Fresh Ideas: Mac and cheese

Photo by Helana BrigmanCreamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese combines a favorite comfort food with the healthful squash. The result is a mac and cheese with enhanced flavor and less fat..
Photo by Helana BrigmanCreamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese combines a favorite comfort food with the healthful squash. The result is a mac and cheese with enhanced flavor and less fat..

Helana Brigman

Last week, I had an epiphany.

It was a Tuesday night, I was pulling a casserole dish out of the oven and my best friend had come over for dinner.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, exactly, was when I had my epiphany: Creamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese.

I’m not going to lie, but I was incredibly skeptical when I first started making it. Butternut squash (in my experience) can have an overbearing flavor when prepared incorrectly. Sure, it’s creamy, golden and beautiful, but I can only eat so much without the help of a little butter.

But, as per my resolutions to figure out little ways to eat healthier this year, I had to try my favorite comfort food whether it meant vegetables or not.

What I love about this recipe is how incredibly simple it is to switch from the fat-laden world of 2 pounds of cheese to the more healthful world of half cheese, half squash. Bring the squash to a boil in milk and broth and let the steam do the tenderizing work. Once soft to the pressure of a fork, the squash can be puréed in a food processor or blender and whipped together with the cheese you plan to use. No flour, butter or oily roux here; just squash, cheese and steam.

When we finally sat down to eat, I couldn’t get over the enhanced flavors in this dish. Normally, macaroni and cheese is a bit two dimensional — pasta plus cheese. After a few bites, the palate fails to pick up on new flavors, and I know from experience that I tend to go on autopilot as I scarf down the starchy carbs.

But, in this version, the butternut squash brings life to other ingredients in the dish that may fail to be actualized when you taste it. The macaroni only has a subtle squashlike flavor, and it’s noticeably lighter than traditional mac and cheese, leaving less room for guilt when the plate is clean.

At one point, my best friend looked over at me, startled, and said, “I think I like this better than regular macaroni and cheese.”

I agreed emphatically.

Creamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese is not some health food fad version of a classic American dish. It’s something entirely different — it’s better, creamier and more flavorful. It’s something I can’t wait to make again.

Helana Brigman is a food writer, photographer and cookbook author. She can be reached with daily recipes at http://clearlydeliciousfoodblog.com or via email at hbrigm1@tigers.lsu.edu.