It's the epitome of comfort food. What's not to like? It's creamy, soft, & warm. It's got lots & lots of cheese and usually has wonderful crunchy, crispy edges to nibble on. Sometimes it even has a buttery crumb topping. And it's not hard to put together.
Making it low sodium? Well, that's a whole other matter. That's because as simple as basic macaroni & cheese is, it involves layers of salt. The macaroni is cooked in heavily salted water. The cream sauce is salted so it won't end up tasting like kindergarten paste. Cheese is naturally high in sodium. The sharper the cheese, the higher the sodium content. So if you want to jazz up your macaroni & cheese by adding some blue cheese, Gorgonzola, or asiago along with the usual cheddar, you'll end up with a super tasty dish that someone on a low sodium diet shouldn't be eating.
Recently my poor husband suffered the dreaded root canal. There were the weeks of tooth pain, diagnosing the problem, then getting an appointment with an endodontist, and finally recovering from the root canal. Lots of soft foods. That's when I decided to tackle lower sodium macaroni & cheese.
The recipe I followed was pretty basic and pretty typical. But I had to adjust the methods to make the over all dish low sodium and tasty. Believe me, the tasty part is the real challenge. Here's what I did:
Macaroni - For 8 oz. of elbow macaroni, most recipes call for at least 2 teaspoons of salt in 2 quarts of water. I omitted the salt completely. That left me with extremely bland tasting pasta, so I knew I had to make sure the cheese sauce was as flavorful as I could get it.
White Sauce - Here's one place where using butter is a must. Butter, even unsalted butter, has a unique flavor that complements cheese, pasta, and white sauce. Light flavored oils do not add much flavor, and olive oil can overpower the cheese.
To boost the sauce flavor, I sauteed one small, minced onion in the butter. I cooked it until it was quite soft and then added two minced garlic cloves too. It's important to cook the roux until it turns a deep tan color. This will eliminate any possibility of a pasty taste and will add a nice nuttiness to the sauce. I added about 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard, a dash of cayenne pepper, and a teaspoon of low sodium Worcestershire sauce to the white sauce.
Add Ins - I mixed in a finely chopped passilla chile that I had roasted and frozen during the summer to add yet another layer of flavor without resorting to salt. Canned green chilies could be used instead (just be sure to use the brand with the lowest sodium content and drain well). Finely chopped fresh jalpenos would add some zing, as would some finely chopped sweet red pepper. A few chopped or thinly sliced sun dried tomatoes would add flavor & color (soften a bit in hot water or, if using jarred, be sure to use the brand with the lowest sodium content and drain well). And, of course, cooked & crumbled low sodium bacon would be great as long as you used no more than two slices (again, be sure to use the brand with the lowest sodium content).
Cheese - For 8 oz, pasta, most recipes call for at least 2 cups of grated cheese (about 8 oz.). Because of the missing salt in the macaroni & sauce, it's important to use a robust flavored cheese. I used about 1-3/4 cups of my favorite brand of extra sharp cheddar and about 1/4 cup of naturally low sodium but very flavorful Swiss cheese. (Feel free to adjust the ratio or cheddar to Swiss.)
Crumb Topping - I wanted to add a crumb topping because I thought it would add both flavor & texture. Here's another place where the wonderful flavor of butter is essential. I combined butter & homemade dried breadcrumbs together in a small saute pan. I also added a minced garlic clove and some chopped fresh herbs. I think any herbs, fresh or dried, would do, but I used some chives, thyme, & oregano from my pots of herbs outside. I cooked everything together until the butter & breadcrumbs gave off a nice, toasty aroma. Then I added about 2 teaspoons of grated Parmesan cheese. This added an extra touch of cheesiness to the topping.
The verdict? I successfully managed to make a flavorful macaroni & cheese dish without overloading on the sodium. I was pleased with the result and so was my husband.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 cup dry bread crumbs
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 -2 tablespoons finely minced herbs, dried or fresh
2 teaspoons finely shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 tbsp. flour
2 - 2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 tsp. dry ground mustard
Dash cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tsp. lo sodium Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2-3/4 c. extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 c. Swiss cheese
Chopped jalapeno pepper
Rinsed & drained 4 oz. can green chili
Chopped sweet red bell pepper
Minced canned red pepper (pimento)
2 slices cooked & crumbled low sodium bacon
8 oz. elbow macaroni
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8 inch square casserole dish. (Do not use a casserole dish that's too deep. It's important that every serving and almost every bite includes a well distributed amount of the flavorful crumb topping.)
Combine crumb topping ingredients except Parmesan cheese in small pan and saute together until toasty. Take off heat & add Parmesan cheese. Set aside.
Bring at least 2 quarts of water to boil. Add macaroni and cook until pasta is fully tender, NOT al dente. Drain and set aside.
Melt the 3 tbsp. butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the minced onion and cook until the onion softens and turns translucent. Add minced garlic and cook another minute.
Stir or whisk in the flour, mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne (if using). Combine well and let cook until mixture deepens in color, 2 - 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Continue stirring or whisking until mixture comes to a bubbling simmer. Lower heat and simmer until mixture thickens, about 5- 10 minutes. Include add-ins, if using.
Take the mixture off heat and stir in the cheeses until melted. If sauce seems too thick, add additional milk or some NSA broth, one tablespoon at a time. Combine sauce with pasta and pour into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle casserole evenly with crumbs.
Bake until top is golden brown and bubbly, about 15-20 minutes. Do not over bake; you're just heating everything up. Let cool or set about 5 minutes before serving.