Gluten-Free Mac and Cheese with Broccoli and Peas
Mac and cheese, now there’s a powerful memory from long ago. I’m going to do a bit of time travel. Want to come along? Fasten your seat belts … we’re going back to 1976. A lot of you weren’t even on the planet then…
It’s a Wednesday. January of 1976. We’re in a kidney dialysis clinic adjacent to the Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. It’s bitterly cold and snowing outside and inside, my Mom and I are struggling to keep our spirits up.
I am barely 16 years old and I’ve just lost my first kidney transplant, which functioned for only three months. I’ve been in and out of the hospital for half that time. Including two week-long stints in ICU (Intensive Care Unit). One stint, was when I got the kidney transplant, and the other stint was when my body was in active rejection of the kidney and it had to be removed immediately. It wasn’t exactly a typical fun-filled teenage summer.
Needless to say I am in a state of shock. I have just survived a war inside my body. I am struggling to find my way back to civilian life. My passion and love of food is what’s keeping me smiling.
I’m done with this afternoon’s treatment. I feel thoroughly drained and washed out. My Mom and I are discussing lunch for the coming Friday before my next treatment. “You’re planning your lunch NOW? For Friday? Don’t you have anything else to think about between now and then?” says the attorney-husband of the 30-ish woman dialyzing in the chair next to mine. His tone drips with sarcasm.
Hey! What of it? I think to myself, as I focus on getting my winter coat on. If it keeps me happy and moving forward, so the heck what? Get out of my face, you big party-poopin’ brute. You’re raining on my parade.
I’m excited about what my Mom and I are planning. Food takes four hours to go from mouth, processed through the digestive tract and into the bloodstream – I have the freedom to eat more right before a dialysis treatment and factor this bit of leeway into the menu. I’m doing my best to stay positive and actually hold on to joy in life.
This was my life and looking back, I smile with love and tenderness at the young girl I was, drooling at the anticipation of mac and cheese coming up in just two days. I was doing the absolute best I could, focusing on something I was passionate about, GREAT FOOD, that made me feel happy inside (and you know it still does). So there, bub!
I am so nutty that I kept the original recipe that I cut from the back of the Ronzoni elbow macaroni box!! And I actually found it.
Very straightforward. Begin with 1/2 pound of cooked macaroni. Make white (bechamel sauce by swirling 3T. melted butter with 3 T. flour in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly add 2 cups of milk and cook, stirring all the while until thickened. Add salt & pepper and a cup of grated chesse. Toss in macaroni. Pour into greased baking dish. Top with buttered bread crumbs, if you like, and bake until brown and bubbly.
The episode with the boorish attorney was a long, long time ago. I still adore mac ‘n cheese. But I rarely do the classic béchamel sauce at home. Yes, it is delicious, but I save it it for rare times or restaurants. I could easily eat the whole thing but don’t like that very bloaty feeling after. At home, I like to keep things lighter. It’s time to update the recipe, to keep in stride with my updated life. I make it healthier and it is just as smile-inducing.
Preserve the beautiful color of the broccoli by cooking it quickly as a bunch, plunging it into ice water (brrrr!), then giving it a rough chop after you drain it. Much less fussy.
I use low fat milk and add two eggs to enrich the sauce.
In addition, to salt and pepper, a little freshly grated nutmeg rounds out the flavor. Nutmeg stays fresh for a crazy long period of time in the fridge.
But wait… there’s more!
Now, the really cool thing about this mac and cheese recipe is that it’s part of an ebook, Mo’ Macaroni and Cheese, recently compiled by fellow Food Bloggers LA (FBLA) member Allison Ashton. She did an excellent job gathering 30 mac and cheese recipes from 30 FBLA members, including yours truly. The ebook is now available on several sites including here. All proceeds from this book will benefit the LA Regional Food Bank. Please do your bit… get inspired by all these mac and cheese recipes and help provide food to others.
Gluten-Free Macaroni and Cheese with Broccoli and Peas
Ingredients:2 c. broccoli (1 large stalk broccoli) ½ c. frozen peas ½ lb. (8 oz.) brown rice elbow macaroni 2 T. unsalted butter 1 ½ cups 2% reduced-fat milk ⅛ t. freshly grated nutmeg (just eyeball it!) salt and pepper, to taste 2 eggs, whisked 1 ½ c. shredded Gruyere or Manchego cheese ½ c. shredded cheddar or any variety low-fat shredded cheese 1 T. cornstarch 2 thinly sliced green onions, green part only (optional) 1 T. chopped Italian parsley Topping 2 T. flax seed meal 2 T. white sesame seeds 1 T. butter ¼ c. shredded cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the stalk of broccoli (to make approximately 2 cups when coarsely chopped). Cook in simmering water, covered, for 3 minutes. Reserve water (for pasta) and transfer broccoli to bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain broccoli and give it a rough chop to make 2 cups. Add ½ cup of frozen peas and set aside.
Return broccoli water to a rapid boil. Cook pasta in the same water (the better to pack in more nutrients!) until just barely tender. Rinse immediately and drain in colander.
While pasta is cooking, melt 2 tablespoons butter in saucepan. Slowly add milk. Add salt, pepper and a few grates of fresh nutmeg. Continue to cook over medium-low heat until milk begins to bubble.
Remove a few spoons of milk mixture to a small bowl and swirl around to cool. Add milk mixture in a slow stream to beaten egg, whisking to combine. This process, called tempering the egg, prevents scrambling them.
Remove milk mixture from heat and egg mixture to pot. Add cheese and stir to melt the cheeses.
In another small bowl, make a little slurry with the cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of water. Mix it well, add a bit into the cheese sauce and stir. The sauce will thicken immediately (you may not need all the slurry).
Combine drained pasta with cheese sauce. Place mixture into a greased 8” by 8” baking dish (2 quart). Add broccoli, peas, green onions (if using) and Italian parsley.
Sprinkle seed mixture over the top, dot with one tablespoon of butter and then sprinkle on ¼ cup of shredded cheese to finish.
Bake at 375° F for 20 – 30 minutes, or until top is set and bubbly around the edges.
To make this dish non-gluten-free, use any type of short pasta, and make a traditional roux with 2 tablespoons melted butter over low heat, swirling in 2 tablespoons flour until thoroughly combined. Then proceed with recipe, adding the milk and cooking until thickened. For the topping, part of the seeds can be replaced by bread crumbs or Panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs).
I find that corn or quinoa pasta don’t hold their texture as well in baked dishes as rice pasta.
Other veggies to use instead of broccoli and peas are spinach, kale, Swiss chard, mushrooms or butternut squash.
Makes about 6 servings