Macaroni and cheese has to be America’s most beloved comfort food. I am not talking the out-of-the-box powdered cheese kind. I mean the creamy, heavenly, sinfully rich variety that gets baked in the oven until the top is crisped and the cheese is bubbling with perfection. Mac and cheese treats the tastebuds and tortures the waistline.
Now, let’s be honest. Although it can occasionally do the soul good to sit down to a bowl heaped with mac and cheese, the nutritional value is lacking. When challenged to make a healthier macaroni recipe, I scoffed. How much transformation can I create? I am a woman who loves to cook, but I am not a miracle worker. There was one thing that I was sure of, though. The revamped recipe had to be able to stand up to a classic baked mac and cheese as far as flavor, texture and level of comfort received while eating it.
I started with a quinoa/corn pasta variety, not elbow, but colorful garden pagodas made by Ancient Harvest. (I bought them at a Kroger owned store.) Knowing I wanted a bright and sharp yellow cheddar on the top, my question was what cheese would give it a creaminess below? Unbelievably, I wandered into a Greek yogurt cream cheese. Cha-Ching!!! To that, I added almond/coconut blend milk with its whopping 45 calories per serving, and fresh chopped veggies, and I baked. Please realize that you can add more cheese or milk or replace ingredients as you desire for your specific dietary needs. Small tweaks to the recipe shouldn’t create unexpected results.
After a half an hour, I took out a colorful casserole dish of mac and cheese that had me salivating at first glance! Luckily, the taste was exactly what I was hoping for. Another victory occurred in my kitchen. Now, pass me some of that gluten-free comfort food.
2 boxes Ancient Harvest quinoa corn pasta (I used the Garden Pagoda variety)
2 cups freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 package Greek yogurt cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 to 2 cups almond/coconut milk blend (you may substitute coconut milk, half and half or heavy cream if you desire)
2 tbsp. softened butter (organic if possible)
1 cup diced sweet onions
3/4 cup diced celery
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
1 pkg. sliced Baby Bella mushrooms
1 zucchini, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds and cut in half crossways
Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top (as desired)
butter or coconut oil to prepare the casserole dish
salt and pepper to taste
1. Boil the pasta following the instructions on the package for ‘al dente’ pasta. Drain in a colander and set aside.
2. Grate the cheddar cheese fresh rather than buying pre-grated cheese. It will make a difference in the flavor. Set aside.
3. Chop the onions, celery and bell peppers. Set aside.
4. Cut the zucchini into 1/4 inch rounds, and cut the rounds in half.
5. Preheat the oven to 350º. Prepare the casserole dish by rubbing the surface with butter or oil.
6. Spread the pasta evenly across the large casserole dish or baking pan. Use glass or ceramic but not metal.
7. Combine the milk, butter and softened Greek yogurt cream cheese in a mixing bowl using a mixer on a medium low speed for 1 minute.
8. Pour the milk/cream cheese mixture on top of the noodles and gently combine.
9. Reserve approximately 1/3 of the amount of each type of vegetable you will add to the noodles. Add 2/3 of the vegetables and combine, careful not to break apart the noodles.
10. Spread 2/3 of the grated cheddar cheese on top of the noodle mixture.
11. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes.
12. Remove from the oven. Add the remaining vegetables and cheddar cheese. Sprinkle the top with as much grated Parmesan cheese as desired.
13. Return the casserole dish to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes. For a crispier top, broil on low for 2 minutes .
14. Remove the casserole from the oven and let sit 5 minutes before serving.
15. Enjoy this healthier comfort food as it melts in your mouth as a side dish or entree. Makes 8-12 servings depending on the size of the serving.