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We’re experiencing a freak cold front down here (55 degrees in April? What?) and I was craving a weather-appropriate meal. Mac and Cheese is the ultimate comfort food. It’s creamy and cheesy and has the satisfying crunch of oven-crisped pasta. I wanted to make healthier weekday update to the classic that omitted the cream and introduced some vegetables.
So, I decided on peas because they looked vibrant and spring-like and added some basil for color and freshness. I also threw some Thai chiles in there for kick. I subbed skim evaporated milk for cream, but kept the Gruyere cheese so that the dish would still have the rounded richness of traditional mac and cheese.
I was really happy with the final product. Overall, it felt light while still retaining it’s comfort-food-ness. The Thai chiles made up for any flavor that might have been lost by omitting the cream and butter. Next time I make it, I might also add some crisp turkey bacon for that delicious smokiness.
Cheesy Pasta & Peas
1 lb. egg pasta (I used Flora brand Egg Garganelli, but whole wheat penne or rigatoni will do if you can’t find a suitable egg pasta.)
10 oz. fresh shelled or frozen peas
8 oz. Evaporated milk (I used Skim)
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
6.5 oz. Gruyere cheese, shredded
2 Thai chiles, thinly sliced (or Jalapeno peppers)
1/4 cup breadcrumbs, preferably whole wheat and homemade
Preheat the oven to 400° and grease a large casserole dish. I used a 14-inch oval dish, but any medium/large casserole dish will do. The larger the dish, the more of the crunchy top layer you get.
Cook the pasta in salted water until it’s almost al dente. It should be too firm when you bite into it. The pasta will finish cooking and absorb all the cheesy liquid while it’s in the oven. Place the drained pasta into a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients except for the breadcrumbs. Toss everything together, making sure it’s all well-combined and evenly distributed. (If you’re feeling lazy, you cal also throw everything into the baking dish and mix it there. It just might make a little bit of a mess on the surrounding countertop.) Add the pasta to the baking dish and sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top.
Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, and continue to bake for another 10 minutes. The top layer of pasta should be browned and crunchy at this point. Let stand for 5 minutes, then scoop into deep bowls and enjoy.