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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

heatlhy macaroni and cheese (with secret vegetable)


using it up

What’s the opposite of “putting food up” for the winter? Now that we’re into springtime, we’re into “using it up.” I’m so happy for all this lovely daylight and sunshine! But in addition to doing a little spring cleaning (That bright sunlight raking across the surfaces really spotlights the dust, doesn’t it?) it’s time to look critically at what’s in the freezer. I need to really make an effort to eat what I stored in there in the fall. Even though I try never to freeze food that I didn’t love to begin with, sometimes it happens. Something I only sort of liked when I carefully labeled and froze it (probably because I was sick of eating it at the time) can languish in the freezer for months, sometimes years. Does this sound familiar? These things don’t exactly call my name when I open the lid and peer in, looking for something for dinner. It’s easy to shove them aside in favor of something that sounds more delicious. Like home-made pizza, or refried beans to make tostadas, or minestrone soup.
For the last two weeks, I’ve approached this freezer-cleaning project with real grit and determination. Here’s my strategy.

1. No new veggies. I’m still getting my weekly CSA produce boxes, so fresh food IS still coming into the house, but other than that, NO other vegetables are coming in. Mainly, this means no impulse buys of interesting and fun vegetables at Costco (including asparagus and green beans!).

2. Just give it a try! The funny thing is, even if it doesn’t actually sound that good sitting in the freezer, if I thaw it out and heat it up and come up with something to serve with it, it usually turns out to be pretty good.

3. Feed it to your friends. Are you wondering why I’m not telling you the names of the frozen foods I’ve been avoiding? It’s because if you come over for dinner sometime soon, I’m likely to feed them to you. It helps to have a little help to polish off that giant tub of braised celery.

4. Get creative with combinations. I’ve been thawing out sort of random combinations of things, and it’s kind of fun have a little of this, a little of that…  kind of a tapas-inspired meal.

5. Try new ways to use old ingredients. My recipe this week is an example of a new idea for old stuff in my freezer! I had baked a turban squash during the winter, planning to eat it later as a squash puree or a soup. But last week I remembered a recipe I’d seen for macaroni and cheese that used squash puree instead of béchamel sauce (you know, butter, flour, milk) to make it creamy…  a really healthy alternative to the usual mac & cheese! So I dug up the recipe and tried it—really fun!

healthy macaroni & cheese

This recipe is based on one that Fine Cooking emailed out after the New Year (you know, healthy resolutions and all that). The original recipe is from a book by Ellie Krieger, called The Food You Crave: Luscious recipes for a healthy life, which I don’t own, but maybe I should! Anyway, I’ve changed the recipe around a lot, (less cheese, added onions) but the basic idea was hers, and I think it works great. Try this if you’re feeling adventuresome but want something sort of comfort-foody, and especially make it if you have squash in your freezer!

1 16-oz. box elbow macaroni (I like to use whole-wheat)
1 large onion, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
30 oz. frozen puréed winter squash, thawed
3 cups skim milk
6 oz. grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (about 2 cups)
1 ½ teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Coat a 9 x 13-in. baking dish with cooking spray. Cook the macaroni according the package directions. Drain and return to the pasta pot.
2. Meanwhile, sauté the onion and salt in the olive oil in large pan until soft. Add the milk and squash and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture is almost simmering.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheddar, mustard, and cayenne. Add more salt to taste—you will probably want to add more salt to make up for the cheese that isn’t in there. It’s OK if it gets grainy—the pasta will absorb the sauce and it’ll turn out just fine. Pour this mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine. Pour into baking dish.
3. Combine the bread crumbs and Parmesan in small grinder and grind until combined. Sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake until piping hot in the center, 30 to 40 minutes (on the longer side if you made the dish earlier in the day, before baking it). If the topping isn’t nicely browned, broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.


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