Healthy Bacon Mac ‘n Cheese

A good friend (and regular reader) recently challenged me to make a healthy version of mac ‘n cheese. Since this good friend was also my college roommate, I know how much she loves this delectable comfort food. I admit, it’s one of my guilty pleasures, too. I love the rich, gooey, creaminess of mac ‘n cheese. One of my favorite tricks is throwing in some smokey, crispy bacon (yum!). However, since neither of us have the metabolism of an 18-year-old anymore, we can’t eat mac ‘n cheese nearly as often as we’d like and still fit into our jeans. So, challenge accepted.

Keep in mind, I don’t think there’s anything that can truly replace the fake, bright orange Kraft mac ‘n cheese with whole milk and real butter. But this dish gets pretty darn close. I swapped out the milk, butter, and cheese with low fat cheese and Greek yogurt. I love the Greek yogurt because it adds in that creaminess that you might be missing, plus it’s loaded with protein for added health benefits. I also added in some onion and garlic to add taste and fill you up on virtually-no-calorie veggies. I also used turkey bacon instead of real bacon, and I used whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta. While it’s not the healthiest dish in the world, it’s certainly a great substitute for the much-less-waistline-friendly version. Plus, it only took about 20 minutes to make and it makes great leftovers!

Make this dish the next time you have a comfort food craving.

What you’ll need:
1 box (about 13.5 ounces) whole wheat elbow pasta
1 medium yellow onion
9 tbsp minced garlic (yes that much)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp dry mustard
1 cup low fat sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup low fat plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
4 strips turkey bacon (but feel free to add more!)

What you’ll need to do:

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Spray a 9×13 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions. Drain when it’s done, and then add it back to the pot.

Whole wheat pasta keeps you satisfied longer.

While the pasta cooks, chop your onion as finely as you can. Set a medium-sized pot over medium heat and coat with the olive oil. Add your chopped onion, minced garlic, and dry mustard. Stir often and cook until the onion is transparent (this should take just a couple minutes).

Chop those veggies very finely so they mix in with the cheese sauce. Honestly, you barely notice they’re in there. The onions and garlic are slightly sweet and add tons of flavor.

After the onion-garlic mixture is done, add the cheddar cheese and stir until melted. Turn off the heat, then add the Greek yogurt and stir.

Creamy, gooey, and delicious. It’s not that same fake bright orange, but it’s very tasty!

Add the cheese sauce to the cooked macaroni noodles and stir until combined. Add to the 9×13 inch baking dish, and then sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the Parmesan is melted and the macaroni is hot throughout.

You could certainly eat this as-is, but let’s top this with a little turkey bacon…

While your mac ‘n cheese bakes, put a pan over medium-high heat on the stove to cook your turkey bacon. Spray the pan with cooking spray, and cook the turkey bacon for 5 minutes on each side. Your turkey bacon should be done at about the same time as the baked mac ‘n cheese. The reason I cook the turkey bacon separately and add it to the dish at the end is so that it stays crispy.

Lastly, tear the turkey bacon into small pieces and sprinkle over the mac ‘n cheese.

The bacon adds some smokey, crispy, saltiness that puts this dish over the edge. You’ll hardly notice it’s healthy!

Scoop into a bowl and enjoy!

Two-Step Homemade Sausage Pasta Sauce

One of the best things you can do as a cook is make friends with your butcher. Not only can they give you tips on how to cook the meat, but they can also point out specials on good cuts of meat. And honestly, they’re generally ignored and love to strike up a conversation. My butcher makes this delicious sweet Italian sausage without the casing, which is perfect for sauce. It’s especially easy because I don’t have to cut the sausage meat out of the casings (which you can certainly still do). It’s the “cheater” way to make a good sauce that tastes like you’ve labored for hours (it’s way better than anything from a jar alone), and it only takes as long to make as your pasta.

Delicious dinner in less than 15 minutes!

What you’ll need:
1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage
1/2 jar pasta sauce (tomato basil, tomato garlic, or whatever is in your cupboard)
1 tbsp olive oil

What you’ll need to do:

Set your saucepan over medium-high heat with a drizzle of olive oil. If you get your sausage meat in the casings, cut the meat out of the casing so you only have the ground sausage. Put your ground sausage in the pan, then break apart with a wooden spoon.

Keep breaking that meat apart as it cooks. If you think about any good meat sauce, you just get little pearls of sausage instead of big chunks.

While the sausage meat browns, continue breaking apart into small pieces – you want it to be evenly distributed in the sauce. After the sausage meat is cooked all the way through, add your pasta sauce and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for a few minutes (or until your pasta is done cooking).

Let it simmer so the flavors have time to marry.


Super Simple Pasta Salad

For the same reason I love making a big pot of soup on Sunday, I love making a giant bowl of super simple pasta salad. You can load it with whatever veggies you need to use up, add a little chicken, and throw it in pre-packaged lunch containers in the fridge for grab-and-goes all week. It’s delicious! And if you do it right, it can be pretty healthy, too.

I’m notoriously not a morning person and will sleep until the last possible second, so having lunch already made for the week let’s me get my precious Z’s and saves me from buying lunch.

The idea behind my pasta salad, if I haven’t emphasized it enough, is its simplicity. You just take a box of short pasta (like penne, rigatoni, or rotini), take whatever veggies you like (or need to be used), add a little chicken for protein (tofu would work, too), and toss in a light balsamic vinaigrette (or any olive oil based dressing). I like tomatoes and olives in every pasta salad, and both are really easy to grab at the market. Cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, celery, spinach, bell peppers, jicama, beans, or cheese would be good, too. You have a lot of wiggle room on this, so go nuts! Here’s what I did this week…

What you’ll need:
1 16 ounce box rotini pasta
1 pint grape tomatoes (about 2 cups, or whatever you have on hand)
1 can olives
2 cups arugula
1 1/2 cups light balsamic vinaigrette
2 chicken breasts

What you’ll need to do:

Get that pasta cooking according to the instructions on the box – after you add your short pasta to boiling water, it’ll take about 10 minutes to cook. Use the taste test to check if it’s done (my preferred method, of course).

Slice your chicken in small bite-sized chunks so they’ll be ready to pop right in the salad. Throw your bite-sized chicken chunks in a large pan over medium-high heat (don’t forget to spray with cooking spray!). Turn with a spatula to make sure all sides are cooked. After it’s done, just turn off the heat and let it sit until everything else is ready.

My chicken takes about as long as the pasta, so I figure I can pack in a little protein while I’m already in the kitchen.

While your pasta and chicken cook, slice your grape tomatoes in half and add them to a giant salad bowl as you go. Then drain your olives, and dump them in the bowl with the tomatoes. Add your arugula. Super simple, no?

I try to make my tomatoes about the same size as my olives so that I can get as much goodness on my fork as possible.

Once your pasta is done, drain and add back to the pot. Toss your pasta with about half of your salad dressing so it has a chance to seep into the hot pasta and so the pasta doesn’t stick (I really don’t measure this, I just add most of the bottle of salad dressing by the time all is said and done, tasting to make sure it’s good as I go). Let it briefly cool.

Lastly, add your pasta and chicken to the large salad bowl with the tomatoes, olives, and arugula. Toss with the remainder of the salad dressing and portion out into lunch-sized containers for the rest of the week. Or, save it as a special side for another dinner that week.


Angel Hair Pasta with Lemon, Garlic, and Parmesan

While a more traditional red sauce is always good with pasta, a lemony-butter sauce is my no-contest favorite. This pasta is refreshing and light, while still tasting totally decadent. It’s made with all kitchen staples and only takes about 15 minutes to make, so it’s super easy to whip up any night of the week.

It's tart, creamy, garlicky, and extremely delicious. After this easy treat, you'll never want to order in pizza again.

What you’ll need (makes 2 servings):

4 cups angel hair pasta
3 tbsp margarine
2 tbsp garlic
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp lemon pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
10 frozen precooked shrimp (optional)

What you’ll need to do:

First, get water boiling in your very large pot.

While you wait, start defrosting your frozen shrimp. It’s super easy. Just put the shrimp in a bowl and run cold water over it, changing out the water every couple minutes. You can do this while everything else is cooking on the stove. Before you know it, the shrimp will be done. I think shrimp makes this dish feel extra special, but you can just as easily use chicken if shrimp isn’t handy.

Side note on shrimp: Although I didn’t include frozen shrimp in my kitchen staples, you’ll often find a bag of precooked shrimp in my freezer to jazz up pasta, a salad, or an omelette.

After the water is boiling, dump in your angel hair pasta. It only takes a few minutes to cook because it’s such a thin pasta, so keep a close eye on it. Once it’s done cooking, drain in a strainer and then return to the pot.

Pasta tip: Toss the pasta with a couple tablespoons of olive oil to prevent the pasta from sticking.

While you’re keeping a close eye on your pasta cooking, it’s easy enough to make this simple sauce on the next burner over. What you’ll need to do is put a medium pan over medium-high heat. Add the margarine to your pan, and once it starts to melt add the garlic. Let the garlic saute in the pan for a couple minutes.

Be careful to not put your heat up too high or you'll burn the garlic.

After the garlic is a nice golden-brown, add the lemon juice, olive oil, and lemon pepper. Let the sauce simmer over medium-high heat for just a minute to let the flavors blend together.

Tip: I use my palm as a measuring spoon when I cook. When I cup my palm, half a palm-full is about 1 tsp. A full palm-full is about 1 tbsp. The best part about cooking (in my opinion) is that you don't have to be too exact, so have fun with it! And using your palm saves a dish, so it's a double-win.

By now, the shrimp should be defrosted and the pasta should be ready to go. All that’s left to do is combine all the ingredients together. Toss the pasta with the sauce simmering on the stove. Then, add the Parmesan to your pasta, saving a little to sprinkle on the top.

Scoop a giant mound of pasta on your plate, top with the shrimp, and then sprinkle the little bit of extra Parm on top. And buon appetite! A molto delizioso, 5-star Italian feast.

Loaded Pasta Sauce

Pasta sauce is one of the best ways to load up on extra veggies, use up what needs to be eaten in your fridge, and to fool other people into thinking you’re a gourmet chef … all in less than 20 minutes.

So delicious and packed full of nutritious veggies.

The basic premise is this: Take all the veggies you need to eat in your fridge (or whatever is on sale at the market) – onions, zucchini, carrots, celery, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, peas, whatever – and combine them with a jar of store-bought pasta sauce, some extra garlic and dried basil. What you’re left with is a delicious semi-homemade sauce full of healthy veggies, all done in one pot while your water is boiling and pasta is cooking (hooray less dishes!).

What you’ll need:

  • 1 jar of pasta sauce – I prefer tomato basil because it’s easier to add to, but any jar will do
  • Tofu – you can also use chicken, but you’ll have to cook it in a separate pan
  • Veggies – all the veggies and amounts can be changed or modified, but this is what I used in this dinner
    • 1 small-medium onion
    • 1 zucchini
    • 3 carrots
    • 1 red bell pepper
  • 2 tbsp garlic
  • 2 tbsp dried basil
  • Pasta – your choice! I went for tortellini, my favorite

    Tips for finding the right veggies: Look for a hard, waxy bell pepper; tight onions are the freshest; look for a zucchini and carrots with the least amount of blemishes, they'll be peeled anyway.

What you’ll need to do:

Start by filling one pot with water and get it boiling on the stove for your pasta. Then, spray another large pot with cooking spray and set it over high heat.

Slice your tofu into cubes – it takes the longest to cook so you want to get this in the pot first. After the whole block is sliced, put it in your pot.

Slice twice through the middle, then in a grid pattern on top to make cubes.

The onion goes into the pot next so it can caramelize and cook until it’s clear and sweet. After the onion is added to the tofu, dump on a couple spoonfuls of garlic and stir.

Keep in mind, the amounts are not exact. I say 2 tbsp in my recipe list, but you can add however much you like. I use the spoon I'm going to stir the sauce with and drop in two spoonfuls to save a dish.

By now, the water for the pasta is probably up to a boil. Make sure to get that pasta in the pot before you chop your veggies. Then, while the tofu, onions, garlic, and pasta are cooking, peel and chop all the veggies you’ll want in your sauce.

After all your veggies are chopped, dump them into the pot with the tofu, onion, and garlic and stir – the tofu should be slightly golden-brown and the onion should be clear. I like to cook the veggies without the sauce for just a minute before I add the tomato sauce.

Try to chop your veggies about the same size as the tofu - the more similar in size the more uniformly they'll cook. But don't worry about it being exact; the less perfect, the more rustic.

Meanwhile, it’s probably time to drain your pasta. Check to see if it’s cooked all the way through (taste test is the best), and drain in your strainer. Add the pasta back into the pot, and drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent it from sticking.

It’s time to add your jar of sauce and dried basil to your veggies. Cook for another couple of minutes to let the flavors marry, and then it’s go time.

Tip: Adding your veggies at the end leaves them a little crunchy, adding texture to your meal.

Buon appetito! You successfully sneaked in loads of vitamins and nutrients into a weekday meal, fooled your family with a deceivingly rustic homemade pasta sauce, and made enough leftovers to pack as a lunch or have another night for dinner – all in less than 20 minutes. It’s the perfect hearty, healthy meal for any cold night or comfort food craving.