Helen’s Vegan Mac & Cheese
Of all the dinners I remember having as a kid, mac and cheese night was always the best night. Ever. Even if we had to eat spinach and roasted tomatoes with it, I would not be deterred: it was always good, no matter what.
If you’d asked me a few years ago if I could have given up cheese, I would have said hell no. Even though a vegetarian lifestyle was workin’ for me, cheese was the one thing I could not imagine doing without. I mean, I’m Greek, after all. My dad always had an industrial-sized bucket of feta in the fridge. (I still think about that bucket almost every day. No, I don’t, you do.)
But the biggest reason I couldn’t imagine giving up cheese wasn’t because cheese was so good (even though it was). It was because vegan cheese was so bad. Like BAD-bad. Inedible-bad. A friend and I once ordered a vegan mac and cheese dish at a local cafe and we could barely bring ourselves to try it. It was shiny. And orange. And it smelled like Lipton soup packets? I know, I thought it was weird, too.
This isn’t boding too well for me being about to tell you to eat vegan mac and cheese, is it? Anyway.
The good news is, vegan cheese makers have seriously stepped up their game. They stopped relying solely on combinations of weird oils and potato starch (even though those options still definitely exist on the shelves). Instead, they turned to real food ingredients like coconut and cashew and before you totally write me off, let me tell you: I was once where you are. I thought all the same things you are: nope, it won’t work, it’s gonna be gross, it won’t actually taste like cheese, it’ll just be a weird-cheese-colored sauce and it won’t melt right and I don’t WANT TO.
There’s no chance anyone out there could resist harder than I tried to. And I’m now fully converted. I’m not saying you have to give up cheese forever. In fact, your diet is completely up to you and I really don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the food that we eat. But I’m about to blow your mind with how cashews, miso and a little bit of paprika can change the mac and cheese (or, you know, cheeze) game.
For this recipe, you’ll need:
1 cup raw cashews, soaked*
1 cup nondairy milk (I’ve tried a few options and my favorite so far has been full-fat coconut, because obviously)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ small yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon organic white miso paste**
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast***
1 tablespoon organic cornstarch****
1 teaspoon ground mustard powder
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon paprika
Salt & pepper to taste
8 ounces whole wheat pasta*****
¼ cup breadcrumbs
* How long should you soak these cashews, you ask? As long as you possibly can. The longer they soak, the smoother they’ll blend. Dump them in a bowl of water the night before if you can remember. Otherwise, first thing in the morning to use them for dinner that night. If you totally space, you can boil them for 20-30 minutes to speed the process along.
** What the what is miso paste? It’s basically just fermented soybean paste. It adds a salty, umami flavor to the cheese sauce. But! You don’t have to use it. If you’re allergic to soy or you just plain hate it, sub another scoop of nooch. Speaking of …
*** Nooch?! I know, I know, I’m the worst. Nutritional yeast, or nooch, is used in a lot of vegetarian/vegan cooking to add a cheesy/creamy flavor to foods. It’s also full of B-vitamins, which a lot of vegetarians and vegans need to supplement. You can probably easiest find this in the bulk foods section of your grocery store. But Trader Joe’s is also selling a bigass bag of it for $2.99. #trending
**** Even though we try to eat organic around here, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes donuts are like HEY, EAT US. But when it comes to corn (and soy – miso!), I try extra hard to make no exceptions, which is why I noted to find organic corn starch, if you can. You can also use another thickener if you want (like arrowroot, or even regular ol’ flour).
***** Use whatever pasta you want. Gluten-free works great. You know what, if there’s anything in the ingredient list that doesn’t sit right with you, if you want to swap cumin for paprika or olive oil for coconut oil, do it. Who’s gonna stop you. It’s your world.
Now that we’ve talked about all the ingredients for one hundred years, let’s get to the good part.
Start by quickly sauteing your onions and garlic with your olive oil in a small saucepan until softened, about 3-5 minutes. Next, throw all of the following into a blender: cooked onions and garlic, soaked cashews, nondairy milk, miso, nooch, mustard powder, turmeric, paprika, salt and pepper. Blend, blend, blend until smooth – this will probably happen pretty quick if your cashews have been soaking for half a day.
Transfer all that good stuff back to the saucepan you used for the onions and garlic, add your cornstarch (or whatever thickener you want to use) and bring to a simmer over low heat. Keep an eye on it and stir it every minute or so as it starts to thicken. In the meantime, cook your pasta according to the package instructions. If you plan on baking your mac, preheat your oven (uh, duh) to 400 degrees.
Once your pasta is cooked and your sauce is thickened (which should happen around the same time), mix it all together. If you’re gonna bake, lightly oil (you can do olive, coconut, whatevs) a small-medium cast iron skillet. Spread out your mac in an even layer, top with your bread crumbs and bake for 6-9 minutes or until the top gets golden and crunchy.
If you’re not about that bake life, dinner is DONE. Happy reminiscing!
P.S. If you need help writing a breakup letter to cheese, here’s a start: “Dear cheese: it’s not me, it’s cashews. Bye.”