News flash: This is the fourth year in a row the Mediterranean diet ranked No. 1 in best diets, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list. It’s a wholesome heart-healthy diet based on vegetables, fruits, dairy, whole grains, legumes, fish, nuts, olive oil, wine (in moderation) and water.
Enter: Mac and cheese. Macaroni and cheese aka mac ‘n’ cheese is an age-old dish created with cheese and pasta. The tradition recipe is a casserole baked in the oven. Its roots are not known but it’s no stranger in the United Kingdom or Canada. And it did find its way to America and has a reputation of being a comfort food for all ages.
Twenty years ago, I remember foraging the gourmet frozen kind at the grocery store. Nuke it. Done. I remember my mom’s homemade casserole. Back in the 20th century, pasta shells, whole milk, margarine, processed cheese, and bread crumbs from old bread were her ingredients of choice. And, of course, we also ate the quickie kind in a box. Not so good either.
Fast forward to present-day. I’ve changed up this dish with a healthier twist. Whole grain pasta, gourmet cheese, real butter, fresh herbs and spices, and vegetables make it a Mediterranean delight inspired by my taste for European foods (an underlying theme in my book series).
Mac ‘n’ Cheese Mediterranean Style
2 cups whole grain elbow macaroni, cooked
2 cups organic half and half
¾ cup Cheddar, shredded
½ cup Parmesan shavings
½ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons European style butter
½ teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon Mediterranean seasoning (or 2 teaspoons fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary)
¼ cup garlic and herb bread crumbs
Roma tomatoes, sliced
Fresh basil or rosemary, sprigs, garnish
Cook pasta per directions of the box or bag. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove pasta from the heat. In a small pan, heat the half and half until it boils. Turn down the heat to medium and add 1/2 the grated Cheddar and Parmesan; stir until it is melted and smooth. Add sour cream and butter. Add pepper and seasoning.
Pour this over the macaroni. put this into a baking dish or ramekins. Sprinkle the remaining Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses evenly over the top. Top with bread crumbs. Bake until the top is golden and crusty, about 25 to 30 minutes. Serves 4-6.
This week during the world’s ups and downs, I did seek comfort – like all of us – living on the South Shore. Putting the good for you foods together was quick. The results? Instant comfort. It’s a keeper, especially on a chilly night. A hot casserole hits the spot and yeah, it’s feel good food. Easy does it though – one serving is good to keep winter weight at bay. Pair it with a green salad and a cup of hot tea for January – National Hot Tea Month.
Cal Orey, M.A. Is an author and journalist. Her books include the Healing Powers Series (Vinegar, Olive Oil, Chocolate, Honey, Coffee, Tea, Superfoods, Essential Oils, Herbs and Spices) published by Kensington. (The collection has been featured by the Good Cook Book Club.) Her website is https://www.calorey.com.