It's become a yearly tradition for me and Brian, when we go out to visit his folks for Christmas, to make a trip to the local Half Price Books. This is a chain we don't have out here in Jersey, which is a pity, because it carries books on all manner of topics, along with some new and used CDs and DVDs, at prices well below Barnes and Noble's. Sometimes we come home with an armful of new books, other times we just browse, but it's always an enjoyable outing.
On this occasion, we picked up only one new book for ourselves: the Fix-It and Forget-It Vegetarian Cookbook. Unlike most cookbooks in the Fix-It and Forget-It series, this one isn't limited to recipes for the slow cooker; instead, it boasts "565 Delicious Slow-Cooker, Stove-Top, Oven, and Salad Recipes, plus 50 Suggested Menus"—all of them meatless. And since it includes one whole section devoted solely to vegetables and fruits, I thought it would offer a fertile field of possible Recipes of the Month for 2018.
We decided to start off with a simple one: Veggie Macaroni and Cheese, listed in the pasta section. It's pretty much just a basic baked mac-and-cheese recipe, but with lightly cooked broccoli and cauliflower florets and sliced carrots and celery added to the macaroni before baking. There's also a sautéed onion and a spoonful of Dijon mustard added to the cheese sauce, as well as a sprinkling of paprika on top, which I thought would give the dish a bit more interest than the Kraft packaged variety I grew up with. And since we didn't happen to have any macaroni on hand, we decided to make the dish with penne, which we figured would make it a bit more sophisticated.
When the dish came out of the oven, it certainly looked a lot more appealing than basic macaroni and cheese: a mass of pasta swimming in rich, golden cheese sauce, dotted with colorful veggies, and dusted with russet-brown paprika. Unfortunately, its flavor wasn't quite as impressive. I like pasta with veggies, and I like pasta with cheese sauce, but these two great tastes just didn't taste great together. It seemed like the veggies, which would probably have tasted just fine with the pasta in a simple garlic-and-oil sauce, didn't really harmonize with the mustard-laced cheese sauce. It was perfectly edible, but it just wasn't inspiring. And since fresh cauliflower turns out to be quite expensive to buy in January, it wasn't really the most frugal choice to start off the year, either.
However, trying this dish wasn't a complete waste of time. As it happens, we already have a recipe for a healthier version of macaroni and cheese that we quite like: it also contains cauliflower, but pureed and mixed in with the cheese sauce. This doesn't noticeably affect the flavor, but it makes the sauce extra thick and creamy, as well as giving it a nice nutritional boost. The only problem with the dish is that it's a trifle bland. We usually sprinkle it with a little Penzey's Mural of Flavor to kick the flavor up a notch, but after trying this new recipe, I'm inclined to think that maybe what it really needs is a little mustard stirred into the sauce—and perhaps a dash of paprika on top to give it color and zest. So we'll probably add those modifications the next time we make our usual mac-and-cheese dish, and see if they take it from good to great.
In the meantime, we've already picked out another recipe to try from our new cookbook: Quinoa with Broccoli and Hoisin Sauce. This one looks a lot lighter and healthier, since it has protein-packed quinoa instead of pasta and isn't loaded with cheese. We picked up the ingredients for this today, and if it turns out well, we'll have a new recipe to add to our repertoire of dishes we can serve to gluten-free guests.