I may have to start a Mac & Cheese of the Month club, considering how many formulas I have lined up on my must-make list. We can call this the official Mac & Cheese of March. March to it.
For the past few weeks, Alice has filled any spare time I might otherwise have had – the manuscript was due at the end of February, and I’m now plodding through approximately half a bajillion photos to edit by mid-March. Since meals around here are often whatever I happen to be working on at the time, there have been plenty of tea party leftovers for dinner.
Yesterday the boys I live with requested something other than a jam tart – specifically mac & cheese, from a box. I almost relented, but then decided to give this recipe a try – I made the whole thing in a skillet, which allows you to cook up any number of ingredients, from bacon, ham or sausage to veggies (think mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, and greens like kale, spinach and chard), then add an easy cheese sauce and the cooked pasta -which boils as you sauté your miscellaneous ingredients – and slide it into the oven to get all crispy on top. It’s a great way to use up bits of meat and cheese and wrinkly veggies. If you went the ground beef route, it would essentially be DIY Hamburger Helper.
The cheat is a carton of creamy stock. I go through a lot of stock around here – and while I am in the habit of simmering whatever carcass finds its way into my kitchen, the stock I use isn’t always homemade. This stuff is thick and creamy, like a seasoned white sauce you pour straight from its carton into the pan – all you need to do is add a couple of handfuls of grated cheese. It’s like the new-school version of a tin of soup, which people tend to make fun of when called for in old cookbooks, but in reality that’s the way many of us cook. You could get a similar result by simmering butter, flour and milk, but this is a more direct route when you want to take a shortcut.
The breadcrumb topping takes about a minute – I tear a piece or two of sandwich bread (it makes great use of the heels of bread that otherwise get tossed) into the food processor and pulse it a few times with a drizzle of olive oil and a handful of grated Parmesan. Baking the lot in a cast iron skillet – the same one you sautéed your meat and veggies in – not only saves dishes, but maximizes the crispy surface area. Which in the case of a baked mac & cheese is a very good thing.
And that’s all, folks. I love the sound of the original recipe – with lots of sautéed mushrooms and a pinch of smoked paprika, but sadly all the 10 and unders around here balk at the sight of a mushroom, and I’m guessing not everyone has a tin of smoked paprika in their spice drawer. The great thing about this method, which I may have mentioned, is that it’s so adaptable – whatever you like, or have that needs using, can get tossed in and cooked up (or reheated) before you add the sauce. In fact, it could be a cheesy tuna casserole with tuna and peas! Or an Italian-esque casserole with leftover roasted chicken, chopped kale and sun dried tomatoes! Or W’s dream casserole with extra cheese and loads of chopped ham! The casserole is poised to make its comeback.
Skillet Mac n’ Cheese with Spinach & Bacon
Adapted from CookwithCampbells.ca
1/2 500 g pkg. rigatoni or other chunky pasta
4 slices bacon, chopped, or 1 large Italian sausage
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-2 cups sliced mushrooms (optional)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 carton Campbell’s Stock First Cream Stock
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1-2 handfuls torn fresh spinach, chard or kale
2 cups grated aged cheddar or Gouda
1-2 slices sandwich bread, torn into chunks, or 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. olive oil or melted butter (optional)
Cook the rigatoni in a large pot of boiling salted water according to the package directions; set aside.
In a large, ovenproof skillet or medium saucepan, sauté the bacon or sausage (squeezed out of its casing) over medium-high heat until cooked through; add the onion, mushrooms and garlic and cook for 5 minutes, or until soft.
Reduce the heat to medium low, add the cream stock and thyme and bring to a simmer, then add the cheese and stir until smoothly blended into sauce. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until the greens wilt.
Add the cooked pasta noodles and stir to coat. If you’re using a pot, transfer to an ovenproof baking dish, otherwise leave it in the skillet. Toss the breadcrumbs with the Parmesan and oil, or pulse torn bread and Parmesan with the oil in a food processor until well blended. Sprinkle over the pasta and broil for 2 minutes, until golden. Serves 6.
This post was generously sponsored by Campbell’s, but the opinions and images are my own. For more quick and easy meals kids will love, visit CookwithCampbells.ca.