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.

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Roasted Pumpkin Orzo

Weather plays such a big role in what we eat and when we eat it. Lately I’m having a hard time thinking up new recipes. I think it probably has something to do with the fleeting hours of daylight, the sub-zero temperatures and knowing full well that at least in Minnesota, nothing is growing any more. It makes it harder to figure out what to make and I usually end up resorting to some old favorites. Beef bourguignon. Beef stroganoff. French onion soup. Senor’s pasta. Lasagna. Essentially, a lot of meaty or carby dishes and a lot of soup. Oh, and a LOT of squash, cut in half and roasted. Eaten with a pat of butter.

Honestly, it makes me feel like I’m stumped. I know that Senor loves a lot of these recipes and looks forward to them as the reward for enduring cold weather. I do too. I never remake a recipe we don’t both love. This is definitely a time of year where I have to look for inspiration from other sources though. In spring, summer and fall I walk through the farmer’s market and look to see what’s ripe and delicious looking. I feel inspired by all the food in season and every single meal is based off of what produce is in season right that moment. Whole meals are inspired by a giant bunch of super fragrant cilantro. It’s a lot harder to be creative, I think, when the only things in season are essentially what you’ve got in your freezer. On the off chance that I do make something new and creative and delicious….you’re probably not going to see a picture of it. The sun rises at 7:40 and sets at 4:30. I’m either at work or en route to work during that entire time. Maybe, just maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe we’ll have a bright sunny weekend and I will be inspired to make a variety of new dishes to share with you all.

I made this recipe right as the fall vegetables started to finish off here. For now, we’ve got root veggies and citrus fruits from Florida. I’m trying to make the best of it. You’ll see some additional squash recipes coming soon. And ultimately I’m probably going to break down and buy the asparagus from Peru and the green beans from Chile. I’m not happy about it. Whether or not I can make anything really delicious and interesting out of them remains to be seen. I promise to do my best.

Luckily pumpkin can be bought in a can if you can’t find a fresh one. Eggplant is one of those fall veggies that stores pretty well so you can still find it and enjoy it during the colder months. And the really great news is that pumpkin, eggplant, sliced almonds and orzo go really well together. This was satisfying but not nearly as heavy as spaghetti with meat sauce, or a giant square of lasagna.

Roasted Pumpkin Orzo
serves four

1 medium baking pumpkin

1 large eggplant, cubed

8 ounces whole wheat orzo

3/4 cup sliced almonds

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

Salt, Pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika

If using a fresh pumpkin, cut it in half and clean out the insides. Situate the halves face-down in a baking dish, along with a half-inch of water. Roast in a 400 degree oven until tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.

If you’re using canned pumpkin, you may not be able to cut it into pieces to toss with the pasta. It will probably work better if you simply simmer the canned pumpkin with the white wine and olive oil and make a thick sauce to coat the pasta. It’ll be delicious either way.

Let the pumpkin cool so it’s workable. Meanwhile, boil the orzo. When tender, rinse and drain the orzo until you’re ready to use it.

Once the pumpkin is cool enough to work with, peel the skin off of the flesh. Cut the pumpkin into small cubes. It should be soft but not overly squishy.

In a large skillet, heat the oil and add in the eggplant. The egg plant will absorb the oil, so occasionally add a few tablespoons of water to keep the pan from drying out. Saute the eggplant until soft. Add the white wine, pumpkin and drained orzo. Reduce the heat to low.

Sprinkle the skillet with salt, pepper and garlic. Add a few shakes of smoked paprika and toss gently. Let the mixture simmer lightly until the sauce is slightly thickened and the pumpkin has spread evenly.

Remove from heat. Stir in the almonds, saving a few for garnish. Serve immediately.


Stuffed Acorn Squash


The first time I made this is was for my dear friend Kiz whom I love despite her aversion to onions. I wanted something that didn’t have a ton of fussy ingredients and that could be more or less hands-off after a bit of chopping. And since I couldn’t use my beloved red onions, I looked to leeks. Leeks are so versatile in cooking. I also heard the other day that the word ‘leek’ is one of the few words used to describe food that hasn’t been changed in English. There were a few others, meat, milk, bread and apple. Other words, like ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ were adapted from French words since they sound nicer than eating ‘cow’ or ‘pig.’ That was your daily dose of NPR nerdiness. I do what I can for you.

Since then I’ve made it twice more because it is insanely delicious. In a few hours I’ll be eating a left over one for lunch too and I kind of can’t wait. It’s a pretty filling meal but if you use a small squash it’s the perfect lunch.

I love meals and recipes that are easily adaptable. I don’t love when you have to measure exactly every single ingredient precisely. And I love making things often enough that I know about how much ‘should’ go in the mix. This is definitely one of those meals that you can change to suit your tastes. It doesn’t involve a lot of effort, although you do need about an hour for the squash to roast and get soft. This can definitely be done ahead of time and if you’re like me, you’ll roast three squash at once so you have enough for several meals. Roasted squash could even be frozen for use later, if you have the freezer space.

Personally I have always been crazy about squash. Senor didn’t try squash until he moved in with me. He had the potential to be a very picky eater back then, as the list of things he’d never tried at the age of 21 was vast. Luckily, he will try anything and generally finds most food to be delicious. This makes things much, much easier. There are a few things he doesn’t like, although I dislike most of them too. We both dislike olives, for example. The first time I made him squash I used butter and brown sugar and he didn’t love it. The sweet on sweet was too much for him. I realized that instead of being a sweet side dish, squash can easily be part of a savory main dish. Although I would never turn my nose up at anything that involves butter and brown sugar, I think I like the savory combo better as well.

When you’re really open about trying new foods you can eat well for very little money. Each season we find ourselves branching out and trying new produce from the market. Last year we started in on Brussels sprouts and to our surprise, we both love them. They quickly became a fall staple. Senor discovered a few years ago that asparagus is one of his absolute favorite veggies so all spring long we devour the little stalks. I discovered a love for roasted kale and broccoli, both of which are cheap and in season both spring and fall. Senor discovered that morels are a mushroom unlike any other this spring. They look horrid but the taste and texture is amazing. Morels don’t fit into the ‘cheap’ category but in general when you buy produce in season, you save a ton of money.

Right now I’m all about roasted squash, root veggies, broccoli, sprouts, and tons of cabbage. It’s also time for apples and pears and pumpkins and I’m enjoying every minute of it. This is great because berries at the store are insanely expensive and apples and pears are offered in giant bags at the market. Whew.

Squash, of course, are in peak season right now. This means that you can buy beautiful acorn squash for $1 a piece at the market and even at organic food stores. Leeks are also in season and will available during the winter. Both squash and leeks keep quiet well so you can find them during the year. The beans in the recipe were dry ones that I cooked but you can buy a can if you’d like. The rest of the recipe is goat cheese and bacon. You can use Gorgonzola and prosciutto or ham and mozzarella. Do what you want. I have yet to make this recipe with the exact same meat/cheese combo and each time it has been super tasty.

Enough rambling. Make this tonight. And if your farmer’s markets are still going (ours goes all year but produce is quickly tapering off) run there asap and buy as many squash as you can. If you store them in cool, dry, dark place they’ll last for quite a while.


Stuffed Acorn Squash

1 acorn squash

1/2 cup black beans

1/2 cup white/navy beans

1 large leek, chopped

3 strips bacon

2 ounces crumbled goat cheese

Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and stringy bits. Place the squash face down in a baking dish. Pour 1/2 cup of water over the tops and roast at 400º until soft. This will take about an hour. The skin of the squash will turn dark and shiny when it’s done.

While the squash is roasting, pan fry the bacon in a metal saute pan. While it’s frying, clean and chop the leek into thin slices.

Remove the bacon from the pan when the edges have started to crisp. Turn the heat to low and place the chopped leeks in the pan. Toss to coat with the bacon fat. Chop the bacon into small pieces.

Rinse the beans and place them into the pan with the leeks, tossing gently. Once the leeks look lightly transparent and soft, turn off the heat. Stir in the bacon and cheese, reserving a small amount of the cheese for topping.

When the squash are finished roasting, remove them from the oven. Turn them over using a pancake flipper. Tongs will break them.

Turn on the broiler. Spoon the filling into each half of the squash, slightly mounding the filling in the center. Top the filling with the remaining cheese.

Place the squash under the broiler for five minutes. The leeks and cheese will start to brown on the edges.

Remove from the broiler and let stand five minutes before serving.


Roasted Squash and Sweet Potatoes

I stepped away from my tart pan today to bring you one of my other loves. A few years ago I had a mild obsession with butternut squash. I made risotto, fries, soup, ravioli, pastas, salads, you name it I probably made it. My trademark dish is butternut squash lasagna. I make it every year for Christmas…and never any other time. I meant to blog about it last year but in the rush of Christmas cookies, gift wrapping, and other shenanigans, it fell through. I promise to share it this year. It’s really good. And not difficult.

Butternut squash is by far my favorite squash, although it is my very least favorite one to clean. The others like acorn and spaghetti are so much easier because you just cut them in half and scoop out the seeds. Butternut squash have a really horrid shape and when you aren’t just mashing them up, it’s a pain to clean them. To make it easier you can do what I do. Delegate the peeling and cleaning job to your dishwasher. If you’re stuck with the task, don’t worry. It can be made easier. First, buy a tall, straight squash. If you’re just going to roast it and mash it up, go ahead and get a squat, round squash. But if you’re going to use cubes or fries of squash, go for a long one.

Peel the straight portion of the squash and cut it off. Trim the skin off the round section by slicing the skin off with a sharp knife. Set the squash on a cutting board to do this. Spoon out the seeds and you’re all set.

This recipe was completely and totally influenced by the awesome purple sweet potato I bought at the market, on a whim. I am an impluse-market buyer for certain. I bought the squash this weekend, not really knowing what I wanted to make with it but knowing that it was ‘time’ for squash. I figured something would come to me.

This recipe was inspired by the Sweet Potato and Leek Hash that I posted about last spring. Senor loved that breakfast and I’ve made it several time since. Probably not as often as he would have liked though. Instead of pairing the squash and sweet potato with bacon and leeks though, I kept things even simpler. Just a chopped onion and a sprinkle of salt. Sweet and savory meet in your mouth.

The purple sweet potato is actually white on the inside and when cooked, looks almost green. It’s incredibly delicious. I love sweet potatoes and this one did not disappoint. Add in a green veg and you have a perfect meal. I brought leftover to have for lunch today and added some chopped zucchini. Perfect as a main course. Or, you can use it in place of your classic meat and ‘potato’ side dish. This works as a side with eggs, or with a big green salad. You can add a sauteed veggie in there too, just before serving. SO good. I can’t wait to eat my lunch.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Sweet Potatoes

1 large butternut squash

1 large sweet potato

1 red onion

olive oil

salt, garlic and dried thyme

Peel the squash and sweet potato. Chop both into cubes, slightly bigger than one inch. The smaller the pieces are, the faster they will cook.

Chop the onion. Add the chopped veggies to a 9×13 baking dish. Toss with salt, garlic and thyme. You can always season additionally later, so a light sprinkling covering the tops of the veggies should be enough.

Drizzle olive oil over the top of the chopped pieces. Mix with a spatula until the oil is evenly distributed. Use just enough oil to cover all of the pieces.

Place in the oven at 400º. After 20 minutes, remove the pan and toss/flip the roasting squash and potatoes. Use a thin metal spatula to scrape up any caramelizing bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.

Return to the oven for another 20 minutes. Remove after 40 minutes. Test the squash and potatoes with a fork. They should be soft and easily stabbed. If more seasoning is needed, adjust and taste before serving. Serve with roasted broccoli, sauteed zucchini, grilled chicken, fried eggs or eat it plain.