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This Mac & Cheese will Help You Warm Up after Cold Winter Rides

with LENTINE ALEXIS, cyclist and professional chef

As the winter months and the holidays approach, most of us start to ride less and make time for festive gatherings. But, just because we aren’t riding as much doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need good fuel to perform through this time. With all the messages being sent to us this time of year, here’s one: Don’t be afraid to fuel your body during the holidays. And, definitely don’t feel guilty about indulging in this Quick Mac & Cheese recipe below.

Winter is a “make or break” time for our bodies and brains as cyclists for three important reasons.

  1. For those of us that keep up winter workouts whether inside or out, our bodies have to work harder to perform and recover when it’s cold out – a time when our systems naturally want to hibernate a bit.
  2. After a long summer of riding, our bodies are recovering and restoring, resting and rebuilding. We need to give our body time, space, and fuel to do that.
  3. And if we aren’t mindful, it’s easy to completely derail all of our riding goals for next spring on account of too many office parties, too many glasses of wine, and in general too much of all-the-good-things.

So – as athletes – we need to strike a balance between rest, recovery, activity and enjoyment at this time of year. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect formula. It’s true that choosing natural foods in their simplest state, prepared carefully and mindfully and cooking them full of flavor is good for our bodies, our brains, and our celebrations. But, we do have to listen up and determine what sort of “food mood” we’re in.

After a long ride in the snow, there are a couple of “food moods” I find myself in. The juicy hamburger mood is one. The huge bowl of soup with a big slab of bread and butter mood is another. And, lastly, there’s the mac and cheese mood.

My work schedule demands that I spend lots of time cooking up recipes that aren’t always what I’m craving for meals or after-ride fuel, so I don’t have all day to bake up creamy, cheesy mac and cheese, and my body doesn’t actually love all that cheese anyway. So, I’ve crafted this recipe for those colder winter nights when I want something warming and soul-satisfying.

Lentine’s Quick Mac & Cheese

INGREDIENTS:

BREAD CRUMBS

1 1/2 cups fresh ciabatta breadcrumbs*

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/8 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

About 3/4 tsp. pepper, divided

3/4 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika

PASTA AND SAUCE

12 ounces macaroni (2 1/2 cups dry macaroni)

12 to 16 ounces baby spinach, 7 to 8 large handfuls (optional)

2 large eggs

2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided

1 1/2 cups full-fat Greek yogurt

3/4 cup sour cream (or the equivalent amount of Greek yogurt)

1 teaspoon salt

Fresh pepper, to taste

*If you’re in a pinch, you could always use store-bought breadcrumbs, but they’ll never be as good as homemade!

INSTRUCTIONS:

Toast breadcrumbs: In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook crumbs with oil and 1/8 tsp. each salt and pepper, stirring often, until crumbs begin to crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Add paprika and cook, stirring, until crispy, 2 to 4 more minutes. Pour from pan into a bowl and let cool; then seal in a lidded container or plastic bag.

Heat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 3-quart casserole dish with nonstick coating.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water generously and add the macaroni. Cook the pasta until it's just barely al dente — a little bit of chew is fine here. Drain and immediately transfer the hot pasta to a large mixing bowl.

If you’re using the spinach, add at this point and toss to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dinner plate and let the spinach wilt in the heat of the pasta for about 10 minutes. Shake the bowl occasionally to mix up the pasta and spinach — some of the spinach might not completely wilt; this is fine.

Whisk the eggs until well-combined, then whisk in 2 cups of the cheese, greek yogurt, sour cream, and salt. Pour the egg mixture over the pasta and wilted spinach.

Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish. Cover tightly with foil. (Do ahead: at this point, the casserole can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours before baking!)

Sprinkle breadcrumbs over the pasta and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over the top of the casserole. Bake, uncovered, for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the cheese has melted and you can hear the casserole bubbling. (If baking straight from the fridge, extend the covered baking time to 45 minutes.)

Let the casserole cool for a few minutes before serving. Leftovers will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to a week.

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