A slimmed down, kicked up twist on mac ‘n cheese
We love mac ‘n cheese. And it loves us back. So if we eat too much, it sticks to our ribs. Like, permanently.
So sometimes we make a healthier, less fattening version by substituting cauliflower for macaroni. The cheese keeps this dish from being truly low cal, of course. But you get the idea.
And this dish tastes great! Spicy green chilies love to snuggle with cheese, and both blend happily with cauliflower.
This dish makes a great side for a weeknight, or even a fancy weekend dinner. Plus, it’s hearty enough to serve as a main – just add salad for a complete meal.
And if you’re looking for a new dish to accompany your Thanksgiving turkey or ham? You just found it.
Recipe: Green Chile Cauliflower ‘n Cheese
You can make this dish with any kind of green chilies (we use a combination of Hatch, Anaheim, and jalapeño peppers). If you have time to roast the peppers first (see Notes for instructions), you’ll get better flavor. But if you’re pressed for time, you can just dice the peppers and use them raw (which is the method we describe in this recipe).
We mix cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in this dish. But you could use just cheddar alone. Or substitute another cheese, such as Swiss cheese or Monterey Jack.
Prep time for this dish is 15 to 20 minutes. Plus, you’ll need another 25 minutes or so for baking it.
This recipe is sized to fill a baking or gratin dish that holds about 2 quarts. The recipe yields 4 very generous servings when the dish is used as a main course, or 8+ servings if used as a side.
Leftovers keep well for a few days if refrigerated in an airtight container.
- 1 small head of cauliflower, or half a large head (about a pound, maybe a bit more — exact quantity not hugely important)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt for seasoning the cauliflower cooking water (see Notes)
- 6 to 8 ounces green chilies (we use a mix of Hatch, Anaheim, and jalapeño; see Notes)
- 8 ounces cheddar cheese, divided
- 3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
- 1 tablespoon butter for greasing the baking dish
- 2 cups milk (whole milk is best, but 2% or even skim will work)
- 2 additional tablespoons butter for making roux
- 2 tablespoons flour
- salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon kosher salt for us; see Notes)
- garnish of jalapeño pepper dice/slices or chopped parsley (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Place a large pot of water on the stovetop and bring it to a boil. While the water is heating, clean and core the cauliflower, then cut it into small flowerets. When the water reaches boiling, add 1 tablespoon of salt to season it. Add the cauliflower and bring the water back to a simmer. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, until the cauliflower is just tender. Drain the cauliflower, then rinse it with cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
- Wash the chilies, then cut off their stems. Cut the peppers in half and scoop out the white pith and seeds with a teaspoon. Then cut the peppers into dice (you may want to reserve some jalapeño dice or slices for garnish). Remember, chilies are spicy and can burn your skin, so wear kitchen gloves while doing this step. Set the diced peppers aside.
- Grate the cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Divide the grated cheeses, reserving about 1 ounce of cheddar and 1½ ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano to use as topping.
- Butter the baking dish (using about 1 tablespoon of butter).
- Heat the milk in a 2-quart saucepan. Use medium heat and be careful not to scorch it. You don’t need to heat the milk to the scalding point (180 degrees F), although you can do so if you like. You just want the milk to be hot enough that it combines well with the roux you’ll prepare in the next step (warming the liquid helps prevent lumps from forming when making a flour-based sauce or gravy).
- Add 2 tablespoons of butter to a 2- or 3-quart saucepan or saucier (the latter is a saucepan with sloping sides, which make it easier to whisk a sauce). Place the pan over medium stovetop heat. When the butter is melted and hot, add the flour and stir it in, using a wire whisk. Continue stirring for the next two minutes (you don’t have to stir nonstop, but keep the mixture moving so it doesn’t overbrown).
- Now begin adding the hot milk to the butter-and-flour mixture. Using a ladle, add 4 to 6 ounces of hot milk while continuously whisking the roux. The milk will be absorbed into the roux almost immediately. Add another ladle or two of hot milk, continuing to stir with the whisk. The mixture will be liquid but fairly thick. Now pour the rest of the hot milk into the roux and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking vigorously (to keep lumps from forming). Continue to whisk every 20 to 30 seconds as the mixture thickens and forms a sauce. Add salt to taste.
- Now add the cheeses to the roux. Use about 7 ounces of cheddar and 1½ ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir to incorporate the cheese. Cook briefly (maybe a minute) until the cheese has melted into the sauce.
- Add the diced chile peppers to the sauce and cook another minute. Then add the cooked cauliflower to the sauce (a 2-quart saucepan will be just large enough; if it isn’t, you can combine the mixture in a bowl). Stir to combine. Then spread the cauliflower mixture into the prepared baking dish and smooth the top. Dust the top with the reserved cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
- Bake the mixture for about 25 minutes (we usually begin checking for doneness at 20 minutes). The gratin is done when the sauce has thickened and the mixture is bubbling hot. If the top hasn’t browned as much as you’d like, run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two to create a nice brown crust.
- Serve and enjoy. We like to garnish each serving with a jalapeño slice or some chopped parsley. Or you could sprinkle some diced jalapeño on top.
- As noted, you can use any kind of green chilies in this dish. We love Hatch chilies, so we used some frozen ones in this dish, along with a couple of fresh Anaheims and jalapeño peppers. Poblano chilies would also work well.
- You can use canned green chilies in this recipe if you wish. Canned chilies are usually available in the Mexican food section of your supermarket. The cans come in various sizes, though 4-ounce containers are very common. We suggest using 8 ounces of canned chilies in this dish.
- Green chilies develop deeper flavor if you roast them (though we don’t bother doing this with jalapeño peppers). To roast, just heat the chilies under the broiler or over a gas flame until the chile skins begin to blister and turn black. Turn the chilies and repeat until all sides are blistered. Then place the roasted chilies in a bowl and cover with a damp towel. Allow the chilies to steam for about 15 minutes. Then rub the skins off the chilies (wearing kitchen gloves). Cut the stem ends off the chilies, remove the seeds, and cut away the white pith. Then cut the chilies into dice.
- Cheddar cheese adds great depth of flavor to this dish. And Parmigiano-Reggiano adds sharpness, which we find very attractive. But, as noted in the recipe headnote, you can substitute other cheese(s) if you prefer.
- If you want a very rich version of this dish, substitute cream for milk (or use half-and-half). That’s overkill, in our opinion, but if you crave unbridled lusciousness, go for it.
- We find this dish pleasantly spicy. But if you want even more fire, just add some Tabasco sauce to the cauliflower/cheese mixture.
- We use kosher salt for cooking and baking. Kosher salt is less salty by volume than regular table salt (its crystals are large and more coarse, so they don’t fill a measuring spoon as tightly). If you’re using regular table salt, use about half as much as we suggest. But, as always, adjust the seasoning to your taste.
“Great dish,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Love the chile ‘n cheese.”
“It does have flavor,” I agreed. “You might say it’s the big cheese.”
“Are you going to pepper me with cheesy jokes?” said Mrs K R.
“No whey,” I said.
“Gouda one,” said Mrs K R. “You’re extra sharp today. Not.”
I camembert it any longer. Time to cheese it with these jokes.
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