Monday, March 28, 2011

Meatless Monday: Healthier Mac and Cheese with Spinach

Macaroni and cheese is a staple around our house, but like most staples, it's not something I ever make the same way twice.  For today's post, I wanted to show you a healthier version of my traditional baked macaroni and cheese.  My three main swaps for upgrading the nutrition value were to 1) add spinach 2) use whole grain pasta and 3)use wheat flour for the roux. 
The great news is that this dish is still fast and easy to throw together, and makes tons of extras for leftovers.

Healthier Mac and Cheese
1 box (13.5 oz) whole grain pasta  (I used rotini)
16 oz. cheese of your choice (be sure to use melters. I used extra sharp cheddar and jack)
4 c. milk
4 tbsp. butter (1/2 stick)
4 tbsp. whole wheat flour
3 cups spinach (you could sub frozen, but if you do, drain it very well.)
1-1.5 c. panko breadcrumbs (buy it from an Asian grocery store to save money)
salt and pepper to tasteDSC01160croppedDSC01155Whole grain pasta is inexpensive (I paid $1.18 for the store brand) and is a good source of protein and dietary fiber.
DSC01163Using whole wheat flour will give your roux a less smooth texture, but again adds protein and fiber.
DSC01162And spinach is full of iron.
DSC01167I set up two pots side by side, one for boiling pasta and the other for making the sauce.  I used the little copper pot for pasta and the bigger dutch oven for making the sauce.  Whatever pot you choose must be big enough to hold the sauce AND the cooked pasta.
DSC01170While your well-salted water comes to a boil, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the flour and stir, cooking for a few minutes or until the roux smells a little bit nutty.  A roux is made with butter and flour and is used as a thickening agent for all kinds of sauces.  The more you cook a roux, the browner and more flavorful it gets.  A roux that is more flavorful has less thickening power, so I only cook this for a couple minutes.
DSC01173Brown and bubbly.  Keep it moving because it will burn.
DSC01175Once the water comes to a boil, add your pasta.  Add the milk to the roux.  Unlike cornstarch, roux must come to a boil before it can thicken, so raise to heat to high, stirring constantly so nothing sticks.  Once the milk begins to boil, reduce the heat back to medium and continue to cook until the milk is at your desired thickness.  It should take less than five minutes.
DSC01177See how much thicker it is?  Add your cheese.
DSC01180Stir in the cheese until it's melted and totally incorporated into the milk mixture.  Season with salt and pepper.  Take this off the heat and add the pasta that you've drained when it's cooked to your liking.
DSC01185Mix it up.
DSC01189Off heat, add your spinach a little at a time.  You'll think it isn't going to fit, but it wilts quickly.
DSC01192Stir until it's all mixed together.
DSC01194Spread this into a 9x13 baking dish.  I didn't grease it at all and everything came out fine.  Smooth the top so it's even.
DSC01198Cover with panko breadcrumbs.  I always toss breadcrumbs in a little melted butter (1-2 tbsp.) because it helps with browning, but this is optional.
DSC01200Make it as even as you can, but don't worry too much.
DSC01204Bake at 375 until it's brown and bubbly, usually 30-45 minutes.  (You'll really need to watch your time though, because baking times depend very much on your individual oven.)
DSC01206Tasty. Crunchy.
DSC01208The spinach gives an unusual savory taste to this dish.  It balanced the creamy richness with an earthy flavor.
DSC01211My favorite part is the crust, of course. 
DSC01214Give this recipe a try and let me know what you think.
Until then, tell me, what do you do to tweak your favorite recipes to make them healthier?  I've already confessed my love for white whole wheat flour.  I'd love to hear your tips and tricks.

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