Indulge in lighter versions of everyone's favorite comfort food
By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
Some of us grew up with the stuff in the blue box, made with bright orange powder and half a stick of butter. The lucky ones sat down to homemade, oven-baked macaroni and cheese, complete with a browned crispy topping. Whatever kind you loved as a kid, chances are you're still a fan of macaroni and cheese. Ask any group of people what their favorite comfort foods are, and, most likely, mac and cheese will make the list.
So just where did the dish everybody knows and love come from?
A type of pasta called "maccheroni" (perhaps similar to today's macaroni, but without being hollow) is thought to have been eaten in Italy as early as the 1300s. As for macaroni and cheese, this notoriously American dish goes back to Colonial times. A dish called "macaroni pie" became a favorite of a certain statesman named Thomas Jefferson, who tasted it while in Italy. He served it at his home in Monticello, and at formal parties in Washington. According to The Food Encyclopedia, Jefferson used American cheese instead of the European cheeses of the time -- and American macaroni and cheese was born.
Jefferson might not recognize the dish today, when the various versions of macaroni and cheese range from kid-friendly to gourmet. "Lobster Mac n Cheese," featuring marscarpone cheese, Havarti, and white cheddar, is a popular side dish at the upscale restaurant chain The Capital Grille. A version of macaroni and cheese using Romano, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, and pepper jack cheese is the most requested recipe from The Grand Central Baking Company in Seattle and Portland. The three cheeses in Martha Stewart's recipe for Macaroni and Three Cheeses are white cheddar, Havarti, and Muenster.
Today's mac and cheese toppings range from buttered bread that's been run through the food processor to panko crumbs or saltine crackers. But one thing's for certain in most of the recipes I found -- homemade macaroni and cheese tends to contain an abundance of butter and cream. One recipe on Epicurious.com, for example, calls for 6 tablespoons of butter, 3 cups of whole milk and 2 cups of heavy cream!
Let's hope everyone reading this article is ready to ban the blue box from their kitchen (at least for the day) and is open to the magic of homemade macaroni and cheese. And as the "Recipe Doctor," of course, I'm going to lighten this historic American recipe a bit. Nutritionally, there are three ways to improve on homemade macaroni and cheese:
- Make a lower-fat and saturated fat cheese sauce. You can do this by reducing or eliminating the butter, using lower-fat milk instead of whole milk or cream, and substituting a reduced-fat cheese with lots of flavor.
- Use a higher-fiber noodle. Several brands of whole-grain or whole-grain blend pasta are available in most supermarkets. Most taste great, and they boost the nutrients and fiber in the dish.
- Add some veggies. Hot pasta dishes such as macaroni and cheese offer the perfect opportunity to work in a serving of nutritious vegetables, including red bell pepper, broccoli or cauliflower florets, spinach, or carrots. Stir in the lightly cooked veggies right before serving or serve them aside the macaroni dish.
Macaroni and Cheese Recipes
With these three tips in mind, here are three macaroni and cheese recipes for you to try; one recipe for beginners (perfect for younger kids who aren't quite ready for sauces), one for the intermediate macaroni and cheese eater (a light version of a more traditional American recipe), and one for the more advanced eater (a light version of a fancy restaurant rendition with lobster or crab and stronger-flavored cheeses).
Noodles with Butter and Cheese
Children in France are often served this pasta dish at home and in restaurants, although the cheese usually used there is Gruyere.
2 cups cooked macaroni noodles (whole-grain blend)
2 teaspoons whipped butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup grated cheese of your choice (reduced-fat cheddar, reduced-fat Jack cheese, or shredded Parmesan)
- Spread the noodles out in a medium-sized, microwave-safe bowl. Sprinkle the pieces of butter over the top of noodles. Microwave on high for 2 minutes.
- Sprinkle the grated cheese over the noodles and stir the mixture together. Microwave another 30-60 seconds to melt cheese.
Yield: Makes 1 large serving or 2 small servings.
Light Stove-Top Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese
3 cups dry whole-grain or whole-grain blend elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon whipped butter
1/4 cup fat-free sour cream
5 tablespoons Wondra quick-mixing flour
1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
1 1/2 cups fat-free half-and-half
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch or two cayenne pepper
3 cups shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
- Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni (around 3 cups dry) and cook for 10 minutes or until al dente, then drain. Measure 6 cups of noodles, then pour them back in the large saucepan and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter, then remove it from the heat. Stir in the sour cream and flour to make a paste. Whisk in the milk and half-and-half, and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to simmer, stir in salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, and stir frequently until the sauce thickens (about 5 minutes). Whisk in an additional tablespoon of flour, if needed for desired thickness.
- Remove the sauce from the heat, add the cheese, and stir well (the cheeses will melt almost immediately). Pour the cheese sauce into the large saucepan with macaroni and stir to combine.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Per serving (if 8 per recipe): 339 calories, 23 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 9.5 g fat, 5.5 g saturated fat, 29 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 320 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 24%.
Lobster (or Crab) Macaroni and Cheese
3 cups dry whole-grain or whole-grain blend macaroni noodles
1 tablespoon whipped butter
3 tablespoons light cream cheese
2 1/2 cups fat-free half-and-half, divided use
1/4 cup Wondra quick-mixing flour
1/2 cup white wine (or nonalcoholic beer)
3 tablespoons shredded or grated Romano cheese
1 cup shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar or white cheddar
1/3 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella or reduced-fat provolone
2/3 cup strong flavored cheese of your choice (gruyere, fontina, Jarlsberg, havarti, etc.)
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces cooked and shelled crab or lobster meat, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon finely chopped or minced garlic
2 cups coarse fresh wheat sourdough bread crumbs (add 2 large slices of wheat sourdough bread, torn into pieces, to small food processor and pulse into coarse crumbs)
Canola or olive oil cooking spray
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees and coat a deep-dish pie plate with canola or olive oil cooking spray.
- Bring lightly salted water to a boil in a large saucepan and add noodles, cooking until al dente. Drain and return to large saucepan. Cover the pan to keep the noodles moist and warm.
- Meanwhile, in medium nonstick saucepan, melt whipped butter over medium heat until brown and fragrant (about a minute). Reduce heat to medium low or low and add the cream cheese and 1/2 cup half-and-half. Continue to cook and stir until a smooth mixture forms. Whisk in the remaining half-and-half. In a small bowl, blend flour with white wine and whisk this mixture into the half-and-half mixture in the medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil; continue to stir until sauce thickens (a minute or two).
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in all of the cheeses, Tabasco, and black pepper as desired. If cheese isn't melting completely, return pan to stove and warm over low heat, stirring constantly until cheese melts. Pour sauce over the noodles in the large saucepan, and stir in the crab or lobster pieces. Spoon mixture into prepared pie plate.
- For topping: Add olive oil to small nonstick saucepan and get it hot over medium heat. Stir in the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in breadcrumbs and continue to cook and stir until crumbs are golden.
- Spoon bread topping over macaroni and cheese, give the top a quick spray of canola or olive oil cooking spray, and bake uncovered at 375 degrees until bubbling (20-30 minutes).
Makes 6 hearty servings.
Per serving: 495 calories, 33 g protein, 55 g carbohydrate, 15 g fat, 7.5 g saturated fat, 6 g fiber, 75 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 28%.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2008 Elaine Magee
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.
Published January 31, 2008.
SOURCES: The Food Encyclopedia, 2006, Jacques L. Rolland and Carol Sherman, Robert Rose Publishing. On Food and Cooking, 1997, Harold McGee, Fireside
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