Saturday, February 19, 2011

Feta Mac and Cheese with Olives and Artichoke Hearts

My roots are in the Middle East so Feta cheese and Kalamata olives have always done more than just tickle my tastebuds. They have satisfied some inner longing for a culture I've never experienced except in the kitchen. Pairing the earthiness of both these ingredients with macaroni just seems natural to me. I used penne to pay homage to the noodles used in Greek Pastichio.

Feta Mac and Cheese with Olives and Artichoke Hearts (Serves 8)


1 (1-pound) box penne pasta

2 cup 2% milk

1/3 cup all purpose flour

4 tablespoons butter

4 to 7 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon pepper

4 ounces Neufchatel cheese

8 ounces (1 1/3 cups) Wisconsin feta cheese, crumbled

1 medium onion, diced

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

24 Kalamata olives, rinsed and sliced

1 - 15 ounce can artichoke hearts in water, drained and quartered


Feta cheese and Kalamata olives both have a tendency to be salty. So it’s important that you taste your ingredients before you start this recipe. I call for rinsing the olives. This will take away some of the salt.

You can also temper the amount of salt in the feta by soaking it in milk overnight, then discarding the milk.

Heat the oven to 400°F. Cook pasta according to directions on the box. While the pasta is boiling prepare the white sauce.

Pour cold milk into a two-quart saucepan over low heat. Immediately stir in the flour until it disappears. Adding the flour into the still cold milk makes sure it won’t form lumps.

Add the butter and stir until it melts.

I like to use a silicone spatula so I can make sure the sauce doesn’t get scorched on the bottom of the pan.

Now add the garlic.

When I described this recipe to my friend at the local Greek deli, she told me “Use lots of garlic!”

I’m calling for 4 to 7 cloves. It all depends on just how much you love that tasty allium.

Add the oregano and pepper.

Add the Neufchatel and Feta to the sauce. Stir constantly until the Neufchatel is melted. The Feta will stay a bit lumpy.

Drain the pasta. Butter the casserole dish.

Pour the cheese sauce into the pasta.

Add the red pepper, olives and artichoke hearts. Mix well.

Pour the mixture into the buttered casserole.

Feta has a tendency to be dry, so bake the casserole covered for 40-45 minutes or until the edges of the pasta starts to brown.

We wrapped the finished casserole in a thick towel and trundled it off to our friends' football play-off party.

It was a big hit. We got the casserole dish back licked clean!

Find this and other fabulous mac and cheese recipes at 30 Days 30 Ways Mac and Cheese sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Less salt in Campbell's Healthy Kids Soup

Part of what I cover in my 4th and 5th grade cooking classes is how to read the Nutrition Facts on food labels and boxes. As an introduction to why cooking from scratch is so important, I hand out various types of prepackaged chicken noodle soups from ramen through condensed soups to ready-to-eat designer canned soups and organic chicken stocks.

I pass the cans, packets and boxes out, then ask the students to locate the white rectangle containing the Nutrition Facts. We talk about the different categories and calories. And then I zero in on sodium. Sodium, I explain is one of the components of salt, AKA sodium chloride.

We need salt in our diet. Salt helps animate our muscles. When we cry we can taste the salt in our tears (the kids all nod) and when we sweat we also lose salt. I tell them the next time they break a sweat in gym, to taste their forearms. They will be salty. That's why the Army gives soldiers salt pills when they work in extreme heat.

So if salt is so necessary, why should we be concerned about how much is in our food? I ask how many kids have parents or grandparents with high blood pressure. Lots of hands shoot up. I explain that high blood pressure is related to risk for heart attack and stroke. Eyes get wide.

Then we focus in on the students themselves. Kids their age should have a maximum of 2 grams of sodium in their daily diet. We do a little math and that comes to 2000 mg.

Then I hold up a ramen packet and ask how many kids eat ramen. Almost all the hands shoot up. I raise mine too. I confess, I eat ramen occasionally. I hand the packet to the nearest student and ask them to read the sodium content. They're usually shocked to find out the some ramens have up to 750 mg per serving. That's almost half a day's worth of salt.

Then I get to the scary part. I ask who eats the whole packet when they make ramen. There are a few kids who say they share with a sibling but most eat the whole thing themselves. I ask the student holding the packet to read how many servings each packet contains.

Each packet contains two servings, so we have to double the number. Someone usually blurts out, "That's 1500 milligrams!" Yes, 1500 mg of sodium in one snack. Whoa! They all react strongly.

I tell them that 1500 mg sodium is okay but doesn't leave much room for the other sources of sodium throughout the day like the salt on fries, Cheetos, taco chips or all the other hidden salt in canned and processed food, even some canned drinks.

Then we move on to the 5 other varieties or brands of soup. I've found that, the cheaper the soup, the more sodium it contains.

That means that people with the lowest income are more likely to choose the least expensive soup to make their food dollars stretch. In doing so, they are exposed to more sodium than people in higher income brackets who can afford to choose more expensive soups. The long term health and health care implications are pretty clear.

So I was pleasantly surprised the last time I went soup hunting with the Nutrition Facts lesson in mind.

Campbell's Healthy Kids Chicken NoodleO's contained only 480 mg of sodium per serving as compared to Campbell's Homestyle Chicken Noodle Soup at 650 mg of sodium per serving at a comparable price. That's a move in the right direction.

The kids seemed to appreciate that Campbell's was looking out for them. I appreciate that Campbell's is listening to the increasing loud voices of consumers.

Teachers, please feel free to duplicate my sodium in soup demonstration in your science or math class. And let me know how your students reacted to the lesson.