Here’s another one to add to our series of “things I used to eat out of a box”. We’ve tackled mashed potatoes, pizza, brownies, hot chocolate, croutons, and salad dressing (well, maybe that one was out of a bottle!), all with the goal of making “real food” out of something that’s readily available in highly processed form.
So what’s next? Our dear friend Katelyn put forth a challenge a few weeks ago – mac and cheese. And what a perfect contender for the real food challenge! I grew up on the processed “cheese food” version of the stuff, and then in college graduated to the powder-packet cheese version.
I’ll admit, those packages are comforting – and we cast no judgment on anyone who is a fan! But we thought it would be interesting to create a version that was full of nutrients AND include the delicious taste of pasta and cheese – using ingredients from our local market.
A quick search of “healthy” mac and cheese recipes shows butternut squash puree is starting to show up as a substitute for some of the richness in the creamy cheese sauce. This got my mind turning on squash – but why go to the labor of a puree? We left the squash in cubes, threw in some spinach from the market, and used smoked gouda to add a delicious smoky flavor, with a bit of Greek yogurt to round it out (in place of butter).
If you count calories, you might not see a huge difference with this version versus its counterpart. What you do get is a delicious homemade meal rich in nutrients – with the same comfort quotient of a traditional mac and cheese.
And the verdict from our taste testers? Katelyn may have used the words “best recipe ever”…but you’ll have to try for yourself!
As a note – in this recipe, we used a special new-to-us squash called “buttercup” squash, which we got from Melody Farms at Indy Winter Farmer’s Market. It was delicious and made the recipe with its sweet flavor and texture! However, you can substitute any winter squash – butternut or acorn squash would work well here too!
Thanks to Melody Farms for the squash and Homestead Growers for the spinach!
Smoky Mac and Cheese with Squash and Spinach
Serves about 4
Notes: You can use any type of winter squash in this recipe, but if you can find buttercup, it is delicious and adds a wonderful texture! Also, the smoked gouda is integral to the flavor – substitutions are fine, but will change the overall flavor a bit.
What You Need
1 medium buttercup or butternut squash (enough to make about 3 cups chopped)
A small bunch spinach – enough for 3 cups chopped
12 ounces whole wheat penne (ours had flax seed for an extra nutrient bonus!)
3 cloves garlic
1 medium shallot (about 1/4 cup minced)
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups smoked gouda cheese, shredded
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 to 1 cup lowfat milk
What To Do
1 Cut open the squash, and scoop out the seeds. Before peeling and chopping, it helps to microwave each half for a few minutes until a little softer. Peel each half, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes. Measure out about 3 cups (though you can use more or less depending on the size of your squash and your skillet).
Tip – This is the hardest part of the recipe! It’s all downhill after this, so don’t feel disheartened yet!
2 Roughly chop the spinach. Finely mince the three garlic cloves and shallot.
3 Start a large pot of water to boil. When it is boiling, add the pasta and cook until tender.
4 Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Place the squash cubes in the skillet with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and saute until soft and a bit browned, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the pan gets too dry, add a bit of water to let the squash steam. Once the squash is tender, add the spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. (You can add more water if needed during this step, but the spinach should let off some water as it cooks.) When the spinach is wilted, turn off the heat. Add the minced garlic and shallot, and cover the skillet until the pasta is done.
5 When the pasta is done, drain it. Immediately, in a large bowl, combine the following: pasta, squash and spinach mixture, 2 cups shredded smoked gouda, 1 cup shredded cheddar, 1/4 cup Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup milk, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Stir to combine. Add more milk as necessary if the pasta becomes dry to get a creamier texture. (You also can add additional cheese or Greek yogurt until you have the desired taste and consistency.) Serve immediately.