vegan butternut shells & cheese (WAIT DON'T LEAVE)


I think if you're going to eat cheese, you should eat cheese. I think if you're not going to eat cheese, you shouldn't opt for a processed imposter with over ten ingredients. If you want to or if you like it like that, cool, but that stuff just won't cut it for me. I feel the same way about most packaged veggie burgers (possibly biased opinion: these are better!) and meat substitutes. Mostly because, ick, but also, if I decided to not each meat, why am I substituting something that's trying to mimic its taste and texture?

Anyway. I'm not judging, it's to each their own. But I'm not ready to give up cheese just yet. I was, however, willing to try this "cheese"-like pasta dish that relies on puréed butternut squash and coconut milk (not Daiya, etc.) for the creamy factor. Intrigued? Me, too.

Now, I'm going to level with you. Not everyone would tell you what I'm about to tell you: thisdish does not, at all, taste like mac and cheese. It does pretty okay in the appearances department and the texture is close enough, but you cheese-lovers (yes, you), you won't be fooled. You will be better off/able to enjoy this is a baked pasta dish by telling yourself that it's made with a vegan butternut cream sauce. See? Don't you feel better already?

For this recipe, you'll need:

1 medium butternut squash (about 2-ish pounds), cubed
3 tablespoons coconut oil
1 pound pasta (shells are the obvious mac & cheese choice, duh)
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 1/2 cups coconut milk
2 tablespoons arrowroot
1 1/2 cups nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons grain mustard
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups kale (or other leafy green), chopped
1 cup green peas, optional

Okay, so start by getting your butternut squash cooking. You can really do this the day before or the morning of if you're looking to get a jumpstart on dinner. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. On a large baking sheet, place your squash (peeled and cubed) in a single layer to ensure even roasting. Toss the cubes with 1 tablespoon of your coconut oil and roast for about 30-35 minutes or until tender.

While the squash is softening, get some water boiling and cook your pasta of choice according to the package instructions. Now is also a good time to get started on your "cream" sauce. In a medium saucepan, heat another tablespoon of coconut oil over medium heat. Add both your garlic and oregano and sauté until your garlic begins to brown. To this, add 1 1/2 cups of your coconut milk along with your arrowroot powder. Once the arrowroot is added, your mixture should start to quickly thicken so whisk thoroughly to remove any lumps. Next add your nutritional yeast, lemon juice, mustard, pepper and salt.

Okay, hang on: a quick word about nutritional yeast. First off, if you're not sure where to find it, you can find it in most grocery stores that carry Bob's Red Mill. If not there, check the bulk section in your local Whole Foods. If you've never had nutritional yeast, word to the wise is that it's not for just random usage. It can be, if you're feeling bold, but mostly it adds that little extra something to vegan recipes that they would otherwise be missing. It makes weird but damn good vegan French toast. It's got lots of B-vitamins. And it adds a little "cheesy" factor to this particular dish. Got it? Back to the good stuff.

Whisk your sauce together until it becomes a vaguely familiar texture (think bechamel-ish) and then remove from heat, cover and set aside. Remove your squash from the oven and reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Transfer your squash cubes to a high-power blender with your remaining 1 cup of coconut milk. Blend until smooth. Whisk this mixture into your cooling cheese sauce, giving it more of that creamy factor and a touch of that familiar comes-in-a-box cheese color.

Take your pasta and coat with your "cheese" sauce. Transfer to a large casserole or baking dish and bake for 20 minutes or until slightly browned/crisp on the edges. Working quickly, heat your last tablespoon of coconut oil in a large pan. Use this pan to wilt down your kale or greens of choice (collards or mustard greens would also work nicely) and cook your peas. When serving, top (and bottom) your pasta with your greens.

As I already stressed, this dish is not going to replace the cheese in your life. It is, however, going to give you a newfound appreciation for the way vegetables can step up to the plate. It's a butternut squash and not layers of a jack-mozzarella-cheddar combo, yeah, but it's still REALLY good. And way better for you, which goes without saying. It's got the creamy element you crave without being too over-the-top in-your-face vegan. Definitely one to try again - let me know what you think!