Play Me a Recipe

Hetty McKinnon makes Creamy Tahini “Mac & Cheese” with Tater Tots

Episode Summary

Join cookbook author Hetty McKinnon as she boils, sauces, tops, and broils her way through her Creamy Tahini “Mac & Cheese” with Tater Tots recipe.

Episode Notes

On Play Me a Recipe, your favorite cooks will walk you through their most treasured recipes, offering all the insider tips, stories, and tricks you won't get from a written recipe—and you'll be right alongside them, every step of the way. Feel free to pause, jump back, or navigate the steps via the podcast chapters.

If you're cooking along, here's the recipe we're making today. Go ahead and grab the ingredients below (Hetty starts listing them at 1:08) before  starting the episode.

Creamy Tahini “Mac + Cheese” with Tater Tots

  1. Preheat oven to 400˚F.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the pasta, stirring. Cook according to the packet instructions until al dente, adding the beans for the last 60 seconds and cooking until the veggies are crisp and bright green. Reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, drain the pasta and veggies.
  3. For the creamy tahini sauce, add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and the reserved pasta water to a blender or small food processor. Blend until smooth and creamy. If the sauce is too thick, add more water to thin it down. Add the nutritional yeast, olive oil and stir to combine. Season well with sea salt and black pepper.
  4. Add the creamy tahini to the pasta and beans along with a splash or two of the reserved pasta cooking water and toss together to combine. Transfer to an ovenproof dish and arrange the tater tots over the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the tots are golden. Serve hot.

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Episode Transcription

Hetty McKinnon: This is Play Me A Recipe. My name is Hetty McKinnon, and I'm a food writer and cookbook author. Today I'll be making my Creamy Tahini Mac & Cheese topped with tater tots, which actually contains no cheese at all as it's vegan. The recipe is linked in the show notes if you need to refer to it, but otherwise we will be gathering ingredients, boiling, blitzing and tossing everything alongside each other. Feel free to pause or jump back if you need a sec.

So, we usually eat this dish on Thanksgiving or during the holidays. My family and I moved to the U. S. From Sydney, Australia, about six years ago. And after trying the traditional turkey and vegetable sides, we decided we needed to forge our own tradition by enjoying an indulgent, carb-heavy pasta and potato lunch for Thanksgiving. We always serve mac and cheese topped with tater tots at Thanksgiving, but this year I decided to lighten things up a bit by making the creamy tahini pasta from my book Family, adding in some green beans ‘cause it's Thanksgiving, and topping it with golden tater tots, of course.

Ingredients & Equipment

Hetty: So for this recipe, you’ll need a pound of pasta. Today, I'm using cavatappi, but any type of short, textured pasta will do. Seven ounces of green beans. A handful of chopped chives or scallions, a lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, frozen tater tots—which have been defrosted—half a cup of tahini, a garlic clove, and two tablespoons of nutritional yeast.

Hetty: You'll also need a large pot for boiling pasta, a colander, food processor or blender, and an ovenproof dish.

Step 1: Boil the pasta & prep the vegetables

Hetty: Okay, so the first thing we're going to do is preheat the oven. So let's turn that to 400°F. And the next thing 'm gonna do is get a big pot, and I'm gonna fill that with water to cook our pasta. So let’s get that water cooking. I'm going to add a good amount of salt to the water, because we always want very salty water when we're cooking pasta. And where’s my lid? Let’s put that lid on there.

Hetty: While that water is coming to the boil. we're going to prepare our vegetables. There's not too many vegetables, but those green beans. Green beans are a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition, and While this is not a very traditional Thanksgiving recipe, I still like to add a few elements of tradition in there. So we're just gonna cut these green beans up into about one-inch pieces. So I've got some scallions here, and I'm just gonna give them a bit of a rinse. I like to add a bit of scallion for some aromatic flavors. Just gonna chop that up.

Hetty: My family absolutely loves this pasta; it’s a tradition that we started a couple of years ago. We were finding that because I'm vegetarian, and my daughter is vegetarian, we just had so many leftovers. So pasta is a dish that we can all eat, and in particular because this one is vegan—the recipes tend to be incredibly heavy—this one just lighten things up a bit, which is what we love about it. So we've got green beans ready, and I've got my scallions chopped. I'm just gonna go over and check the water and see how that's going.

Hetty: Let’s talk about tater tots. My kids absolutely love tater tots. We usually don't eat them in our family, except for during Thanksgiving and the holidays. So this is definitely our holiday treat. Now, when you're using tater tots to top a dish that's already cooked, as this one is, I like to use them defrosted because that just reduces the cooking time, and it means they get golden quicker. So I've got two pounds of tater tots, which I've defrosted, so left them out of the fridge for a number of hours.

Hetty: (checks water) And yes, it's bubbling, so it's ready to go. Let's get our pasta. Yeah, stick that in like that, a bit of a stir—that's gonna take about eight minutes. So I'm gonna watch that, and then when there's about only a minute to go, we're gonna add our green beans. The green beans only need a very short amount of time because they're going to continue cooking in the oven. And also it's a good idea to have a cup or a mug in hand right now, because before we drain the pasta, we're going to take some of the pasta water, which we're gonna use to thin out the tahini sauce if we need to.

(musical interlude)


Hetty:* Hi, and welcome back to Play Me A Recipe. I'm cookbook author Hetty McKinnon. And today we're making a tater-tot-topped creamy, tahini mac and cheese, which is the perfect plant-based main dish for the holidays. You can also find the recipe in the show notes, but as a reminder will be slicing, dicing, baking and totting everything alongside each other. So feel free to pause or jump back if you need a little more time.

Step 3: Blend the sauce

Hetty: So I've got my green beans and pasta draining over the sink. So for the tahini sauce, we're going to add one roughly chopped garlic—so putting that into the, I'm using a Vitamix, but you can use a food processor or blender whatever you've got—and then I'm going to add half a cup of tahini paste. Now my tahini paste is a little bit separated, which means the oil has separated from the solids. So I'm just gonna give that a bit of a stir first. So let's get half a cup of tahini into the blender. And so the nutritional yeast, which is a really nice way of adding a bit of a cheesy flavor to any pasta dishes or any dish, really; an excellent, excellent ingredient for vegans. And I'm just going to squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Okay! And now I'm gonna add in half a cup off my reserved pasta water... so that's looking good, but it definitely looks a little thick, so I'm gonna add a little bit more of my reserved pasta water. Just about a quarter of a cup.

The texture of that is looking great; let’s have a little taste now—season with some pepper and also a little salt. Give it all a good stir. Let's have a taste. That tastes great. I can't believe how cheesy that tastes. Now we're ready to put our pasta together.

Step 4: Assemble & bake

Hetty: So to save up on washing, I'm just using the pot that I cook the pasta in. And I'm gonna add the pasta and beans back into that pot, and then I'm gonna pour the tahini sauce straight into the pot. Get that all in there, and then to the same pot, I'm gonna add the chopped scallions and a bit more pepper, actually, and more salt. And that's mixed all together.

What I love most about this vegan pasta is that it's creamy without trying to replicate the flavor of cheese. I find with a lot of vegan pasta dishes, you are adding so many things to try and replicate that cheesy flavor. But here we're relying on the earthy goodness of tahini with a little bit of nutritional yeast to create that creaminess and that lovely umami flavor.

So I'm ready to add my pasta to an ovenproof dish. I've got quite a large ovenproof dish here. It's probably about 15-by-10-inches. Now I'm going to be honest: This is actually my favorite part of the recipe, which is topping the pasta with the tater tots. I aim for complete coverage, which means I'm trying to get as many tater tots as I can because the tots are usually the first thing to go on this dish.

So I'm using a two-pound packet of tater tots, and I'm gonna pile them all the way around on top of the pasta until the pasta is completely covered. There we go! My entire pasta dish is covered. I've used most of the 2-pound packet. There's probably about 20 tots left over, so I'm probably gonna put those just on a tray and bake them alongside this dish. So let's get that in the middle of the oven.

That's going to bake for I would say, 25 to 30 minutes, or just until the tots are golden. So I'm gonna set my timer. Okay, 25 minutes to start with.

(musical interlude)

Hetty: Okay… I think it’s time to dish this up! I'm going to steal a little tot off the top and give that a taste. Oh, yeah. So good. I'm gonna get that spoon in and get right to the bottom of the pasta.Oh, that looks fantastic. Now, a note about this pasta is that it's not creamy like a traditional mac and cheese is. The tahini has wrapped itself around each strand of pasta. So it's creamy without being overly oozy, which I actually quite like as a difference to the traditional dish.

Oh, yeah, this is super perfect. As a vegetarian, I would be very, very happy to eat this during the holidays. So there we go. How did yours turnout? Was yours crispy on the top with creamy pasta in the middle? And will you be topping all future mac and cheese with tater tots?I hope so. Again, you can find the written recipe on Thanks for joining me, Hetty McKinnon, on Play Me a Recipe today. Hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and happy cooking!