A sweet potato mac and cheese casserole for when boss ladies make lunch

Have you ever cooked on a blind date?

A woman I knew only casually through work decided that she wanted to host a blind date lunch on Saturday with other acquaintances who happen to be women doing awesome work in Austin. The host is relatively new to town and was hoping to expand her friend circle, and she had had the idea of making lunch together to get to know one another better.

As soon as I walked into her house and saw her quilting room, I knew we’d make the transition into friendship pretty easily, but cooking together turned out to be an excellent way to test out the friendship waters and make a delicious meal in the process.

“Boss Ladies who make Boss Lunch” ended up being the theme of the day.

This sweet potato mac and cheese has Brussels sprouts greens from Springdale Farm. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

This cheesy sweet potato mac and cheese has Brussels sprouts greens from Springdale Farm. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Five of us — mostly strangers or at least not already established in the friend zone — gathered around her kitchen island, sharing stories about our work, our personal lives and the cheesy, veg-heavy casserole we were working on together.

As the parts of the casserole were coming together — the homemade cheese sauce, the greens and pasta that our host boiled together — I realized that by cooking together, we were engaging in our own little act of rebellion. How many other groups of professional women got together for lunch that day but went out to eat or get drinks instead? There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it was refreshing to be invited into someone’s home on a blind date and be asked to lend a hand in the kitchen.

Being asked to help cook is a surefire way to convince me that you’re the kind of friend I want in my life, but it also dispenses with some of the getting-to-know-you friend formalities that prevent many of us from venturing out in the first place. Chopping and mashing and mixing gave us something to do with our hands while we talked, and we were all invested in the final outcome of the dish. With a clear beginning, middle and end, cooking a dish gave a refreshing rhythm to the blind date.

We all knew that we would be cooking when we got together, and by the time we finished up our meal in her backyard, it was time to carry on with our day with the good food in our bellies and a renewed sense of connection.

Not every person thrives in a social setting like this, and not every dish works for all-hands-on-deck cooking, either. But when the stars align, “Boss Ladies who make Boss Lunch” is a pretty awesome idea to explore.

Do you like to cook with other people? What about people you don’t know very well? If you were hosting a collaborative cooking lunch, what would you make? Let us know in the comments below or over on Instagram, where I first posted about this.

Sweet Potato Mac and Cheese with Spinach

Swiss chard is one of many leafy greens you can saute or serve raw. Photo by Clare Miers.

You could use any number of greens in this casserole, including Swiss chard. Photo by Clare Miers.

I love having sweet potatoes in my pantry because they last forever and go with everything. Rice, pasta, stews, roasted meats. You name it, I’ve probably put sweet potato in it, but I’d never added mashed sweet potatoes to mac and cheese until this weekend. The sweet potato taste didn’t come through as much as the color and comforting texture that amplified the coziness of the cheese sauce.

— Addie Broyles

2 medium (about 1 lb.) sweet potatoes
2 1/2 cups whole milk
3 cups (about 8 oz.) dried whole wheat pasta
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup shredded Asiago cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 handfuls spinach or other greens

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Peel and chop the sweet potato, and then add to the water, cooking for 10 to 15 minutes, or under the potatoes are soft enough to smash. Drain and let cool slightly. Place the potatoes in a bowl with a splash of milk and mash until smooth.

Bring another pot of water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and cook pasta as instructed 6 to 8 minutes, adding the chopped greens during the last few minutes of cooking. (Tender greens, such as spinach, can be cooked in the next step while the pasta is baking in the oven, but thicker greens, such as collards or kale, should be simmered for the last 3-5 minutes of the pasta cooking.) Pasta should still be al dente because it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain and set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a saucepan, melt butter and add garlic, cooking over medium heat for 1 minute. Whisk in flour and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in remaining milk, salt and pepper; cook until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and whisk in sweet potato puree. Mix together the cheeses and add 3/4 of the cheese mixture.

In a large casserole dish, mix together the pasta and cheese sauce. Mix until pasta is well coated with cheese sauce. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top, and bake for 25 to 35 minutes until cheese on top browns on the edges. Serves 6.

— Adapted from a recipe by NaturallyElla.com blogger Erin Alderson

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