A Full-On Southern Supper Plate | VeganMoFo 2019 Day Fourteen

I have recently (i.e., within the last year) come to a startling realization: I do not care for super spicy foods. I say “startling” because I have long used my seeming tolerance for spiciness as a marker of some kind of courage and as something that sets me apart from my wimpy Midwestern friends who pale at the sight of sriracha. I grew up on spicy foods thanks to my dad’s predilection for them, and for quite a while I think I confused “able to eat” with “enjoy.”

No longer! I’ve recently realized that I just don’t enjoy super spicy foods. I don’t enjoy having to keep a tissue on hand to wipe my streaming nose. I don’t enjoy not tasting the rest of what’s on my plate. I simply don’t appreciate spice for spice’s sake anymore, and frankly, I don’t think I have a particularly high tolerance for it either. Heat can be great when combined with other bold flavors, but you have to be able to taste those flavors!

I mention this because tonight’s dinner included quite a spicy element. I had an after-work happy hour, meaning I arrived home a bit later than usual. Steven had dinner in the oven, and the timer dinged almost literally the moment I stepped through the door. What bliss! He’d made a big ol’ pan of mac and cheese and some BBQ tofu, using a homemade, sriracha-based BBQ sauce. I added a simple side salad for some greenery and had myself a nice big plate of food.

So, that BBQ tofu. It packed quite a kick. I kept eating pieces and feeling the burn until I realized something incredibly obvious: If I ate it at the same time as a forkful of mac and cheese, it was not nearly as painful, and it added a nice kick to the pasta.

I mean. This is not rocket science. But as a person who likes order and clearly delineated lines (in pretty much every aspect of life), I do not typically mix two types of food on a fork. I like one thing at a time, so I can taste it individually. (On Thanksgiving, I have to purposefully remind myself to put some mashed potato and stuffing into my mouth at the same time.) Yet clearly there is a benefit to mixing things up, to using a more neutral element to temper a stronger one. Even if I have to consciously remind myself to do it, it’s worth it. That BBQ tofu — so painful, so tissue-requiring on its own — became deliciously palatable when paired with the creamy neutrality of the mac and cheese.

(There’s a metaphor in here about balance, I’m sure. Feel free to read whatever you’d like into this revelation.)

And about the mac and cheese. Steven used this much-heralded VegWeb recipe, reducing the oil (!!!) and adding some shredded Violife parm for good measure. It was nice and creamy and a good reminder that sometimes old-school vegan recipes are worth keeping around, even when newfangled fancy products seem so much flashier.

Quite a satisfying meal overall, and doubly so because I didn’t make any of it! It reminded me of the platters at NuVegan Café, a local chain serving up Southern-style vegan classics. You typically order a main and two sides, and I can never resist their mac and cheese. So filling and so scrumptious.

Now I’m debating making dessert, possibly one of the stone fruit crumbles or cobblers that have been my go-to this summer. But do I really want to turn on the oven again? More to the point, do I really want to get up from the couch?! I predict a “no” on both counts.

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Recipe Showdown: Mac & Cheese

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A few weeks ago, I pitted three brownie recipes against one another in a battle for the title of Best Brownie. Joanna Vaught’s aptly named All-Time Very Best Vegan Brownie recipe handily defeated its foes, what with its fudgy, rich results. But what if you’re (gasp!) not in the mood for chocolate? What if you want something more savory, something carb-laden and creamy? What if you’re craving… mac & cheese?

Fear not! My second recipe showdown puts three rock-star mac & cheese (henceforth known as M&C) recipes to the test. First, my criteria – I think a stand-out M&C recipe must be…

  • Creamy. I want creamy, smooth sauce that perfectly coats my noodles. Too little sauce results in dry noodles, while too much sauce is more like cheese soup with pasta.
  • Neutral-flavored. Now, I don’t mean “bland;” I just mean that I don’t want to taste vegetables or potatoes in my sauce – I want it to have a unique flavor all its own. I know that a vegan M&C won’t taste like dairy cheese, but I don’t want it to have a recognizable flavor that is distinctly not cheesy.
  • Not incredibly heavy. This is where I might differ from many of you, and this is why I can’t do Daiya-based M&C. Basically, my body doesn’t tolerate fatty foods well, and I don’t want to feel sick and stomach-pained after eating a bowl of M&C. However, I still want my M&C to satisfy my comfort food cravings, to fill the creamy, cheesy pasta-shaped void in my tummy.

A tall order? You bet. But I tried the three recipes that people suggested as their favorites and that hold spots of reverence in vegan circles, so I had high hopes. Let’s see what I discovered!

First, I tried arguably the most popular and well-praised recipe that exists today:

VegNews’ Vegan Macaroni and Cheese

VegNews calls this “[t]he best mac ‘n’ cheese on the planet. End of story.” The reviews on the recipe are off-the-wall enthusiastic, and I’ve seen countless bloggers fall at the proverbial feet of this recipe, singing its praises and calling it the best thing they’ve ever tasted. But could it live up to the hype? I was willing to give it a chance, but I was skeptical.

Close-up of a glass casserole dish full of mac & cheese. The corner has a bit scooped out, and you can see it in the background on a plate.

The oft-praised VegWeb M&C!

PROS:

  • Pretty creamy.
  • Includes veggies, so you can trick yourself into thinking it’s slightly healthy.
  • No nutritional yeast. (This isn’t necessarily a pro for me, but I think NY-free recipes are crucial – not everybody loves the yellow yeast! It’s an acquired taste for many.)

CONS:

  • Breadcrumbs overwhelmed the top layer.
  • The Dijon mustard was too noticeable.
  • I felt heavy and a little sickish afterwards. :(

OVERALL GRADE: B

I hope I don’t lose friends over this one, but I was a little underwhelmed with this recipe. The recipe only calls for 1/4 t of Dijon mustard, but for some reason it was all I could taste. It definitely didn’t meet the “neutral taste” requirement, which is really my main beef with it – that and the stomach-ache it gave me. That said, the flavor wasn’t bad, and it was definitely creamy enough to satisfy the M&C need. It was S’s first taste of a non-dairy cheese sauce, and although he never would’ve been fooled into thinking it was real cheese, he also said it was tasty and that he’d make it again. It was a little labor-intensive for an average weeknight, though.

Next, I tried…

VeganYumYum’s Mac & Cheese

This recipe holds a special place in my heart – I used a variation of it the first time I ever made vegan M&C. Nostalgia! I’d never made it without modification, however, so I followed the recipe to a T[ablespoon… ha ha ha] this time around.

Close-up of a small bowl of macaroni and cheese with a glass of almond milk in the background.

This is an unattractive picture. I'm sorry.

PROS:

  • Despite the 1/3 C of Earth Balance (!!!), it didn’t taste overly heavy to me.
  • The sauce actually has a unique, enjoyable flavor.
  • Appropriately “gooey” texture.

CONS:

  • Post-baking, it seemed to lose some flavor.
  • 1/3 C of EB. :(
  • Makes way more than 2-3 servings. This mightn’t be a con for others, but I had lots of leftovers, and I wasn’t planning for them.

OVERALL GRADE: B-

That grade is for the dish as a whole. S described it as “bland,” although his portion was microwaved and a few days old. Straight out of the saucepan, the cheesy sauce tasted really, really good to me – it had a unique flavor that totally fit my “neutral flavor” criterion. But baked? It just tasted… bland. I don’t understand what happened! If I were grading the sauce alone, it’d definitely get a higher grade, but the dish as a whole just doesn’t merit it, alas.

The third contender was…

The New Farm Mac & Cheese (the Get Sconed! version)

This M&C is legendary. It has a storied history with roots in the out-of-print New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook. The original recipe is floating around the web somewhere, but once I heard that it contained ample amounts of both margarine and oil, my nerves failed me and I sought out a slightly less heart-attack-inducing variety. Jess’s version fit the bill, with its much-reduced fat content (which is not to say that this is a low-fat recipe!). I followed Jess’s recipe, although I didn’t make it gluten-free, and I didn’t add any of the optional add-ins.

Baked mac & cheese in a green square dish with a plate of M&C in the background.

This picture is even uglier than the previous one.

PROS:

  • Very, very creamy – totally satisfied that creamy-pasta urge.
  • Neutral flavor, pretty typical to any nutritional yeast-based sauce.
  • Coated the pasta nicely.
  • BONUS: According to S: “Congeals just like cheese when cold.” Ha!

CONS:

  • The neutral flavor very nearly crossed the line into bland territory.
  • Contains both margarine and oil. Blurgh.
  • The minced garlic bits were a little odd and detracted from the texture.

OVERALL: B+

S said that this one had “a cheese-like tanginess that permeate[d] more than the others.” Incidentally, this recipe contains the most nutritional yeast compared to the other two. Hmm! He didn’t know that, because he wasn’t with me when I made the second two recipes. I’m not sure I’d call it tangy, but maybe that’s because what he called tangy just tastes like nutritional yeast to me. Generally, though, this one filled the M&C void most strongly for me. Initially I thought it was a little boring, but it really grew on me – straight out of the oven, it was incredibly creamy. I have to begrudgingly admit that the oil might be the secret ingredient for maximum creaminess.

So, coming in a hair above the others, Jess’s version of the New Farm Mac & Cheese won this showdown. Ultimately, though, my ultimate mac & cheese might be a combination of the VeganYumYum and the New Farm varieties. I think that the tomato paste in the VYY recipe really adds a unique flavor to the cheese, while the olive oil in the NF recipe makes the sauce incredibly creamy. I think I’m going to experiment on a hybrid recipe! :)

I would be remiss in posting about this showdown if I didn’t mention The Noochy Noodle, a blog devoted solely to tasting and reviewing vegan mac & cheese. Whether it comes from a box or from a fancy-pants vegan restaurant, Kristen is dedicated to reviewing all the vegan M&C she can find. It puts this tiny little showdown to shame, really. I highly recommend you check out The Noochy Noodle for all your vegan mac & cheese needs!

What’s your favorite mac & cheese recipe? How many have you tried?

Note: This is a scheduled post, because I’m currently in Italy. Apologies for any weirdness with auto-publishing!

Friday Favorite: Happy Herbivore’s Cheddar Cheesy Sauce

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Whew. One week of MoFo down, three more to go! I put my game face on for the first week, and I think I did pretty well – not only are all my posts fairly solid, but my brownie showdown post was mentioned on the official MoFo Twitter (!) on Wednesday. I’m famous! But I’m also a little worn out. Keeping up with 700+ blogs during a regular work week is no easy task, and a girl’s gotta do other things than eat and sort through her Google Reader, y’know? So today I’m taking it easy and keeping it short with my first Friday Favorite post.

A bowl of linguine and peas with a light coating of a "cheesy" sauce.

Cheesy! And over-sharpened. Oops.

One of my go-to recipes from Happy Herbivore‘s cookbook is her Cheddar Cheesy Sauce (recipe available here with a different name). It’s quick and easy to whip up, and it always hits the spot when I’m craving a warm, creamy sauce for my pasta. I usually make half a recipe, which is a great serving size for one person. Most recently, I enjoyed it with Ezekiel sprouted-grain linguine (another favorite!) and peas. I pulled together this whole dinner in barely 20 minutes. You can’t beat that!

If you don’t like nutritional yeast, this sauce probably won’t do it for you. But if you do, and if you’re craving a low-fat – yet flavorful! – cheesy sauce, give this one a try.

What’s your favorite go-to recipe? What’s your favorite vegan mac & cheese recipe?

Spoiler alert: A future recipe showdown will compare three (3) mac & cheese recipes. Get excited! Give me your recommendations! Etc!

Spreadin’ the Bloggy Luuurve: Two Happy Herbivore Pasta Dishes

Today’s theme: Spreadin’ the Bloggy Luuurve

During my initial MoFo scheming period, I thought I’d do something like LJ is doing and come up with a theme for each day of the week. I even had some fun alliterative titles, just like LJ. Thankfully I realized that this approach wouldn’t be practical for me and that it’d probably result in frustration and burnout, or possibly awful cop-out posts in which I’d say, “Wanderlust Wednesday, eh? Screw that; I’m tired!” and heat up a can of refried beans and call it Mexican.

So instead of forging ahead with my regimented posts, I’m taking the flexibility approach. And, goodness gracious me, I’m already glad I made that decision! Last night I was EXHAUSTED. A weekend of madness at House on the Rock slayed me, and neither caffeine nor sugar (from fruit!) provided much energy while I was at work. When I got home, I couldn’t even fathom making a big, elaborate dinner. I was in the mood for something carbolicious and warm, though, so I hit up ye olde Google and settled on Happy Herbivore’s Instant Vegan Alfredo.

Although the ingredient list is minimal, I ended up leaving out one key item. All the pumpkin-y baking I’ve been doing lately has depleted my stock of nutmeg, which is, according to Lindsay, “a necessity to get the right flavor.” I made it anyway, and served it over Ezekiel sprouted grain linguine and peas.

This is ugly; I'm sorry.

Although it was tasty, warm, and filling, I found it a little too nutritional yeast-y, and a bit bland (or perhaps just lacking in nutmeg!). I don’t hate NY, but I’m not a huge fan, either. I’d make this sauce again, but I’d also cut down on the NY, make sure I have nutmeg, and maybe serve it with regular whole wheat pasta (I <3 Ezekiel, but it tends to be a little sticky and dense when I make it).

That said, I made Lindsay’s Soy Free Vegan Mac n’ Cheese last week, and it knocked my crazily-patterned socks off! I’m constantly on a semi-Quixotic quest for a cheesy sauce that 1.) isn’t super high in fat, 2.) doesn’t rely too heavily on nutritional yeast, and 3.) is delicious! Happily, this recipe satisfies all those criteria.

Served over veggietastic Wacky Mac... 'cuz I'm five years old!

Hooray for noodle dishes! Do you enjoy noodles? What’s your favorite topping or sauce? I’m a big fan of all noodles, from sprouted grain spirals to gluten-free spaghetti!

Unpopular Opinion: My Feelings Re: Daiya

The search for a “realistic” vegan cheese, one that approximates all the hallmark characteristics of dairy-based cheese – meltability, stretchability, the-odor-of-old-socksability – is a quest shared by many new vegans (and some grizzled veterans of the veg world). Cheese is often the one, ahem, sticking point when it comes to making the transition from vegetarian to vegan; most people can’t fathom giving up their monterey jack and their mozzarella. We’ve all heard it a thousand times – “I thought about going vegan but I LOVE CHEESE!!1!!!11!” and, “OMG but cheese is so good! How do you do it?! LOL!” and my favorite, “…but how do you eat pizza?!” Because pizza ain’t pizza unless it’s got globs of oily, congealed pus on top! Them’s the facts, girlz and boyz!

Many – if not most – of us have been there. I loved cheese; I enjoyed sharp, tangy cheddars and soft, spreadable bries. Heck, I spent one memorable spring break in France with one of my closest friends, subsisting off hardly more than chevre and baguettes (…and creme brulee). I played the “cheese is too good to give up!” card for a while, but once I stopped eating it, I found I didn’t miss it. Easy peasy. I’ve been vegan nearly a year now, and I can count on one foot the number of times I’ve craved cheese. This might not be the case for everyone, but I’d argue that many – if not most – vegans have a much less difficult time ditching the cheese than they’d anticipated.

But somehow the idea of a vegan cheese intrigues me. Every so often I get a craving for something creamy and rich, and inevitably this leads to me making a vegan mac and cheese dish, since I’m too cheap to go out and purchase vegan cheese. And, inevitably, I end up eating too much and feeling uncomfortably full. I don’t care for too-rich foods, and most vegan mac and cheese sauces are heavy on the Earth Balance. Yick.

Knowing that, you might wonder why I made a [rare] spontaneous grocery store purchase a while back. Why on Earth would I purchase Amy’s new Daiya-based mac and cheese, when even homemade dishes of this sort leave me swearing off mac and cheese for good? Yeah, I don’t know. Once in a while I fall prey to hype, and the Daiya hype – well, it got me. I’d had it once before on a vegan pizza at a veg meet-up, but the delicious veggies on the pizza overwhelmed the Daiya and I couldn’t really make a judgment one way or the other. So I tried the mac and cheese.

Cheese-tastic?

My verdict? BLECH, BLECH, DOUBLE BLECH. I could barely finish it, for the following reasons:

  1. It was way too rich and fat-laden for me.
  2. The cheeze-to-pasta ratio was WAY off – I am NOT a fan of heavy-handed doses of sauces; I like a light coating and that’s it.
  3. It tasted a bit like melty plastic.

Seriously, I did not enjoy this dish. I felt vaguely nauseated the entire time I was eating it, but I was determined not to waste [too much of] it. The bottom line, I think, is that my body just doesn’t tolerate fatty foods well. I’ve always been this way – as a kid, I’d wake up with stomachaches after eating something like buttery popcorn or creamy alfredo sauce. I’d sit in front of the porcelain throne with my oh-so-patient Mommy, sweating it out and miserably counting the tiles on the floor until my stomach gave up and I had to vomit. Even now, when I eat heavy foods, I get stomachaches and I can feel my heart racing faster. If that’s not a sign that I’m not meant to eat fat-laden meals, I don’t know what is. So I stick to cleaner, lighter meals and get my fat in the form of avocados and nut butters and the occasional sweet treat.

This can be problematic – I’m a naturally skinny gal, and when people see thin folks forgoing a burger and noshing on salad instead, they automatically assume the person is on a diet. Incorrect, sirs and madams! I’ve never dieted, and I never intend to do so. I just like – need – to eat the foods that make me feel good. It’s not weight-related whatsoever; it’s all about my health. I do not feel healthy when I eat very fatty foods. That’s the bottom line.

I liken this to the way some people are slightly intolerant of various fruits and vegetables. Certain members of my family who Shall Not Be Named get rather gaseous from bananas and broccoli and spinach, even though they enjoy those foods. Others don’t do well with wheat. And that’s not even taking into consideration major food allergies or something like Celiac disease.

The upshot of all this? Next time I’m in the mood for a spontaneous food purchase, I won’t reach for this mac and cheese. I might give the Daiya shreds a try in a quesadilla or something, but I’ve no immediate plans to do so. I don’t crave cheese, so why fix what ain’t broken? More for all you Daiya-lovers out there, right? :)

Have you tried Daiya? What do you think? Can you tell that your body just doesn’t deal well with certain types of food?

On Becoming a Cheezehead: My Exciting Employment News

This post has two purposes. I’m saving my creative, Halloween-y post for tomorrow (obviously), so today I am going to share some news that I’ve been withholding for a while. But first, cheeze.

Remember how much I enjoyed VeganYumYum’s Mac & Cheese last week? Well, I’ve been craving something creamy and warm and cheezy ever since, so today I cobbled together my own version of a cheeze sauce. It’s basically a big ol’ mess of EB, soy milk, nutritional yeast, a bit o’ flour, tahini, and various spices. Simple and totally awesome after taking a baking stint in the oven for 15ish minutes. It definitely hit the spot, and I’ve got leftovers for tomorrow, so I’m golden.

My bit o’ news is actually cheese-related, so here it goes – I got a job! I’m going to be a tech writer at a medical software company in Madison, Wisconsin! I’ll be moving out there in December and joining the land of the cheeseheads in America’s Dairyland. Kind of ironic, huh? I go vegan and then I go to Wisco. Heh. But I can’t really complain; it’s a full-time job with good benefits at a good company, and I’m going to need the moneyz once my student loans are no longer in their oh-so-wonderful grace period and I need to start repaying those suckers. So – any Madtown vegans in the house? Or, any recommendations for awesome places to eat in Madison? I’m excited because it’s a much bigger city than my hometown and my college town, so hopefully I’ll get to meet ~*~real live vegans~*~ and dine at ~*~real live vegan restaurants!~*~ Haha. Seriously though, if you’ve got any suggestions, let me know. :)

Ciao ’til the LAST DAY OF MOFO. Aahhh!

Five Minute Photoshop: Ms. Mac N. Cheeze

Ladies and gents, I’d like to introduce you to a new friend of mine. She’s comforting and reassuring and, um, delicious. Meet Ms. Mac N. Cheeze.

Mac N. Cheeze in da house!

I know, I know. You thought I couldn’t get any lamer after my Banana Muffin Photoshop stupidity. But, oh, I can, and I did.

It seems to me that making – and, ideally, enjoying – dairy-free mac and cheese should count as a rite of passage of sorts, a hurdle to be cleared on the way to vegan nirvana. I’m happy to say that I’ve jumped that hurdle and avoided any embarrassing falls.

While vegan mac and cheese has never exactly scared me, per se, I’ve always been a little reluctant to try it. I didn’t think I was a bit nutritional yeast fan, and I was never fond enough of regular mac and cheese to make finding a vegan substitute a pressing need. Truth be told, I always associated the rich, homemade versions of mac and cheese with tummyaches; my stomach has never dealt well with large amounts of fat (and probably dairy), and super creamy dishes never sat well with me. I did enjoy Annie’s white cheddar shells, but overall macaroni and cheese was never high on my list of all-time favorites.

That said, there came a point when I began to crave something creamy and warm and reminiscent of those cholesterol-laden dishes I used to occasionally enjoy. Tonight I decided to fulfill that craving. After perusing various mac and cheese recipes, I settled on this simple one from VeganYumYum. Although cashew-based “cheeze” sauces seem to be all the rage – and that VegNews recipe looks intriguing – I wanted my first vegan mac and cheese experience to be more traditional, meaning I wanted to try it with nutritional yeast, even though I was a little uncertain if I’d even be able to stomach it.

Happily, I was more than able to do that. I really and truly enjoyed this recipe. Even though I left out the miso, I thought it was wonderfully creamy and tasty. I think I may’ve used a bit too much tahini, as it was bordering on the verge of too sweet, but that’s my fault since I was halving the recipe and eyeballing measurements. I’m pretty sure my eyes almost bulged out of their sockets when I first tasted this “cheeze” sauce, I was so pleasantly surprised. I thoroughly enjoyed my bowl of penne and, um, yeast, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t leave me feeling full and sick like “real” mac and cheese used to do.

The only downside to this meal was its rather unflattering aesthetic. I didn’t bake it and top it with breadcrumbs, so it was pretty ugly… hence the Photoshop jobber. But other than that, it was a wonderful introduction to the world of vegan mac and cheese and I can’t wait to try more variations on this wonderful dish. Ms. Mac N. Cheeze, we’ll meet again soon – I promise!