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Low Mileage Kitchen: Put the squeeze on mac ’n’ cheese

Make more nutritious macaroni cheese by adding pureed butternut squash.  |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Make a more nutritious macaroni and cheese by adding pureed butternut squash. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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The year-round Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, 66 E. Randolph, offers Midwest-grown foods and other locally produced edibles, including those used in this recipe. Cooking classes are offered through the World Kitchen program ( Reach the Farmstand at (312) 742-8419, or go to

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:35AM

Six weeks prior to setting our New Year’s resolutions, all counting of calories and carbs goes on hiatus. It is, after all, the holidays, and that’s all the excuse anyone needs for overeating.

Bountiful dinner tables and multiple calorie-filled parties, sometimes on the same day, fill the calendar. The New Year’s Eve dress, while glamorous, must stretch to accommodate the excesses between now and then.

Thanksgiving menu planning goes into high gear this week. If your menu, like mine, is defined by tradition and family favorites, there will be plenty of once-a-year dishes that are bombs on the nutritional scale. And if your family had any roots at all in the South, you won’t be able to skip placing a big pan of macaroni and cheese right next to the gooey sweet potatoes and fluffy mashed potatoes.

Every family has one cook whose version is acknowledged as the absolute best. (No question, my Aunt Betty’s would win in any contest.) And every family also has the traditionalist who will not abide changes to any recipe, no matter the reason.

But maybe just this once, a change is in order.

When Cooking Light magazine claimed to have the best mac and cheese recipe, it caught our attention. When we read the recipe and discovered their “secret,” we were intrigued. A test batch went right into the oven. Success!

It was creamy and had great flavor. We put it on a class menu and served it to dinner guests. Diehard critics loved it. Seeing the nutritional comparison with a traditional version, one student declared it “should go on every school lunch menu.”

The secret? Using butternut squash in the sauce and replacing much of the usual cream and butter. Dark orange butternut squash makes the dish appear to be old-fashioned when it most certainly is not, while sneaking in fiber and vitamins where you don’t expect them.

Using several low-calorie and low-sodium ingredients cuts totals by nearly a third. Full-flavor hard cheeses keep the cheesy factor high but the fat numbers lower. And crunchy bread crumbs on top give it just the crusty finish we crave.

While a typical mac ’n’ cheese has 908 calories, 963 milligrams of sodium and 36 grams of saturated fat per serving, the numbers for this recipe are 390, 590 and 6, respectively.

You have six weeks to overeat. This recipe and a few other tricks like it may mean you still will be able to fit into that New Year’s Eve dress. Just don’t tell the doubters how you did it. With all of the distractions on the table, they probably won’t notice, anyway.

Even Aunt Betty would be amazed.

Judith Dunbar Hines is the director of culinary arts and events for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, which operates Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.

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