Butternut squash macaroni and cheese, a classic comfort food with a healthy twist! Whole grain noodles combined with creamy cheese sauce and crunchy panko.
I have to admit, this luscious bowl of macaroni and cheese has a secret… it’s made with butternut squash! Why do you ask? Well, my little guy James is loving trying new foods, and I want to give him healthy options that he will enjoy. Win-win for both of us!
A traditional macaroni and cheese recipe has flour, butter, milk, and cheese base to make the sauce. Given to opportunity to incorporate a vegetable packed with nutrients in each bite and still get a creamy texture, I went for it! Keep reading to see how I transformed this classic comfort dish into a more guilt-free bowl of yumminess.
When thinking about making healthier meals, I like to use techniques that help to build flavor. The start of this dish begins with slowly caramelizing onions in a little bit of butter. This process takes about 20 plus minutes but don’t worry; you can do this while you cook the other components of the dish, so everything comes together nicely at the end. Caramelizing the onions over medium to medium-low heat creates a sweet and savory flavor, adding a lot more depth to the macaroni dish.
As your onions are happily transforming in the pan, it’s time to make the sauce! Boiled until fork tender, cubes of butternut squash are the base for your creamy sauce. The natural starch in the squash is activated when heated, so when pureed the rapid mechanical shear from the blades, in addition to the milk and both helps to create a super silky base.
I’ve found that my Vitamix blender is a pro at making purees, and I love the sound of it humming while it goes to work on those veggies! Don’t forget to add those caramelized onions to the sauce for blending, it’s going to take it to the next level.
The beauty of macaroni and cheese is you can add whatever cheese to it you like. I usually use a blend of Monterey jack and cheddar in my classic macaroni and cheese version, but I stuck to a simple sharp cheddar with the butternut squash.
Since the squash provides the creaminess, I just needed to choose a piece of cheese that added flavor, and a good aged cheese is a fantastic choice. Other options could be parmesan, gruyere, smoked gouda, or combining a few, just go for it!
Nom nom nom! Okay so I snuck one to five bites straight from the pot, shhh don’t tell! It’s just so tempting; I couldn’t help myself.
If you have always had the more traditional macaroni and cheese recipe, I’m not going to say that it’s like having a 1:1 replacement. You can tell there is more texture, a tiny more grainy because you are using a vegetable for the sauce compared to just a milk and cheese base. However for a healthy alternative, this is an excellent option, and I’m pretty choosy when it comes to mac n’ cheese. I was especially elated when my son James gobbled each spoonful! He’s never had the stuff from the box, and he was grinning as he ate, Mom high five!
I’ve been choosing whole grain, whole wheat or fiber-enriched pasta for my family meals. Pasta technology has been pretty phenomenal as consumers are becoming more health conscious yet still want to enjoy their favorite dishes with added benefits. I’m trying to incorporate nutrients wherever I can, and I’m glad that there are so many varieties to choose from nowadays. For a little crunch, I toasted some wheat Panko breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on top of each bowl, ah the icing on the cake. I would LOVE to hear how this version of macaroni and cheese tastes to you!
How does the butternut squash make such a creamy macaroni and cheese sauce?
Butternut squash is considered a naturally starchy gourd. When it’s cooked then pureed, the starch molecules absorb the liquid from the milk and broth. Then it swells and holds the moisture in suspension very nicely and doesn’t separate. What you get is creamy, thickened and smooth sauce without having to make a roux base (cooked flour and butter plus milk). Not only is butternut squash an awesome ingredient, but it’s also got some nice health benefits too! It’s low in fat, packed with dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C and the very obvious carotenoids in the orange flesh like beta-carotene that converts to vitamin A. (Source: www.wholeliving.com)
- 2 cups elbow macaroni , (I used whole grain, any kind will work), 8 ounces
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups yellow onion , thinly sliced, 1/8-inch
- 4 cups butternut squash , cubed, 1/2-inch
- 5 cups chicken broth , or vegetable broth
- 3/4 cup reduced-fat milk , 2%
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt , more to taste
- 1 cup cheese , shredded, (I used sharp cheddar, chose your favorite)
- black pepper , freshly ground, to taste
- 1/4 cup breadcrumbs , whole wheat panko
- parsley , chopped for garnish
- Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions in one layer in the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until tender and lightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes, occasionally stirring, keeping the onions in one layer. You want the onions caramelized not crisp and brown, cooked under gentle heat to create a dark golden color and flavor. Reduce heat if the onions brown too quickly or start to burn.
- While the onions cook, bring the broth to a boil in a large pot. Add the butternut squash and cooked for 7 minutes, or until tender. Drain the squash, reserving the broth, transfer squash to the blender. Add cooked onions, milk, 1 teaspoons salt and between ¼ cup reserved broth. Add up to ¼ cup more broth if desired to thin the sauce if desired. Puree until very smooth and creamy.
- In medium sized pot, cook macaroni in salted boiling water according to manufacturer's instructions. Drain and set aside.
- Pour the sauce over the cooked noodles and add the shredded cheese. Stir to melt the cheese, and more milk if needed to adjust the consistency. Season salt and pepper to taste.
- In a small nonstick pan, toast panko breadcrumbs over medium heat until all sides are toasted, keeping the breadcrumbs moving in the pan, about 3 minutes.
- Added toasted breadcrumbs and parsley to garnish the macaroni and cheese. Enjoy!