Where would Casserole Week be without a good mac 'n' cheese recipe? Here is the third winner in this week's Best Healthy Casseroles contest. This recipe comes from Leslie in Utah, and it is an indulgently golden-topped, gooey mac and cheese — but with a secret ingredient and a healthy twist.
The secret ingredient? It's straightforward: Tofu! Yes, tofu goes into this mac and cheese, but no one will ever guess. I served it to a big crowd of people and didn't tell anyone that there was tofu involved until later. They all said that they never would have guessed something was different about this mac and cheese! The tofu reads as ricotta or small bits of cheese. It adds some protein and creaminess, which means that you can cut the regular cheese in this casserole down to just a few ounces.
Why I chose Leslie's casserole
I love gooey, cheesy casseroles, but I am also always looking for ways to lighten them up a bit. I found that using alternative dairy products like low-fat yogurt not only gave me a lighter casserole, but one that actually tasted better and more interesting, too. So I was really drawn to Leslie's recipe because it used tofu to give that creaminess — I have a vegan stuffed shells recipe that uses tofu instead of ricotta, and I love the taste and texture!
I also really loved Leslie's addition of artichoke hearts, although I adjusted the recipe to call for frozen artichoke hearts instead of jarred and marinated hearts. (I think the frozen artichoke hearts have a much better texture.) The smoked paprika put it over the top. Smoked paprika is one of those magic casserole ingredients — it makes everything a little yummier.
• What makes this recipe so great?
This recipe has something for everyone. Kids love it for its cheesy goodness and crunchy top. Adults love it for its slightly more sophisticated taste. This recipe can be varied to taste — we sometimes substitute sun-dried tomatoes or sausage for the artichoke hearts.
• What makes this casserole health(ier)?
The tofu allows this mac and cheese to be very creamy. That means we can cut down on the cheese and get away with using low-fat milk.
Big-Hearted Macaroni & Cheese with Artichokes
serves 6 to 8
12 ounces frozen artichoke hearts
1 pound elbow macaroni or small shells
8 ounces silken tofu
2 1/2 cups skim milk
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cornstarch
6 ounces white cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup bread crumbs or panko
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
Heat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease a 9x13-inch baking dish with olive oil. Place the frozen artichoke hearts in a colander and run cold water over them for a few moments. Remove from the colander and set aside.
Heat a 4-quart pot of salted water to boiling and add the pasta. Cook the pasta for 2 minutes less than the package specifies, to just barely al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the pasta from cooking. Return to the cooking pot.
Cut each artichoke heart into several bite-sized pieces and stir into the cooked pasta.
Place a 10-inch deep skillet or wide saucepan over medium heat. Place the tofu in the pan, and mash it thoroughly with a fork or whisk. Whisk in the milk, mustard, salt, paprika and pepper. Warm the mix until bubbles form around the edges, then whisk in the cornstarch and shredded cheese. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture thickens just slightly. As it heats, it will appear somewhat lumpy. This is fine; just whisk occasionally as you stir.
When the mixture has thickened slightly, turn off the heat and pour it into the pot with the macaroni and artichokes. Stir thoroughly, and taste for seasoning. If necessary, stir in a little extra salt and pepper, then spread in the prepared baking dish.
Mix the bread crumbs and Parmesan and sprinkle over the pasta. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy on top. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
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• A copy of Faith's new book: Not Your Mother's Casseroles (Harvard Common Press, January 2011)
• A new casserole baker from Emile Henry's Urban line
(Images: Faith Durand)