A Classic, Revisited: Butternut Squash and Sunchoke Mac & Cheese

The one thing that stands out for me in this recipe?  The fact that my beloved meat-and-potatoes husband, J, knew I was making something with squash.  I’m a proud  wife.  If only I could get him to eat it.

He couldn’t quite name the other vegetable in this fancied-up version of a classic dish – Butternut Squash and Sunchoke Mac & Cheese.  Admittedly, I don’t think I would have been able to either, had I not ordered the vegetable from my weekly Buying Club where each item is individual labeled and packaged.

The sunchoke, or Jerusalem artichoke, debuted it’s nutty flavor in my kitchen this past week; roasted, salted and lightly oiled with a cubed sweet potato.  To me, the flavor meanders between a potato, a water chestnut,  and a sweet onion — all things enjoyed by my taste buds.   So I figured, why not puree  with a butternut squash to add a little depth to everyone’s favorite pasta and cheese dish.

Sunchokes are rich in vitamin C, phosphorus, and iron, as well as inulin, a carbohydrate linked with good intestinal health due to its prebiotic (bacteria promoting) properties.  Inulin is added to many commercially-produced foods to inject fiber and create a “healthier” product, often used to replace some of the fat and sugar or to modify texture and taste (see other functional uses and potential health benefits here).  It is usually extracted from chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke by chopping and mixing the root with water to make a wet pulp.  The water is evaporated and the final product is spray dried to create inulin powder, ready for use in pre-packaged products.  All that to say, sunchokes are healthy and an excellent vegetable for your winter produce rotation.

The roasted winter produce makes this sweeter than your average mac and cheese; the velvety, rich texture of this dish makes it feel so decadent,  yet it’s nutritious and satisfying on so many levels.  The dish comes together pretty quickly once the sunchokes and squash are pureed.  And while this certainly tastes fantastic as a stove-top mac and cheese, I think the bit of breadcrumbs browned and crunchy from the oven is just the thing to take this recipe over the edge — in a good way.

This is sure to be another cold weather favorite; in fact, it lasted me through the work week, re-heated with some fresh spinach just because you can’t go wrong with a little added green.  Although that wouldn’t help my case with J…

Butternut Squash and Sunchoke Mac & Cheese

Adapted from The Way the Cookie Crumbles recipe.

For more information on the locally acquired ingredients, please click on the ingredient hyperlinks, below.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 small butternut squash (I used the top half – no seeds)
  • 2 medium sunchokes, peeled
  • 12 ounces elbow macaroni
  • salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper (or more to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 3/4 cups 2% milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable stock
  • 4 ounces Muenster cheese, shredded (1 cup)
  • 4 ounces mild cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)
  • Optional: whole wheat bread crumbs

Directions:

  1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Peel the sunchokes (as able, they are knobby little things) and cut the squash in half lengthwise.  Lay squash cut side down, with sunchokes, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a butter knife inserted into the flesh meets no resistance.
  2. Scoop flesh from the squash and mash it with a fork.  Mash sunchokes as well.  You may want to puree in a blender or food processor – I used the attachment on my Cuisinart hand blender and pureed in batches.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Once it boils, add about a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta until it’s tender. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.
  4. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the foaming subsides, add the flour and mustard. Whisk constantly for 1 minute, then gradually whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5-6 minutes, until the mixture has the consistency of heavy cream.
  5. Add the pepper, cheeses, ½ teaspoon table salt, and the squash, stirring until the cheese melts.
  6. Pour the sauce over the drained pasta and stir thoroughly. Serve immediately, or, pour into an 8″ square baking dish, top with bread crumbs and finish under the oven broiler for about 10 minutes or bubbly with brown edges.

Keeping Score: Chickpea & Bread Soup

The USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines were released this past week.  In the spirit of mixing business with pleasure, I used its Key Recommendations to see how this recipe for Chickpea & Bread Soup scores nutritionally:

  • Recommendation: Use oils to replace solid fats where possible (in order to increase one’s intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce heart disease risk). I used a saturated, i.e. solid, fat to saute my vegetables (butter).  -1 point.
  • Recommendation: Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages. Okay, so Muenster cheese isn’t the leanest choice in the dairy aisle.  -1 point
  • Recommendation: Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. The star of this dish, chickpeas, are full of protein, folate and fiber.   +1 point
  • Recommendation: Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains. Fiber-rich whole grain bread sops up the vegetable broth and creates contrasting texture to the crunchy chickpeas. +1 point
  • Recommendation: Increase vegetable and fruit intake. As a legume, chickpeas are technically a vegetable.  Onions add flavor. +1 point
  • Recommendation: Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets. I’m hitting these nutrients with the cheese, the bread, and the chickpeas.  +1 point

So it looks like I tipped the nutritional scale in my favor, striking a balance between tasty yet wholesome.  But shouldn’t I get points for buying local and ensuring the quality and treatment of ingredients?  The butter is from Maplehofe Dairy, where happy, pastured cows not subjected to hormones or antibiotics live.  Pastured cows have been shown to have higher levels of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) a beneficial fatty-acid(For more information on the locally acquired ingredients, please click on the ingredient hyperlinks, below.)

The Dietary Guidelines are all about balance, enjoying your food, but eating less of it.  A healthy lifestyle is all about give and take, just make sure you don’t take too much, and too often.  :-)

(For interesting commentary on the new Guidelines, check out Marion Nestle’s blog, the New York Times article, and/or the Huffington Post.)

Chickpea & Bread Soup

Adapted from Bitchin’ Camaro blog

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter (or olive oil)
  • 1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
  • 2 cups chickpeas (or one 15 oz. can chickpeas, drained and well rinsed), soaked overnight
  • 3 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 cups whole grain bread, cubed into small pieces
  • 2 – 3 oz. shredded cheese (I used Muenster cheese, but use your melted favorite. Or, omit all together.)

Directions:

  1. Set a medium heavy pot over medium heat and add 1 tbsp. of butter or olive oil.  Saute the onions for 10 minutes, or until they’re soft and almost brown. Remove the onions to a bowl and set aside.
  2. Add the rest of the olive oil to the pot, then the chickpeas. Toast the chickpeas until they’re golden on all sides, about 20 minutes. Resist the urge to stir them too often, or they won’t toast well. You should hear the chickpeas popping in the heat. Give them a good stir occasionally to make sure they’re not sticking, but don’t worry too much if they do.
  3. Once your chickpeas are golden and toasted, add the stock, using a wooden spoon to scrape any chickpea residue from the bottom of the pot.  Add the onions back into the pot and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the bread.
  4. Ladle the soup into oven-safe dishes or small pots. Sprinkle each one with cheese and place them under your oven’s broiler for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and browned. Remove carefully and serve immediately.

(You may need to add more stock depending on your preference for the thickness of the soup.)

Image is Everything: Celeriac Gratin

Growing up, grilled cheese sandwiches meant orange-rimmed, melted slices of Muenster cheese hugged tightly between two slices of buttered white bread.  This comfort food classic is a childhood favorite and cemented Muenster as my cheese of choice.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find Muenster cheese at a local farmer’s market or though the Philadelphia Winter Harvest buying club.  What I have found is celeriac, or celery root, a funky root vegetable with little physical resemblance to the familiar and graceful celery stalk.  But beauty is only skin-deep, and like the creepy kohlrabi that I experimented with last winter, it’s uses are plentiful and its flavor mild, warm, comforting – perfect for cold, snowy weather, no stranger to the Philadelphia region this month.

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Winter Wonderland: Spiced Whole Wheat Couscous with Kale

So here we are in the gut of winter, many snowed in, perhaps going stir crazy (as I often do under such conditions).  The pundits say variety is the spice of life, but sometimes the harsh winter weather limits that range of ability… unless you’re in the kitchen.

While variety may be the spice of life, I’d argue that spices enhance life, particularly the life of one’s cooking.  Indian cuisine is practically built around spices (not to mention fresh vegetables), making it a nourishing and unique alternative to lunch or dinner.  Food is often prepared with turmeric, a spice that offers researched health benefits that include protection against liver damage and certain types of cancers, anti-inflammatory and infection-fighting properties.  Admittedly, since I’m not a fan of hot, spicy foods, my only exposure to Indian cuisine is the occasional episode of Aarti Party on The Food Network.  Until now, as I realize that using spices does not necessarily make a food spicy.

I used fast-cooking whole wheat couscous as the platform in this recipe to inject a bit of Indian flavor.  The earthy, vibrant turmeric mixes with the nutty, citrusy coriander (which has its own list of health benefits) to create a colorful base for this nutritious and filling side dish.   I even used one of my several kitchen-related Christmas gifts– a coffee/spice grinder that quickly pulverized the coriander seeds to a fine powder (thanks, Mom!). Continue reading