The objective of this dish is not to sneak vegetables into fussy, unsuspecting children. Nay, you will taste the carrot. You will also taste zingy orange and lovely distinctive tarragon. These are not bad things; you should taste them, or you're doing it wrong. So while the caption of the original recipe touts the benefits of adding carrots for vitamin A and reducing the overall fat of the dish, I say the actual benefit is that carrots are delicious and go fabulously with the sharp cheddar and citrus.
This is mac and cheese elevated; not meant to replace the original, but a sophisticated dish to stand on its own. I don't want to mislead that it's complicated, because it isn't at all; in fact, there are only five ingredients. It's just mac and cheese all growns up.
My overwintered carrots are finally peaking, and man, are they glorious. I pulled one out the other day that was as thick as all my fingers and thumb put together. However, I don't have the widest carrot recipe repertoire... Plain old boiled or steamed, in my humble opinion, they're about as gross as vegetables can be. Their greatest potential lies in all the sugar they contain, which caramelizes into deliciousness when treated right. But this recipe is not about that; for this, we need a fancypants little puree.
~3/4 lb of carrots, peeled (I didn't bother since they were from my garden), thinly sliced
1 orange, zest removed with a vegetable peeler in long strips (try not to get any of the white pith), then juiced
8 oz penne
4 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
scant tbsp fresh tarragon, finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a small pot that has a lid, combine the carrots, orange zest, and orange juice with 1/4 cup of water. Season lightly with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (white pepper, if you're fancy) and cover. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the carrots have completely softened. Remove and discard the zest. Carefully pour the hot carrots and liquid into a food processor and puree until very smooth.
Meanwhile, heat another pot of water with a good pinch of kosher salt and cook your penne until about two minutes shy of the package directions. Reserve one cup of the cooking water, then drain and set aside.
Return the carrot puree to its pot. Add the pasta cooking water and bring to a simmer. Now add about three quarters of the cheddar and the tarragon, stirring until smooth and melted. Add the penne and stir thoroughly to combine.
Transfer the pasta to a baking dish and top with the last of the cheddar. Pop into the oven for about 20 minutes, uncovered, until the cheese has melted and some bits on top have become browned and crispy.
Serves 4, takes about an hour, largely hands-off.