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Happy National Cheese Lover's Day! Celebrate with This Recipe

This recipe is only half the calories a standard bowl of mac and cheese typically clocks in at. (Photo courtesy Maren Caruso)

Could there be a better holiday? There are tons of diets than ban all things cheesy, but here at FITNESS we believe in everything in moderation. So go ahead and dig in with this lightened up mac and cheese recipe from Laura Werlin, cheese expert and James Beard award-winning author of The All American Cheese and Wine Book. Werlin’s latest book, Mac & Cheese, Please! has an entire chapter dedicated to healthier versions of the comfort food staple. This one sounded so good, we had to share. Anyone know when National Chocolate Lover’s Day is so we have something to look forward to when today is over?

Fiery South of the Border Mac and Cheese

Serves 6

NOTE: This mac and cheese is not for the faint of heart, it’s definitely spicy. But it’s also easy to tone down if you wish. All you need to do is use a little less chili pepper, cut back on the amount of pickled jalapeño, and use a combination of pepper Jack and regular Monterey Jack. The salsa in this recipe is easy to make, but if it’s too hot to turn on the oven, or you can’t find tomatillos or don’t have the time to make it, then use purchased green salsa.


For the salsa:

  • 8 ounces tomatillos, husks removed and quartered
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion (about 8 ounces), peeled and cut lengthwise into 6 pieces
  • 1 Serrano chili, halved lengthwise and seeded
  • 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons water

For the mac and cheese:

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 8 ounces small elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups reduced fat milk
  • 1/2 cup skim milk
  • 12 ounces low-fat pepper Jack cheese, coarsely grated (3 1/2 cups)
  • 3/4 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw if frozen)
  • 2 whole pickled jalapeño chilies, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves, plus sprigs for garnish
  • 1/2 cup low-fat sour cream


For the salsa:

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Put the tomatillos, onion, and chili on a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with the oil. Sprinkle with the salt and a little black pepper. Roast the vegetables, stirring occasionally, until the tomatillos have collapsed, about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly. Put in a food processor or blender with the cilantro and water and process until smooth. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Set aside. (Note: This can be made up to 2 days ahead, covered, and refrigerated.)

For the mac and cheese:

Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full with water and add 1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until tender but firm, 4 to 6 minutes, and drain.

Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, heat the oil over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the flour and stir constantly until a paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue whisking for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty. Turn heat to medium-low. Slowly whisk in the milks and the remaining 1-teaspoon salt and cook until the mixture starts to thicken and is just beginning to bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the cheese and stir until melted and the sauce is smooth but not runny. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it’s soupy, continue cooking, stirring constantly, until it thickens.

Add the pasta, corn, jalapeños, and cilantro and stir to combine. Ladle into bowls. Top with a couple of spoonfuls of salsa and dollop with a small spoonful of sour cream. Garnish with the whole cilantro sprigs and serve right away.

Optional add-ins:

  • Black beans: Add 1/2 cup cooked black beans, drained if canned, along with the pasta.
  • Chicken: Cut 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts into bite-size pieces. Cook in a medium skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until no longer pink, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little cumin if desired. Using a slotted spoon, add along with the pasta and other ingredients.

Nutrition info per serving: 383 calories, 36g carbs, 18g fiber, 21g protein