easiest, cheesiest, somewhat healthy-siest stovetop shells

Stovetop chickpea shells and cheeseI am a sucker for mac & cheese – pasta with a bite, creamy cheese sauce – need I say more? Comfort, nostalgia, simplicity. The best mac & cheese dishes I’ve made have involved multiple cheeses (my favorite employs a blend of gouda, fontina, and white cheddar), traditional noodles like elbows or shells, and have been made over the course of about an hour or so – spending time on both the stovetop and in the oven.

Organized spice drawerTonight though, I really wanted mac & cheese, but I wanted it pronto. I only had one cheese on hand – a Cotswold (double gloucester with chive and onions), courtesy of the outstanding cheese selection at Dorothy Lane Market, and the only shells in my pantry were chickpea shells (more on those later). I was also craving a little spice and happened to have a heaping pile of jalapenos from this week’s Green Bean Delivery, just begging to be blistered and piled on top of anything and everything. More importantly, I needed to not make a bigger mess of my kitchen. The one thing I have going for me is that my spice drawer is hella organized. I’ve been “spring cleaning” because AB has been swamped with schoolwork after work, and “spring cleaning” for me means “pulling everything out of every drawer, cabinet, closet, and crevice and making an enormous mess that wasn’t there before in the name of organizing and deep cleaning”.  I’ve been doing this all over the house and not finishing in one room before starting in another. So, amidst all the chaos, I wanted to dirty exactly one pan, a small handful of tools, and one bowl. Nothing more.

With all of these requirements, I took to the kitchen armed with my trusty box grater, and grated up my Cotswold, being sure to taste a bit of it prior to melting, to confirm its perfection. I thinly sliced a jalapeno and did a quick saute of the slices in a tiny pool of olive oil. In the same stainless medium pot, I then boiled my chickpea shells for an easy 8 minutes. After removing those shells, I then made a roux, and within 10 more minutes, I had a sumptuous cheese sauce and a big smile on my face. I want you to know the feeling that comes from a perfect dinner made in under 30 minutes with very few ingredients and minimal clean-up. I ate this dish on its own, but it could easily accompany a grilled chicken breast or a heaping pile of broccoli.

In my version, the Cotswold can easily be swapped for cheddar – I recommend a sharp one – or just a normal double gloucester.

Real pasta could also be used in place of the Banza chickpea shells, but let me talk about Banza for a moment because their chickpea pastas are some of the worthiest pasta substitutes I’ve tried. The shells have an extremely satisfying bite to them, comparable to traditional pasta, served al dente. They cook up quickly, and leftovers reheat fairly well (though, the texture is definitely better if served immediately). The big heart-winning fact for me is that they are made with chickpeas and only three other recognizable ingredients. Compared to normal pasta, a serving size has half the carbohydrates if you’re worried about carbs. If you like protein and fiber – and you should – double the protein, and FOUR TIMES the fiber. Weeeee! Locally, I’ve found Banza at Whole Foods, Dorothy Lane Market, and sometimes in the health foods area in Kroger.

Ari ready to play outsideThis recipe will make enough for four large servings. It could be stretched if served with anything else (again, grilled chicken or broccoli or both would be worthy companions). Also, while definitely healthier than most mac & cheese recipes (if using the Banza shells), this isn’t a super clean eats kind of dish. After all, we’re still smothering stuff in cheese sauce here. Enjoying a small portion alongside a veggie definitely ups the healthy cred. And again, it’s fast and simple, so you can spend just a little time in the kitchen and a lot of time outside with your pleading dog…


  • 2 jalapenos, thinly
  • Extra virgin olive oil*
  • Banza chickpea shells (8 oz.)
  • 3 TBS unsalted butter
  • 3 TBS AP flour
  • 2 cups skim or 2% milk
  • 8 oz. cheese, freshly grated
    • (I used Cotswold double gloucester, and it was a damn good decision – cheddar would work though)
  • Salt & pepper to taste

*Omit the jalapeno and olive oil, if you’re a pansy if you wish.


  • In a medium saucepot, add about a dime-sized splash of olive oil and heat over medium. Add sliced jalapenos, and cook for 3-4 minutes. (This will bring the heat of the jalapenos down considerably.) Remove jalapeno slices and set aside for later.
  • Fill same pot with water, bring to a boil, and cook Banza chickpea shells as directed on box.
  • Strain cooked shells and set aside. Return pot to cooktop.
  • Melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and whisk constantly for about 2 minutes until roux is golden brown and smooth.
  • Reduce heat to low, and whisk in milk until combined.
  • Simmer for about 5 minutes, until slightly thickened.
  • Add grated cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Stir until the cheese is melty and the sauce is gorgeous. (If the sauce is looking runny at this point, you can add a bit more cheese or a little cornstarch slurry.)
  • Add shells to the cheese sauce. Serve immediately with jalapenos on top.

Go forth and enjoy.