Sunday, February 15, 2009

Baked Mac N Cheese with Cauliflower, Cilantro & Tomato Sauce

Mac n cheese might just be the ultimate American comfort food, and cold winter days make for the perfect setting in which to eat it. It's relatively easy to make from scratch, but most Americans don't bother. Somehow, we've been made to feel that it's simply too complicated for ordinary humans to tackle, so we go for the blue box time and time again. Ick! I hate the blue box, and I'd never serve it in my house.

I've made a number of different varieties of mac n cheese, one other of which appears in this blog. I make them a little differently every time, mostly based on what I have around the house. Mac n cheese makes a pretty good garbage pail (that is, you can throw just about anything into it). Since I try to make even the most unhealthy of foods healthy, I stick to whole grain pastas, I try to use low-fat or non-fat dairy products, and I always add veggies to the mix. This is not exactly diet food, but it is full of nourishing, non-empty calories, and it's a far cry from the fat-packed version you might find in your neighborhood diner.

This recipe developed out of my desire to make something other than soup, which is nearly all we've had for lunch all winter long. It happened that I had some leftover tomato sauce and cilantro in the fridge, and I thought they would give the mac and cheese a nice little twist. It worked out quite well. The tomato sauce gives it a little acidity and edge, making the flavor somewhat unexpected for mac n cheese. The cilantro adds that fresh flavor that processed mac n cheese always lacks. The cauliflower was just because I love cauliflower and look for opportunities to use it (my husband doesn't care for it, so lunch is a better time to try to get away with it). Baking it gave it a little crunch and gives the cheese a little extra something that you can only get from oven exposure.

Baked Mac N Cheese with Cauliflower, Cilantro, & Tomato Sauce
1 box kamut/quinoa twists (or other small, whole grain pasta)
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into bite-size pieces
1 1/2 Tbsps. butter
1 1/2 Tbsps. whole wheat flour
1/2-3/4 c. skim milk
8 oz. shredded lowfat cheese (cheddar, jack, other semi-hard cheese)
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 c. tomato sauce
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
1/2 c. whole wheat breadcrumbs
2 Tbsps. grated parmesan

Cook the pasta according to package directions. When the pasta is almost done, add the cauliflower to blanch it. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Melt the butter and whisk in the flour, cooking over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup skim milk and whisk in, continuing to cook for 3-5 minutes, or until thickened. If the sauce thickens too much, add additional milk to thin to desired consistency. Add the shredded cheese and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Add tomato sauce and stir until incorporated. Remove from heat, and stir in the pasta, cauliflower and cilantro.

Pour the pasta mixture into a rectangular glass baking dish. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve

Serves 6-8.

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