Virtuous Mac & Cheese

It’s virtuous because of the whole wheat pasta, spinach, and skim milk, but don’t let that fool you. It’s still mac & cheese. This grew out of a penne pasta recipe in a Williams-Sonoma cookbook, and about the only thing remaining at this point of the original recipe is that they’re both cheese sauces. Different cheeses, different pastas, added vegetables, added seasonings. The original recipe made about twice as much, but I found out that if I made that amount, I ate that amount. So now I make it in a smaller dish and the temptation to eat a pile of it is over quicker. You can use white pepper rather than black throughout this recipe if you’re fussy about how your sauce looks. I’m not.

Preheat the oven to 350.

2 c. milk (I use skim and it works fine)
1/4 yellow onion, peeled, stuck with two cloves and a bay leaf
Place the milk and onion in a deep saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes, then remove from heat and discard onion and seasonings.

Prepare a roux using:
4 T. butter
4 T. flour
and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Set aside and allow to cool.

Combine the warm milk and the cool roux in the large saucepan and place over low heat. Cook together until the milk thickens – do not allow to boil! Additionally, remember that the cheese will bind the sauce further, so don’t over-thicken it.

In the meantime grate:
5 oz. mild cheese
5 oz. sharp cheese
Many different kinds of cheese will work; my standard is sharp New York cheddar for the mild and Grafton 2 Year cheddar for the sharp. Leftover bits of any other kind of cheese are a fine addition.

Also cook:
3/4 lb. whole wheat fusilli (Bella Terra is the only one I’ve had with real merit – comes in plastic rather than a box – green, yellow, and red printing on the wrapper) in heavily salted water until almost al dente – you want a little fight left in the pasta so it doesn’t lose its character in the finished dish. Drain, season with neutral oil, salt and pepper, and set aside.

Additionally, cook:
10 oz. frozen cut leaf spinach
in the microwave for five minutes – no need to add water. Remove and place in a colander; press out as much moisture as possible, then chop into fine pieces & season with salt and pepper.

When the sauce has thickened, add the grated cheese and stir occasionally until incorporated. Taste for seasoning and add:
salt and pepper if needed
1/2 – 1 T. Moutarde de Meaux or Dijon mustard, depending on how much you like mustard
1 tsp. paprika
a few chili flakes
the cooked, drained spinach
and stir until combined. Gently fold in the cooked pasta and turn the mixture into an 8×8 or 9×9 baking dish. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top is slightly browned and the dish is bubbling. Makes 4 servings. Have a salad with it if it still makes you feel guilty to eat mac & cheese.

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