- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Macaroni and cheese shouldn’t have to come from a box to be quick — or from an oven to be good. No matter how it’s made, it doesn’t have to be a total wash nutritionally.

Would a macaroni and cheese that met all three criteria — speedy, prepared on the stove and at least a little healthy — be worth eating?

To find out, I started by rethinking the pasta. Although some people object to the heartier taste and texture of whole-grain pastas, they work well with thick sauces (which tend to obscure the differences that bother some people).

To that end, I also ditched the more traditional elbow macaroni. On the assumption that more cheese per noodle is better, I opted for spirals because the coils trap sauces, especially gooey cheesy ones.

Because I obviously had no plans to skimp on the cheese sauce (after all, this is supposed to be comfort food), I wanted to add some greens to help balance the nutritional karma.

For this, I went for broccoli florets. Like pasta spirals, broccoli is great for trapping cheese sauces. A quick bath in boiling water before they were added to the dish served as the perfect tenderizer.

That’s where the healthy part ends.

Making the cheese sauce on the stove required a base that, although thick, still could be poured over and mixed through the pasta. Creme fraiche (which looks and tastes like a cross between sour cream and cream cheese) was perfect.

In a saucepan over medium heat, creme fraiche (sold in the cheese section of most grocery stores) melts quickly into a smooth, creamy sauce. To this I added cheddar cheese and a bit of red pepper flakes for just a touch of heat.

Assembly is as simple as combining the parts — the pasta, the broccoli and the sauce — in a large bowl and giving them a quick toss. The result is perfect winter comfort food. Quick. On the stove. And just a little healthy.

Stovetop macaroni and cheese

From start to finish, this recipe takes 15 minutes.

10 ounces whole-wheat pasta spirals

4 cups broccoli florets

8-ounce container creme fraiche

teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)

2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Bring two medium saucepans of water, one lightly salted, to a boil.

In the salted pan, cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve cup cooking water, then drain and return pasta to the pan. Set aside.

In the second saucepan, add the broccoli florets. Return to a simmer and cook until bright green and just tender, about 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the florets to the pan with the cooked pasta. Toss lightly.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk the creme fraiche and red pepper flakes until smooth, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cheddar cheese until melted and very smooth.

To the cheese sauce, mix in about half of the reserved pasta cooking water, or as needed to get desired consistency. Season to taste with black pepper.

To serve, either divide the pasta and florets between serving bowls and top with cheese sauce or add cheese sauce to the pan with pasta and broccoli, toss to coat evenly, then divide. Makes 4 servings.

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