Ok, so the title of this blog is a little cheesey, (I'm really on a roll here!), but for some strange reason, when I was putting this dish together and ultimately this blog, 'Macarena' kept playing in my head! That's not the first time some seemingly silly thought has popped into my head and if there's one thing I've learned since becoming a food blogger, it won't be the last! Another interesting thing that I've noticed over the past few months is that, on occasion, I actually dream about creating dishes and putting my healthied-up spin on traditional comfort food. I know...researchers now say that there's no such thing as 'comfort food', that there's no evidence that a certain food can elevate mood or counterbalance the blues. I still think we all have things that bring us comfort because of the memories attached. One such thing in our household is mac n' cheese.
Were we to play a word association game, if I said 'macaroni', I'm willing to bet most would reply, 'cheese'. It's a marriage made in heaven, simple and unassuming. However, while I have a perfectly yummy recipe for Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese, Sunday night I envisioned a mac n' cheese with a little more 'oomph'; a 'grown-up' version of a favorite childhood comfort food. Don't get me wrong...there's nothing wrong with traditional mac n' cheese and all the comforting memories that come along with it but I rarely question the images that come to me while I sleep. Although I was veering toward a mac n' cheese with 'mature' flavoring, I didn't want to make much of a fuss nor did I want to add a lot of detail and cooking time. Preparing wholesome and delicious meals every day is a challenge faced by many busy families, and that challenge amplifies during the last few weeks before Christmas, and my family is no exception.
I decided pretty early on in the process of planning this meal that I was going to swap out macaroni for tri-colour vegetable rotini and instead of regular cheddar, I was going to use fontina, gruyere and aged white cheddar. When I opened the refrigerator to get the cheese, I spied a package of broccolini that I had picked up last week and thought, 'if I don't use that soon, it might go to waste, and that's NOT how I roll!'. Then it occurred to me: not only is cheese the perfect companion for macaroni, it's also a classic topping for broccoli, so why not add the broccolini to my grown-up mac n' cheese?
First, I brought a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and added in my rotini. I set the timer for 7 minutes and started in on my cheese sauce. I melted 3 Tbsp olive oil margarine in a large saucepan and added in 1/2 a medium onion that I had grated with a mcro-grater until the onion was more like a pulp than minced onion, (I wanted the flavour but not the texture of sauteed onion). I let the onion pulp sauteed for about a minute before whisking in 2 Tbsp of all purpose flour and cooking that out for a couple of minutes. Then I whisked in 2 cups of 0.5% milk and 1 cup of no sodium added vegetable broth. With the heat on medium high, I let the milk mixture gently boil and thicken. By this time, the timer for my pasta went off at which point I added in 2 cups of chopped broccolini in with the pasta and set the timer for another 2 minutes. (Broccolini are very thin and don't require very long to cook especially when immersed in boiling hot water!)
When the milk mixture had thickened slightly, I whisked in 2/3 cup grated fontina cheese, 2/3 cup grated gruyere and 2/3 cup grated aged white cheddar. I seasoned the cheese sauce with about 1/2 tsp of freshly ground sea salt, 1/4 tsp. white pepper and a couple of dashes of hot sauce. I then drained my pasta and broccolini, placed it back into the large pot, poured the cheese sauce over the pasta and broccolini and stirred it just to mix well. I then poured the entire contents of the pot into a greased casserole dish and topped it with a mixture of 1/4 cup panko bread crumbs and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese. I gave the panko and parmesan topping a quick spritz of extra light olive oil cooking spray and placed the casserole dish into a preheated 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes. When the 20 minutes was up, I turned on the broiler for 2 minutes, just to brown the topping a little. I know I've said this before but it merits repeating: if you're anything like me, you should probably keep a close eye on anything you have under the broiler and for God's sake, set the timer...nothing worse than getting this far into things only to have burnt bread crumbs on top! Trust me...been there, done that!
Mac n' cheese is a a classic comfort food. There's just something about it that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. While I used cheeses that were a little stronger in flavour, the broccolini really balances out the cheese flavour and compliments it perfectly! Swaping out the macaroni with the vegetable rotini, using different cheeses and adding the broccolini really took plain ole mac n`cheese to the next level...like watching a child blossom into adulthood.
This meal, from start to finish, can be done in 30 minutes, no problem. Just boil your pasta, add the broccolini to the same pot for the last couple of minutes and make a quick cheese sauce. Toss it all together in a casserole dish, and bake until bubbly. A quick broil gives a nice golden crust that gives way to the molten, gooey goodness of this grown-up mac and cheese that I`ve decided to call `Maccolini and Cheese`!
The tri-colour vegetable pasta is actually made from carrot, tomato and spinach powder and has thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and ferrous sulfate added all of which give this meal a tremendous nutritional boost. Not only did this recipe make enough for my husband, daughter and I to have ample for dinner, but therewas plenty leftover for today`s lunch too! I calculate the total cost of this meal to be approximately $3.50 per person which also makes it healthy on my pocketbook!
Maccolini and Cheese....easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!