One thing I should preface before I get into the recipe is that I am a little adverse to measurements. I prefer "a dash" or "a pinch" to a teaspoon or tablespoon, and although I'll admit that I own a ridiculously expensive set of Le Creuset measuring cups (thanks wedding registry!), I rarely use them. The exception, of course, is when baking, since that takes quite a bit more precision to get the rising and the yeasting and the consistencies just right. But for most dinners, it seems that eyeballing the right amount has served me well in the past, and allows one the freedom to add just a liiiiiittle more cheese, or just a TAD more garlic, or maybe an extra dash of spice....should one see fit.
You see, I'm a taster. So much so, actually, that by the time the actual dish is complete, I usually am so full I have no room for the completed dish. I enjoy the creation process- adding a little more of this, holding back a little of that, oooo and maybe adding a touch of that one thing that no one thought of that would make this absolutely CRAZY but somehow (sometimes) it actually works and makes the dish better than expected! So when I came across a version of this recipe in Martha Stewart's "Living," I was ecstatic, and couldn't wait to try my own little twist. The bell pepper gives this traditional dish some refreshment, and the butternut squash maintains the smooth consistency that we all know and love. I actually had about a half a pound of butternut squash leftover from a previous recipe earlier in the week, which was cubed and roasted, drizzled with maple syrup, olive oil and S&P. To my surprise, the slight sweetness of the maple syrup complimented the mac and cheese dish very well, offsetting the cayenne and bell pepper and making my tongue do a delicious little happy dance.
I will definitely be making this again. All the comforts of the original, without the guilt. If you didn't know better, you wouldn't have any idea it might actually be good (or better) for you. Serve with a simple side of fresh spinach topped with apple cider vinegar (we love Braggs!).
Healthy Macaroni and Cheese
(Adapted from Martha Stewart's Living)
1 small (or half a large) butternut squash, peeled and roughly cubed
1 1/2 c nonfat milk
1 c chicken or veggie stock
1 lb whole wheat macaroni (though rotini or medium shells)
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch cayenne
salt and pepper to taste
1 c+ extra sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 c finely grated parmesan cheese
1/2 c part-skim ricotta cheese ***You may substitute cream cheese for the ricotta if you have some on hand, just note the different directions below
1/2 c finely grated parmesan cheese
1/2 c plain breadcrumbs (you can supplement this with some tasty crushed cheddar crackers as well, such as goldfish or cheez-its)
1 tbsp olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large saucepan, combine chunks of squash, milk and stock. Bring to a low boil, then simmer until the squash is softened, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and mash in pot until the mixture is smooth, adding nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper. A potato masher works well, but I suppose you can use an electric mixer if you prefer a smoother texture. ***If substituting cream cheese for ricotta, mix in now, while mixture is still hot. This will ensure that the cream cheese is fully incorporated.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until JUST UNDER al dente. Drain, then combine pasta and squash mixture in a large bowl. Add cheddar cheese, parmesan, ricotta and bell pepper and stir to combine.
Lightly oil or butter a 9-inch baking pan and transfer pasta mixture to it. In a separate small bowl, combine remaining parmesan, cracker crumbs, breadcrumbs and oil. Give it a good mix, then sprinkle over the top of the noodles. Top with a healthy drizzle of olive oil and cover with foil. Transfer to oven and cook covered for 20 minutes, then remove foil and cook uncovered for another 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Serve immediately!