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Winter squash adds creaminess and enhances the dish's signature orange color. / Photo credit: Renee Comet/USA WEEKEND. Food styling: Lisa Cherkasky
Winter squash adds creaminess and enhances the dish's signature orange color. / Photo credit: Renee Comet/USA WEEKEND. Food styling: Lisa Cherkasky
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Like an old friend who surprises you with a hidden talent, it turns out that macaroni and cheese can help satisfy appetites and enable us to get more nutrients — without anyone ever realizing it.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that subjects who had vegetable purees secretly incorporated into their meals consumed up to 350 fewer calories and two more vegetable servings daily than those who didn’t. More important: They were equally satisfied with the amount they ate and the taste of the meals.

Don’t believe it? The proof is in the glorious macaroni and cheese here, where pureed winter squash (thawed from frozen) lends the cheesy bake a creamy texture and essential nutrients like vitamin A and fiber. The flavor blends so seamlessly that no one will ever know you’ve added the extra vegetable.

The result: a comfort food you’ll want to serve to your loved ones again and again.

Creamy Macaroni and Four Cheeses

• Cooking spray
• One 16-ounce box elbow macaroni
• Two 10-ounce packages frozen pureed winter squash
• 2 cups low-fat milk
• 1 1/3 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (4 ounces)
• 2/3 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese (2 ounces)
• ½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. dry mustard
• 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
• 2 Tbs. plain dry bread crumbs
• 2 Tbs. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
• 1 tsp. olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

Cook the macaroni according to the package directions. Drain and transfer to the prepared baking dish.

Meanwhile, place the frozen squash and milk in a large saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring and breaking up the squash with a spoon until it’s defrosted. Turn the heat up to medium and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheddar, Jack cheese, ricotta, salt, mustard and cayenne. Pour mixture over the macaroni and stir.

Combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan and oil in a bowl. Sprinkle over top of the mac and cheese. Bake until the cheeses are bubbling around the edges, about 20 minutes, then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving (2 cups): 390 calories, 56g carbohydrates, 18g protein, 11g fat (6g saturated), 3.5g fiber, 35mg cholesterol, 547mg sodium

RECIPE REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF THE PUBLISHER, THE TAUNTON PRESS INC., FROM THE FOOD YOU CRAVE: LUSCIOUS RECIPES FOR A HEALTHY LIFE BY ELLIE KRIEGER. COPYRIGHT BY ELLIE KRIEGER.

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