Cauliflower Mac with White Cheddar, Parmesan and Thyme
In my dreams I am someone who eats nothing but good-for-you foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, that are all beneficial to my health and do things like make my skin glow, provide me with all my daily vitamins, and will add years to my life. I grow all my own vegetables and get my eggs from the chickens I’m raising in my backyard. In that backyard I am hanging my clothes out to dry on the clothesline. In reality I love a greasy hamburger with cheese and bacon served up with a plate of crispy fries and followed by a creamy vanilla milkshake. I’ve never grown anything edible besides some tomatoes that didn’t make it through the season. And I actually hate the way clothes feel and smell after drying outside. I’m nothing like I am in my dreams. I like healthy foods, but I also really like to indulge. I’ve visited both extremes of unhealthy habits with food and over time I’ve become better able to understand that there is a healthy balance between the two. I believe that there is a time to indulge in cheesy macaroni and a time to take it easy and fill your body with nutritious vegetables. This dish allows you to have your mac and eat it too.
Upon first reading this recipe in Fine Cooking I dismissed it as being way too much work. I came across it again a few weeks later and thought I should give it a try. It turned out to be really delicious and not terribly time consuming. This is nothing at all like the ooey gooey cheesy macaroni and cheese I usually make, so it isn’t truly fair to compare them. However, the flavor of this macaroni was full and rich thanks to the sharp cheese and fresh thyme. Since it’s a warm baked pasta dish it still serves as comfort food, but it doesn’t carry all the butter, whole milk and cheese (and guilt) of the full fat version. One of the best parts about it is the cauliflower and onion puree. There’s half a head of cauliflower in this! And it adds a wonderful flavor and creaminess as well as a good amount of vitamin C. Purees are a great way to get more vegetables into your diet, and I’m going to look for ways to do more with them. There are only so many salads and sides of steamed broccoli a girl can take before she needs some real food. And while you eat this you can feel good knowing you’re getting some of your daily veggies.
There are a few things I did that are different from the original recipe. I used macaroni instead of penne. I used heaping measurements for the cheese because, well, I just love cheese. And I used 2% milk instead of 1%. I know there is a big difference between the two, and next time I will try 1% if I remember to pick some up. Ben and Carson both drink 2%, and I have recently made the switch to almond milk, so that’s all the milk we have in our house most of the time.
If you make this dish start to finish it probably wouldn’t take you all that long, but it dirties a lot of dishes. One of those dirty items is a blender, and I kinda hate cleaning the blender, not sure why. As a stay-at-home mom I rarely have the luxury of making dinner leisurely and I also don’t want me or my husband to be stuck with a bunch of dishes when all we want to do is sit down after the kids are in bed. So, here are some ways to make this easier and less stressful to prepare.
- Make the vegetable puree earlier in the day, or even the day before, and store it in the fridge. Warm it up in the saucepan and continue the recipe from that point.
- Grate the cheese ahead of time and store in the fridge in ziplocs or tupperware. (I prefer bags because I can throw them away. But that’s because I am lazy and wasteful.)
- Cook everything, put it in the pan, cover and put in the fridge. Bake it that evening or the next day.
Give this a try. Even if you hate cauliflower I think you’ll like it. And if you have any healthy and delicious recipes to share, please do!
Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
- 4 cups 1-1/2-inch cauliflower florets (about 1 lb.; from 1/2 head)
- 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- salt and pepper
- 12 oz. macaroni noodles
- 2 cups 2% milk
- 1 tsp. dry mustard
- 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
- 2 oz. coarsely grated sharp white Cheddar (about 1/2 cup)
- 1-1/2 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1-1/2 cups using a rasp grater)
- Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 375°F.
- Put the cauliflower, onion, and garlic in a steamer basket set over 1 inch of boiling water in a 6- to 8-quart pot. Cover and steam until the cauliflower is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the cauliflower, onion, and garlic to a blender.
- Fill the pot three-quarters full of salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for 3 minutes less than the package timing. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.
- While the pasta cooks, add 1 cup of the milk, the dry mustard, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper to the vegetables in the blender and purée until smooth. Transfer to a 3-quart saucepan and stir in the remaining 1 cup of milk and the thyme. Heat over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling, about 3 minutes.
- In a small bowl, mix the Cheddar and Parmigiano. Add all but 1/2 cup of the cheese to the sauce and stir until the cheese is melted. Add the sauce to the pasta and stir to combine.
- Transfer the pasta and sauce to an 8-inch square baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
- Bake until heated through and the cheese is beginning to brown, 20 to 30 minutes.