Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Mac and Cheese–Lightened Up

We just returned home after being out of town for several days.  Even though we’re low on groceries, and a little tired out from a late-night flight, I still wanted to eat something home-made for supper.  If you ask me, a delicious bowl of creamy Macaroni and Cheese is the best way to welcome yourself home.  A while back, I read a recipe for Spicy Macaroni and Cheese on the Pioneer Woman, a popular blog by Ree Drummond, a real life Ranch-Mom and author of hearty homespun recipes from the Oklahoma frontier.  When I read the original recipe I thought it looked yummy, but I also thought the fat content was a little over the top for a person who hasn’t been out wrassling cattle all afternoon.  Last night, I made a skillet of Spicy Mac with a few modifications that lightened up an ingredient list that is a little too rich for my blood and within the constraints of a nearly-empty refrigerator

My recipe takes most cues from the Pioneer Woman version.  I started assembling my “cast of characters” to make sure I had enough of the main ingredients to make the recipe.  If you are up for using 2 Tablespoons of Butter and a Cup of Heavy Cream in your spicy Mac and Cheese, you can follow this link back to Pioneer Woman to follow the original recipe.  I’m sure it would be over-the-top delicious.  I reduced the butter, used fat-free half and half, had to substitute jalapenos from a jar for fresh, and sharp cheddar for pepper jack cheese because that was all there was in the fridge.  I added orange bell pepper to the ingredient list because I had one.  I love making my meals into a colorful, antioxidant-rich rainbow.  I am not going to pull any punches, my Spicy Mac wasn’t exactly “light,” but the slight adjustments brought the calorie-count down into a normal range for a serving of a satisfying size.  I didn’t leave anything out that added flavor.  


  • 4 cups cooked elbow macaroni (about 2 cups dry) or another small pasta such as cavatappi
  • ½ tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ finely diced red onion
  • ½ red bell pepper – diced
  • ½ orange bell pepper – diced
  • 2 tablespoons jalapenos from a jar – finely diced
  • 1 – 4 ounce can chopped green chilies
  • 1 heaping cup of frozen corn
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup fat free half and half – I use fat free half and half because it was the only dairy we had in the fridge. Milk with a fat content of your preference, half & half or the real deal heavy cream will all work wonderfully. 
  • 1 heaping cup of grated sharp cheddar, pepper jack or Monterrey Jack cheese
  • ¼ teaspoon to 2 Tablespoons butter – optional                                                          
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

The entire dish took about 30 minutes, start to finish.  I began by filling a sauce pan of water with a dash of salt to boil for the pasta, and heating a skillet with a small glug of olive oil over medium heat.  While those warmed up, I chopped the red onion, red and orange peppers into small chunks of a similar size.  I chopped a few forkfuls of jalapenos from the jar.  The next time I make this, I will of course try to have a fresh jalapeno, but if I don’t, I will probably use more of the jarred jalapenos.  The jalapeno adds most of the heat, and quantities can be adjusted up or down depending on your spice tolerance.  I sautéed the onion and garlic a few minutes before adding the bell pepper.  At the same time, I started boiling the noodles to a little less than “done” so they could cook a little more in the sauce to become al dente.  When the onions, bell peppers, garlic and jalapenos were bright and heading toward tender-crisp, I added a heaped cup of frozen corn.  When the veggies were cooking, but still had crunch, I added a can of diced green chilis.  Diced green chilies have become a pantry staple in our house.  They are mild and they add a smoky complexity to Southwest and Mexican soups and stews without too much heat.  When the veggies were nearly done, I turned off the heat in the skillet, and drained the pasta.  The sauce is extremely simple, which is a plus.  This is the perfect macaroni and cheese to make when you don’t have the time, or the desire to monkey around making a roux.  I simply added the fat free half and half and cheese to the skillet and stirred it gently into the vegetables. A skillet retains heat for a long time, so it was warm enough to warm the “cream” and melt the cheese.  Finally, I added the pasta to the skillet.  I stirred gently to combine the pasta, veggies and sauce in the skillet.  Per Ree’s advice, I added a little extra cheese to thicken the sauce a bit.  Instead of the two pats of butter from the original recipe, I stirred in just the tiniest bit of butter.  You could totally leave the butter out and you probably wouldn’t miss it, even though the silkiness it adds to the sauce is quite nice.

Channeling Pioneer Woman, I served the Spicy Mac right from the skillet, frontier style.    We enjoyed the rainbow of veggies, the warming spiciness and of course, the cheesy, comforting macaroni noodles.  Ah, we’re home. When I make this again, I would probably up the spice a notch or two… something red, a little Smoked Paprika, Cayenne Pepper, Chili Powder or Chili Flakes, perhaps?  

The Spicy Mac also passed the lunch test.  We both enjoyed a second serving with a small salad for lunch the next day.  Ree Drummond suggests this as a dish to be served alongside a juicy steak.  I might just do that the next time I need a meatless dish when my pardner is grilling steak.  We both thought this Mac & Cheese stood well all alone.  I recommend serving it alone with salt and pepper on the table and a cold beer, or a tall glass of milk.

*I like to welcome myself home with Mac & Cheese, I also like to eat Mac & Cheese when I’m dining alone, when we have something to celebrate, on a rainy day, and for no reason at all.  If you’ve been here before you will note that Mac & Cheese in all forms is my favorite.

Getting Ready for Mexico and a Late Lunch at Rosa Mexicano

We’re taking a trip to Cancun, Mexico in a week, and so we’ve been looking for ways to sample south-of-the-border flavors as a fun way to gear up and get excited.*  Today, I sat down to write a post about a delicious Mexican meal we ate yesterday, and I made myself a snack to enjoy while writing.  I doubt I’m the only person who gets hungry when reading and writing about food.  I don’t usually snack while I post, but this is the sort of activity weekends are made of at our house.

This simple snack verging on a meal is known in our house as Chip N’ Chee.  It was christened by our friend Jonny, who prefers to top his Chip N’ Chee with kippered snacks.  My version consisted of Nacho Chips, sliced black olives and Colby Jack cheese, melted in the microwave for about 30 seconds, served with smoky jarred Frontera Habenero Salsa and a Tecate beer.  It can be made more elaborately with jalapeno, diced tomatoes, and onions then heated in the oven and served with sour cream and guac, but I went for simplicity today.  Are tortilla chips and melted cheese an authentic Mexican snack?  No, but it has some authentic elements,** and I think it is fair to call it Minnesota-Mexican.***  Yesterday was a lazy day that started with sleeping in and then eating a hearty brunch sandwich.  That sort of morning meal is best followed by either a late lunch, or an early supper, whichever suits your fancy.  We fancied a late lunch.   We were downtown running errands yesterday afternoon and found ourselves hungry, so we decided to stop for a mid-afternoon bite.  I was shuffling through my mental list of restaurants to try, and fortunately, our upcoming trip to Mexico jogged a memory of a recent Heavy Table post about Rosa Mexicano, a new Mexican restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.  I was able to locate the restaurant’s address quickly on my handy-dandy new smart phone.  Rosa Mexicano is a Mexican restaurant that has been around since the ’80’s in New York and Miami, and just recently showed up in Minneapolis on the corners of 6th and Hennepin.  We arrived and were seated immediately in the dining room.  The decor is colorful and sleek, and there is zero kitch which is ubiquitous with Mexican restaurants throughout Minnesota.****  The dining room was wide open, and about half full of diners, which I would imagine is a decent crowd on a Saturday afternoon on which a snowstorm  is expected.  We sat at a two-top in the center of the room, and I faced a tiled blue fountain above which was suspended a mobile with a hundred or so small, identical white human sculptures poised in mid-dive and suspended by fine wire at varying levels above the fountain’s square pool.  Other than the impressive fountain and diver mobile at room’s center, the only decor to be seen are straight-sided glass vases displayed along the wall separating the dining room from the bar, each containing a liquid dyed different colors with, what I guess, was food coloring.  The walls, tables and chairs are painted in blocks of purple and pink, a nod, I’m guessing to the restaurant’s moniker.  Our server was raring to go and encouraged us to try the famous guacamole, which is their signature dish, made table-side on a cart.  I glanced around the room and determined that the big pot of guacamole would be too much for me today unless it was the only thing I was going to eat, so we decided to try it another time.  Again, at the suggestion of the author from the Heavy Table article, and in preparation for Mexico, we decided to select a  flight of three tequilas to share.  We opted for Reposado tequilas; tequilas that have been rested on oak barrels for a time.  We selected the Hurradura, Corazon and Tres Generaciones, and we liked them all, but liked the third the best.  The flight is served in  skinny hand-blown shot-glasses of uneven size and were accompanied by a 4th shot glass containing a salty and spicy tomato-y “Sangrita,” aka, chaser, which we sipped, but didn’t finish.

After perusing the menu for a time I opted for Tacos Vegetales a la Brasa, which are Skillet Roasted Seasonal Vegetables topped with a soft herbed cheese and served with red bean chili, corn esquites and a tomatillo mocajete salsa.  Per the title, the roasted carrots, onions and green and yellow zucchini squash arrived in a small square skillet, with each accompaniment in its own separate dish, perched on top of my plate.  The dish was served with a side of flax tortillas, which arrived in a pink plastic tortilla warmer.  The pink plastic serving dish was, in my opinion, the only cheesy element of the restaurant’s overall presentation, but I guess if you are going Rosa, you go all out.  I was a little nervous about flax tortillas and considered asking them to bring me corn instead, which are served with all of the restaurant’s meat-centered dishes.  I kind of hate how vegetarian dishes are always accompanied by healthier breads and sides than omnivore options.  Just because I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean I am trying to eat extra-healthy all the time.  I presume in this case, the corn tortillas served with the non-vegetarian dishes contain, or are cooked in pork or beef fat.  Unlike the numerous disappointingly dry whole wheat buns I’ve eaten with veggie burgers around the world, the flax tortillas were fresh, not overly grainy and overall quite good.

Bjorn chose the Enchiladas Mole Xico, which consists of two corn tortillas filled with shredded beef seasoned with chipotle peppers and topped with Veracruz mole made with raisins, plantains,  hazelnuts, pine nuts, ancho and pasilla chilis and garnished with Mexican creama and queso fresco.  In addition to our individual plates of food we were served a generous bowl of the house rice topped with cilantro and another ample serving of refried black beans topped with queso fresco as well as two salsas: a smoky pasilla de Oaxaca which we loved, and a salsa de tomatillo y Habanero, which we liked less.

As a whole, we both thought the meal was special.  The food was beautifully presented and the flavors were well-developed and were surprising and unique, compared to almost all Mexican food that either of us have eaten.  There was an obvious attention to authentic flavors and careful seasoning.  Of everything on the table, I most enjoyed the refried beans and the corn esquites.  The refried beans were creamy and tasty.  Corn esquites was new to me, made of fresh corn cut off the cob, and served in a creamy sauce with cayenne pepper and Cotija cheese.  I also enjoyed the dollop of creamy, mild, herbed cheese on top of my veggie tacos.  Using only a touch of cheese has become fashionable in higher-end Mexican restaurants because it is more typical of authentic Mexican cuisine.  It is a contrast to the melted-cheese encrusted plates at a typical Mexican restaurant in the Midwest.  I like cheese though, so I was glad they didn’t skimp.  Bjorn was most impressed with the spicy beef in his enchiladas, the flavorful mole, and the smoky pasilla salsa.   There was plenty to eat without getting stuffed.  In addition to the great flavors, there were certain details of the food presentation that increased our enjoyment.  The water was served out of pitchers containing ice, but there was no ice in our glasses.  The separate serving dishes for each of the meal’s elements made it easier to enjoy their distinct flavors and textures without having them run together on our plates into a nondescript mass.  We left just as it began to snow, feeling warmed, satisfied, and happy to anticipate a trip to Mexico in our near future.

*Not that we need much help to get excited for a free, all-inclusive trip to Mexico in December.

**The most authentic Mexican element of this snack is probably the beer.

***Sitting down to eat and write about this lead me to ponder why there is so much discussion of authenticity in preparing a regional cuisine when we are so blooming far from locales where these cuisines originate?  I think people want you to know that with exceptions of home-cooked meals by people who learned at home, and restaurants that pay attention to authenticity, what you make in your Midwestern home and eat at most Midwestern restaurants is nothing like the local cuisine of say, Tuscany, or Jalisco.  Nonetheless, there are some nods in that direction, and it is great to enjoy food with a measure of global curiosity.  At the same time it is important to understand and appreciate the truly traditional and authentic approach to cooking and eating from different parts of the world.  If I ate only the traditional dishes of our region, I would go pretty hungry as a vegetarian.

****Save for Masa, another downtown Minneapolis where the decor and all surfaces in the restaurant are stark white.