Sun Dried Tomato and Spinach Mac n’ Cheese

Alright people, I’m really excited about this one. This has to be one of the best tasting dishes that I’ve made so far. Unfortunately, it was already dark out when I finished cooking and my camera doesn’t do well with indoor lighting. So, the picture really doesn’t do it justice.

Anyway, I wanted some mac and cheese the other day but I always feel guilty eating it so I decided to justify all the cheese and butter by adding a few veggies. Spinach sauteed in garlic and a few tangy sun dried tomatoes did the trick! I also used a blend of white cheeses (shredded Italian cheese blend) because I felt their flavor would blend better with the spinach and tomatoes than the sharp cheddar that is traditionally used in mac and cheese.

This dish uses a homemade cheese sauce but don’t be afraid! Cheese sauces are much easier than they seem. After you make them a few times you can practically do it with your eyes closed… well, okay, maybe not with your eyes closed but I bet you won’t even have to measure the ingredients!

Sun Dried Tomato and Spinach Mac n' Cheese

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Total Recipe cost: $9.76
Servings Per Recipe: 8+
Cost per serving: $1.22
Prep time: 5 min. Cook time: 45 min. Total: 50 min.

INGREDIENTS COST
14.5 oz. box penne pasta $1.59
1 9oz. bag baby spinach $2.99
1 oz. sun dried tomatoes $1.00
3 cups 2% milk $0.79
3 Tbsp butter $0.39
3 cups shredded cheese (Italian blend) $2.49
1/4 medium yellow onion, diced fine $0.21
1 clove garlic $0.06
3 Tbsp all purpose flour $0.10
1 Tbsp olive oil $0.10
TOTAL $9.76

STEP 1: In a medium skillet, cook the diced garlic clove in 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat until the garlic begins to sizzle. Add the bag of spinach and stir until the spinach has just wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.

wilted spinach

STEP 2: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Put a large pot of water on to boil and cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. While the pasta is cooking, you will begin your sauce. When the pasta is done cooking, save about 1/2 cup of the cooking water and drain the rest off in a colander. Let the pasta drain the colander until your sauce is done.

STEP 3: Roughly chop the sun dried tomatoes and finely dice the onion. In a medium sauce pan, cook the onions in the 3 Tbsp of butter over medium heat until the onions become transparent. Do not turn the heat any higher than medium. You do not want the butter or onions to brown.

cooked onions

STEP 4: Whisk the 3 Tbsp of flour into the melted butter/onion mixture. You must use a whisk for the next few steps. Continue to whisk and cook the mixture just until it is light golden in color (about 2 minutes). This mixture is called a “roux” and will thicken your cheese sauce!

roux

STEP 5: Whisk the 3 cups of milk into the roux. Add some fresh cracked black pepper and about 1/2 tsp of salt at this point. Allow the milk/roux mixture to come to a simmer. Continue to gently whisk. You will see the sauce begin to thicken as soon as it begins to lightly simmer. Do not turn the heat up or else you risk scalding your sauce and making it “break down”.

STEP 6: Once your sauce has thickened, whisk in the 2 cups of cheese until it has all melted in. Add more salt or pepper to taste. Add the sun dried tomatoes and sauteed spinach to the sauce.

STEP 7: Return your drained pasta to it’s cooking pot. Add the reserved pasta water and stir to loosen the pasta (it has probably cooled and stuck together a bit). Pour your cheese sauce mixture over the pasta and stir to combine. Pour the cheesey pasta into a large casserole dish that has been coated in spray oil. Top the casserole with the remaining 1 cup of cheese. Bake for about 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown! Yummmmm!

finished mac n' cheese

NOTE: Another factor that led to me making mac and cheese this week was the fact that the shredded cheese was on sale for $1.66 a bag (about 25-30 cents less than normal). It really pays to take advantage of sales when you see them! I was also able to find a generic version of my favorite pasta (Barilla Plus) which was about 50 cents less than the name brand.

Sun dried tomatoes can be pretty pricey but it is all about how you use them. The bag I bought was a small 3.5 ounce bag which cost $2.69. Had I not measured and limited myself to 1 ounce for the recipe, I could have easily gone way over budget. The trick was to cut the tomatoes up so that every bite of the casserole gets a little tangy bit of tomato. Prior to chopping the tomatoes, 1 ounce didn’t look like enough but after baking and eating the casserole, I found that it was plenty. We often over estimate how much we need of expensive/potent ingredients. A little bit goes a long way!