Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

 

I’ve been holding out on you, dear readers. I have a recipe that is delicious, indulgent, healthy, cheap, easy and can feed one person or 20. And I’ve been making it for over a year. I’ve brought it to Christmas parties, work pot-lucks and summer barbecues. I’ve made it so many times and each time I think, “I’m going to blog about it this time, I swear!” But each time I forget to take a photo. Or the lighting isn’t right for a photo. Or it’s in the Crock Pot and the photo won’t look very nice. Oh yeah, that’s the other thing that stopped me from writing this post sooner. I’ve prepared this dish at least five different ways. You can make it on the stove top and serve it. You can bake it in the oven and brown the top and add some breadcrumbs. You can broil individual servings for the best cheesy, crunchy experience ever. You can make it on the stove and then transfer to the Crock Pot for parties and transport.

The recipe is for Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese. It’s a hybrid of the dairy-free concoction that’s been around the blogosphere for a few years and a traditional mac and cheese recipe. In the dairy-free version, cashews are soaked in water and then blended with the squash for a ‘cheez’ flavor. I have no problem with dairy and cashews are expensive, so I just used real cheese. And milk. And breadcrumbs. So while this is not the same as the dairy-gluten-free recipe, it has one thing in common. Squash!!!!! This is a far, far healthier version of mac and cheese than the classic variety where you dump a box of Velveeta (which I love, despite everything I know about it) in some noodles with milk and butter and call it a day. Sure, it’s delicious but it’s got enough sodium and fat to last three weeks.

There are so many reasons that this recipe rocks. First of all, butternut squash is a superior food. It just is. It’s delicious in everything. It’s easy to prepare, it’s easy to store, it’s high in flavor and low in calories. There’s a reason you see it in so many dishes. Another reason this recipe rocks is how few ingredients you’ll actually need. This stuff tastes gourmet. I have never brought this recipe to a party or function and left without at least one request for the recipe. I hope that people are pleasantly surprised when they find out it’s really just squash, milk, noodles, a bit of cheese, fresh rosemary, and the staples of all meals: garlic, sea salt and black pepper. Breadcrumbs are optional but I never use them for a party dish because they’ll get soggy in the Crock Pot. Unlike regular mac and cheese, the sauce starts out as a solid. You will need to add liquid and find a way to blend the liquid and squash together to make it a creamy sauce. I use my immersion blender. You could use a food processor, a hand-mixer or even a whisk if you’d like.

Finally, this mac and cheese is crazy delicious. I can say without hesitation, I have never had better mac and cheese in my life. Senor has volunteered to bring it to a number of parties and every time, he waits anxiously until everyone has tried some before announcing that it’s made with squash and not cheddar cheese. Last night he reminded me, “It’s one of your best, you know.” So you can take that as a resounding endorsement.

A few notes – you can honestly use as much squash in this recipe as you’d like. I usually around 3 cups of roasted squash but the more you add, the more sauce you’ll have. You may need to add more liquid to keep it smooth. With this recipe, you want a higher sauce-to-noodle ratio than you would with normal mac and cheese. Also, the sauce gets thick FAST. If you like a creamy sauce you may need more liquid. It’s very easy to smooth out the sauce at any time so if you’re worried that it’s a bit too dry, wait until just before serving to add a small amount of water/milk at a time and stirring.

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese
Serves 16+

1 box whole wheat elbow macaroni

1 medium-large butternut squash, peeled and roasted until tender (or 3 boxes of frozen squash puree) (you can’t have too much squash in this recipe!)

2 cups milk

1/2 cup water

2-3 cups shredded mozzarella

3-4 ounces hard, sharp cheese like smoked gouda, parmesan, asiago, etc.

Garlic, salt, black pepper, several sprigs fresh rosemary

*4 Tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional – this adds b vitamins and fiber and also bumps up the cheesy flavor)
*Half a cup Panko bread crumbs (optional – for oven baked option)

For the crock pot or stove top:

Boil the noodles in a small stock pot until just tender. Rinse and drain. (If you plan on using a crockpot, under cook the noodles slightly or they’ll turn to mush.)

In a large sauce pan, combine squash, milk, water, sharp cheese, nutritional yeast over medium heat. Stir in salt, pepper, and a ton of rosemary. To get the sauce smooth I use a stick blender (immersion) to smooth out the squash and finely chop the herbs. You could also use a food processor or a blender. Or, you could chop the rosemary and then use a hand mixer to smooth out the squash. A stick blender is the easiest option.

Let the sauce simmer. Give it a taste now and then and adjust the spices to taste. This sauce thickens very well and rather quickly. If it seems a bit too thick, add more water/milk. Follow directions below for three prep options.

For stove top – combine the noodles and sauce in a stock pot over low heat. Stir to combine. If the sauce is too thick to coat properly, add more liquids. Once the sauce is the right thickness and everything is covered properly, remove from heat and add 2 cups of shredded mozzarella and stir to incorporate. Top each bowl with a light sprinkle of cheese and serve.

For crock pot – Layer the noodles/sauce/shredded cheese into the crock. You will want the sauce to be slightly thinner than the stove top variety. It will thicken quickly. You can also add a bit more water or milk and stir just before serving if it gets too thick. Turn the crock pot onto low and stir occasionally. You may want to add shredded cheese to the top five minutes before serving.

For the broiler – follow the stove top directions. Use oven and broiler-safe bowls to serve the pasta. Top each with shredded mozzarella and a sprinkle of bread crumbs. Place under the broiler for 2-3 minutes until the cheese starts to bubble and brown. This will go quickly from just right to burned, so keep your eye on it.


Zucchini and Fettuccine Alfredo

The other day two of my favorite things combined in a glorious moment of food zen. Zucchini and smoked gouda cheese. Wait, you haven’t had smoked gouda cheese, you say? Get thee to the store and a wedge as quick as you can. I find it at Whole Foods in the giant cheese section. This cheese is awesome. It’s like Parmesan but with a nuttier flavor and a dark orange color. It’s fairly stinky with lots of good sharpness on your tongue. I like to enjoy it on crackers. Or plain. Oh, and melted into a creamy alfredo sauce.

I realized as I went through my blog archives the other day that I have posted a lot of recipes revolving around zucchini. I can’t say that I’m sorry about the saturation of zucchini-related posts….it’s an awesome summer time veggie that everyone loves. I hope. It’s also incredibly versatile. You can make it into breads and muffins or you can grill and saute it. Just tonight I shredded it and used it in a ground meat mixture for stuffed peppers.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about alfredo. I think alfredo sauce is one of those things that people often fear because of its creamy nature. Cream sauce requires some nuance to get the thickness without scalding or burning. Let me tell you. It’s not that hard. As long as you use the right ingredients, you can do it without much difficulty. Heavy cream, real milk (not skim) and cheese are all required ingredients. It’s just not something you can make ‘light’ without sacrificing the taste or texture. So, compromise. Use whole wheat noodles and bulk up the dish with shredded zucchini. Yes, I might be a genius.

Also, this is possibly the fastest recipe ever. You might need 15 minutes to get this one ready. If you boil the noodles while preparing the sauce, it should all be ready at the same time. Again, genius. You’re welcome.


Zucchini and Fettuccine Alfredo
serves two

4 ounces whole wheat (or brown rice) fettuccine noodles

2 cups shredded zucchini

Several sprigs of fresh basil

for the sauce

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup water

1 cup milk

3 ounces smoked gouda

1-2 teaspoons flour

black pepper, garlic and salt to taste.

In a large sauce pan, bring the noodles to a boil. Cook until tender. Remove the noodles from the water, reserving the hot water. Drain the noodles.

Place the shredded zucchini in a small metal colander or a steaming basket over the reserved noodle water. Steam the zucchini until just tender. Toss with the noodles, lightly season with salt and pepper. Toss several sprigs of fresh basil in with the noodles and zucchini.

In a small sauce pan, combine all sauce ingredients over medium heat. Stir every thirty seconds with a spatula to keep the sauce from sticking. Once the sauce begins boiling, whisk gently to incorporate all the ingredients. Let the sauce simmer to thicken for 5-7 minutes. The sauce will also thicken upon standing. If you’re having a hard time getting the sauce to thicken, sprinkle a small amount of flour into the pan and whisk to combine.

Pour the sauce over the zucchini and noodle mixture. Garnish with fresh ground black pepper and light sprinkle of shredded smoked gouda and some extra basil. Serve immediately.


The Juicy Lucy

Minnesota isn’t really famous for much when it comes to culinary feats or local foods that take the nation by storm. We don’t have the barbecue of the south east, the brisket from Texas, the seafood from the east coast, the thin pizza and skinny, toasted hot dogs of New York or the deep dish pizza and fat, stuffed hot dogs of Chicago, and we certainly don’t have the amazing wealth of produce and citrus you find in California. Or Florida. Nope, not here. And even though we have a thriving art scene, plenty of sporting events, some really awesome museums and theaters, and enough shopping to satisfy anyone, we’re not really a tourist destination. I think the food scene is the missing link. Or maybe it’s the nine months of winter.

We live in the breadbasket. We are heavily influenced by German and Nordic traditions. Local, beloved recipes include Chicken Wild Rice Soup, Tater Tot Hotdish, Breaded Walleye with Scalloped Potatoes, Fish Tacos and anything you can deep-fry and shove onto a stick at the State Fair. There are a lot of dairy farms, grain and cattle and a whole lot of people of northern European ancestry with incredibly bland pallets. I say it with love, but it’s true. If you guessed that the old stand by meals of meat and potatoes play a big part of the diets of Minnesotans, you’d be right. It’s not uncommon throughout the upper Midwest, boring thought it may be.

If you’ve ever watched Man vs. Food or Food Wars though, you’ve probably seen one Minnesota invention that fulfills both our requirement for a meaty and carby meal, along with a fair infusion of local dairy. The Juicy Lucy. A cheeseburger that wears its cheese on the inside. Nobody here really cares who invented it, Matt’s Bar or the 5-8 Club. Both are bars in Minneapolis and both claim the notorious invention as their own. Who invented it doesn’t really matter. The ‘Jucy Lucy’ at Matt’s is gooey, greesy, spilling with American cheese and served on nothing but wax paper. Their Lucy is by far the best in the Twin Cities and everyone knows it. At the 5-8 you can order your Lucy with a variety of cheeses and the menu is far, far more extensive than Matt’s. They offer sandwiches AND salads. But the Lucys aren’t as good. Sometimes the cheese is still solid in the middle. The ultimate Lucy let-down. So, you pick your battles when deciding where to indulge in a Lucy. If you’re smart, you’ll get a Lucy at a Twins game where they stuff the burger not only with delicious gouda cheese, but prime rib as well. Yes, prime rib and Gouda stuffed inside a burger patty. It’s as good as it sounds.

But what if you want a unique Juicy Lucy but you don’t want to run the risk of having the 5-8 undercook it? Where do you go? To whom do you turn? I say, you turn to your own craftiness and do it yourself.

There’s something insanely satisfying about biting into a burger that’s stuffed with cheese. It’s similar to the feeling of biting into a jelly doughnut. It’s so much more than just a doughnut…there’s something in there that makes it fancy and extra delicious.

A Juicy Lucy isn’t difficult to make, although you do have to use extra care when prepping the patty. You definitely want to use good beef, with plenty of fat. For our Lucys I made a mix of 1lb ground beef, 1lb ground chuck and 1lb ground round for the ultimate burger meat. Whatever you end up using, make sure you have at least 20% fat in the mix. This is a good rule for any burger. Too much fat and the burgers shrink up and turn into little grease balls. Not enough and they’re dry like sawdust. Shoot for an 80/20 ratio.

Make sure to make thin patties since each burger will have two. Leave the edges a bit thicker than the centers so pinching them together is easier.

Mound the cheese slightly in the center. As it melts and cools it will spread so it reaches to the edges of your burger patties. If you’re using cheese that came sliced, break the slice into four pieces and stack them in the middle of the patty.

Pinch the patties closed around the edges. Take extra care in doing this. You want the patties to seamlessly blend together before you cook them.

Season with garlic, salt and pepper and toss them on a skillet or on the grill. Make sure to cover them during cooking so the cheese inside melts.

Let the finished Lucys cool for at least five minutes before serving. Always bite into a Lucy with extreme caution. Molten cheese can burn your skin right off. It’s totally worth it though.

Lucys are messy in and of their nature so if you’d rather not get cheese on your face during dinner, they maybe aren’t for you. They are a bit tidier if you have a large bun to smoosh them between. Or you can stuff them into a pita and embrace the messiness wholeheartedly. American cheese is the traditional cheese for a Juicy Lucy but if you have 10lbs of blue cheese that you’re trying to work through, it’s clearly the way to go. Any cheese that melts will do, so use whatever suits your fancy.

The Juicy Lucy
Makes two Lucys

4 1/4 lb burger patties

2 oz. cheese

2 buns or pitas

1 small onion, chopped

Garlic, Salt, Pepper

Toss your chopped onion onto a skillet or griddle and fry until golden brown with slightly crisp edges.

While the onion is frying, press your beef into patties with a slightly thicker edge than center. Slightly mound 1 oz of cheese onto two of the patties.

Lay the extra patty over the top of the cheese mound and pinch the to patties together around the edge. Go back and press them together a second time. You should not be able to see a seam in the meat between the patties. If you have a seam, cheese will escape.

Cook the Lucys on a griddle or on a grill. Make sure to cover part way through cooking so the cheese melts. You can also use a thermometer to test the cheese inside. In general, you’ll want to cook them on medium-high heat and flip them after about five minutes.

ALWAYS let a Lucy cool for five minutes before serving. Advise anyone about to eat one to let it sit for another few minutes too.


Bacon Blue Cheese Orzo

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I asked Senor the other day what his favorite meal is. Or rather, what’s his favorite thing that I feed him. He thought about it for a long time and decided, it wasn’t really a question he could answer so simply. There were a lot of factors to consider. Is it summer or winter? Do I want a quick dinner that we can eat often? Or a special meal that takes hours of preparation? To sum up, he gave me a pretty long list. I take it as a good sign that he enjoys my cooking so much, however it does make it harder to surprise him with his ‘favorite dinner’ when I feel like being nice.

Luckily, I know him pretty well. I can tell you that for his birthday, we’ll definitely have steaks off the grill since it’s in August and grilled steaks and corn with salad and garlic bread is a perfect summer celebratory meal. I also know that anything he expresses delight in is on his ‘favorites’ list. The good news is, he’s pretty easy to please food-wise and I think I do a decent job of mixing up our dinner menu so that we never get tired of eating the same things over and over again. So in general, if I have a few of his favorite ingredients and I’m making something we haven’t had for at least two weeks, he’s probably going to be pretty psyched.

Last night I wanted to make him a nice dinner. He finished his semester and got better grades than he’d thought he would which is excellent. He also scrubbed the kitchen and the bathroom, did the laundry, bought bread and filled my gas tank…..all without me asking. Feel free to be jealous. 🙂 So a nice dinner was definitely in order.

Last night was also the start of my summer slow-pitch league which meant that it would have to be a quick and easy dinner that would require very little work on my part. Pasta is the easy, obvious choice here.

I took this recipe and tweaked it to make it faster and more savory. And I used Senor’s favorite pasta, Orzo. This dinner has five ingredients. 5. That is all. You don’t need anything else. Orzo, tomatoes, bacon, blue cheese and green onions. The end. So simple. So delicious. Senor devoured his bowl. How could it not it had some of his favorite things.

First, orzo. It’s pasta that looks like giant rice. It’s easy to cook and easy to spoon into your mouth. Perfect right? I love whole wheat orzo and eat it almost daily. One serving of 195 calories has 7 grams of fiber. And it doesn’t taste bad like most whole wheat pasta. Sadly we are out of the whole wheat variety so I used the regular kind. It’s still delicious, just less fiber-ific.


  Blue cheese. I went to SuperTarget last Saturday around 9:30 am. What I encountered was like a new dimension. At that hour, all of the shelves are full. And the clearance food is still hanging around. Yes. Clearance food. Like 2.5lb bags of blue cheese crumbles for $3.06. Target, to my knowledge, doesn’t usually sell 2.5lb bags of cheese. They leave that sort of thing to Costco. But there, wedged in the cheese display were giant bags of crumbled blue cheese. Originally $10, now $3. I did what any self-respecting food blogger would do. I bought two bags. We now have 5lbs of blue cheese.


The even better news? It’s from a farm in Wisconsin so it didn’t get shipped in from Peru. I’m just kidding. Cheese doesn’t come from Peru. It comes from China. Along with everything else. I digress.

Senor was pretty excited about the 5lbs of cheese and given his love of orzo, I realized our nice, speedy dinner was right in front of me. Orzo tossed with roasted tomatoes, bacon, blue cheese and green onion.


You just need one skillet and one sauce pan and about 15 minutes. Amazing right?

Bacon Blue Cheese Orzo
Serves 2

1 cup dry Orzo

4 slices bacon

1 cup blue cheese crumbles

4 green onion stalks, chopped

1 pint grape tomatoes

Fry your bacon over medium-high heat in a large skillet. At the same time, bring 1 cup of orzo to a boil and cook until soft but not mushy. Drain and set aside.

Chop the bacon into small pieces.

Remove the cooked bacon to a paper-lined plate. Retain the bacon fat in your pan! Add the pint of tomatoes to the bacon fat.

Make sure to stir them occasionally and don’t be concerned if they start splitting and spitting in the hot pan. They’re supposed to do that.

Cook the tomatoes until the skin starts to wrinkle and there are spots of char appearing on their skins.

Add the orzo, tossing carefully. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan so nothing sticks. You want the orzo to be coated in the bacon fat and tomato juices.

Once well-coated, turn off the heat. Add the blue cheese, green onions and bacon to your skillet and mix using a spatula. Make sure everything is well incorporated.

Serve immediately topped with a few extra crumbles of cheese and onion and, if you choose, some garlic bread.