Wintery Mac and Cheese

At the risk of sounding too Oprah about it, I have to say, there is a lot in life to love.  For example, the weather in Los Angeles is amazing, I have a very loving partner, two adorable dogs, and really great friends.  I love all of it.

But above everything else comes my true love:

Macaroni and Cheese.

For me, there’s nothing more satisfying, comforting, indulgent, and happiness-inducing than cheese covered pasta.  When done right, it can transport you to a place some* have described as pure nirvana.

(*I’m probably the only one who has said this)

Conversely, there is nothing more disappointing than mac and cheese done poorly. You know, like when you’re at a restaurant and that Lobster Mac and Cheese sounds delicious, and you order it, and it comes and you’re so excited, and then you bite into it and remember that lobster and cheese don’t always go well together, and the sauce is too thin, or too thick, or the wrong cheese was used, and- well you get the point.

There’s nothing quite like homemade mac and cheese, and (not to sound too cocky) I happen to be pretty good at it. It’s what I bring to potlucks and it’s always a hit.

A few years ago I invited some friends over for dinner and was presented with a list of various dietary limitations, which included onions, tomatoes, garlic, any citrus, basically everything fun to cook with. Normally I don’t accept requests, but I happen to like these people a lot, so I didn’t cancel.

Fortunately mac and cheese is a dish that you can adapt in endless ways.  You can use different cheeses! Different pastas! Different vegetables!  You can cook it in a pot or bake until it’s crispy! It’s always exciting enough to use exclamation points!

This dinner took place during the winter, so I wanted something especially warm and inviting. I decided on butternut squash and kale as the vegetables, and for the cheeses a mix of mozzarella, smoked gouda, and nutty manchego.

The next part happened purely by happenstance. I was at Trader Joe’s, with my hand on a bag of whole wheat pasta, when I saw the brown rice pasta right next to it, and it called to me.  So I took a chance and bought that instead, and let me tell you, it was the best decision. The pasta is lighter than wheat pasta, so it made the entire dish feel less heavy and didn’t give you that feeling like you had a hunk of cheese in your stomach after that second helping.

I also used 1% milk in my bechemel sauce, which is blasphemy. I’m not a pro bechemel maker, and 1% sounded healthier, but hey whatever.

First I roast the butternut squash:

IMG_6889Crispy and sweet!

While that’s roasting you can lightly braise the kale and boil the pasta.

Then shred all the cheese.

img_6871Yet another reason I love my food processor.

Next, make a simple bechemel sauce.

IMG_6876

Then add the cheeeeeeeeeese!

IMG_6881I mean…

Then, add the kale, the squash, and the pasta.IMG_6892*SWOON*

You could eat it at this point, it would be delicious.  But if you like those crispy edges, like I do, onward.

Empty the pot into a baking pan, and top with some bread crumbs.  And then bake until golden brown.

IMG_6895Basically, I die.

Cut a piece off, take a picture to show your friends, and then eat the other 90% you left in the pan while no one’s watching.

IMG_6903I ate all the rest.

Wintery Mac and Cheese

INGREDIENTS
1 lb Organic Brown Rice Pasta (available at Trader Joe’s)
2 bunches kale
1 lb butternut squash (cut into 1 inch cubes) – (if you want to cheat, get two packages of pre-cut butternut squash in the vegetable aisle)
3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 cups 1% low fat milk
3 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese
1 cup shredded smoked gouda cheese
1 cup shredded Manchego cheese
2 slices whole wheat bread
Olive oil
Parmesan cheese
Salt & Pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. In a roasting pan, lay out the butternut squash.  Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt & pepper, get down and dirty and toss it all together with your hands.  Roast the butternut squash 30 minutes or so, until soft and slightly caramelized.  Be sure to toss the squash once during roasting.

3.  Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions (be sure to salt the water!).  Drain and set to the side.

4.  While the pasta and squash are cooking, wash the kale, remove the tough stems and slice into 1/2 to 1 inch strips.

5. In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, add the kale and chicken broth.  Season with salt, and toss lightly.  Cover and braise the kale until it has wilted down, about 10 minutes (it will still be a bit crunchy even after all that braising).  Drain when finished.

6.  Remove the crusts from the slices of bread and pulse in a food processor until you have fine bread crumbs.  Place in a bowl, toss with a little olive oil and set aside. You can also use store bought breadcrumbs.

7.  In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat.  Sprinkle in the flour and stir with whisk until well incorporated.  Keep stirring until mixture thicken, about 2-3 minutes.

8.  Add the milk.  Whisk slowly, but continuously.  As the milk warms, the sauce will get thicker.  When it coats the back of a spoon, it’s ready.

9.  Add the mozzarella, gouda, and manchego cheeses.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

10.  Fold in the roasted squash, the braised kale, and the cooked pasta, and toss all together until everything is deliciously covered in the gooey white sauce.  Make sure to sample it…you know, to make sure it tastes right.

11.  Pour mixture into a baking dish large enough to handle all the goodness, and sprinkle the bread crumbs on top.  Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top of that.

12.  Place in oven for another 20 minutes, or until brown and crispy.

13.  Remove from oven and serve.

14.  Call your friends and tell them they should come over because it’s so amazing.  Just make sure you don’t eat it all before they arrive.  Oh and tell them to bring wine.  It’s only polite.

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