Orzo Mac 'n' Cheese

Oh, the joys of orzo.

I was planning on making a meat loaf and some roasted kale for dinner, and thought macaroni and cheese would be a nice accompaniment,  but I was all out of pasta, except for a box of thin spaghetti and a box of orzo that I didn't even know I had.

I decided to go with the orzo. It turned out terrific, and the light texture and petiteness of the orzo gave the perfect consistency to the cheesy, hefty casserole-type of side dish I was going for.
I've made creamy, dreamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese before, and I really like how it tastes -- it takes a favorite comfort food and makes it even better. But this time, I had an acorn squash and an heirloom squash from my latest CSA box. Acorn squash isn't quite as nutty and flavorful as the butternut variety, so I roasted with walnut oil instead of olive oil. I also didn't want to go overboard on the squash flavor this time (which is why using acorn squash was a good idea), so I used the purée for its thickening properties instead of the heavier traditional flour/cream macaroni and cheese base. It came out so subtle, even folks who aren't fans of squash probably wouldn't even know there's some in there. And since I wanted the dish to bulk up and not be as gooey, I didn't go quite as crazy with the cheese this time (less than two cups!) and I used feta, which went well with the bacon crumbles.  It came out exactly how I wanted it to...filling and comforting and just, well, yum.

Orzo Mac 'n' Cheese
1lb orzo (you might not use all of it, but make the whole box)
2 large acorn (or heirloom) squash
Walnut oil
4 sprigs of thyme
1 large shallot bulb, outer skin removed and halved
4-5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Kosher salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup half and half
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp garlic powder
3/4 cup plus 2 TBS shredded Monterey jack cheese
1/4 cup shredded smoked cheddar
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
4-6 pieces of bacon, diced
2 TBS bread crumbs

To Do
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Rinse the squash (do not peel) and then cut them in half lengthwise and spoon out the seeds. Cut the seeded halves into large but uniform pieces and toss with thyme, shallots and garlic and enough walnut oil to coat. Place on baking sheet, skin side down, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for about 45 minutes, turning the squash skin side up after about 20 minutes. (Squash is done when a fork or knife pierces straight through without any resistance.)
  • While squash is roasting, fill a large pot with water and a few handfuls of salt and heat to boiling. When bubbling, add orzo and boil for about 8-9 minutes, or until al dente (don't overcook), then drain and let cool. 
  • When squash is ready, remove from oven and let cool.  The rind should come off easily (use tongs to peel off or scoop the squash out with a spoon. Discard the peels.
  • In a blender, add the peeled, roasted squash, the roasted shallots and garlic and half of the chicken broth and all of the half and half.  Blend until smooth, adding more chicken broth as needed to get to a creamy, thick purée. It should coat the back of a spoon and resemble pudding/yogurt in consistency.  Note: You might not use all of the broth. 
  • Stir in the nutmeg and garlic powder and salt to taste.
  • Place drained orzo in a large pot and mix in the three cheeses.
  • Stir in the squash purée 1/2 a cup at a time until the orzo is moistened throughout. But, barely moistened. Don't add too much of the purée  -- you don't want runny mac. (You can use any that's left over to make squash soup -- just add more cream/broth and spices to taste and heat through.) 
  • Heat orzo mixture to medium low and stir constantly until cheese has just started to melt.
  • In a small bowl, mix together the bacon, bread crumbs and the 2 TBS of jack cheese.
  • Transfer orzo to a casserole dish (pack it in tight) and top with the bacon breadcrumb mixture.
  • Turn oven down to 350 and bake about 25-30 minutes, until bubbly and browned on top. (Cover with tin foil for the first 15 minutes to avoid burning the breadcrumbs.)
  • Remove from the oven and let sit for 5-10 minutes.
  • Serve and enjoy. 
  • It's marvelous reheated, too.