Wholly Macaroni

I couldn’t shake the question out of my head. It ran loops around my brain, echoing off the walls of my skull. Surely, there were more important matters to consider, but no. All I could think about was cheese. Mac and cheese, to be precise. It suddenly struck me that many years had passed since I revisited my previous gold standard for Stove Top-Style Macaroni and Cheese, and wondered if it would still hold up to scrutiny.

Considering the great strides that dairy-free foods have made since then, the bar had been raised to lofty heights I could have never imagined back in the day, toiling over the stove with little more than memories of the blue box to light my path. Yes, indeed, it was still good stuff… But it could certainly be better.

A few tiny tweaks make a world of difference. It’s all about incorporating the subtle umami nuances and sharp bite that a good aged cheddar might impart, but nothing earth-shaking that would come as a wild departure from the norm. Just a bit more finesse, some higher-quality ingredients, and a better understanding of the alchemical changes that flavors undergo with varying temperature and time.

Toeing the line between healthy and indulgent, the new and improved sauce introduces a handful of red lentils for body and viscosity, with the side benefit of adding extra protein and fiber into the mix. At the same time, a fearless dose of vegan butter creates that inimitable velvety texture also known as kokumi, enhancing and amplifying flavors, much like salt. Nutritional yeast is essential, of course, but joining it in savory harmony is a dash of miso, lending a greater depth of umami flavor in every cheesy, creamy bite.

Yes, it’s a bit more involved than tearing open a packet of dried dairy-derived mystery powder, but there’s no going back once you taste the difference.

Continue reading “Wholly Macaroni”

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Mac Off!

Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.

Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.

Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.

Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?

By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.

Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.

It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.

Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.

As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.

Noodles for All

Between the hundreds of healthy eating regimes, food intolerance and allergies, and moral dietary restriction, to say nothing of basic taste preferences, the number of landmines one might hit just trying to get the whole family to the table can make everyday meal planning a war zone. When it comes down to it, though, there are just two types of eaters out there: Noodle lovers and noodle lusters. There really is a place where everyone can eat in peace, allowing everyone to fully embrace their cravings, healthy or more hedonistic. Taking great pains to become more inclusive than ever, Noodles & Company has launched a new initiative to offer dishes with flavors and options for every diet, preference, pickiness, and lifestyle.

Figuring out just what is or isn’t vegan is a top concern, especially when some dishes might be just one easy modification away from perfection. Penne rosa sounds inextricably bound by dairy, but believe it or not, can easily come without cream or cheese for a satisfying Italian feast. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask had it not been for the handy new personalized nutrition calculator which lists not only potential allergens, calories, and ingredients, but suggests swaps to better suit your specific needs. Unlike the harsh rules imposed by some unwelcoming, militant chefs, customization is genuinely encouraged here!

Best of all, the encouragement to tailor your meal to taste allows for infinite creativity. Everything is made fresh, to order, so it’s not a problem to mix and match, add and subtract to your heart’s content.

Need something without gluten? Try the pipette, which bear such a satisfying, al-dente bite that I had trouble believing they were made of rice and corn, rather than traditional wheat.

Want something a bit lighter? Go for the zoodles (ie, zucchini noodles), which pair brilliantly with the spicy peanut sauce, if I do say so myself.

Craving all the veggies? Load ’em up, adding a rainbow of produce to the already verdant whole wheat spaghetti fresca, sans cheese.

Need a bigger protein punch? Try the spicy Korean noodles with tofu instead of beef, and avail yourself heartily to extra sriracha on the condiment bar.

I’ve passed by Noodles & Company many times before without giving it a second thought, which strikes me as a terrible oversight now. These aren’t your average bowlfuls of bland, mushy food court pastas. The Japanese pan noodles are the OG plant-based option, standing the test of time as part of the menu since day one. Had I just ventured in and tried those chewy, beautifully charred strands of udon, twisting around tangles of broccoli florets and shredded carrots years ago, this superlative experience would have come as no surprise. It’s a good thing the Noodles & Company empire is continuing to expand, with many more locations in the works.

Whether your food preferences are dictated by a strict diet or a picky palate, there’s a place for everyone at this table.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with Noodles & Company. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!

Bundle Up, Butternut

For many years, my family would threaten to skip the traditional spread for Thanksgiving in favor of plain pasta, sauce on the side. Gathering a dozen or more picky eaters around one table led to inevitable conflict and strife, because most people wouldn’t touch cranberry sauce with a three-foot spatula, green vegetables are akin to the devil for some, and even the omnivores generally turned up their noses at turkey. The only thing we could all agree on was the universal charm of good old fashioned noodles. We’re not talking about fancy herb-infused, handmade coils or twirls; no elaborate gluten-free blends. Just basic, white flour, dried pasta was always the first dish to empty at my grandma’s dinner table, no matter the intended accompaniment. In hindsight, I wish someone actually called that bluff and skipped the annual feast of discontent.

Realizing this concept in much grander fashion, a supposedly “rustic” starter of crispy butternut squash ravioli knocked me off my feet this Thanksgiving. Indeed, the ingredients are as ordinary as they come, but the time, effort, and love that goes into each individual pasta pillow is not. Longtime friend and erstwhile food blogger Jenn pulled out all the stops this year, balancing tradition with innovation, lavishly accommodating all guests with more food than a small mob could possibly consume in a week. It was that first dish that struck me as the very best though, if I had to choose, for finally hitting that satisfying promise made so many years ago.

Butternut is mashed into creamy submission and bundled up in homemade sheets of delicate dough, extraordinary for their apparent austerity yet rich depth of flavor. Owing to the skill of the cook, only some inconceivably magical process could possibly explain it otherwise. That, and a whole lot of vegan butter. Infused with a handful of bright, aromatic holy basil, sage might be more expected here but any tender herbs are welcome to this party.

In the spirit of giving, Jenn had the patience to not only swaddle those tender morsels of homemade butternut delight in handmade pasta to feed a crowd, but to endure the added chore of writing out every single step in painstaking detail on my behalf. At this point, I must acknowledge that I’m a terribly demanding guest.

Plain pasta, it is not; it’s something to be much more thankful for.

Butternut Squash Ravioli
by Jenn

Here’s a quick “no measure” recipe for a rustic ravioli dish that will make any occasion seem super special. You don’t need any special equipment — just a rolling pin though I prefer to use my Kitchen Aid pasta roller attachment to save time.

Pasta:
1-2 cups of fine semolina flour
2 Tb extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
water, as needed

Filling:
1 butternut or kabocha squash, roasted and seeded
chopped fresh herbs (your choice), quantity as needed
pinch of salt
pinch of nutmeg

DIRECTIONS – FILLING:
To make the ravioli filling, Just mash the roasted butternut (or kabocha or pumpkin) and blend with the finely chopped herbs and spices. You don’t want this to be too fine a puree, you want to be able to drop it by the spoonful onto the pasta.

DIRECTIONS – PASTA:
1. Make the pasta – mix the dry ingredients and start adding the olive oil and mix well. Add cold or ice water in a thin stream, in small amounts, until the semolina starts getting a sandy texture. Check it periodically to see if you can clump it by smashing some inside the palm of your hand with your fist. If it is too tacky and wet — add more semolina (easy, right?). I prefer to use my stand mixer but you can do this by hand.

2. Use a flexible spatula to scrape out of the bowl onto a work surface. Work it with your hands to press, squeeze and smush it together into a ball that starts to really stick together. You want to develop the gluten. Get out the rolling pin and work it flat, fold it and repeat.

You can continue to work it with the rolling pin or you can get it thin enough (about 1/4″ for the widest setting on your pasta roller) to start putting through the pasta roller. I start out at “0” on my KA attachment and after a couple passes, narrow it a few more times until I get to 4 or 5.

Get the pasta sheets as thin as you can without them being transparent, developing holes or tears when you try to stretch a bit (since you’ll be doing that to make the ravioli) but not so thick that you just have a super squishy dumpling.

To shape the ravioli – you can do this with a water glass or biscuit cutter, a fancy ravioli cutter (I have individual cutters as well as a metal mold that is about as wide as the sheet of pasta.

Get a small bowl of water and maybe a brush to keep at hand. Once you roll out your sheet of pasta — put it on the form or lightly mark it with your cutter, then use a measuring spoon to scoop a small ball of your cool filling onto the center of that mark.

Dab a bit of water all around where the edge of the ravioli will be using the brush or your finger tips. Lay another sheet over top (or just fold a very long sheet) and then use your cutter (or rolling pin) to score the raviolis. Check to make sure the edges are sealed the first few times and then lay them out in a single layer on cutting board or cookie sheet to rest.

Freezing the ravioli before you cook them yields better results. You can drop them into boiling water and then scoop them out and cover them with sauce, but for this thanksgiving treat — we browned some of Miyoko’s vegan butter and crisped up the ravioli on both sides with some holy basil out of the garden, and then sprinkled with vegan parm.

You can’t eat just one!

Oh yeah – and – if you have more pasta than energy to make ravioli — you can slice the sheets up into linguine or fettuccine, or make farfalle (butterfly or bowtie pasta) just by cutting squares and pinch in the middle. In all cases — leave pasta on a cookie sheet to rest and freeze or dry. You can also tightly wrap leftover pasta ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate to roll out later.

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Que Pasta?

Some foods are just better in concept than reality. Towering sandwiches built way beyond the capacity of an average mouth are sure to disgorge their fillings after even the most careful bites. Ice cream sundaes gleaming with a scoop of every flavor are guaranteed to melt into murky sludge, no matter how many spoons are digging in. Don’t even get me started on coleslaw so slick with mayonnaise that it could also pass for white cabbage soup.

All these disappointments are easily prevented, but 9 times out of 10, the basic construction is a recipe for failure. Seven layer dip is a top offender in my eyes, a frustration compounded by the potential of each flavorful new tier. Refried beans, salsa, cheese, guacamole, olives, lettuce, and herbs – What’s not to love? Well, let’s start with the physical impossibility of fitting all that goodness on top of one tortilla chip, defeating the whole purpose of that deliberate assembly. if you can manage dig down to the bottom without breaking said chip, you’ll be up to your knuckles in guacamole, which strikes me as a pretty serious party foul.

Perhaps we’ve just been thinking about this all wrong. Instead of serving as a starter, these flavorful layers are really meant for the main event. Trade that frilly shredded lettuce for more substantial fare like pasta, and we’ve got a game-changing entree on our hands.

Imagine if baked ziti went on a vacation to Mexico and came back with a fresh new lease on life. Emboldened with spicy enchilada sauce, this unconventional addition allows you full license to scoop out the entire stratified marvel in one satisfying serving.

Gluten-free Tresomega Nutrition noodles inspired this dinner time revelation thanks to their second annual blogger recipe contest. Made of organic quinoa, rice, and amaranth, these macaroni are one of the rare wheat-free varieties up to the task, remaining properly al dente when cooked with care. Snag a box or two online at Sam’s Club and find much more inspiration on the Tresomega Facebook page and Twitter feed

Complex in flavor but not in preparation, you can speed through assembly with some easy food hacks, pull out all the stops with homemade staples, or mix and match depending on your preference- and patience. Most critical here is the creamy cashew-based cheese sauce, which has a subtle tang thanks to unsweetened yogurt and the subtle smoky spice of chipotle canned in adobo, but in a pinch, good old pepper jack style vegan cheese shreds will certainly do the trick. There’s no shame in make it mostly homemade; a little shortcut is better than not cooking at all, every single time.

Lose the chips and dip into a new favorite main dish with those same luscious savory layers. This bold new interpretation was built on a stronger foundation than those earlier models and will never let you down.

Seven-Layer Pasta Bake

1 (15.4-Ounce) Can Refried Pinto Beans or 1 3/4 Cups Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1 (8-Ounce Box) Tresomega Quinoa Elbow or Penne Pasta
1 (10-Ounce) Can Red Enchilada Sauce or Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1 (14.5-Ounce) Can Diced Fire-Roasted Tomatoes, Drained
1 – 2 Cups Vegan Cheese Shreds or Homemade Cheese Sauce (See Following Recipe)
1 Cup Guacamole, Prepared or Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1/2 Cup Sliced Black Olives
2 – 3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 7 x 11-inch casserole pan. If possible, opt for glass to see all those lovely layers! Set aside.

Set a large pot over high heat on the stove and bring approximately 4 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for only 6 minutes. It will be noticeably under-cooked, but that’s exactly what you want! If you cook it to al dente perfection now, it will get too soft after baking. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water.

Begin the assembly process by smearing the refried beans evenly across the bottom of the prepared casserole dish. In a separate bowl, toss the par-cooked pasta with enchilada sauce, stirring well to coat, before evenly distributing the spicy noodles on top. Add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes next, followed by the vegan cheese shreds or sauce.

Bake for 20 – 30 minutes, until hot all the way through and lightly browned on top. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before topping with dollops of guacamole, a sprinkle of black olives, and a final flurry of sliced scallions. Serve right away, while piping hot.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Unfried Refried Beans:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Yellow Onion, Minced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1 (14-Ounce Can) or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked Pinto Beans, Thoroughly Drained
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 – 1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sauteing until aromatic and lightly browned. This should only take about 8 – 10 minutes, so don’t wander off!

Add in the pinto beans, cumin, salt, and 1/4 cup of the vegetable stock next. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Take a potato masher and smash the beans into creamy submission, adding more stock if needed to reach the right consistency. Enjoy hot or let cool before storing an an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week.

Instant Enchilada Sauce:

1 (6-Ounce) Can Tomato Paste
1/4 Cup Vegetable Stock or Water
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

This is really a no-recipe sort of recipe that you could probably figure out by simply looking at the list of ingredients. All you need to do is whisk everything together until smooth and you’re good to go!

Easy Chipotle Cheese Sauce:

1 Cup Raw Cashews, Soaked in Hot Water for 1 – 2 Hours
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Plain Vegan Yogurt
1 Chipotle Canned in Adobo Sauce
3 Tablespoons Nutritional yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 – 3/4 Cup Water

Thoroughly drain the soaked cashews before tossing them into your blender with the yogurt, chipotle, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, salt, and 1/2 cup water. Begin blending on low speed, slowly ramping it up to high as the nuts are broken down. Pause to scrape down the sides of the container as needed, making sure that all the pieces are incorporated. Puree until completely smooth, drizzling in up to 1/4 additional water while running the motor if needed, to reach a silky, pourable consistency, somewhat like pancake batter.

You can enjoy this all by itself as a simple queso dip or spicy cream sauce, but it can also be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 4 days if not using immediately.

Basic Guacamole:

2 Large, Ripe Avocados
1/4 Cup Finely Chopped Onion
1 Jalapeno, Finely Minced (Optional)
2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

In case you needed a refresher course on how to make guacamole… it’s okay. We all have days like that.

Pit and peel your avocados, placing them in a medium bowl along with the onion, jalapeno (if you like it hot,) lime juice, and salt. Roughly mash with a fork or potato masher until creamy but still slightly chunky. Use or eat right away; guacamole is always best fresh.

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