Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Healthy Mac & Cheese?

Thus began an e-mail conversation with a co-worker when she sent me this link to a macaroni and cheese recipe containing a significant amount of cauliflower and squash, allegedly to reduce the fat and calorie content of this comfort food favorite.  Her plan was to see if she could get her son, who loves mac & cheese and detests squash, to eat it.

With its glorious, feel-good trifecta of fat, salt and carbs, macaroni and cheese is something of a sacred institution, but it is one of those dishes which everyone else seems to love and I just find gross, even though I do love both pasta and cheese, even together.

I think that it is because my mother didn’t make it from scratch, and my friends ate Kraft macaroni and cheese out of a box, which I find to be utterly disgusting.  (It’s NOT cheese!!)  Many years later someone convinced me to try Annie’s brand of macaroni and cheese out of a box, and I was still disgusted.

I replied with a few problems I saw with the above recipe.

Even with the cheese and margarine (really?? margarine? to make the roux? Hmmm), half a teaspoon of salt (especially nasty iodized Morton salt – I have become a salt snob since reading Salted by Mark Bitterman) is so not going to cut it against 8 ounces of pasta, a cup of cauliflower and a cup of squash.  One way to counteract the potential for blandness without just adding more salt to the dish is to make sure that the boiling water for the pasta is nice and salty.  I also suggested adding some other herbs and spices (unless her son objects to such things ... which, it turns out, he is).

Also, unless the skim milk is of the high quality organic variety, skim milk is probably not going to thicken up very well, or maybe it will just take longer than milk with a higher fat content.  A little cream cheese or low fat sour cream or plain Greek yogurt might help.  (This co-worker is also lactose intolerant, so I asked what she planned to do about all of the cheese.  She responded that a combination of nutritional yeast, garlic powder and salt are her cheese substitute of choice but that she would use at least half real cheese for the initial offering.  She did plan to use butter instead of margarine and almond milk instead of the skim milk called for in the recipe.)

I would think that the relatively high water content of squash and cauliflower would dilute the taste in  a serious way.  If you cut up the squash and sprinkle it with salt and let it sit for about half an hour, it will give up a bunch of its moisture, which you can then drain off, if you can spare the waiting time (i.e. don't have a dramatic seven year-old telling you that he is dying of starvation).  Overcooking it would do it too, so I advised against the “cook them well” direction because the vegetables were going to cook a bunch more when they spend over half an hour in a 350 degree oven.  I voted for steaming over boiling.

My final recommendation, based on a childhood memory of someone else I know, was to add sliced up hot dogs.

The result, in her words: IT WAS A TOTAL WIN!!!  (And she liked it, too, which was a helpful bonus.)

I have not been inspired to make the dish myself, or even this recipe which I found in the comments section of the first recipe which I thought sounded more promising, but it's kind of fun to know that there is another sneaky way to get kids to eat vegetables.


  1. Do you mean your mother did not make macaroni and cheese? If she skipped that delicacy, you were one lucky kid!!

  2. I mean that my mother did not make macaroni and cheese, either from scratch or out of a box. She was (and is), however, a big fan of spaghetti. For the most part, I grew up on real food. Vegetables were fresh (often from the backyard or farmers' market) or frozen, never canned. Cheese came in chunks, usually wrapped in butcher paper, rather than cellophane wrapped individual slices. Bread was homemade. Oatmeal was cooked on the stove. There was no Jell-O pudding or Swanson's TV dinners or any of that sort of thing. Chips and soda were an occasional treat. My junk food habits didn't really form until high school and college. Now, with a few exceptions, I am trying to undo them.