Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese with five different cheeses, fresh peas and asparagus plus a delicious helping of fresh basil. Topped with crunchy panko and extra Parmesan, the perfect side or meatless main dish.
Really, how many different mac and cheese recipes can there be? I did a Google search and it looks like I’ve got a long way to go. But no matter because I think this is the one you should try next. A blend of five different but well thought out cheeses to accomplish the combination of creaminess as well as bold and nutty flavors mixed with fresh green vegetables. I used peas and asparagus because they’re perfect for the current season (or anytime because frozen works as well as fresh in the recipe). A generous helping of peppery fresh basil brings all the flavors together for perfect Italian goodness. A topping of panko and Parmesan add the perfect crunch to the smoothness of the other ingredients.
What’s the best pasta to use in macaroni and cheese?
I prefer to use large elbow noodles in most of my mac and cheese dishes but really anything that holds onto the cheese is a good option. Farfalle or bowtie is great for a more formal look, while ziti, penne, and rigatoni kind of fit with the elbow macaroni- of being bigger and able to hold onto a lot of sauce especially if you choose pasta with some good ridges. Less common but fun shapes include radiatori, ruote, and ruotine. After the pasta is cooked and set aside, a roux for the sauce is made with the flour and butter being toasted to eliminate the flour taste, then thinned with milk. Cheese gets melted into the roux- Fontina, Swiss, sharp cheddar, and some Parmesan. This combination creates a perfect variety of creamy texture with sharp, nutty, and vibrant flavors so the cheese can really shine.
After the cheese sauce is smooth and thickened, mix the cooked pasta, cheese sauce, vegetables, and basil in a bowl to combine well. Then, for even more cheese, add mozzarella pearls to the mixture. Pour everything into a baking dish and add a few more pearls to the top and sprinkle with panko bread crumbs that are mixed with melted butter and even more Parmesan cheese. The Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese bakes together for about 20 minutes and then rests for 10 minutes to let the cheese set up again. You can serve the dish at this point but here’s the tip to make this mac and cheese over-the-top incredible. If you make this an hour or so ahead of time, after the initial bake reduce your oven to 200F degrees, cover the dish with aluminum foil and return to the oven for an additional 30 minutes. OR if you have even more time to spare- after the initial 20 minute bake, reduce the oven to 185F degree and place the dish back in for an hour or so will create a dish that’s mind-blowing with flavor.
The inspiration for my Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese came from a fabulous cookbook, Fresh Italian Cooking For the New Generation by Alexandrea Lenz. I fell in love with Alex’s book (hope she doesn’t mind me calling her that) because it features a new vibe of fresh vegetarian and vegan Italian recipes. Most of her recipes a geared towards “staying slim while eating pasta and bread”. To her recipe, I added two kinds of cheese and replaced zucchini for asparagus. Of course you can use any combination of green vegetables from broccoli, zucchini, kale, butternut squash, and even Brussels sprouts. Depending on the veggies you use, you may need to par-boil them before baking.
The printable recipe has all the directions for making the Vegetable Mac and Cheese as I described and I give make-ahead directions as well. I hope you like this as much as my family did because we found it irresistible. It ended up as our main dish with no leftovers… for three of us. 😉
Vegetable Macaroni and Cheese
For the Macaroni and cheese:
- 2 cups large elbow macaroni
- 4 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2 ½ cups milk, whole fat or low fat, slightly warmed
- ½ cup fontina cheese, shredded (about 4 oz.)
- ½ cup Swiss cheese, shredded
- ½ cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
- 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese, freshly shredded
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup frozen peas, or fresh
- ½ cup asparagus tips, cut into 1" pieces, more if desired
- ½ cup fresh basil, finely chopped, plus more for serving
- ¾ cup mozzarella balls, called pearls or ciliegine, cut in half, divided
- Preheat the oven to 375F degrees. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add 2 cups noodles and cook until just al dente (about 6 minutes), according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat 4 Tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add 4 Tablespoons flour and cook to make a golden brown paste, stirring often. Gently whisk in 2 ½ cups milk and cook, stirring until the milk thickens, about 5 minutes. Stir in ½ cup fontina, ½ cup Swiss cheese, ½ cup cheddar and 2 Tablespoons Parmesan, until melted. Add ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, about ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- In a large bowl, toss together the cooked noodles, cheese sauce, ½ cup peas and ½ cup asparagus. Stir until the noodles and vegetables are coated. Stir in ½ cup basil and ½ cup mozzarella balls. Place in a 9x9-inch baking dish. Then sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup mozzarella balls over the top.
Make the Topping:
- Mix together ¼ cup breadcrumbs, ½ cup Parmesan cheese, and another ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper. Bake for 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove from oven and let set for 5 minutes for the sauce to thicken back up before serving.
- After the 20 minutes of baking- Even though the mac and cheese is ready to go after 20 minutes in the oven, here's a tip for increasing the flavor and gooey richness even more. If you have time, after the 20 minutes in the 375F degree oven, turn the temperature down to 200F degrees, cover the baking dish tightly with foil and let the dish stay in the oven for at least an extra 30 minutes, and if you have A LOT of time, turn the oven to 185F degrees, cover the dish and let it sit in the oven for another hour. This makes all the flavors just continue to seep into the noodles and become even more delicious.
- You can also make the mac and cheese and don't top it with the panko Parmesan mixture yet, but cover the dish with foil and refrigerate overnight. Then add the topping just before baking and bake for 25 minutes in 375F degree oven.
- Large elbow macaroni noodles are pretty and hold lots of cheese in them but if you can only find regular macaroni noodles, they work fine, as do small shells macaroni.
- For the cheeses, fontina and the mozzarella balls are very important. If you don't have or don't want to use Swiss and cheddar, feel free to use what you like or have onhand. The sharper the cheese, however, the better the flavor.
- You can use other vegetables in this dish. Feel free to add or substitute any of the following: zucchini, broccoli, fresh red bell peppers.
- If you can't find the small fresh mozzarella balls, just buy regular fresh mozzarella and cut into 1/2-inch cubes.