Fridge-Raiding Mac & Cheese
Sometimes you want a traditional mac & cheese with pure rich cheesy goodness and starchy noodles and that's it. Other times, you want the comfort of baked pasta along with the lightness and nutrition of random vegetables, plus the satisfaction of clearing out the crisper drawer of your fridge. In case you weren't sure, we are here to provide the latter (and if you want the former, you could try Martha or Deb or Melissa's excellent options). Oh and btw, this was inspired by the Brussels and Three Cheese Pasta Bake from Deb's book Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites, if you want this as an actual recipe.
You'll need the obvious: pasta of some kind, plus cheese. The rest is pretty much up to you and what you want to use up: got alliums like onions and garlic for extra flavor? I used a few small garlic cloves, 1 medium onion, a few straggly scallions, and 2 leeks, all diced up. Want to use up broccoli or brussels sprouts or asparagus or zucchini? I cut up one lingering summer squash. Want to get rid of milk or cream or stock of any kind? (Maybe not fish stock, although who knows?) I used up veggie stock that I now always have in the fridge. You can use up root veggies too - I had 2 small potatoes that already sprouted (always cut off any sprouts and green parts!), so I cut them into matchsticks and cooked them with the pasta. I also happened to have some pulled pork that needed to be eaten so I threw that in too.
The Rough Recipe
This served 4 adults and 1 child for dinner, although we were all VERY full afterwards. To be fair, we also ate a lot of bread and also a lot of appetizers. Give yourself about an hour to make, although it can be prepared in advance up until the baking, which is nice for dinner parties.
Here's what I used:
- A large pot and a baking dish
- Kosher salt
- Roughly 8 or 10 ounces of penne (cooked a 12-ounce box, set some aside for my daughter's lunch tomorrow)
- Olive oil to saute the veggies
- 2 or 3 cups of veggies, cut into bite-sized pieces and separated by cooking time
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups of Vegetable Stock or milk
- A spoonful of flour (or in my case, cornstarch, because my gluten-free friend Christina is coming over for dinner)
- 8 ounces of shredded sharp cheddar cheese, although you could use anything semi-firm and melty like Gruyere or Comte or Fontina or Parmesan or a mix. I would have used more cheese if I had it.
- Any cooked protein you'd like to add, such as cooked sausage or chicken
- Kosher salt
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Cook your pasta until slightly underdone, about 2 minutes less than the package instructions. If you have any root vegetables or winter squashes that need more cooking, toss them in with the pasta (I cut the potatoes into matchsticks so they were of similar size to the pasta). If you want to use something a bit faster-cooking like broccoli, add it about halfway through the pasta cook time.
Drain the pasta and any vegetables and set aside. Take the pot you just cooked the pasta in and place it back on the stove. Cover the bottom generously with olive oil and heat until shimmering, then add any alliums you might be using, like garlic, onions, scallions, etc. Stir and cook for a few minutes, until tender and fragrant, then add any other thinly sliced quick-cooking veggies like asparagus or Brussels sprouts or mushrooms or peas or heartier greens. Stir, sprinkle with salt, and then continue to saute for a few minutes, until all your veggies are lightly cooked.
Lightly sprinkle flour all over the surface of your veggies (a few tablespoons) and stir to incorporate it all. Then slowly pour in your stock a little at a time, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens to roughly the consistency of Thanksgiving gravy. Err on less liquid now, you can always add more once the cheese has been added. Let the sauce simmer for a few minutes, then add the cooked pasta and veg back to the pot. Mix everything thoroughly, then add your cheese and any cooked meat that you want to add and continue to mix. Taste, season with salt (and black pepper if you want it), add a bit more milk or stock if you want it.
Transfer the pasta mixture to a greased baking dish. If you have breadcrumbs or more cheese, sprinkle it on top before you pop it in the oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and bubbling. Mine is not as brown as I'd like it to be, because I ran out of cheese to sprinkle on top. Life is tough sometimes.
P.S. if you're wondering why the pictured mac & cheese is so yellow, it's because I cook for a lovable but demanding small human named Kira who complains every time that I make non-boxed macaroni and cheese that she wants 'THE YELLOW KIIIIIIND'. Cue wails. Hence orange-hued shredded cheese as well as a pinch of turmeric in hopes of tricking that picky little one into eating what I put in front of her. It was mildly successful, which I'll take as a win.