Kid approved: A little healthier, and loaded with both vegetables and flavor!
Every kid in my life has loved macaroni and cheese.
Really, any combination of carb and cheese and they are happy, be it grilled cheese or cheese pizza! In our Vermont home that means macaroni and cheese from scratch using extra-sharp cheddar and not a powdered cheese-like substance. Homemade really doesn’t take much longer than boxed, and you have control over the ingredients. This is also a great opportunity to put some little enhancements in the dish.
A little adjustment here and there…
Macaroni and cheese isn’t always the best choice from a nutrition standpoint, so we have to make a few little adjustments to create a dish that the kids will love and we won’t feel guilty about serving to them.
Part of the plan starts when they are really little. If they grow up eating whole-grain pasta, that is pasta to them. The kids in our family really like the corn and brown rice macaroni, so that was my starting point. You have to experiment. My kids also like the whole-wheat pasta, but there are some gluten-free whole grain options that simply don’t taste good!
The question of orange
Then there is the issue of orange. If you live in New England, your Cheddar cheese is white or pale yellow; that is how Cheddar looks naturally depending on the fat content. Orange cheese from the mid-west is created by the addition of a food coloring derived from a seed called annatto, which has no flavor but provides the color. Somewhere along the line, processed cheese foods, also colored orange, started being used in homemade macaroni and cheese recipes, and it didn’t take long for the box version to include the orange hue.
The deeper color does look more rich, but it can easily be obtained by adding a fine purée of either butternut squash or carrots. Instant addition of vitamins and minerals! The carrots will impart carrot flavor, the squash lends a sweetness that kids actually love.
Why stop there with the vegetables? The kids in my family all love both cauliflower and broccoli with cheese sauce that we make for holidays and other gatherings. The chopped up cauliflower is barely visible in the finished product, so if your kids are off their vegetables right now, this is a good place to start.
Make it their way!
When I made this last weekend, I asked my granddaughter if there was any vegetable she liked in macaroni and cheese and she immediately said frozen peas, so in they went! She also wanted shells instead of macaroni, so that is what she got.
It was a hit with all, double thumbs-up from the granddaughter! If you kids like green beans, use those! It’s all good.
You can make this gluten-free by omitting the butter-and-flour roux and simply make a slurry with 2 Tbsp. cornstarch and some of the milk.
If your family likes the crispy top on baked macaroni and cheese, see instructions at the end of the recipe.
This makes a large batch, 10 servings, so you have plenty to tuck in the freezer in individual servings for that quick lunch.
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 lbs. butternut squash or carrots
1 pint 1% milk
1 lb. brown rice or whole-wheat shells or elbow macaroni
4 tbsp. butter
4 tbsp. flour
8 oz Cheddar, freshly grated
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
12 oz. cauliflower, diced into macaroni-sized pieces
Take the peas out of the freezer to thaw.
Peel and cut up the squash or carrots and steam until tender. Transfer to a blender, and process, using a bit of the steaming water to loosen it up, until velvety smooth and puréed. Set aside.
Put a large pot of water on to boil to cook the pasta, and put the milk on to warm. Once the water is boiling, salt it well and add the macaroni, stirring now and then. Set your timer to the recommended cooking time.
Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour, whisking for a minute or two to cook the flour. Slowly add the warmed milk whisking all the while, it will thicken as you go. Add the Dijon, the paprika, and the cheddar, and switch to a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Stir until the cheese is melted, add the squash puree, and blend well.
Use your judgement: when the pasta is a few minutes from being done, add the cauliflower, these small pieces won’t take long to cook. Cook until the macaroni is just done and cauliflower tender.
Reserve a cup of the cooking water and drain the macaroni. Add the macaroni back to the pasta pot, and pour the sauce over all. Mix well and add the peas. If this becomes too thick, thin it out with a little of the pasta water.
Add some acid. I think that macaroni and cheese needs a little acid to cut the heaviness of the cheese sauce, so I always serve it with tomatoes on the side, dressed with a little vinegar. You can also mix diced tomatoes into the dish when you add the peas.
Baked Loaded Macaroni & Cheese
If you plan to top and bake this, make the sauce a little looser by adding an additional 1/3 cup milk, and undercook the macaroni by a minute or two since it will continue to cook in the oven.
Once everything is cooked and mixed together, pour it into a casserole dish. Top with a mixture of 4 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese, 4 tbsp. whole wheat panko breadcrumbs, and drizzle with olive oil or dot with butter. Place in a hot, 450 degree F. oven, until browned and crispy.
Nutritional information: Each serving contains 340 calories (with the topping) 5 g. of fiber, 323 mg. potassium, 15 g. protein, over half the daily requirements for Vitamin A, one-third Vitamin C, 20% of calcium, and 11% of iron. Not bad!
© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen