Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese for Marathon Man

I admit it: I normally don't get my recipe inspiration from a Runner's World magazine. Actually, I never do. Ever. But when the March issue arrived last week, it piqued my interest for two reasons: Q is running the marathon in New Orleans on Sunday so all things running-related are definitely part of our household dialogue right now and the mac-and-cheese recipe featured was written by one of my favourite cookbook authors (and also a runner himself), Mark Bittman. I took both of these as signs that I should be making it to get Q ready for his big day and to sample another of Bittman's typically excellent recipes.

Coincidentally, our latest fave mac-and-cheese was another one by Bittman that we discovered last fall as part of this challenge, from his book How to Cook Everything.... albeit it a richer, more decadent, totally-over-the-top, non-runners' version featuring mascarpone cheese and creamy richness. It seemed only fair to give him equal time to check out his healthier version, with fewer calories and reduced fat. Instead of using butter and cream, this version relies on pureed cauliflower, chicken stock and less cheese for the sauce.

Since I had decided not to tell my kids about the cauliflower base of this dish until they'd eaten it and decided on its merits without bias, I was thrilled to find beautiful vibrant orange cauliflower in my local supermarket, making it even easier to hide the veggies and seem all-the-more cheesy, if only in colour.

This recipe took longer to prepare than I was expecting... I guess they think you'll jog on the spot or hit the treadmill or run around the block for the 25 minutes that the cauliflower was boiling, but instead I made a batch of Nutella cookies. Can you tell I'm so not a runner anymore? Anyway, soon I had three pots bubbling on the stove, a food processor at the ready, the Kitchenaid whirling away (okay, that was for the baked goods), the oven pre-heated and the dishwasher filling quickly. Phew. But it really was worth the effort.

The result is a surprisingly creamy-tasting but light and tasty mac-and-cheese, and the kids didn't detect even a whiff of veggies in the dish. Ha! No loss in terms of skipping the butter, milk or cream either... just light and satisfying. We felt virtuous eating it since it only contains 420 calories and 15 grams of fat per serving. Luckily Bittman's mascarpone version didn't provide any nutritional information because it would have been ugly. That I know for sure.

So my conscience is clear for Sunday's event... if it all comes down to rest and nutrition in the last few days before the race, this one surely will stand him in good stead. Since he's hoping to qualify for Boston, fingers crossed that the carb-loading will work wonders and I can take all the credit for my behind-the-scenes support and critical nutrition. Even if he did eat a Nutella cookie too. But I won't rat him out.

Non-food-related aside: You just need a pair of running shoes to run a marathon, right? Not quite.... check out the packing below.... Probably needs a little sherpa running alongside with all his supplies.

Creamy Cauliflower Macaroni and Cheese

2 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 cauliflower, cored and cut into large pieces
8 oz whole-wheat elbow macaroni
1/2 cup grated cheese (such as sharp cheddar, Gruyere or Emmental, or a combination)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/8 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup whole-grain bread crumbs

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Boil a pot of salted water. In another saucepan, warm stock and bay leaves on medium-low heat for five minutes; turn off heat. Cook cauliflower in boiling water for 25 minutes. (This was time-consuming and unnecessary since you'll be pureeing it in the food processor anyway, so no need to boil the bejeepers out of it. Just boil for 10 to 12 minutes or until tender.)

Put cauliflower in a food processor. Cook pasta in boiling water for five minutes. Drain and rinse to cool; put pasta in a greased, nine-inch square baking dish (I used individual ramekins but be careful not to overfill since sauce boils over).

Process cauliflower with stock (discard bay leaves), cheese, oil, mustard, nutmeg, salt, and pepper, working in batches. Pour sauce over pasta, toss, and spread evenly in dish. Top with parmesan and bread crumbs (I used Panko instead and added some cheddar cheese on top for colour). Bake 20 minutes. Serves four.

But if you want to throw caution to the wind and try the decadent version, here it is.

Bittman's Rich Baked Macaroni and Cheese

3/4 cup milk
1 pound elbow, shell, ziti or other cut pasta
1 tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese
1 cup sauteed mushrooms
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage or 1 1/2 tsp dried sage
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, preferably fresh

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cook the pasta as directed.

Mix together the milk, mascarpone and parmesan in a large bowl. Add the cooked pasta and the sage, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and combine.

Pour the sauce over the pasta and toss. Use the butter to grease a 9 by 13 inch baking pan and turn the pasta mixture into it. (You can make the dish to this point, cover, and refrigerate for up to a day; return to room temperature before proceeding.) Top liberally with bread crumbs and bake until bubbling and the crumbs turn brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve piping hot.

Rest of the week

Feb 7 Homemade pizza with leftovers

Feb 8 Creamy Cauliflower Mac and Cheese, Nutella cookies

Feb 9 Short-order egg cook... omelettes, scrambled, etc. for discriminating/picky eaters

Feb 10 Turkey/cheese paninis with salad

Final request....

Please send positive thoughts on Sunday morning for a 3.23 qualifying time for Q in New Orleans... We may not be cheering him on in person from the sidelines with our traditional "Run, fat boy, run!" (no, he's not fat and we're not mean... we just all loved the movie) but he knows we'll be there in spirit. Hopefully his trusty old running shoes can take him to the finish line so we won't have to hear regrets for the next six months that he missed it by "4.05 seconds per kilometre." (He's a numbers guy.)


  1. I made a mac & cheese with pumpkin puree and my guy was none the wiser. It's a great way to make a slightly less guilty mac & cheese. Good for us since it's one of our fave comfort foods.

  2. Thank you so much for this recipe. Mac and cheese is my boys' favorite food and they will not TOUCH a vegetable. Now I won't feel so bad about them eating so much of it. :)

  3. go Q!!!!
    my kid loves cauliflower and doesn't care for mac and cheese, go figure lol

  4. I love how you've countered the healthy version with a decadent one. I'm very bad at making healthy versions of anything. It always starts with a knob of butter here, maybe a little cheese, some creme! Ugh!

  5. Both versions sound amazing!! Love the idea of adding in the vegetables!

  6. GOOD LUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!! Woo - hoooo! Awesome recipe! And I'm loving that golden cauliflower!

  7. What a great idea to include stock and cauliflower!

  8. I love cauliflower so I think your version sounds perfect!


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