Monday, February 06, 2012

Super-Healthy Chili Mac

You might not run off yelling into the night about how awesome this is, but then again it is a very good and satisfying dish of food.

I am not making dinner dinners as much as I used to, and I can’t tell if it’s a phase or a shifting worldview. Nine times out of ten these days, if Michael’s not home for dinner, then the kids and I light candles at the coffee table, and sit around it on the floor to enjoy a simple meal of fresh bread, goat cheese, and oranges. Or a giant Caesar salad that we eat right out of the bowl, sometimes with real homemade croutons (the kids’ first choice) and sometimes with roasted chickpeas standing in for them, so I’m sure we get some protein.

Michael overheard me telling this to a friend, and was, like, WTF?, because he’s hardly the kind of man you need to make a big meat-and-potatoes dinner for. He has an even longer history of vegetarianism than me, for one thing, and for another he is very easy to please. He really is. The Patriots’ loss notwithstanding.

Maybe it’s that he doesn’t like goat cheese, not even the good kind from Trader Joe’s that I marinate in olive oil, lemon zest, garlic, and herbs. And maybe it’s that he’s too big to sit comfortably on the floor. And maybe it’s that the kids and I are bigger romantics than he is, and we crave the intimacy and appetizers-at-a-party feeling of our living-room meals. I’m not sure.

Bean pasta!!! (Unhelpful visual. I didn't take a lot of pictures.)
So we are still eating plenty of beans and brown rice, plenty of wide bowls of freshly cooked pintos dressed simply with olive oil and salt, plenty of black bean soup and lentil soup and beans, beans, beans every which way. I cook meat, chicken, or fish maybe once a week, if that, and if there’s one main staple in the house, it’s—can you see this coming?—beans. So here’s one of our go-to meals, and we call it Chili Mac, because that sounds better than Bean Pasta, but it’s not really chili mac. What it is is more of a concept than a recipe—a quick and ever-changing combination of pasta and beans (tinned or leftover or even leftover soup, depending), and whatever else we have around that would be good in it. Kale or spinach, say. Or herbs. Or odds and ends of cheese. It’s the kind of recipe that requires a few strict principles, and then the variations are nearly infinite. The strict principles are these:

·      Cook the pasta in well-salted water and butter it after you drain it. These two steps guarantee that the dish you build around it will be good.
·      Use plenty of olive oil. It is the base of the sauce you are making.
·      Add something a little bit acidic: tomato paste and/or vinegar and/or lemon juice.
·      Add plenty of cheese.
·      Add something crunchy: butter-toasted breadcrumbs is everyone’s favorite, but here I’m using toasted walnuts. Toasted pepitas or slivered almonds are good too.

Super-Healthy Chili Mac
Serves 4-6
Active time: 15 minutes; total time 30 minutes

If I’m using white beans or chickpeas, I will sauté a stalk or two of chopped celery with the onions, and add lemon juice and lemon zest to the final dish. And I might not call it Chili Mac. If I’m using pinto or black beans, I often go in a more robust direction with a little bit of smoked paprika and/or chipotles, and a nice oozy layer of grated cheddar.

1 pound whole-wheat pasta shapes (I like Bionaturae, which is often on sale at Whole Foods)
3 tablespoons butter
1 15-ounce can of any kind of beans (or two cups cooked beans or bean soup)
1 small onion, diced
1/3 cup delicious olive oil, plus more as needed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Sherry vinegar (or lemon juice or balsamic vinegar)
Toasted walnuts (or different nuts or butter-toasted breadcrumbs)
Grated Parmesan (or cheddar or crumbled feta)
Chopped parsley (or basil or cilantro)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a large handful of salt, and taste the water. It should be as salty as the sea. Cook the pasta, drain it, and add the butter.

Heat the bowls, if you think to, in a very low oven.

Meanwhile, over medium-low heat, sauté the onion in oil until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté another minute or two, then add the tomato paste, and the beans with their liquid, and simmer until it the beans are fragrant and hot. Add salt and a teaspoon or two sherry vinegar (2 teaspoons) to taste, and make sure it’s loose and saucy (if it’s not, add some more olive oil and/or some of the pasta cooking water).

If the pan is big enough, stir the buttered pasta into the beans—otherwise combine them gently in a large bowl. You’ll want to stir in about half the pasta to start, and see how much more pasta the sauce can take. I suppose it might make sense to cook only half of the past, but (full disclosure) the kids like to have their seconds be plain buttered pasta.

Top each bowl with walnuts, cheese, and parsley.

Bean pasta!!!

This photo is so cute, if not exactly a ringing endorsement. But the kids are happy enough to eat this, I swear.


  1. Anonymous6:56 PM

    Seems like a less watery version of pasta e fagioli! Looks great!!

  2. This is perfect! I am looking at increasing our beans and meatless dishes around here and paired with pasta makes everyone happy.

  3. Love beans and pasta! Honestly I would eat a version of this every. single. day. if my family would let me get away with it.

  4. I'm right there with you about the not cooking dinner so much right now.

  5. Tina G10:26 AM

    Whoa!! Giant Kitty alert! I love your chili mac concept. There is a company called Bean Cuisine that used to sell boxed pasta and bean things to boil and eat that were oh so yummy and the spices were just heavenly. Boxed- I know, but I wasn't much of a cook then. Well, since they have long since been discontinued, I re-create it in my own way- similar to this dish of yours. Must try your version asap :)

  6. ladidah10:43 AM

    i've been wondering how black beans are with pasta so i'm glad you are endorsing it. will try it.

  7. Jim and I are ALL THE TIME saying how we need to find more meatless meals that still involve a protein source- enter beans. Except sometimes kids are funny about beans. But with enough cheese, I think my kids will eat anything, so I'm totally going to try this.

  8. Not sure why I loved this post, maybe because it's just so "Catherine," what with the beans and cat photos and a little romanticism twinned with practicality.

  9. Thank you for this post! There is something about the depths of February that just put a damper on my menu planning as well. This is just the kind of recipe we need. One that doesn't require a trip to the store, or too much foresight. And it's funny that you called it Chili Mac, because my first thought when I read the title was "ugggh, ground meat!" So glad to find this version has been transformed into something fresh and healthy! We will try it tonight!

  10. Although it looks quite delish it has quite a lot of fat to be labeled super-healthy I think. Kinda makes me want it even more though.

  11. alison3:27 PM

    I’m so confused by beans (I love them), but I have NO idea how to get them into my dinner. My first question is where do they come from? A Can? Are they dry in a bag? If so how do a make them eatable? I don’t know what fragrant beans smell like? Isn’t everybody against canned things these days? Please help me!

  12. alison3:27 PM

    I’m so confused by beans (I love them), but I have NO idea how to get them into my dinner. My first question is where do they come from? A Can? Are they dry in a bag? If so how do a make them eatable? I don’t know what fragrant beans smell like? Isn’t everybody against canned things these days? Please help me!

  13. Made it. Ate it. Yummy (and fast)!

  14. It looks very delishes. Chili Mac is very nice but.... the plate is Turkish made. From İznik. We called "çini"

  15. Kathy, I tend to be more worried about what nutrients there ARE than how much fat there ISN'T. But I know that not everyone shares my point of view! And Alison, beans. I'm guessing you're not wanting my big pressure-cooker lecture. But that's what I would say, really. Get a pressure cooker, then you can cook them from scratch in ten minutes and they will be fantastic. Otherwise try to find beans that are in safe cans (Google this).

  16. Deslyn8:09 PM

    Yummy! Catherine, I made this for dinner tonight along with your crack broccoli. Perfect weeknight dinner. Thank you!

  17. I used to cook macaroni pasta. This is different i'm sure kids will like it.
    thanks for sharing.

  18. How did you get your kids to eat all this healthy food when they were younger? Did you just only make a healthy food for dinner and make them eat some? Or let them not eat any and then whine inconveniently at bedtime that they're hungry and then go get the leftovers out of the fridge? Or what? I get so tired of the battles whenever I cook something like squash. Or beans. Or tomatoes. or anything other than broccoli, peas and carrots. Some nights I just don't have energy for it, but then I really want them to like a wide variety of foods when they get older. Any thoughts by any of you are welcome.

  19. Froilyn- Philippines2:06 AM

    Sigh. Good for you for having Easy-To-Please-Michael. My husband is so fussy (I won't even call it being health conscious), he won't eat anything that he can see or he knows has any kind of oil (yes, even super duper uber extra virgin olive oil)! Bummer!

  20. ok so I had to share with you some silly thoughts, after I read this I thought to myself wow! sitting on the living room floor eating, and not worrying about small people making messes, oh I'll so look forward to that...I was actually thinking about this again this afternoon as I was trying to come up with a dinner plan, then TOTALLY spontaneously my son (who JUST turned 6) arranged a "party" in the living room fro dinner. While I cooked my new fav kale salad (
    he arranged bowls of fruits and drinks etc. He read my mind, seriously, it was almost creepy, except it was SO sweet and cute! Anyway, I thought you'd appreciate it! ;)

  21. So I read this today and it sounded so good that I had to make it when I got home, except I was out of this and decided to use that and had extra of this but none of that and was in a rush and...well...maybe it was sort of a completely different dish when I was done with it, but it was so amazing and my almost-2-yr-old and my 3.5-yr-old absolutely scarfed it down and for that I love you, plus it was really, really good.

    And here is my story of it all: