Very Veggie "Mac"-n-Cheese Spaghetti

First of all, some housekeeping: before I say anything, I have to apologize for disappearing for so long. L was in for the weekend and what kind of Valentine would I be if I left him to his own devices while I wrote to you guys for an hour? Not the worst, for sure, but I decided against it, anyway. He thanks you for your understanding. Second, I got an unexpected Valentine's Weekend Surprise of being awarded my very first blog award! The Food Hound, a witty and engaging food blogger who took notice of Floptimism when I was seriously doubting that anyone actually read my ramblings, picked me (and 15 other people, shh!) for her Stylish Blog Award! technically I'm supposed to pass this one and do a whole bunch of stuff, but I think I'll pass because (a) it's been a long day and a longer weekend, and I'm a bit beat (b) I don't actually interact with many food bloggers; I really just admire from afar, and I tend to gush about those blogs every time I tell you about one of their recipes (c) yes, I'm one of those stinkers who reads chain emails and then just hits delete, no matter how many wishes they prove to grant if you pass it on. But I nonetheless appreciate it, and as I told her via a lengthy comment to her post: Food Hound, if I weren't such a party pooper, you would be at the top of my Stylish Food Blog Award list.

Now, onto the food! You have to say the name of this dish with a bounce in your voice. Go on, try it - I like to think it's fairly reminiscent of Dr. Suess himself, not that I'm tooting my own horn at all. This recipe is technically not of my own doing, but I did spiffy it up a little bit with tons of veggies and even some chicken to make you feel less guilty for making a meal out of globs of cheese and carbs, even if you do use the complex, whole wheat variety as I did. This pasta dish is really good - I know this because in my notes I wrote that phrase in all capitals. It's cheesy and creamy, with a fresh crunch from essentially flash-cooked veggies. It's filling and satisfying, and, yes, it meets all of my standard requirements for a keeper meal that I repeat virtually every recipe: it's versatile enough that I can throw in whatever I have on hand, it's a fast meal so I can walk in at 6:00 and be eating by 6:30, and it just tastes good. The only thing it really doesn't have going for it is the amount of dishes it dirties, but I wouldn't let that stop you.

The original recipe is called "No Bake Mac-n-Cheese" and the headline of the article containing it is titled, "All-natural, healthy creamy mac & cheese in 25 minutes." For a while I teeter-tottered back and forth between agreeing with this "health claim" and not - it's certainly a trimmed down version of the Classic American Comfort Food, and the changes I made to it definitely up the nutrition factor, but...I dunno, it's still mac-n-cheese. In the end, though, once you see this recipe I think you'll agree that there's not too much to criticize about this recipe (unless, of course, you want the uber-heavy, loaded-down-with-cheese traditional form of mac).

Very Veggie "Mac"-n-Cheese Spaghetti, based on Food on Shine (Yahoo)
Yield: 4 servings
(printer friendly version)

The Ingredients
8 ounces whole-wheat pasta (I used spaghetti, but you certainly don't have to), about 2 cups
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped broccoli
1 small-medium green bell pepper
couple handfuls halved cherry tomatoes, maybe 1/3 - 1/2 cup
12 ounces cooked chicken
1/4 cup (heaping) chopped onion
1 3/4 cups low-fat milk, divided
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (omitted)
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper (I used regular black)
3/4 cup shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
nutmeg, to taste
olive oil, for sauteeing

The Method
Prepare the pasta by bringing a large pot of water to boil and adding in the pasta. After 5 minutes, pour in the broccoli* and cook for an additional 4-5 minutes until the broccoli is just tender.

Meanwhile, bring 1 1/2 cups milk to a gentle simmer over medium-high heat in another large sauce pan. Combine the rest of the milk, flour, garlic powder, nutmeg, salt (if using), and pepper in a small bowl and then whisk into the milk. Allow the milk mixture to return to a simmer, whisking constantly until the mixture has thickened, approximately 2 or 3 minutes longer. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in both cheeses and mustard. Add the rest of the vegetables and chicken to the milk and cheese mixture and, once the pasta is ready, return the cheese mixture to low heat.

Drain the pasta and broccoli and add to the milk and cheese pan, allowing the entire mixture to become heated through, another 2 minutes or so.**

*I normally do not boil vegetables. No, scratch that - I never boil vegetables. However, a nutrition professor once told me that when you boil vegetables either at the same time as or just before cooking pasta in the same water allows the pasta to absorb all (or, okay, lots) of the lost nutrients as it swells and cooks. I never double checked that factoid, but went for it in this recipe, anyway.
**If you'd like the veggies more cooked than this, you can simmer them in the milk once the flour has been added or just add another pan to the stove and saute them briefly.

Update: This post was featured @ This is what I eat..., by Angela, along with many other delicious looking recipes. Check it out!

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