Creamy, Cheesy, Artichoke, Spinach and Feta Mac ‘n’ Cheese
1 Pound Rotini Pasta
1 ½ Sticks Unsalted Butter + extra for buttering baking dish
10 Minced Garlic Cloves, Finely Minced
½ Cups All Purpose Flour
5 Cups Whole Milk
1-3 tsp. Salt, separated
1 tsp. White Pepper
2 Cups Grated Parmesan
2 Cup Feta Cheese Crumbles
¾ Cup Plain Greek Yogurt
1-6oz. Bag of Fresh Baby Spinach, Washed and Dried
2 – 14.5 oz. Can Artichoke Hearts, Drained and cut into quarters
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
Juice from 1 Lemon
1-2 tsp. Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
1 Cup Fresh Dill, Minced
2 Cups Garlic Croutons, Crushed into a coarse crumb
Prepare The “Stir Ins”
In a small bowl mix together the Artichoke Hearts, Olive Oil, Lemon Juice and Red Pepper Flakes. I like 2 tsp. of Red Pepper Flakes, it gives the pasta a nice zing, however, if you are concerned about spice, start with 1 tsp. and add more if you wish! Set this aside.
Prepare The Pasta
Fill a large pot with water, bring it to a boil, add salt and stir in dry pasta. Boil the pasta, until it is just slightly undercooked, it should still have a little bit of “chew” to it. Before draining the pasta, remove about 2 cups of the cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta in a colander, return it to the pot, drizzle with a splash of olive oil, so that the noodles don’t stick to each other and set aside.
Make The Cheese Sauce
While you are bringing your pasta water to a boil and then preparing the pasta, you can get rolling on the Cheese Sauce. In a large heavy pot, I use a 5 qt. Dutch Oven, melt the Butter over medium heat. When the Butter has melted add the Garlic. Stir it around for about 1 minute, infusing the butter with flavor, but not browning the Garlic. Next add the Flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. You want the butter, garlic and flour to become one, taking care that they do not get golden or light brown in color. Stir for about 3 minutes, it will look a little pasty and the minced garlic will give it a nubby texture, don’t be fooled by that, it is easy to think that the garlic is bits of un-incorporated flour. When the Butter, Flour and Garlic paste have come together, start adding the milk, beginning with a few drops, mix together, and then begin pouring more liberally. For this step you will want to use a whisk so that the Flour and Garlic become nice and smooth in the sauce, scraping all of the nooks and crannies of the pot so that nothing is left sticking to the sides and bottom. When all of the milk has been added and the white sauce is steamy, shiny and creamy (it should “Stick” to the back of a wooden spoon and sorta glide off) remove the pot from the heat and stir in the following ingredients: 1 tsp. Salt, White Pepper, Parmesan and Greek Yogurt. Stir until they have fully mixed into the sauce. Next add the Feta Cheese, Feta is not a melty cheese, so you will stir it into the mixture, but it will not melt into it. Taste at this point and see if you would like to add more Salt or, or at this time, Black Pepper. Because salt levels in cheese vary depending on where they are from and each brand is a little bit different, be sure you taste as you go, you may end up using all 3 tsp. of Salt or just one, depending on the salt level of your cheeses.
Put It Together!
When the cheese sauce is ready stir the pasta right in the cheese sauce. Next, stir in the Baby Spinach, in handfuls, it will wilt into the mixture and finish cooking down in the oven. Next stir in the Artichoke Hearts, followed by the Dill. While you are adding the above ingredients you can pour in some of the leftover pasta water to loosen things up. This won’t ruin the flavor it will just keep the mixture nice and loose and slick. Once again, taste the Pasta Mixture at this point, this is your final check on the salt and pepper levels. Now pour the Mac ‘n’ Cheese into one large Lasagna Style Baking dish that has been buttered on the inside. If you don’t have a really large casserole dish like this you can spit it into a couple of dishes, or several smaller individual servings! If you are serving right away top the Mac ‘n’ Cheese with the Garlic Croutons, otherwise, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to bake it. Before baking it, scatter the Croutons on top of the pasta.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place the casserole in the center of the oven and bake for 30 – 40 minutes. The sides will be nice and bubbly and the top gold and crispy! If the croutons are getting to dark you can loosely set a piece of tin foil over it and remove a few minutes before taking the dish out of the oven. After removing from the oven let it sit for about 5 minutes, and you are then ready to serve!
Prepare In Advance
This recipe makes a lot, so you can put it in two baking dishes and wrap one up for later up and put in the freezer. Take it out the night before you want to bake it and let it thaw in the fridge. Sprinkle the croutons on top just before placing in oven and bake it following the above instructions.