Recipe: Caramelized onion, pepper, and mushroom mac & cheese

Caramelizing the onions...these are nearly halfway there.
Caramelizing the onions…these are nearly halfway there.

Since this is my last week cooking in Cambridge (England, anyway), I felt obliged to use up my most expensive pantry item. That happened to be the wholegrain spelt fusili that was languishing in the back of my cupboard. I also wanted to cook something with mushrooms; my dad hates them, so we rarely cook them at home, plus they were on sale at Aldi! Somehow, those two factors added up to this totally un-seasonal meal. Maybe it’s the cooler and rainier weather we’ve been having this week.

The upside of the onions taking so long is that you can prep everything else in the meantime.
The upside of the onions taking so long is that you can prep everything else in the meantime.

Well, whatever the reason, I don’t regret making it, because it tastes great! I took an intriguing recipe that called for Greek yogurt as a major component of the cheese sauce and turned it into more of a one-pot meal by adding some vegetables and chicken breast. The most time-consuming bit is properly caramelizing the onions. If you decide to merely cook them until soft, it will take a lot less time (and I won’t tell 🙂 ).

Nearly maximizing my stove use!
Nearly maximizing my stove use!


The chicken is cooked in a separate pan because by the time you add the peppers and mushrooms to the onions, there isn’t enough space to get  the pieces properly browned. I’ve listed chicken as optional here because I think it would be pretty decent as a vegetarian dish without it; personally, I would definitely recommend keeping it in, since it adds quite a bit of flavor.

I kind of just wanted to eat this and not wait any more.
I kind of just wanted to eat this and not wait any more.

One aspect of the recipe as I made it up that I’m on the fence about is the spinach. I like the taste and color that it adds, but it also adds an extra step at the end, and it was kind of hard to incorporate. The main reason for this, and also my main struggle cooking the meal, was that the cooking directions for the pasta were just plain wrong. The package said to cook for 7 to 10 minutes, but mine were overdone at 5. As a result, the fusili kind of disintegrated as I stirred in the cheese, yogurt, vegetable-chicken mix, and spinach. I’d recommend using a different pasta shape that is a bit less fragile (suggestions in the recipe), as well as making sure you under-cook it by a minute or two. That goes double if you’re adding spinach, since it will continue cooking as you let the spinach wilt.

Mixing it up is a bit messy.
Mixing it up is a bit messy.

Well, it’s definitely not perfect, but I sure didn’t mind eating it. Maybe practice will make perfect if I cook this again in a different Cambridge…

Some extra cheese, hot sauce, and parsley really seal the deal.
Some extra cheese, hot sauce, and parsley really seal the deal.

Caramelized Onion, Pepper, and Mushroom Mac & Cheese
(with optional chicken and baby spinach)

Yield: 5-6 servings.

Adapted from: Texanerin.

1 Tbsp olive oil (you may need more)
1-2 medium onions, sliced into strips
2 red bell peppers, chopped
250 g mushrooms, halved, then sliced
~2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped (optional)
Optional marinade for chicken: 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1/2-1 tsp honey
8 oz small pasta (suggestions: macaroni, orechiette, conchiglie)
4 oz (113 g) grated sharp cheddar
1 oz (28 g) grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan
3/4 c plain Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp garlic powder
100-150 g baby spinach, washed (optional)

Heat half the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally and deglazing with water (or adding more oil) as needed, until they are caramelized. Increase heat to medium and add peppers and a bit of salt and pepper. Cook until peppers are about halfway to your desired softness, then add mushrooms and stir to incorporate. Cook, stirring occasionally, until peppers are tender and mushrooms are browned.

In a separate skillet (maybe), heat remaining oil over medium heat. Add chicken. Stir occasionally until chicken is lightly browned on the sides and cooked through, then add to vegetable skillet. Reduce heat to low and let sit, stirring occasionally, just to keep it warm while the pasta cooks.

Prepare the pasta according to package directions minus at least 2 minutes, until very al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.

Return the pasta to the pot (which should be on the stove over low heat) and add about 1/4 cup of the reserved water. Stir in the cheese and when melted, add in the Greek yogurt, paprika powder, and garlic powder. Stir until well combined. If it’s too thick for you, add some of the remaining reserved pasta water. Stir in vegetable and chicken mixture and baby spinach, trying to get as much spinach covered as possible (you may need to add the ). Cover and let sit 1 minute, then stir. Repeat until spinach has wilted. Eat immediately.

Serving suggestion: hot, topped with one or more of the following: more cheese, hot sauce, chile flakes, smoked paprika, and/or parsley.

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