Spinach Mac & Cheese

She speaks! And what a gooey, cheesy caterwaul she projects across this land.

(Sorry, that was gross.)

Like the majority of people, I’ve been dealing with lockdown (insofar as our government have managed to put one in place – and let’s not even go there). Have I been dealing with it well? Reasonably so, I like to think; there are shelves in our house where before there were no shelves, and we have so many courgettes pushing up dirt in our raised beds that I’m going to start posting them through the letterboxes of strangers just to get rid of them.

I have also been cooking – a lot. This is pretty much by necessity, since I can’t say “sod it” and drag Isla to Tambo Lounge for the second night in a row anymore – because it is most insistently (and sensibly) closed. I haven’t posted anything here because mostly I’ve been making tried and tested recipes; nobody really needs to know how to make tikka masala paste into a curry, and if they do, the internet almost certainly provides those lessons elsewhere. I’ve made a couple of new things (most notably, crispy lentil “meatball” flatbreads with curry mayo – which I will be making again, oh boy) but… I keep forgetting to take photographs.

I’m working on it.

Starting with this! A very cheesy pasta recipe, with some green in it to make you feel a little bit better about yourself.

(Oh, and if you’re looking for a high iron recipe? This is not it. As my doctor likes to tell me, I need to either eat more chickpeas, or OD on spinach. Which I’m not saying I’m unwilling to do.)

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Spinach Pesto Mac & Cheese (Vegetarian, Gluten-free*)

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30-40 minutes

Equipment

Large saucepan with lid; medium saucepan; large ovenproof dish; whisk; spatula or wooden spoon; cheese grater; small bowl; measuring jug; a need… for cheese…

Ingredients

  • 320g pasta (I used cavatappi/spirali, but any shape is fine – *use GF pasta if cooking for GF needs, or face the consequences)
  • 2 heaped tbsp butter/spread
  • 2 heaped tbsp plain flour (GF blends work fine for this)
  • 100ml milk
  • 80ml double cream
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 100g parmesan/grana padano/vegetarian hard cheese
  • 70g mature cheddar
  • 30g soft goats’ cheese
  • 80g breadcrumbs (I used panko – *again, use GF breadcrumbs, or omit entirely, if you’re catering for a GF babe)
  • 160g baby/regular spinach (if you get the ready to eat stuff, you can put it straight in the microwave)
  • Salt & pepper

Method

  1. First of all, get your oven on at 200C and boil a nice full kettle – lots of salted water needed for boiling pasta, so don’t be shy. While that’s boiling, mix up your crumb topping; this is just 40g of your hard cheese (finely grated) mixed with all of the breadcrumbs, and a generous amount of black pepper. Set aside.
  2. Pour the pasta into your large, lidded pan and cover with boiling water, adding a good amount of salt (I have never in my life measured how much salt I’m adding, but a teaspoon should be sufficient). Cover and turn the pan onto a medium-high heat. I only cooked my pasta for around 7 minutes, as it’s necessary for it to be slightly undercooked (since it’s going in the oven for a while too). Spirali is bigger than traditional elbow macaroni, so it depends on what pasta shape you’re using, but you’ll essentially just need to subtract a few minutes from the packet’s suggested cooking time and you’ll be golden.
  3. If you’ve got ready-to-eat spinach, pierce the bag and pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes to cook. Otherwise, give it a wash and put it in a microwave-safe bowl, cooking for the same amount of time.
  4. While the pasta cooks, put your other pan on a low heat and add your butter/spread to the pan, stirring occasionally. Once it’s completely melted, add in the flour and whisk enthusiastically until you have a loose paste (called a roux – not to be confused with La Roux. This paste is decidedly not bulletproof). Cook this for around 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, to “cook out” the raw flour taste. While this is happening, get your milk and double cream into a jug, and grate your cheddar (and hard cheese, if not using pre-grated). Slowly add the milk and cream mixture to the roux, whisking after each addition until smooth before adding the next lot. Once it’s all in, you should have a smooth, fairly thick sauce. Add in your three cheeses, mustard, a little salt (hard cheeses are generally quite salty, so taste test to see how much you need) and a lot of pepper, and whisk again until smooth.
  5. Drain your pasta, leaving around 1/4 of a mug of the pasta water still in the pan. The starchy water helps your sauce adhere to the pasta – neat! Get all your sauce into the pasta pan, along with your wilted spinach, and stir until everything is combined. Pour the lot into your baking dish, smooth out the top, and cover with the breadcrumb mixture. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the topping is a lovely golden brown.

You can serve this with a side salad, or you can just eat it fervently in front of an episode of Queer Eye without taking a single breath, like we did. I want you to know that I support you.

H x

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P.S. Obligatory “cheese on a net” photo. I don’t know why I like this so much, but stock photography makes me howl sometimes. Someone set this up! And photographed it! They didn’t even know how much I was going to love it, but I hope they sense it somehow.

P.P.S. Every time I see anyone making baked spaghetti, it fills me with dread. I don’t know why the idea of that specific pasta shape being baked gives me such a feeling of foreboding, but it just isn’t RIGHT.

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