My Favorite Vegan Mac and Cheese

my favorite mac and cheeseI know I have, like, a bagillion mac and cheese recipes or variations of mac and cheese on this site. Actually, I only have 3 others. But in the food blogging world, that sort of seems to me like a bagillion.

At any rate, despite the fact that I don’t need to post yet another mac and cheese recipe here, it would feel disingenuous to go on with life knowing that there’s a go-to mac and cheese that I pretty much make exclusively these days that I haven’t shared here. It’s quickly become one of my favorite meals, and one that I make at least once every few weeks — especially during this cold winter, when I’ve been craving warm comfort food and carbs.

I know the internet, as well, has no shortage of vegan mac and cheese recipes using cashews as a base. That’s fine. What I like about this particular recipe is that there are very few ingredients, it’s very creamy, and the miso and smoked paprika are secret ingredients that sort of make this a perfect blend of delicious, umami, smoky and decadent goodness — without any oil or processed fat. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that, despite its lack of processed ingredients, this recipe will wow even the most ardent omnivore or self-proclaimed “cheese addict” you may be feeding.

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Lentil Tacos

lentil tacosThere are joys and frustrations that come with being one among many vegan food bloggers. The joy, of course, is witnessing a virtual food revolution — one in which so many amazing vegan home cooks have found a venue for sharing delicious and beautiful vegan recipes with the world — for free! As an advocate for animal welfare and for health, it has been wonderful to witness the explosion of vegan food blogging in recent years. I love that those curious about meatless meals, meat alternatives and healthy eating have such a rich array of options to choose from, and that they don’t have to buy loads of books or do tons of research to find answers.

The downside to this explosion is that at times I think I’ve come up with a killer and unique recipe, only to find that a quick Google search reveals dozens of other versions of the idea — an idea that seemingly every other food blogger already thought of before I did.

Such was the case with these tacos. For too long, I’d been dreaming of creating a lentil taco filling that was both hearty and healthy. I also wanted something that could serve a crowd and that was above all relatively easy to prepare. I Googled lentil tacos to see what sort of ideas were already swarming out there. There were quite a few, so I decided to lay off my idea for the time being.

But curiosity got the best of me, as I was still interested in how a lentil taco filling would compare to its more meaty counterparts. And I figured, if I’m going to make a recipe, I’d rather have it be something with my own twist. Lucky for me, whatever twists I added turned out to be delicious.

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Fat-Free Potato Salad

vegan, fat-free potato saladTo say I’m a carb-aholic does not entirely describe my problem. It’s potatoes that are my carb of choice. And I don’t care how you give them to me. Mashed, fried, boiled, baked, roasted or au gratin — I don’t discriminate and love ‘em all (as long as they’re all vegan versions, of course).

But as benign as the potato may seem on the scale of addictions, the danger in my affinity for spuds usually comes in their preparation, as it’s long been a tradition for the potato to be prepared with fat. Oil for frying and roasting. Buttery spreads for mashing and melting over baked. And boiled potatoes, if not soon to be mashed, are often on their way to becoming part of a salad filled with oily and fattening mayo or mayo replacements. I love it, don’t get me wrong. But does it love me back? Doctors Esselstyn and McDougall say “no”.

When I searched the internet for “fat-free potato salad”, I found little in the way of a solution. Many such recipes called for processed “fat-free” mayo blends, which use artificial ingredients and flavors, along with several preservatives. That was simply not an option for me.

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Single-Serving Banana-Omega-Chia Pudding

banana-omega-chia puddingI am approaching this first post of the new year with a bit of trepidation, as this would normally be the obligatory resolutions and reflections post, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that 2013 went by so fast. Resolutions? I’m not there yet. I’m still wondering where all the time went. This has me thinking. By the time I’ve figured out my resolutions for this year, it will probably be 2015.

Time passes quickly. I learn that more and more each year. As my dad says, it’s because the older we become, each year is a smaller proportion of our lives thus far.

What I have learned is that, the older I become, the more keenly aware I am of the importance of caring for my body. I marvel at the things I seemingly got away with doing to my body while in college. All-nighters cramming for tests or writing papers, diet sodas, beer at tailgates and 2 a.m. pizza delivery were not uncommon occurrences in my college days. And judging from the number of people still in the school computer lab at 4 a.m. or by the crowds at tailgates and bars over the weekends (and sometimes during the week), I am pretty sure I was not alone.

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Chickpea Paprikash over Penne

vegan chickpea paprikash over penneIf you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m a pretty huge fan of The Voice. In fact, I’m actually a Voice expert. I know, for example, that getting assigned a Whitney Houston song is widely considered the kiss of death for many artists. And even though the coaches know this, they will still assign Whitney songs season in and season out — probably because the producers know it makes for interesting television — which predictably fall short of the original.

This season, it was Tessanne Chin who had the dubious honor of being tasked with a Whitney classic: I Have Nothing. Now, Tessanne is an amazing singer. She is one of the best on the show. Still, as we’ve learned after 5 seasons of this show, as good as anyone is, there is only one Whitney (Voice fans know that the same can be said of Adele). But Tessanne was smart. Before taking the stage, she strategically noted that she was not trying to emulate the original. She was not going to try to be Whitney. She was going to be Tessanne, and she was going to make her version a tribute, rather than a knock-off. And with that in mind, I think everyone (including myself), enjoyed the performance for what it was — not “Whitney”, but something unique and amazing in its own right (and for the record, I did think Tessanne was amazing).

If Whitney is the standard for vocal greatness, my great-grandmother was like the Whitney Houston of home cooking. After immigrating from Hungary as a teenager, she worked hard all of her life in the auto factories of Detroit. She carried her hard-working, blue collar mentality into the kitchen, where she was often sweating over the stove for hours on weekends to serve authentic Hungarian meals to grateful family members — something that brought her much joy. It was at her home that I saw my first whole chicken foot poking out of a boiling pot of water (something that would scar me for years to come), where I learned that lard was probably the most important cooking ingredient, and that cooking directions were as easy as telling someone “just thing it” (duh?).

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Butternut Squash Coconut Curry Noodles

butternut squash coconut curry noodles

Today, I am going to tell you a little story about the power of denial. And the power of really good Thai food.

It all started when I was nearing the end of my vegan transition, which basically meant that I was starting to actually tell people that I was “vegan” (but still had a lot to learn). I had also just moved back to Michigan and was starting a new job in Ferndale, a city in Michigan with a small but fun and eclectic downtown that seemed to me to be bursting with amazing food options. One of those options was a small hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant that charged only $6 for a lunch special that was not only generously portioned but exceedingly delicious. And, to my delight, it was (or so I thought it was) “vegan”. Coconut-Vegetable Curry, as I assumed at the time, was of course made strictly of coconut milk, vegetables, tofu (non-GMO, of course) and secret Thai spices that made it so delicious that I would eat the entire aforementioned generous portion in one sitting, inducing an afternoon food coma that was not the most conducive to productivity in my new job.

I was obsessed with this curry dish. I would crave it. My co-workers soon became obsessed with their respective favorites from this small place as well. Eventually, we were all sheepishly suggesting office carry-outs 2, 3, 4 times per week. After all, it was cheap, quick and delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I tried to ignore the splitting headaches I would get after each meal, the bloating, or the fact that my mouth was so parched that I would go through 4 bottles of water within an hour after eating. 

But it was one day that I went in to this restaurant for my weekly office pick-up duties that I noticed that behind the checkout counter, there was a glass refrigerator filled with cartons of heavy cream. Yes, as in dairy cream. I started glancing around the small restaurant, searching for the coffee pot. Surely, that’s what the cream was for. But there was no coffee. Then I remembered. Ah, yes. They serve Thai iced tea here. That’s what the cream is for. But there was a lot of cream. I mean, loads of it. And slowly, I started realizing that all of that cream wasn’t just for iced tea. It was for something else: our food. A few questions with the manager confirmed my suspicions. Devastation crept in.

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Low-Fat Lentil-Quinoa Chili

Lentil-Quinoa chiliI feel like I’ve just recently discovered lentils. Not that I didn’t know what they were. Of course I did. It’s just that, until recently, I’ve had a bag of bulk lentils sitting in my pantry for what seems like forever, almost quite literally collecting dust. In my mind, they were probably destined to one day become part of some boring lentil soup. And I could always think of something just a little bit more exciting than lentil soup to make for dinner on any given night. So they sat there. Unused. Unwanted.

That all changed when I decided, once again, to try and tackle an old nemesis and vegan classic: The Lentil Loaf. After a few tries and a successful Thanksgiving entree on my hands, the bag of lentils that sat reliably in my pantry for months on end was gone. And I suddenly felt an emptiness without them there. So I bought some more, this time purchasing a few varieties. And just to give them the respect they deserve, I reorganized my pantry so that now my lentils — and all grains, nuts and legumes, for that matter — are proudly displayed in clear cannisters, beckoning me to put them to use.

Then, my purchase of Isa Does It solidified lentil’s place in my long-term dinner plans. Like, for life. Dear Lentil, I will never forget about your possibilities again. Isa uses lentils in tacos, pasta sauces and even blended into a gravy. Not to mention in the lentil-quinoa stew which inspired this dish. Isa’s stew is sort of a take on traditional lentil soup, except with the addition of quinoa (plus lots of kale), which I found ingenious.

My take on Isa’s stew became a chili, because the only person who loves bold flavors, spice and heat more than myself is my husband. And I think the two of us would agree that chili-spiked anything trumps non-chili-spiked anything ten out of ten times in our house. And so, this chili was born.

I did not add any other beans in this dish. I wanted to lentil and quinoa to be the stars. But that doesn’t mean that other items couldn’t easily be added into the mix. I think corn and black beans would be particularly good in this, as would other veggies such as zucchini, carrot or celery. Of course, a thick slice of cornbread or gluten-free toast is a must, while a nice big salad would round out the meal nicely. I used small brown lentils for this dish (they’re called different things depending on where you find them). Aside from some initial chopping and sporadic stovetop monitoring, this chili requires surprisingly little effort.

Update: I entered this Chili into Ricki Heller’s Wellness Weekend, where you can find other amazing vegan, sugar-free and whole foods recipes.

Lentil-Quinoa Chili:

Yield: 4-6 servings, depending on size

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups yellow onion, diced (about 1 small to medium onion)

5 3/4 cups vegetable broth (divided)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed well (I used red quinoa for this recipe and like the texture it provides)

1 cup small brown lentils (uncooked)

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (plus more to taste)

1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes in juice

1 4-0z. can fire-roasted green chilis

salt to taste

hot sauce for serving (optional)

Directions:

1. Add onions and 1/4 cup of the vegetable broth to a large soup pot or Dutch Oven and saute over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until onions start to become translucent. Add garlic and saute another minute.

2. Add lentils, quinoa, red pepper, chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper and 3 cups of the vegetable broth to pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed.

3. Add remaining ingredients, including remaining 2 cups vegetable broth to pot. Stir well. Return to a simmer and simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Add salt or more cayenne pepper to taste. Serve with hot sauce if desired.

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Easy, Fat-Free Green Bean Salad

fat free green bean saladSo, I realized that this past Thanksgiving was my 4th — 4th! — annual vegan Thanksgiving. And for the first time ever, as I mentioned, the entirety of my extended family joined along in the spirit of the vegan Thanksgiving and there was no turkey to be found.

At one time, I would have thought that a turkey-less, entirely vegan Thanksgiving would mean I’d feel lighter and not stuffed to my breaking point after eating. I was wrong. And I’m here to set the record straight. It is entirely possible to way overeat  and induce a food-coma even if all of the food you’re putting into your body came from plants.

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Cran-Apple Lentil Loaf

lentil loaf

Lentil loaf is one of those ubiquitous vegan dishes that seems to pop up on every blog and website around the holidays. I’m joining in the lentil loaf fun. For years, I’ve wanted to create a decent lentil loaf to post on this site. I’d tried my hand at it a few times and wasn’t too happy with the results. So I gave up. But I figured, what better time than “Thanksgiving season” (if you’re a blogger, you know that Thanksgiving is, indeed, a full “season”) than to tackle this dish once again?

Thankfully, I came up with not one but two versions of lentil loaf that I liked. I could not decide which I liked better, though, so I left that to my chief taste-tester, Gennaro. Truth be told, Gennaro is a pretty horrible taste-tester, as he is very reluctant to give me criticism (great husband, not great taste-tester). But over the years, I’ve developed enough insight into his body language to know when he really loves something, and when he’s just telling me what he thinks I want to hear. In this case, his body language pointed clearly to loaf #1. So that’s the one I’m sharing here.

lentil loaf

This lentil loaf is texturally not exactly like meatloaf, so don’t think you’ll be getting a perfect replica. But it’s a delicious centerpiece to a meal nonetheless, and will definitely go well with all of the typical meatloaf accompaniments. In fact, it works best when surrounded by a supporting cast of mashed potatoes and gravy. The topping is also essential, as it adds a sweetness and flavor to the dish. This is also delicious cold the next day (in my opinion). I ate three slices straight out of the refrigerator for breakfast and lunch and not only did it still taste great but it kept me full throughout the day!

I adapted my recipe from this one at Oh She Glows. I loved the idea of using grated apple in the loaf (I personally think it keeps the filling from becoming too dry). I also liked the idea of processing the lentils (I processed 1/2 instead of 75%) in order to keep the loaf from falling apart. This one holds together remarkably well. The cranberries rounded everything out with a tart-sweetness that added flavor and festiveness to the dish.

I will be bringing this for our vegan family Thanksgiving feast. This is the first year that our entire extended family dinner will be meat-free! It’s funny because in years past, as more and more of us were giving up meat, the family turkey got smaller and smaller as more vegan dishes began to spring up in our lineup. I’m so exited that this year, there will be no turkey at all! This dish will fill in just perfectly.

Note: this recipe is somewhat more labor intensive than what I usually like to make for a weeknight meal. Altogether, it took me about 40 minutes of active prep and then about 45 minutes of baking (during which I cleaned my dirty kitchen!). It’s definitely not the most labor intensive meal I’ve ever made, but I thought I’d give fair warning to those looking to tackle this one in a hurry, as there are a few different cooking components at play here. Also note that for best results, you should have parchment paper on hand to line your loaf dish for easy removal. 

Cran-Apple Lentil Loaf:

Adapted from Oh She Glows’ Ultimate Vegan Lentil Walnut Loaf; Yield: about 8 thick slices

Loaf Ingredients: 

1 cup uncooked green/brown lentils

3 cups water

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup raw walnuts

1 cup onion, very finely chopped

1 cup celery, very finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup vegetable broth

2 tablespoons ground flax seeds

1/2 cup grated apple, tightly packed

2 tablespoons Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (use coconut aminos to make this soy free)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/3 cup fruit-sweetened dried cranberries

Glaze:

2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 1/2 tablespoons coconut nectar (can also substitute agave or maple syrup)

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

Directions:

1. Add lentils to a small pot with 3 cups water and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Then reduce to a simmer and simmer lentils, covered, for about 35 minutes, or until most of the liquid is gone but lentils remain firm. Drain remainder of the liquid. Set aside.

2. In a food processor fitted with a sharp steel blade, process oats together with walnuts for about 30 seconds, until a coarse flour forms (almost like a coarsely ground cornmeal). Pour processed walnuts and oats unto a large mixing bowl and set aside.

3. Add 1 cup of lentils to food processor with same steel blade (no need to wash first) and process until mixture begins to clump together. Set aside.

4. In a non-stick saute pan, saute onion, garlic and celery in vegetable broth over medium-high heat until soft and vegetable broth is gone, about 5 minutes. Add cooked onion, celery and garlic to mixing bowl with the oats and walnuts. Add pureed lentils and roughly mix. Add another cup of the whole lentils, then remaining loaf ingredients and mix well. I actually like to use my hands to mix everything together and make sure all of the ingredients are well-distributed. I don’t bother much to add things in a certain order, as using your hands will kind of help to distribute things well.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. While oven preheats, pour lentil loaf mixture into a 9x5x2″ (or similar-sized) loaf pan and press firmly into pan, using hands. Top should be smooth. Then mix together topping ingredients in a small bowl and pour over top, spreading evenly with a spoon or spatula until well-distributed.

6. Bake loaf in preheated oven, uncovered, for about 45 minutes on a middle rack. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple minutes before lifting loaf out of pan with the sides of the parchment. For easy transfer to a serving platter, I gently lifted the bottom of the loaf from the parchment with a long spatula and then pulled the parchment out from underneath. Slice and serve with desired accompaniments.

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Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Kale

butternut squash macand cheeseI 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.

butternut squash mac and cheese side

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.

butternut squash mac

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)

Ingredients:

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. 

Directions:

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.

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