Friday, November 11, 2011

Mac n' Cheese


We've talked about cheese before. It's the heroin of the dairy world, full of lovely, soothing opiates, and truly an addictive substance. Going vegan is easy in a lot of ways, but for lots of us, the most challenging when it comes to cheese. In my case, I mourned the loss of my beloved mac n' cheese, and then I started looking around for good vegan versions of this ultimate comfort food. There are hundreds of different riffs on vegan mac n' cheese out there. Everybody has their own idea of how to make it, and what it should taste like. I've seen endless recipes using either tofu or nuts. Almost all of them include nutritional yeast, which is the Secret Key to the Vegan Cheese Universe. It has that rich, smooth, nutty-cheesy flavor we crave, plus it's good for us.

I remember the days when I was a single mom with two kids, living on next to nothing, and making a lot of creative use of the "blue box" mac n' cheese. It was fast and easy, the kids liked it, and well, it was cheap. My favorite way to eat it was straight from the pan with a wooden spoon. In fact, I still like my mac n' cheese that way, but these days, I make a much healthier, tastier version. I served this to a table full of friends the other night, and even though some of them still eat the "real" kind (we're going to have to talk about "real" one of these days), they said mine tasted even better. Hooray! Another score for Team Vegan!

The thing about mac n' cheese is it should be fast and easy to make. Granted, a good homemade meal is going to be messier and more time consuming to fix than a chemical meal from a box, but my mac n' cheese is still quick and easy, and well worth the extra bit of cleanup. There are several ways to go about this dish, depending on what you already have on hand.

Method 1 - If you've made a batch of Basic Nut Cheese from the pulp left from Basic Nut Milk, you're half way there! Just slowly warm the cheese in a sauce pan with some liquid to thin it down. Try nut milk, vegetable broth, and even a splash beer or wine for a snazzy grown-up flavor. You may want to add more seasonings, like nutritional yeast, salt, garlic powder, dry mustard, paprika, or herbs, and consider a blop of vegan butter for extra richness. Once it passes your own personal taste test, pour it over your favorite cooked macaroni. I like whole wheat or rice elbow noodles for that authentic mac n' cheese look.

Method 2 - If you have a cup or so of nut pulp left from making nut milk, you can throw it in the food processor and blend it up with a bit of liquid to make it as smooth as possible, then transfer it to a sauce pan, add more liquid, nutritional yeast, salt, mustard powder, and other seasonings as above.

Method 3 - If you're starting from scratch and are in a hurry, soak a cup of cashews in water for about 20 minutes. Drain and process as above, with liquid, nutritional yeast, and seasonings. Cashews make a smoother, creamier sauce than almonds do, plus they require much less soak time. They're the speedy "blue box" of vegan mac n' cheese!

I've read that adding artichoke hearts to cheese will give it a nice Swiss cheese flavor. I'll be trying that soon! You can also add canned or cooked pumpkin to take the flavor in another direction. Experiment with herbs and vegetable additions to create your own favorites. There's always room in the world for another vegan mac n' cheese recipe!

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