For my entire childhood, I had a week’s notice of my dinner fare. Every Saturday morning, my mother plunked a pile of cookbooks and her overstuffed recipe box on the dining room table and mapped out a week of dinner menus before heading to the local co-op. It helped her manage her budget, shopping and sanity, but left her open to creative endeavors as well.
I especially loved one of her more decadent dishes, a hearty macaroni and cheese made with sharp Canadian Cheddar (she hails from Winnipeg), a splash of beer, and a pinch of ground nutmeg.
The list of ingredients might make pious nutritionists recoil. But my mother was a health nut, and knew exactly what she was doing. Room can be made in a balanced diet for an occasional smattering of such richness. And balance, as the great American food writer MFK Fisher wrote more than a half century ago, need not be a requirement for each meal. Such a strategy inevitably leads to dinner dissatisfaction, if not outright despair. A “balanced” diet can also be achieved by aiming for week-long balance.
If you view vegetables as punishment (stripped, steamed, blanched –bleah) when partnered with austere entrees, try them alongside macaroni and cheese. The contrast is enlivening. Such was the case whenever macaroni and cheese appeared on my mother’s menu. My siblings and I were bamboozled into eating everything from brussels sprouts to beets if melted cheese took center stage.
It turns out that the same is true for macaroni and cheese made without any cheese at all. A “cheesey” sauce made from soaked cashews–really, truly!–a bit of pumpkin for color, and nutritional yeast for umami cheese-iness delivers the same comfort and vegetable-pairing possibilities.
The sauce is easy to make, easier than making a traditional cheese sauce. Soaking the raw cashews overnight is essential–it allows them to plump them up–for producing an uber-creamy sauce. But I have a shortcut option in case you do no plan ahead: rather than soaking the cashews overnight, give them a quick boil for 15 to 20 minutes. Works like a charm! Use either method to make your sauce.
The cheese sauce is so easy! Add everything to a blender and blend at high speed until creamy and velvety. You will be amazed at how cheese-y it tastes (note: it make a great dip or fondue, too!).
You can pour the sauce directly over the hot boiled noodles for a stovetop-style dish, but I love to bake it with some breadcrumbs, too. If you like, add some extra bits and pieces (I added a few tablespoons of finely chopped sundried tomatoes & parsley), or keep it plain.
Prepare to love this pasta dish! Do not forget the vegetables on the side :).
1/4 cup finely chopped, oil-packed sundried tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs or gluten-free breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375F. Grease or spray a large casserole dish or 6 small casserole dishes.
Cook the pasta. as directed on the package.
Meanwhile, puree the cashews, milk, nutritional yeast, pumpkin, lemon juice, mustard, salt, turmeric, and nutmeg until completely smooth and creamy (stop and scrape down sides of blender periodically), adding a bit more milk if needed. Season to taste with pepper.
Drain pasta; return to pot and stir in cheese sauce to coat, adding sundried tomatoes and parsley, if desired. Spoon into prepared dish/dishes, and sprinkle with (optional) crumbs.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes until crumbs are golden brown. Serve warm.