For as long as I can remember, macaroni and cheese has always been one of my favorite foods. Growing up in an Indian household with two working parents, my macaroni and cheese experience as a child consisted mainly of the boxed variety. Although I will always have fond memories of bright yellow, boxed macaroni and cheese, I have since moved on to experimenting with my own versions of the dish. When creating this dish, I wanted to incorporate some of the traditional Indian flavors and spices (masala) that I grew up eating into a classic American dish. The result is a delicious and unexpected combination of flavors. The spices blend well with the creamy cheese sauce and are balanced nicely by the sweet peas and fresh cilantro. This is an exotic twist on a classic dish that anyone can prepare at home.
You will need a variety of spices and herbs for this recipe, including fresh ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, red chili powder (cayenne pepper), and turmeric. Most of them can be found in the spice section of the grocery store, otherwise you can definitely find them at a specialty or Indian grocery store. The good news is that once you have all of these spices, you can make just about any Indian dish. In addition, many spices and herbs have important health benefits and some have been shown to have more disease-fighting antioxidants than a lot of fruits and vegetables.
- Ginger– In its fresh form, this pungent tasting fibrous root has a light brown, slightly wrinkled appearance. It is an indispensable ingredient in all Asian cuisines. The brown skin is usually peeled off before use. Dried ginger can be substituted for fresh but the flavors are different so use fresh when you can. Ginger is often used for treating nausea.
- Garlic– Garlic is in the onion family and is used in cuisines around the world. Its pungent flavor mellows considerably when it’s cooked. Its papery skin is usually peeled off before use, but garlic can also be roasted in the skin. Dried garlic can be substituted for fresh but the flavors are different, so once again, use fresh when you can.
- Cumin– Cumin seeds are small, pale brown aromatic seeds that can be ground into a powder. They can be bought whole or ground. In general, spices stay fresher and taste better when you buy them whole, toast them, and grind them yourself, but for convenience, you can buy them preground. Cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and is an essential component of many curry pastes and spice mixes. It is widely used across the world in Asian cuisines as well as Mexican, Cuban, South American, Middle Eastern, and more.
- Coriander/Cilantro– All parts of this herb are edible, but the fresh leaves (known as cilantro or coriander leaves) and dried seeds (known as coriander seeds) are most commonly used in cooking. Cilantro leaves are commonly used in Asian chutneys and curries as well as Mexican salsas and guacamole. Dried coriander can be bought whole or ground and has a variety of uses. It is even used in brewing certain types of beer, particularly Belgian wheat beers.
- Cayenne pepper– This spice is made from dried, ground peppers and is used in a variety of cuisines. Do not confuse with Mexican chili powder which is mixed with other spices like cumin.
- Turmeric– This earthy, slightly bitter spice comes from the root of a plant related to ginger. It is used for its intense, bright yellow-orange color and is a main ingredient in many curry powders. It has many medicinal uses and is commonly used in Asia as an antiseptic for burns and cuts and as a remedy for nausea and abdominal cramps. Turmeric is also known to have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Masala Mac & Cheese
- 12- oz. cavatappi pasta
- 2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil like grapeseed or safflower
- 1 cup minced onion
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2 cups chopped plum tomatoes plus 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ cup flour
- 3 cups milk
- 2 cups shredded Medium Cheddar cheese, divided use
- 2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided use
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro plus extra for garnish
- ¾ cup frozen peas
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Set a large pasta pot filled with salted water to boil over high heat. Cook the pasta 2 minutes less than package directions indicate for al dente. Drain and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 8-10 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes until fragrant, then add the chopped tomatoes, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and salt. Cook until tomatoes break down and mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and whisk into the melted butter. Cook for 2 minutes, then gradually whisk in the milk. Cook until the sauce starts to thicken, stirring often. Add 1 ½ cups each of Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. Pour the tomato masala (spice) mixture from the skillet into the cheese sauce and add the fresh cilantro and peas. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Add the cooked pasta and stir to combine well.
- Pour the mixture into a lightly greased 13 x 9” baking tray. Arrange the tomato slices on top of the pasta and sprinkle the remaining ½ cup each of Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses over the top. Bake 30-35 minutes, until cheese is bubbly. Remove from oven and garnish with fresh chopped cilantro. Serve warm.