I feel like Kraft Mac & Cheese defines every millennial’s childhood. Who doesn’t remember throwing down their Jansport backpack, grabbing their Skip-It and working up an appetite until mom served you a pile of that gooey mac & cheese for dinner.
The truth is my mom almost exclusively served us healthy, homemade, unprocessed food, to the point where my sister and I went crazy any chance we could get our hands on some of that classic American stuff with its high fructose corn syrup topped with trans fat that kids find irresistible. Our friends’ moms always knew when we were around, with the fill-line on the candy jar noticeably waning and all the marshmallows missing from the Lucky Charms box. We had to get our fix before returning home where our mom who, having grown up in Spain, thought kids should be thrilled with a plate of sauteed zucchini and eggplant for dinner.
But every blue moon, on a special occasion like a sleepover or a birthday party, my mom would blow us all away and make us Kraft Mac & Cheese (with the requisite side of cucumber tomato salad to maintain the Mediterranean flare, of course). I don’t know if it’s because the circumstances were so rare or because she really is just that good of a cook, but her Mac & Cheese always came out better than anyone else’s I’ve ever had. My friend Gina used to beg my mom to show her mom how to “make it right,” to which my mom would laugh and say she just followed the directions on the box. Still to this day, Gina talks about my mom’s legendary Mac & Cheese.
Mom serving us Mac & Cheese for our formal dress-up dinner, complete with real wine glasses… so fancy! (sister Catherine, middle; me, right).
Enjoying carrot cigarettes and bell pepper lipstick at our Mac & Cheese garden party.
Now that I’m all grown up and practicing as a registered dietitian, I’m grateful for all those home-cooked, unprocessed meals I grew up with even if I was jealous of my friends’ cool Lunchables at the time. And now I get to try to share that with my patients so that their kids can also grow up with wholesome foods that will help them grow into healthy adults.
This recipe was inspired by a pediatric obesity group I’m currently running at our clinic, in which the moms requested help with their 3-year-old kids who refused to touch vegetables of any kind. I asked what they do like to eat and, of course, Mac & Cheese was at the top of the list. So I set out to create a healthy, veggie-rich version of this kid classic, resulting in what I like to call “Sneaky Mac.” I prepared it with the moms in the pediatric obesity group the following week (without the garlicky breadcrumbs on top) and every single one of those picky kids ate it all up, unsuspecting that they were getting a whole sneaky serving of vegetables. The end result was a creamy, gooey, vegan Mac & Cheese that gets it color not from artificial food dyes or chemicals, but rather from the Cheddar Cauliflower!
Cheddar cauliflower is basically an orange cauliflower that gets its color from a mutation that allows it to hold onto extra beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A. It was discovered in Canada in the 1970’s but it wasn’t until recently that I started to spot it in grocery stores. Like regular cauliflower, cheddar cauliflower is packed with fiber and Vitamin C, and is a good source of calcium, folate, selenium and potassium. It is delicious prepared any way that you would prepare white cauliflower.If you can’t find orange cauliflower you could totally prepare this recipe with white cauliflower and it would just have the look of a white cheddar mac & cheese. But make sure you don’t ommit the other ingredients. The macadamia nuts give it a little bit of healthy fats and flavor for that creamy mouthfeel, and the nutritional yeast — every vegan’s best friend — imparts a cheesy taste to cheeseless foods (as well as providing B vitamins).
So throw on your dress-up clothes, light up your carrot cigarette, set out the formal china, and enjoy this guiltless, gooey, all natural, diary-free mac & cheese.
Cheddar Cauliflower Mac & Cheese (Vegan!)
- 1 pound macaroni noodles (can use whole wheat or whatever kind you like)
- 2 shallots (or 1 onion), chopped
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 orange cauliflower (or substitute white), florets only
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/2 cup unsalted macadamia nuts (if using salted, decrease salt to 1/2 teaspoon)
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Cook macaroni noodles according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté for 7 minutes until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the cauliflower florets, vegetable stock, salt, and pepper. Cover and simmer on low for 20 minutes.
Place contents of skillet into a blender and add the macadamia nuts, nutritional yeast, and lemon juice. Blend until you have a very smooth and creamy sauce, the consistency of cake batter. You can thin with more vegetable stock if needed.
Stir the sauce into the cooked macaroni and place in an oven-proof pan or skillet. Top with the bread crumbs mixed with 1 clove of crushed garlic, a pinch of salt, the remaining teaspoon of olive oil, and the parsley and sage. Place the pan under the broiler for 5-10 minutes or until the bread crumbs are golden brown and the macaroni and cheese is heated through.