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Bog Brains & Bugs

I saw a Halloween macaroni and cheese dish that got its creepy green hue by adding food coloring to the water the pasta cooked in. It was a great idea but it got me thinking: what could I use to make my pasta green and add tons of flavor?

Focusing on all of that green took me back to the 1970s. I remember standing in the kitchen when I was little looking at a bottle of Green Goddess dressing. And then I had it: herby, tangy, creamy Green Goddess would be the inspiration for this macaroni and cheese.

And it’s really good. With fresh herbs and spinach mixed with four kinds of cheeses, it’s sophisticated enough for adult palates but mild enough for kids. I top it with a quick homemade olive tapenade—or “bug bits”—to complement the richness of the cheeses.

I also use cavatappi ("corkscrews") pasta because it looks a bit brainy but elbows will do just fine.

This serves 4 – 8 depending on whether you use it as a side dish or a main.

Make the olive tapenade:

½ cup chopped black olives

¼ cup chopped green olives

1 tsp olive oil

1 tsp red wine vinegar

1 tsp chopped capers

1/4 tsp honey (optional)

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

Zest of one lemon

Cracked black pepper to taste

Mix all of the ingredients well in a bowl and set aside. If you want finer tapenade, you can mash it with a potato masher or pulse in a food processor or blender. I like to chop the olives and capers by hand so it looks more like bug bodies, but do what you like.

Make the sauce:

Half of a 10 oz package of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted completely

1 TBS neutral-flavored oil (grapeseed, canola, or vegetable)

¼ cup chopped onions

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

¼ cup chopped fresh chives

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1 TBS chopped fresh tarragon

1 TBS lemon juice

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce (I use a vegan sauce)

¼ cup milk

Half of an 8 oz block or tub of cream cheese

Half of an 8 oz tub of mascarpone

2 TBS unsalted butter

¼ cup chopped onions

2 TBS flour

2 cups milk

¼ cup grated Parmesan

¼ cup grated provolone

1/8 tsp garlic powder

Salt & pepper to taste

2 cups cavatappi pasta

Bug Garnish (Optional / See below)

Completely defrost the spinach. Remove the excess water out of the spinach by pressing it against a sieve and squeezing it with your hands or by wrapping it in a clean, lint-free kitchen towel and squeezing it. Once the water is removed, you should have about a cup.

Heat a small skillet on medium and add the tablespoon of neutral-flavored oil. Add 1/4 cup onions and cook for 2 minutes or until the onions become translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more. Add the spinach and stir well. Cook for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

Place the cooled spinach into a food processor or blender. Add the chives, parsley, tarragon, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce. Pulse until smooth. Add the ¼ cup milk and the cream and mascarpone cheeses. Pulse until well-combined. Remove the green cheese mixture from the food processor and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente according to package directions.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a large skillet or pot on medium. Add the butter. Once the butter is melted, add the additional ¼ cup of onions and cook for 2 minutes or until the onions become translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and onion mixture and stir until combined. Switch to a whisk and continue to cook the flour and butter for 2 minutes to remove the raw taste of the flour.

Slowly add in the 2 cups of milk, whisking the entire time until the milk sauce is smooth. Bring to a slow boil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until thickened. Remove from the heat and whisk in the green cheese mixture, parmesan, and provolone bit-by-bit until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth.

Drain the cooked pasta and combine it with the sauce.

To serve the pasta, top it with the olive tapenade and Bug Garnish

Don’t Freak Out!

1) Substitute store-bought olive tapenade for the homemade or just throw some canned olive slices on top of the pasta and call it good. If you make the tapenade homemade, use whatever type and color of olives you prefer (even red ones—eww, bloody bugs)!

2) You can add a bit more milk to the green cheese mixture and serve it by itself as a dip with pumpernickel toasts, sesame breadsticks, or baby carrots.

3) Speaking of dips: take some help from the store and buy a prepared spinach dip. If it’s chunky, blend it in a food processor or blender with a little lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and add it to the milk sauce with the Parmesan and provolone.

4) To make the Bug Garnish: Stick 3 dried rosemary twigs into the long side of an olive. Stick an additional 3 dried rosemary twigs into the other side. These are the bug’s legs. For eyes, stick 2 rosemary twigs into the top of the olive and top each twig with a caper. You could also use small cherry tomatoes or mozzarella balls for the same effect.

5) For more information on Worcestershire sauce, please see my Ingredient Spotlight.

6) Baking the pasta at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown would also be really good. You may want to throw some extra grated Parmesan cheese on top for a cheesy crust.

7) By using vegan Worcestershire sauce and using cheeses made with microbial or vegetarian enzymes or coagulated with citric acid or vinegar, this dish is truly vegetarian. Not vegan but vegetarian. You can also use gluten-free pasta and Worcestershire sauce to make this recipe gluten-free.

8) I used 2% cow's milk and Neufchatel (1/3 less fat) cream cheese in this recipe. Use whatever fat content you like.

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