I love mac and cheese. Or should I say, I love gluten-free mini shells with healthy butternut squash sauce made from plant-based whole foods and a healthy addition of leafy greens? Mac and cheese is just easier to say.
The last time I posted a vegan mac and cheese recipe on this blog, I was still in the throes of my vegan transition and was utilizing loads of processed cheese and dairy replacements in my cooking. Not that it wasn’t a superb mac and cheese. It was. But to argue that it was much healthier than its dairy counterpart would be misleading. Such recipes are the perfect example of how vegan foods are not inherently healthier alternatives in every case.
I think my experience is common. I’ve spoken with other vegans who’ve undergone similar transitions — especially for those who go vegan for environmental or ethical reasons over health concerns. Meat and dairy meals are slowly replaced with meat and dairy replacements — processed alternatives made with high-fat oils, wheat gluten and other unnatural products. I will say, I do credit some of these alternatives (minus the wheat gluten, of course) for really helping me kick my cheese habit back in the day (sound familiar, anyone?). And I still occasionally purchase vegan cheese shreds or a cream cheese alternative to use in moderation, and mostly only for special occasions. But by and large, I’ve come to realize that such products, while instrumental in helping me transition into a vegan lifestyle, are by no stretch of the imagination healthy foods just because they’re vegan.
With this in mind, I sought to create a mac and cheese recipe that would satisfy all comfort food cravings without having to resort to processed cheese alternatives or oils to get the job done. While there is added fat to this dish from the cashews, they add a monounsaturated fat, which lowers bad cholesterol and does not contribute to heart disease as saturated fat and unhealthy processed oils do. Compare with the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products — along with plant-based products such as palm oils, which are prevalent in dairy-free cheese and cream cheese alternatives — that contribute to an increase in bad cholesterol, raising the risk of heart disease. I’ll take the unsaturated option, please!
But I couldn’t just stop at cashews. To make this dish ultra healthy, I used creamy, delicious butternut squash as a base for the sauce. Not only does it add a beautiful orange color, but it adds additional creaminess to the dish with no added fats, while contributing tons of nutrients and antioxidants, including carotenoids, which are said to protect against heart disease.
And then, just for fun, I added kale. Because why not? I love finding new ways to add leafy greens into my meals, and kale adds a pretty burst of color and textural contrast to the creaminess of the rest of the dish.
So, whether you’re transitioning into a vegan diet or going all-in for health reasons, this mac and cheese is sure to satisfy the strongest comfort food cravings without the addition of processed oils and fats that contribute to many health problems. Not to mention that simply removing processed oils and products containing oil is an easy way to keep off the extra pounds without sacrificing flavor.
Just a note: I think this is best when served immediately, but if reheating a pre-made batch, you may want to add a little bit of extra almond milk while reheating and heat over low heat until creamy consistency is reached and the pasta is warmed through.
Possible adjustments, additions & other notes:
- I used Tinkyada brown rice mini shells instead of elbow macaroni in this dish. I prefer mini shells in mac and cheese recipes because I find that they really trap in a lot of the sauce, making each bite extra creamy and delicious.
- If not using a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix, soak cashews for 1/2 hour to an hour and then drain before using. This was a trick I used many times with my old, crappy blender and it worked pretty well.
- This sauce is on the thicker side, almost like a very creamy Alfredo sauce. For a thinner consistency, I would recommend increasing the almond milk to about 1 cup.
- Instead of kale, use steamed broccoli as an added veggie.
- This sauce is versatile: pour over steamed veggies or baked potato (or both!). Try adding salsa for a Mexican twist, then pour over baked potatoes stuffed with black beans and fajita vegetables.
- This dish is great with hot sauce!
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Kale:
Serves: 3-4 (serves 4 if served alongside a large salad and maybe another veggie side for a complete meal)
3 cups (about 8 oz.) dry gluten-free macaroni or mini shells
1 cup raw cashews
3/4 cup unsweetened plain almond milk
1 cup cooked butternut squash, tightly packed (see note*)
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (plus more for sprinkling)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
dash cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)
2 heaping cups chopped kale
* To cook butternut squash: halve squash lengthwise using a sharp knife. Scoop out seeds and stringy stuff in the middle. Lay squash flat, skin-up, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, or until squash is soft and skin is browned. Remove skin before using in this recipe.
1. Boil pasta according to package directions until just al dente (do not overcook). Drain and set aside.
2. While pasta cooks, combine all remaining ingredients except kale in a high-powered blender such as Vitamix and blend on medium intensity until completely smooth (I blended for almost a minute). You may need to stir a few times to properly distribute ingredients.
3. After pasta has been drained, return to pot and add butternut squash sauce and chopped kale. Heat over low-medium heat for another minute or so, until kale is wilted and pasta is warmed through. Sprinkle with a little bit of smoked paprika (optional) and serve immediately.