When I came across a recipe for Macaroni and Cheese that had a head of cauliflower hidden in the sauce, how could I resist? I love the idea of “stealth veggies” and try to take advantage of sneaking extra vegetables in any dish I can.
Mark Bittman came up with this idea (I know him best from his book “How to Cook Everything” and his Ted Talks.) I was a bit ambivalent the first time I tried the recipe, but tinkered a bit, and I think you’ll be surprised at how good it is. One caveat: I probably would rather eat a mac’n’cheese full of cheese and cream…but I don’t, at least not very often, because I care about what I eat. That being said? This is a surprisingly good substitute!
Even if you don’t care for cauliflower, you’ll probably like this – my teenager wolfed it down with no clue that cauliflower was included in the recipe. The cauliflower actually has a bit of a bite that reminds me of a sharp Vermont cheddar.
This recipe indicated four servings, and I did put it in individual dishes, but they were very generous servings; the cost of the dish came in for me at about $2.40 using my strategies. I like to serve this with a gorgeous salad, and perhaps another vegetable on the side, and there’s definitely room in the budget.
Creamy Cauliflower Macaroni and Cheese, four to six servings
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing the baking dish
- 2 1⁄2 cups vegetable or chicken stock or water (I used two cups stock and 1/2 cup milk)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cauliflower, cored and separated into large pieces
- 8 ounces elbow, shell, ziti, or other cut pasta, preferably whole wheat
- 1 ⁄2 cup grated cheese (like sharp cheddar or Gruyère or a combination)
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or to taste (I like a bit less)
- salt to taste
- 1 ⁄8 teaspoon nutmeg, or to taste
- 6 Black peppercorns
- 1 ⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, for topping
- 1 ⁄2 cup toasted bread crumbs, optional, for topping
- 1 tablespoon of melted butter or additional oil, optional, for topping
Heat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish with a little oil. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put the stock, milk, peppercorns and the bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles appear along the sides, about 5 minutes later, turn off the heat and let stand.
Cook the cauliflower in the boiling water until very tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Scoop the cauliflower out of the water with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a blender or food processor.
Add the pasta to the still boiling water and cook until still somewhat chalky inside and not yet edible, about 5 minutes. Drain and return to pot.
Remove the peppercorns and bay leaves from the stock or stock/milk mixture. Carefully process the cauliflower with 2 cups of the stock or stock/milk mixture, the 2 tablespoons oil, the cheese, mustard, nutmeg, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. (You may have to work in batches.)
If the sauce seems too thick, add the remaining 1⁄2 cup stock or stock/milk mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Note: with a smaller head of cauliflower, two cups of stock seems sufficient. A larger head will take the whole 2 1/2 cups.
Pour the sauce over the pasta, toss, and spread the mixture evenly in the dish.Note: This will seem somewhat soupy, but remember the pasta is not yet all the way cooked and will absorb a lot of the sauce. (You can make the dish to this point, cover, and refrigerate for up to a day; return to room temperature before proceeding.)
Be very careful when blending the hot cauliflower and broth – it’s a good idea to throw a kitchen towel over the blender and hold the top firmly – and only fill it half to three quarters full with each batch.
Mix the Parmesan and bread crumbs with the oil or butter. Sprinkle over the top. Bake until the pasta is bubbling and the crumbs turn brown, 15 to 20 minutes, and if the breadcrumbs aren’t nicely browned, turn the broiler on for a few short minutes – watch carefully. Serve hot.
Note on bread crumbs: If you start with bread crumbs that are already toasted to a golden brown color, they will look much more appealing and you can skip the broiler. 15 to 20 minutes is not enough time to brown plain white bread crumbs.
Let’s talk about how to save money/time on this recipe:
- Use a coupon matching site! One of my favorites in my area is Pocket Your Dollars, but every store has a group of enthusiastic Coupon Matchers. Do not discount the savings! I check their site every week, even if I don’t “need” to go to the store and often find bargains I can’t pass up.
- Follow my Strategies – You’ll see them all explained on the upper left tab of every page and how I apply them, below.
- Don’t get discouraged if your prices don’t match mine! Keep shopping at the best prices and your fridge/freezer and pantry will be stocked with sales priced ingredients.
- Bittman said this recipe took about 45 minutes, and he was pretty right on – reusing the boiling water helped speed things up a bit – a smart tip I’m gonna remember for other items.
- The cost was about $2.40 with careful shopping, coupons and shortcuts. Even without shopping heroics, it’s still a very inexpensive main dish – especially when compared to full fat mac & cheese with a lot of cheese and dairy.
- Olive Oil: I have a little strategy for buying olive oil – using coupons and sales to lower the price, so click on the link. I think it’s important to use olive oil as opposed to many others – the health benefits outweigh a bit more extra cost, and it can be had at a very reasonable price. I also like the fact that Olive oil contains no hidden trans fats like Canola or Vegetable oil. Cost for this recipe: 16 cents.
- Chicken Stock: If you read me regularly, I make my own with scraps of vegetables and bones – here’s the basic recipe I use for Best Turkey or Chicken Stock - it’s not particular and though it simmers for a long time, the burner is barely on – I just count it as free.
- Cauliflower: Can be expensive if you’re not watching the sales – on sale it’s generally about 1/2 price, $1.48 a head. Watch the per pound/per head sales. When it’s cheap, pick up several heads – they keep well in the fridge and it’s an amazingly healthy vegetable. You can keep the core for stocks or broth, or just cut it up very finely for the casseroles. One note: the leaves turn your broth very dark. Cost: $1.48
- Noodles: I generally always go with the high protein or whole grain noodles – and I buy them on sale with a coupon. My store doubles, so I stock up then, and haven’t paid for noodles now for years. Look for coupons on your coupon matching sites, on coupons.com, the manufacturer’s site or on olive oil (and coupons for pasta are sometimes on the olive oil bottles.) Cost: 0 for me, but a good sales price is 88 cents a pound, so I’ll call if 44 cents.
- Milk: Buy on sale – unopened it keeps a bit past it’s “sell by” date – then you can pick up one for the beginning of the week, and another at the end of the week for the week following. In our area, it is often on sale for $2.50 a gallon.
- Be careful with your milk, and even opened it will last a lot longer – pour, lid and put away, don’t bring it to the table or leave it on the counter while you eat dinner or down your cereal and you’ll notice it stay fresh last MUCH longer. We’ve cut way back on dairy, as most health experts suggest – putting it away helps with that, too. Cost for 1/2 cup, about 4 cents.
- Cheese: Always buy your packaged grocery store cheese on sale – and stock up. You can pop it in the freezer for casseroles and dishes like this, although the texture won’t be good for eating after being frozen. I shoot for a dollar or less for eight ounces, sometimes I’ll get if for free with coupons and “catalinas” from the manufacturers. (Buy so many or so much worth, get $$ back on your next grocery visit.) My cost for this dish, 2 ounces being 1/2 cup: 20 cents.
- Bread Crumbs: I just whir my old bread and leftover heels in the food processor to make bread crumbs (bread can be grated, too), so I call it free. I store them in a bag in my freezer, some toasted, some plain.
- Parmesan Cheese: I think there are times to use the good parm and times to use the canned – and in this recipe, I used the stuff in the green can. I buy it on sale with a coupon – I shoot for a dollar a package, so the cost was about 12 cents.
- Butter: A bit of a splurge, cost and calorie wise – but for taste and health, I’d rather use real butter than trans fat laden margarine or oils. Yes – they do have trans fat, even if the label says they don’t. Harvard, for instance, says unequivocally: “The key to a healthy diet is to substitute good fats for bad fats and to avoid trans fat.” While butter isn’t a healthy fat, many feel that trans fat is worse than saturated.
- Buy on deep specials, often around the holidays with store coupons. I shoot for $2.50 a pound and freeze, where it stays fine for months. Cost for this recipe: 1 tablespoon 8 cents.
Put Your own Spin on it:
I thought the taste was excellent with the bay, mustard and nutmeg. You might be able to get by with a little less mustard.
Recipe made June 2012, cost $1.96; repriced March 2014 for $2.40.