February 19th, 2011

Butternut squash, what exactly are you? A vegetable? A fruit? A nut? Like the coconut, the butternut squash is an ingredient that just seems to perplex botanists and chefs alike. Luckily for me, I got to know the butternut squash a little better while preparing this week’s recipe.

While it’s unfortunate that it has to be raining on one of the few three-day weekends of the year, it gives me a better reason to curl up with a bowl of my favorite comfort food: mac ‘n cheese! It was on my search for a healthy mac ‘n cheese recipe that I came across the butternut squash. With its sweet and nutty flavor, butternut squash adds a new twist to creamy mac ‘n cheese sauce. The best part is that its bright orange color even tricks you into thinking the sauce purely has cheese in it! The orange color comes from the high level of carotenoids, which help protect against heart disease. The butternut squash’s low fat content and high fiber content also make it a heart-healthy ingredient. Most of all, the butternut squash is known for its high vitamin C level, meaning it has lots of antioxidants for lowering damage to the body caused by toxic chemicals.

Whole-wheat elbow macaroni
was also used in this healthier recipe. What exactly makes whole-wheat pasta healthier anyway? Well, it contains all three layers of the wheat kernel (the brain, germ, and endosperm), so none of the grains’ natural fiber and micronutrients are removed as they are in refined pastas, making whole-wheat pastas much more filling. They also have a lower glycemic index for keeping blood sugar levels low. Just make sure you get pasta that’s labeled as 100% whole-wheat pasta because otherwise it could just be pasta with a mixture of whole-wheat and processed noodles that are not entirely whole wheat.

You’re probably thinking, “So what if there’s more fiber in whole-wheat elbow macaroni? It still has a lot of fat because all noodles have lots of fat, right?” Wrong. The common misconception is to label pasta as a fattening food; however, grain is actually low in fat. The main culprit of added fat in pasta dishes is actually the sauce. That’s why I chose ricotta as one of my cheeses for the sauce for its low fat and sodium content. It also adds an interesting, crumbly texture to the mac ‘n cheese because ricotta’s texture is not affected when heated. You can learn more about ricotta under my Ricotta Spinach Soft Tacos post.

I also thought onions and peas would be interesting additions to mac ‘n cheese for their sweet kick! Green peas are high in vitamins, particularly B6, for giving you extra energy, as well as proteins and nutrients for bone health.

And why not add a sweet cucumber salad to complement the savory mac ‘n cheese? Yum! (Be sure to keep the skins on the cucumbers for added fiber). Nothing like comfort food to make a rainy day all the more worthwhile.

Sweet Cucumber Salad
Serves 4-6

2 cucumbers, thinly sliced
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp salt
½ cup white vinegar
1 ½ tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
Chili flakes, to taste

Place cucumbers and onion in a colander and toss with salt. Place over sink and allow to drain (this is to draw out excess water from cucumbers) for 15 minutes. (In the mean time, begin preparing mac ‘n cheese recipe).

Combine vinegar, sugar, dill, and chili flakes in a large bowl. Add the cucumbers and red onion and toss until evenly coated. Chill until ready to serve.

Butternut Squash Mac ‘n Cheese
Adapted from Food Network host, Ellie Krieger
Serves 4-6

1 pound whole wheat elbow macaroni
20 oz. TJ’s pre-cubed butternut squash
2 cup low-fat milk
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ cups extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
2/3 cup Monterey Jack cheese, grated
½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup TJ’s Frozen Petite Peas (made according to instructions)
½ cup TJ’s diced onion
Grated parmesan
Panko breadcrumbs
½ tsp olive oil
Fresh Italian parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until tender but firm, about 5-8 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.

Place the squash and milk in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat. Stir occasionally and bring to a boil. Transfer to a blender or food processor and combine until smooth. Transfer back to saucepan and stir with cheddar, jack, and ricotta cheeses until the cheddar and jack cheeses are melted. Remove from heat and add salt, mustard, and cayenne pepper.

Pour cheese mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine. Mix in the peas and onion and transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish.

Combine panko bread crumbs, Parmesan and oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake for 20 minutes. (While mac ‘n cheese is baking, continue with cucumber recipe). Once topping is browned, remove form oven and cool for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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