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.

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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.

Wordless Wednesday: Thailand – Feast Mode

Spicy Fried Tofu Fish and Braised Mushrooms

Ruyi Vegetarian
283 Rama IV Rd, Khwaeng Rong Muang, Khet Pathum Wan
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330

Papaya Salad, Larb, Avocado Salad, Fried Jackfruit, Mushroom Soup, and Black Sesame Smoothie

Bee Vegan
19 Suthep Rd, Tambon Su Thep, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200

Papaya Salad (Front)

Anotai
976/17 Rama IX Rd, Khwaeng Bang Kapi
Khet Huai Khwang, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10310

Mushroom Satay

Vegan Heaven
27/2 Moon Mueang, ซอย 9 T. Sri Phume
Amphoe Mueang, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300

 

 

 

Sip and Slurp Through Summer

Chill out. Strawberries might sound like an unconventional addition to the classic red tomato gazpacho, but they’re nothing to lose your cool over.

Given a surplus of the highly perishable rubies and an oppressive heatwave to contend with, my tastes quickly skewed toward the fast, easy, and refreshing side. Gazpacho must always be on hand for days like this; it was a natural, perhaps inevitable combination.

Balancing sweetness with savory undertones, the subtle bite of vinegar, and fresh verdant pop of basil, it’s a delicious study in contrasts. Don’t let the fruity feature scare you off! It’s not a vegetable-forward smoothie, but you may still want to drink it straight from the blender.

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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!

Poppycock

Delicious, nutritious, and an illicit narcotic? Poppy seeds are an excellent source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and several essential minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, to say nothing of the morphine residue that may remaining after harvesting from opium poppies.

Yes, opium which is also an excellent source of heroin, morphine, and codeine. While it’s true that an “overdose” may genuinely make you fail a drug test, the seeds themselves contain none of the potent drug. No need to lock your spice rack at night or keep a surveillance camera on your baking supplies; while a junkie might be sorely disappointed, I’d say that the flavor they offer is still powerfully addictive.

Nut and seed blends are gaining traction in the non-dairy aisle, but no one seems to appreciate the power of the poppy seed. This could be said across the board, however, as poor, misunderstood poppy seeds rarely get top billing in any dish. Every bit as capable of creating a creamy, dreamy, dairy-free drink, their subtle nutty flavor bears intoxicating nuances of both sweet and savory notes in every sip.

Toast them to enhance that elusive, rarely touted taste, or keep it simple with a more subtle, straightforward blitz. A mixture of oats and almonds lend a richness and body that could rival anything fresh off the farm.

If you can resist the urge to lift the entire blender right to your lips to gulp down the entire milky amalgamation as is, it happens to make a brilliant creamer for iced coffee, too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when poppy seed lattes become the next big trend in a month… It really is an addictive drink.

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