carbs. That’s exactly where I’m at right now *sigh*. Thanks for the great mac n cheese tips! They’ll definitely help. I especially love the fake it idea with the toasted panko. Will try it soon. I think the kids would really like that. (And me too!!!)

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      I’m trying to eat healthier this year, but I believe in moderation, so I had my mac & cheese for dinner, but offset it with a lighter lunch. 🙂 Because I will never, ever be able to give up carbs altogether!

  • Reply
    Cat Davis - Food Family Finds
    January 17, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Gosh, that looks like the PERFECT mac n cheese.

  • Reply
    Amber @ Slim Pickin's Kitchen
    January 17, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    I’ll be the bratty southerner who says a true blue mac & cheese (or at least the one everyone I know has grown up eating) doesn’t use roux or flour at all, in fact, it doesn’t even consist of a cheese sauce, either. It’s made with eggs and milk and cheese and lots of other goodies. BUT you know I love you and your recipes and I could really care less how people make their own versions! That’s what cooking is all about, isn’t it? Making recipes into your own? Plus, I would dive bomb into this vat of cheesy pesto gloriousness and bath in that cheese sauce if you’d let me…just don’t tell my grandmother! 😉

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Ha! I’ve actually never heard of that. Well, I’ve heard of putting egg in a baked mac & cheese, but I didn’t know it was made without a roux or flour. But I’ve only lived in the South for a year and a half. 😉

  • Reply
    Kathy - Panini Happy
    January 17, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    I have everything we need (except fontina, but I do have sharp cheddar), I’m making this soon! Great mac and cheese tips – especially the one about pre-shredded cheese, I’ve found that’s true for grilled cheese as well. You’re also reminding me that I need to break out my Le Creuset cocottes, still haven’t used them and I’ve had them for a year! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      I hope you like it! I’ve noticed that fresh cheese melts better on a sandwich (or anything, really!) too. I don’t have time to shred cheese by hand whenever I need it, so I’ve taken to shredding it in advance and freezing it. 🙂

  • Reply
    Cassie | Bake Your Day
    January 17, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    I love all of your thoughts about mac and cheese. Shredding your own cheese is a must. This looks amazing!

  • Reply
    Angie @ Rustic Feast
    January 17, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    This looks so delicious and I have to agree: shredding your own cheese, it’s so much better. It’s cheesier to me.

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      It really makes a difference!

  • Reply
    A farmer in the dell
    January 17, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    Bring on the cheese and carbs! I can only take so many light meals these days. I’m freezing and this Mac and cheese is screaming comfort!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      This is definitely the perfect dinner for a cold winter day!

  • Reply
    Mary @ Fit and Fed
    January 17, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    You’re right, everyone wants to lose weight in January yet it’s much easier in the summer with all the seasonal fruits and veggies and the hot weather that makes you want to eat lightly. Mac ‘n cheese and pasta with pesto are both favorites with my family, great idea to combine the two! I also love the idea of adding broccoli here and fontina, much more special than cheddar.

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 12:46 pm

      Yeah, it’s hard to get inspired to eat fruits and veggies when nothing is in season! I’m still trying to eat better, but we can make an exception for mac & cheese now and then, right? 🙂

  • Reply
    JulieD
    January 17, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    Love love love love! I’m speechless and I remember these cocettes – they are so cute! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

      I know, I love them! I couldn’t resist using them for this post even though I used them for my last mac & cheese post. 🙂

  • Reply
    Felyn
    January 18, 2013 at 12:21 am

    I will definitely try this.

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    January 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Holy Yum, that looks ridiculous good! Way the ramp up good ol’ mac and cheese.

  • Reply
    [email protected]'s Recipes
    January 18, 2013 at 10:19 am

    This looks so yummy and it doesn’t seem fattening to me at all.

  • Reply
    Amanda
    January 18, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Thanks for the tips on what veggies to try adding and how to freeze. I love it!

  • Reply
    Meghan @JaMonkey
    January 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    What a great combination

  • Reply
    Jackie @ Domestic Fits
    January 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I love the pesto addition! And the tips are great 🙂

  • Reply
    Anne - Mommy Has to Work
    January 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    I tried my hand at homemade mac and cheese this past Christmas. It came out wonderful!

  • Reply
    Bernadette @ Now Stir It Up
    January 18, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    I have problems using pre shredded cheese too. It just never turns out the way I want. I would have never thought of something as simple as toasting the panko on the stove.

  • Reply
    Stephanie @ henry happened
    January 18, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I’m feeling like a total loser mom for only making mac & cheese from an Annie’s box (at least it’s organic, right?) But with broccoli and pesto in there this is definitely up my alley. Do you think I could use almond milk?

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 21, 2013 at 9:36 am

      I like Annie’s mac & cheese too. 🙂 I’ve made mac & cheese with almond milk before and sometimes the sauce is a wee bit sweet (even with the unsweetened kind) and a little bit thinner, but it does work.

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