healthy mac and cheese (aka mac ‘n squash)

Running out of Thanksgiving leftovers? Trying to squeeze in some healthy food to make up for all that pie and stuffing?  Well, look no further than this lightened up version of mac n’ cheese.

I should tell you up front that this mac n’ cheese is not going to be the same as the ooey gooey traditional stuff overflowing with cheese.  But neither is it a sad pile of flavorless, plasticy macaroni.  It’s actually one of my favorite dishes because it it satisfies my craving for mac n’ cheese without making me feel guilty.  What’s the secret? Pureed winter squash.  But don’t worry, there’s still cheese — real cheese — but now you’re also getting veggies in your mac n’ cheese!  Can’t you just feel your reservations melt away?

Growing up one of my favorite meals was my mom’s macaroni and cheese.  She always served it with a green vegetable and a slice of the jellied Ocean Spray cranberry sauce.  You know, the solid stuff that comes out of the can in the same shape of the can.  In fact, my favorite thing was when I got one of the ends of the log that comes out of because it had the rings on top from the can.  Score!

It never occurred to me that serving cranberry sauce with macaroni and cheese was not a standard thing until I was going to a friend’s house for a mac n’ cheese dinner a year or two ago and I offered to bring the cranberry sauce (I would make it of course because that’s what you do when you’re cooking for other people).  I was met with blank stares.  Cranberry sauce?  I was shocked.  I don’t know where my mom got it from, but I’m telling you, it’s great with macaroni and cheese.  The sweet tartness really cuts through the richness of all that cheese.  In the end, everyone at the dinner agreed that it did make sense.  I certainly stand by it.

So to this day, I always serve this with cranberry sauce and usually green beans, but sometimes other green veggies make the plate.  As much as I like making (and eating) my own cranberry sauce, I usually just stick with the canned stuff when we make this unless we have people over. It’s easy and it’s tasty.  And since the mac n’ cheese, or as I call it, mac n’ squash, uses frozen pureed winter squash (saving you the trouble with having to deal with cooking and pureeing it), it’s a pretty easy and quick dish to throw together.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Mac n’ Squash

This version of macaroni and cheese uses about half as much cheese as traditional recipes and is an excellent source of calcium, folate, and Vitamin A.  Ellie says that you get by without telling people that it’s not just regular mac n’cheese, but that might be a little hard if you’re serving it to someone who’s used to a full-fat, rich macaroni and cheese.  All the same, I really do love this dish because it’s nearly as good as the original and it’s so much better for you.

Adapted from Ellie Krieger

Cooking spray
1 pound whole wheat elbow macaroni
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen pureed winter squash
2 cups 1 percent lowfat milk
2 bay leaves
4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1 1/3 cups)
2 ounces Monterey Jack, Fontina, or Gruyere cheese, grated (about 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon powdered mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon truffle salt (optional)
hot sauce, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the macaroni and cook until tender but firm, about 5 to 8 minutes. Drain and transfer to the prepared baking dish.

Meanwhile, place the frozen squash, milk, and bay leaves into a large saucepan and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up the squash with a spoon until it is defrosted. Turn the heat up to medium and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from heat, remove the bay leaves, and stir in the cheddar, jack cheese, ricotta cheese, salt, mustard, cayenne, paprika, and black pepper. Pour the cheese mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine.

Combine bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, oil, and truffle salt, if using, in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake for 20 minutes, then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.  Serve with hot sauce (our favorite is the Trader Joe’s jalapeño hot sauce).


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