Today’s White Bean Cheesy Pasta with Gremolata may seem oddly familiar. Well, that’s because it kind of is. For the past several years, squash-spiked mac and cheese dishes have been making the rounds on the Internet. These dishes are sold as a sneaky way to work some vitamins into a chicken-finger-obsessed child. I’ve tried and few and they are pretty great. Of course, I failed to mention to my inner five-year-old that the pasta contained some sneaky squash because five-year-old Susan would’ve instantly decided she hated it. What can I say? I was a dumb kid that hated squash for some lame reason. Yes, tricking kids into eating their veg is why most people add pureed veggies to a cheesy sauce, but I have no such excuse because, well, I have no kids. No, I put pureed veggies in my cheesy pasta because sometimes I have to trick myself.
Be assured, I feel nothing resembling pride about that sad fact. It’s just when the weather turns crappy and cold all I want is mac and cheese. Yes, I want that impossible dream. I want mac and cheese to be a no-nothing weeknight meal. A shrug on a Tuesday night, not an indulgence, a shrug! The same semi-positive shrug you give your partner when he suggests your go-to stir-fry. The shrug you give when you find pork chops in your freezer. I want mac and cheese to be commonplace because commonplace meals are, well, more common. I want mac and cheese to be a once-a-week thing.
Now, this dream is impossible because gone are the days when I could eat the boxed stuffed without shame spiraling and, let’s face it, at 31, I can’t really afford a weekly dose of mac-and-cheese-sized calories and still, get along with my favorite jeans. I suppose I could skip the cream, but let’s be real, a cheese sauce made with lower-fat dairy products is just disappointing. These sauces lack body and coat-ability (not a word but let’s keep going) and are generally not worth your time. I would even go so far as to call them an affront to cheese sauces everywhere. Oh yes, I did.
The other more terrifying option is cutting down on the cheese…Sorry, involuntary shudder. What person, who loves and values themselves, would deny themselves half the cheese normally allotted to mac and cheese? “Cheese” is in the title, so it had better play a major role. I can take a lot of mac and cheese modification but a lack of cheese is not one. It will always be a hard pass on this option.
So, to recap, my demands are these: I want a mac and cheese I can eat on the regular while still maintaining access to my fabulous wardrobe. The pasta needs to be short and loaded with nooks and crannies but beyond that, I’m not picky. The cheese has to be good and it has to be sharp and there has to be plenty of it. And, finally, the sauce cannot be runny and sad. Sound good and impossible? Cool!
Enter the sneaky veggies. Back in 2017, it was all about the buttercup squash. Today we’re kicking it with some white beans, which are technically legumes but you get the picture. Pureed veg, particularly starchy, velvety veg, adds body and viscosity to a cream-less sauce. I suppose they also add vitamins and minerals but what’s sexy about that? Anyway, the important thing is through the awesome power of white beans, you can make this White Bean Cheesy Pasta using milk and a bit of butter. That’s it! There is, of course, a slightly unholy amount of cheese but we’re striving for balance here, not joylessness. The result is a thick, creamy and super cheesy sauce that’s so good I could write it a sonnet. It coats every inch of the pasta like a dream and is virtuous enough that you could eat it nearly guilt-free on a Monday night.
Now, you might be wondering why I invited gremolata to my White Bean Cheesy Pasta party. I know it’s green but don’t hold that against it. Of course, unadulterated cheesy pasta situations are beyond amazing but I thought I’d grow this kid’s menu option up a bit. I am in my thirties, after all, gotta keep it classy. Enter the gremolata.
Gremolata is a condiment that is common in Milanese cuisine. It’s a simple mixture of fresh parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. Some versions also contain olive oil and/or anchovy paste, but I decided to keep things classic. Gremolata is often served as a topping for Osso Bucco, which is an incredibly rich dish. The idea is the gremolata acts as a sort of palette cleanser. A burst of refreshment in the midst of a heavy meal. I included it in my White Bean Cheesy Pasta because I wanted a hint of brightness to add a little contrast to a fairly one-note meal. Plus, as I already mentioned, it’s classy AF.
This White Bean Cheesy Pasta with Gremolata allows you to eat like a five-year-old without the metabolism. It turns out the impossible dream is not so impossible. So, make it on a nothing day, like, a Tuesday!
White Bean Cheesy Pasta with Gremolata
- A large deep skillet
- Food processor or blender
- ½ cup fresh parsley finely chopped, tightly packed
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 2 tbsp lemon zest
- 2 tsp lemon juice
White Bean Cheesy Pasta
- 2½ cups dried short pasta I used cappelletti
- 1 (540 mL, 18 fl oz.) can white kidney beans drained and rinsed
- 1 clove garlic peeled
- 1 lemon juiced
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 tbsp all-purpose flour
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1½ cup white cheddar shredded
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- ¾ tsp salt
For the Gremolata
- Place all ingredients in a small bowl and toss to integrate. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Best used the same day it's made.
For the Pasta
- Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, salt the water and add the pasta. Cook the pasta according to the package's instruction. Drain, rinse and toss the cooked pasta in oil before setting aside.
- Place half of the white beans in a food process along with the garlic and lemon juice. Pulse until very smooth. Set aside.
- Melt the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat until frothy. Whisk in the flour to form a roux. Cook the roux until it turns a light caramel color and gives off a nutty aroma. Whisk in the wine and gradually whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture up to a gentle boil and add the cheese, salt and Dijon. Stir until the cheese is fully incorporated. Turn the heat down to low.
- Grab the reserved pureed white bean and stir it into the cheese sauce until fully integrated. Stir in the reserved pasta and the remaining whole white beans. Toss to coat.
- Divide the pasta amongst 4-6 bowls, garnish with the gremolata and serve immediately.