A Lighter, Zestier Mac and Cheese for Summer

Reviving your standard mac and cheese is simple -- just add peas, lemon, and fresh herbs.

Mac and cheese comes in so many forms, it's almost hard to imagine the possibility of breathing new life into the classic versions. From ooey-gooey elbow noodles made on the stovetop to baked casseroles topped with buttery, crunchy crumbs, what's there to improve on, anyway?

For one thing, mac and cheese is heavy. That's great if it's the middle of winter and you need a hearty meal after shoveling snow for two hours, but in summertime, is such belly-busting food really necessary? Not really. In this recipe, fresh lemon, peas, and herbs break up the flow of noodles and cheese and bring a bit of levity to the party.

>>RELATED: Another updated classic: Grilled Cheese with Pesto.

The process is simple: boil pasta and peas together, whisk up a cheese sauce (a mix of cheddar and asiago), toss the pasta and peas with the sauce, and then season with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice. The recipe calls for a trio of herbs -- mint, parsley, and basil -- but feel free to use whatever fresh herbs you have on hand.

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The resulting dish offers the perfect balance of old and new -- it's still pasta drenched in a creamy cheese sauce, only perkier and healthier, thanks to lemon, herbs, and a full cup of peas. If there's a dish that makes kids and adults equally happy, we haven't found it.

Bright 'n' Zesty Mac and Cheese

Serves 4

1/2 pound cavatappi pasta (or other elbow macaroni pasta)
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 cups grated white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated aged asiago cheese
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sweet basil leaves, plus more for garnish

1. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Then add frozen peas to the pot and cook quickly for no more than 2 minutes. Drain pasta and peas together (do not rinse).

2. In a pot over medium-high heat, heat butter until melted. While whisking constantly, add flour to form a smooth paste. Cook butter and flour together for about 2 minutes. Still whisking, pour in milk and mix until paste is thoroughly dissolved in milk. Allow milk mixture to heat up and simmer gently for about 5 minutes, just until sauce begins to thicken and coat the back of a spoon. Adjust heat to low and allow the sauce to simmer gently for about 1 minute. Continuing to whisk, add white cheddar and asiago cheeses, handful by handful, so they melt evenly and slowly. After all cheese is added, mix in lemon juice, zest, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, chopped mint, chopped parsley, and chopped basil. Adjust sauce for seasoning.

3. Add in drained pasta and peas and fold with cheese sauce until pasta is evenly coated. Serve immediately, with additional chopped herbs on top and a slice of lemon.

Save and print this recipe at Food52.

Photo by James Ransom

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