This mac and cheese recipe was born last summer when there were some babies also being born. I was looking to put together a dish that would freeze or reheat well on the meal train circuit, but still pack all the nutrients that a new or expecting mom would need—goodies like folate, iron, calcium, and loads of protein. I subbed in lentil pasta to up the protein, and I also channeled one of my favorites from my childhood in Blacksburg, VA—KC's Mac and Cheese from Macado's. It was baked (and probably still is) in a single-serve, grandma-chic casserole dish. What was already a pretty decent dish of noodles was also studded with chunks of chicken and broccoli, putting it squarely within the southern classification of being called a vegetable. It was the kind of dish that was so comforting, that after having it you never needed to look at the menu again. This version feeds my nostalgia, and I'm proud that there are actually a few nice health perks baked in that in no way compromise how tasty it is. Sure, it's perfectly made to support all the new moms in your life, but it also has your back during the winter months of craving comfort food. Consider it the multi-tool of mac and cheese.
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt, plus more
1 bulb fennel, sliced
1 head broccoli, florets removed, stems trimmed
3 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp shallots, minced
¼ c flour (gluten-free blends or even almond flour work great)
2 ¾ cups milk or alt milk, warmed on the stove
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tsp lemon juice
1 c Gruyere
6 oz sharp white cheddar, grated
1/2 rotisserie chicken, shredded
Box of lentil pasta (chickpea will also work well)
½ tsp red pepper flakes
Preheat oven to 425°. Prepare two sheet pans by lining them with parchment paper or a silicon mat.
Toss the fennel with 1 Tbsp olive oil and a few pinches of salt. Place on one half of a baking sheet. Cut the broccoli stems into 1/2-inch pieces and toss with 1 Tbsp olive oil and a few pinches of salt. Place on the other half of the baking sheet and bake 20 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the broccoli florets with the remaining olive oil and a few pinches of salt. Place on the other baking sheet. After 20 minutes, toss the fennel and broccoli stems and return to the oven with the sheet of florets for 20 minutes more. Once done, set aside and reduce the oven temperature to 375°.
In a medium pot, bring well-salted pasta water to boil. Cook the pasta 2-3 minutes less than package instructions and set aside.
In a large stock pot or dutch over, heat butter over medium-low. Once liquefied, add shallots and sweat until translucent and very fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Add flour and whisk into butter and shallots. Cook the roux over low heat, stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes. Do not brown the flour.
Slowly add in milk (make sure that it's room temp, if not warmer), and whisk vigorously to prevent lumps. Add thyme and bay leaf. Cook over low heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring often, until thickened. To test if the sauce is thick enough, dip in a spoon and run your finger over the back. If a clear line forms, your bechamel (Yes! You just made bechamel!) is done.
Remove from heat and discard herbs. Add nutmeg, cayenne, lemon juice, 1 tsp of salt, 3/4 c of the Gruyere and about two-thirds of the grated cheddar. Stir to combine. Add roasted vegetables, cooked pasta, and shredded chicken. Stir gently until well combined. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if it tastes dull.
Pour pasta mixture into a 9x13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes and remaining Gruyere and cheddar. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve alongside a salad if you're feeling virtuous. Or with garlic bread if you want the full southern experience.