The popularity and variety of mac and cheese dishes got me thinking. I’ve seen lobster in it, smoked Gouda, ham, chicken, game, you name it. But how would vegetables work in it? Could I make mac and cheese a celebration of our fall harvest? The variety and abundance of vegetables in our farmers markets and supermarkets right now makes me want to cook everything. I had to let my idea come to life.
When I’m shopping, I tend to let the vegetables guide me. For this mac and cheese, leeks, zucchini, sweet peppers and corn led the way. I also wanted mushroom heartiness for their punch of umami, so I opted for creminis. But chanterelles will do very nicely if you happen upon them.
For cheese, I chose Havarti and cheddar for their nuttiness and the fact that they melt so smoothly into the sauce. A Parmesan topping adds a delicious spark of sharpness. I avoided any really strongly flavored cheeses such as anything smoked or goat or feta because I wanted the brightness of the vegetables to shine through.
The pasta you choose is up to you. The mac in mac and cheese refers to macaroni. And macaroni can mean what you want it to. I chose penne because I prefer it to elbow macaroni, the traditional pasta for mac and cheese. Be sure to cook it al dente — it should offer just a bit of resistance when you bite into it. Baking the dish will soften the pasta a bit more.
Happy shopping and cooking!
Harrvest Mac and Cheese
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Cremini mushrooms are brown-capped baby portobellos. If unavailable, you can substitute white mushrooms. Or if chanterelles are available, please use them. Also feel free to make this dish with your own favorite cheeses and harvest vegetables.
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, stems removed, caps diced
1 small zucchini, cut into1/2-inch dice (1generous cup)
1 small sweet red pepper, diced (1/2 to 1 cup)
1 ear of corn, kernels cut from the cob
1 large leek, trimmed and washed well to remove grit
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons butter, divided
Salt and pepper
12 ounces penne or elbow macaroni
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1 tablespoon olive oil
6 cups whole milk, heated to boiling
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
6 ounces Havarti, shredded
6 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
1 cup (3 ounces) shredded Parmesan
1. Prepare the mushrooms, zucchini, sweet pepper, and corn. Cut off about a 6-inch length of leek. Divide in half lengthwise and cut each half lengthwise. Slice thinly crosswise. You’ll have about 1 1/2 cups.
2. In a 12-inch skillet, heat 1tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. When hot and bubbly, add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring and tossing constantly with a wooden spoon until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. At first, the mushrooms will absorb all the fat. After about 2 minutes they’ll start to look a bit shiny, and a couple of minutes later, they’ll glisten and give off a squeaky sound as you move them about in the skillet. At that point they’re cooked. Transfer them to a side dish and season them with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon black pepper.
3. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and butter to the skillet and set the pan over medium heat. When the butter is bubbly, stir in the leeks. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 3 minutes. Add the sweet pepper and corn and cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the zucchini, give the vegetables a big stir, and cover the skillet. Turn the heat down to medium low and cook 5 minutes. Uncover the pan, stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and mix in the mushrooms. Transfer the vegetables to a medium bowl.
4. For the pasta, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Stir in the penne and cook until just tender, following package directions. Be sure to stir the pasta often to keep pieces separate. When done, drain well in a colander, and transfer to a very large bowl, 6 to 8 quarts. Stir in the 1 tablespoon olive oil, mix well, and set aside.
5. To make the cheese sauce, have the hot milk in a 2-quart saucepan on low heat. Milk must be very hot. Melt the butter in a 4- to 5-quart saucepan over medium heat. When bubbling, stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. Continue cooking and stirring constantly for 2 minutes to cook the flour. Take the pan off the heat and immediately pour in the scalding hot milk all at once. Whisk well until smooth, and set the pan over medium heat. Add the salt and hot pepper sauce and whisk well. Cook, stirring with the whisk constantly, as the milk boils and thickens into a cream sauce, 5 to 10 minutes. The sauce will have the consistency of heavy cream. Reach into the corners of the pan as you stir with the whisk to make sure sauce stays very smooth.
6. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the Havarti and cheddar cheese until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is very smooth.
7. Adjust an oven rack to the lower third level and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
8. To assemble the dish, check to see that the penne pieces aren’t stuck together and separate them if they are. Add the vegetables and the hot cheese sauce, and combine everything together well. Transfer to a 3-quart baking dish, spread level, and sprinkle the Parmesan evenly on top. Place the pan in the oven and bake about 40 minutes, or until the mac and cheese is bubbly and the top is lightly browned. Cool 10 minutes. Spoon into warmed pasta bowls and serve.