THE QUESTION: Is there a yummy way to have macaroni and cheese on a limited-carb diet?
When it seems like everyone is trying to limit or eliminate various things in the “typical American diet” comfort foods become much maligned. Gluten-free noodles are becoming more prevalent and some brands even have acceptable tooth and texture, but doing comfort food carbohydrate-free is much harder. This question comes from the parents of a three year old who wants to start eating as a family now that their son is old enough that he will try the food they are eating for dinner. The only problem; the three year-old is a bread and noodle eating fiend while the parents are trying to avoid carbs, especially processed carbs.
My solution for them is one of my favorite kitchen tools: the mandoline. A mandoline allows the cook to make paper thin slices, and some models also jullienne in a single step. This gives you the ability to make any veggie look like a pile of noodles. Utilizing the magic of the mandoline, starchy macaroni and cheese can become a bowl of refreshing “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) and cheese! You can use another vegetable if you prefer -and there are some suggestions below- but I think that the freshness of zucchini is a great counterpoint to the rich cheese sauce.
My answer does assume stovetop, or “blue box”, mac ‘n’ cheese is what’s being replaced, hardier veggies, like carrots, could be prepared in a similar way to make a baked/casserole version with the same sauce plus extra cheese and bread crumbs on top. But, in general, the better a vegetable will stand up to being baked the more natural carbohydrates it contains so for this particular problem that isn’t the best solution. The stovetop method also allows you to make traditional noodles for carb-y members of the family but still have everyone eating the same meal. Some alternate, lower-carb veggies are asparagus and bamboo shoots.
HOW TO: preparing “Zoodles ‘N’ Cheese”
Julienne 1 medium zucchini per non-carb eater. I recommend investing in a mandoline that juliennes in one step as pictured above (a very handy time saver if you enjoy cooking), but if your mandoline only has one blade, slice the zucchini lengthwise on the thinnest setting and then use a knife to create the zoodle width of your choice. Toss the zoodles with some lemon juice. I would leave them raw, the sauce will warm them. If you want to cook them you could steam them or quickly pan sear with a neutral oil.
For extra ease, you might also try looking for pre-julienned vegetables at your favorite grocery store. In Fredericksburg, I know that Wegman’s usually has them.
Stovetop mac ‘n’ cheese is noodles, or in this case zoodles, tossed with a Mornay sauce. This is a classic french technique and an infinitely adaptable sauce. The following recipe is easy to memorize and then customize to your family’s preferences because the measurements are all twos.
Make a roux by melting 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over low heat then whisking in an equal amount of flour until you have a uniform paste. Add a dash of ground nutmeg and two dashes of ground mustard seed, whisk again to incorporate.
Slowly add 2 cups of room temperature milk (I use canned whole milk, but any kind will do) and whisk until the roux has been fully dissolved. Heat on medium whisking frequently until the sauce just begins to boil. Turn heat down and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. If you stop here the sauce is called a bechamel which is one of the five “mother sauces”.
Add 2 ounces grated cheese and stir until fully melted. Now you have Mornay, yay. Gruyere or cheddar are commonly used, I like a combo of gruyere, asiago and parmesan. The cheese is up to you, just be sure not to use anything soft like mozzarella or a young swiss cheese, they will make the sauce stringy and unappetizing. Adjust the seasoning to taste. If it is too thick whisk in a little extra milk or butter.
Please comment (with pictures!) if you try this at home or have any stories about using julienned veggies as noodles. Don’t forget to send in your own food questions via Twitter or Facebook.