This mac-and-cheese recipe is a tad healthier than usual but also extremely yummy. The pasta and cheese are augmented with baby spinach, grated zucchini, and shallots, adding some tasty veggies to the mix. This definitely makes it more of a one-dish meal so you don't have to cook a separate vegtable to make it a complete meal. The cheeses are also different than what I usually use (Gruyere and Parmesan rather than cheddar), which makes everything taste just a little more gourmet. The recipe is definitely a bit more time consuming than my usual recipe for mac and cheese (dump everything in a pot and stir!) but it's well worth the extra effort because this is a very tasty pasta dish.
My only complaint was that the sauce broke a bit in the oven and clumped together a little. It was still very tasty (even as lunch a couple of days later!) but not quite as pretty and smooth as it could have been. To fix this next time, I would definitely use the recommended whole milk instead of 2% (which is what I happened to have on hand), and I might include a better melting cheese like Fontina as well to help everything hold together.
Spring Shells and Cheese with Spinach and Zucchini (adapted from Food Network Magazine)
1/2 pound zucchini
2 T unsalted butter
1 T all-purpose flour
A few grates of nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 cups whole milk
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 pound medium pasta shells
1 shallot, minced
1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 ounce parmesan cheese, grated
1 ounce gruyere cheese, grated
1 ounce baby spinach
1 T panko
1. Grate the zucchini into a colander using the large holes of a box grater. Toss with 1 tsp salt, then place in the sink to drain, about 15 minutes. Squeeze out the excess liquid.
2. Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, nutmeg, cayenne, 1/2 tsp salt, and black pepper to taste and mix with a wooden spoon to make a paste. Cook, stirring, until the paste puffs slightly, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk, then add the thyme and bay leaf and bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce the heat and simmer until thickened slightly, about 20 minutes. Strain into a bowl; discard the herbs.
3. Meanwhile, position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and add to the sauce.
4. Melt the remaining 1 T butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring, until almost tender, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini mixture to the pasta along with the egg yolks and all but a tablespoon or so of the cheese; stir to combine, then add the spinach and stir until slightly wilted.
5. Transfer the mixture to a smallish baking dish and sprinkle with the reserved cheeses and panko. Bake until browned on top and heated through, 20-25 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.