Veggie-Loaded Mac N Cheez

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Earlier this year there was a vegan mac-n-cheez throw down in Baltimore. No, Bobby Flay didn’t show up,  but he honestly would have had no chance with all the amazing vegan chefs in the house. We threw our hat into the ring (or should I say, our mac-n-cheez?); we made it several times to test the recipe. But we didn’t win. We didn’t end up last, either, which was nice.

The Bake-Off was hosted by The Baltimore Animal Rights Federation. About twenty cooks showed up with recipes as varied as gluten and soy free to those featuring sriarcha, Old Bay or mushroom-bacon. Our hosts appointed judges from various Baltimore vegan restaurants, and 3 prizes were awarded: first, last and people’s choice – which was done via voting ballots.  Because we are always game to eat way too much food, we both sampled every mac in the place. They were all good and I didn’t envy the judges. The recipes were so different, it was like comparing apples and asparagus.

We bake mac-n-cheez fairly often, but on most days, we rely on Daiya or Teese to make it happen. For this recipe, we decided to go whole-food and use as few processed ingredients as possible to challenge ourselves for the contest. Everyone knows how delish & gooey Daiya and Teese are; that’s too easy. We wanted to use more veggies, too, to up the nutrition content. After several tries, we were pretty happy with the recipe. We tested it out on vegans and non-vegans, and got good reviews from both. Even my Dad liked it – he went back for seconds!

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Still, we made a LOT of this recipe. And we discovered that the leftovers also made incredible sandwiches: just add a slice of chilled mac-n-cheez to two slices of bread and make like a grilled cheese. Isn’t it wonderful to find new ways to eat mac-n-cheez? 🙂

This recipe is more complicated than others we post, as it requires several advance steps and a few unusual ingredients. First, you will need to make the roasted garlic in advance, as well as soaking the cashews. We have posted a great method for roasting garlic, but if you forget, no biggie. Just use regular garlic – the roasted garlic does have a different taste and aroma, however, and your results will be sharper  and more “garlicky” with raw garlic. Still good, though. But the cashews need to be soaked to be soft enough to blend into a sauce. Ideally, you can soak them overnight or all day.

As for the unusual ingredients, you may not have worked before with ume plum vinegar or kuzu root starch. We were introduced to both during our stint on the macrobiotic diet, and once you meet these two, you’re going to love them. Ume plum vinegar is the pickling brine from making umeboshi plums with sea salt and red shiso. A tart, salty,  condiment with beneficial organic acids, ume plums are  ‘the king of alkaline foods’, and highly valued as a digestive aid in macrobiotics.

Kuzu root starch is a thickener that dissolves in cold liquid and has no perceptible taste. It is very low in calories and contains no fat. Kuzu binds more strongly than arrowroot. Unlike corn and potato starches (industrially processed) kuzu is handcrafted and natural. The kuzu Pueraia lobata plant is a prolific, tough, fibrous vine with heart-shaped leaves used as a food in China for more than 2,000 years. Its roots are among the largest in the world, ranging in length from three to seven feet and weighing between 200 to over 400 pounds.  In traditional Oriental medicine kuzu is valued as a digestive aid, to strengthen vitality, and fortify the body in cold weather. Recent studies have shown that Kuzu may reduce the cravings for alcohol and aid in recovery from alcohol addiction.

You can find these two unique ingredients at any Maryland-area  Whole Foods or Roots Markets, as well as online – try Amazon. We always buy Eden Foods brand. Once you try them, you’re going to love ume plum vinegar (wonderful splashed over steamed greens) and kuzu root starch (try it in apple pie as a thickener!).

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Veggie-Loaded Mac N Cheez

5 cloves roasted garlic, peeled (see instructions here to make in adavance or just use regular fresh garlic)

1 cup cashews, soaked in 2 cups of water for 8 to 24 hours

2 Tbl. kuzu root powder, dissolved in 1/3 cup cool water (we used Eden Foods brand)

1 head cauliflower, cut into small pieces

4 carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces

16 oz. box of macaroni elbows (or pasta of choice – gluten free will work)

1 Tbl. olive oil

pinch salt

3 tsp. dijon mustard

2 1/3 cup unsweetened, plain almond milk ( we used Silk plain)

3 Tbl. white miso (we used Westbrae)

1 Tbl. Braggs Liquid Aminos

1/2 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. ume plum vinegar (we used Eden Foods brand)

3 tsp. vegan Worchestershire sauce (we used Annie’s)

1 tsp. smoked salt (use regular if you don’t have smoked salt)

1/2 cup nutritional yeast

1/2 Tbl. smoked paprika

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs (gluten free breadcrumbs will work)

Before you begin, make sure you have roasted your garlic and pre-soaked your cashews. Even if you decide to skip the roasting of the garlic (will slightly alter the flavor), the cashews need to be soft before you begin to make a smooth sauce.

Preheat oven to 400. Grease a casserole dish with olive oil or coat with non-stick spray of choice.

Start by adding kuzu to cool water and stirring it up.  Next, add your chopped cauliflower and carrots to a large pot and boil until just soft, about 10-12 minutes. Use a fork to test, as they don’t need to be mushy, just tender. Allow to cool for a few minutes in a strainer.

Next, cook pasta with oilve oil and pinch of salt according to directions. When done, strain and set aside.

Using a food processor or high-powered blender, puree soaked and strained cashews with dissolved kuzu in water, peeled & roasted garlic cloves, dijon mustard, almond milk, miso, Braggs Liquid Aminos, white pepper, ume plum vinegar, vegan Worchestershire, smoked salt and nutritional yeast. Resulting sauce should be very  thin. Add cooked cauliflower/carrots 1/3 batch at a time to the cheezy sauce and puree until smooth and creamy.

When all veggies are mixed in, combine cooked pasta and cheezy sauce until all the noodles are coated. (You can mix it in the casserole dish!) Top with sprinkles of panko bread crumbs and smoked paprika. Bake, covered, at 400 for 35-40  minutes until bubbly. Remove cover and bake another 15 minutes to toast the top. Allow to cool on counter about 15-20 minutes before serving.

Optional: If you like things spicy, trying adding cayenne pepper to the sauce. To amp up the veggies in this recipe, try topping with fine-chopped broccoli or sliced tomatoes when you add the breadcrumbs and paprika.

A special thanks, before we sign off, to The Baltimore Animal Rights Federation for inspiring us to get in the kitchen and create this tasty recipe! Oh, and Bobby Flay, if you’re out there – we’re ready for the vegan mac-n-cheez throw down!

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