Weeknight Vegetarian: When pasta meets cheese

Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST - Pasta With Lettuce, Peas and Ricotta Salata.

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It was one of the first pasta dinners I made after my sister and brother-in-law announced they were going vegan. We were in their kitchen in southern Maine, where I spent last year helping them with their homestead, and I was making a sauce from the best of the early summer produce, right from the huge garden outside.

It was based on the classic French side dish of braised lettuce and peas, but I turned it Italian by tossing it with curly pasta and kept things light with a touch of mint.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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As it neared readiness, I realized I needed to make a plea, to ask them to do me one little favor, to make one — okay, two — little exceptions to their diet in service of the dish and its integrity. “Please,” I said. “Please don’t put nutritional yeast on this. And let me use ricotta salata.”

For those of you unfamiliar with nutritional yeast, it’s a deactivated, flaked yeast, often fortified with extra B vitamins, that vegans appreciate for its nuttiness and ability to sub for cheese in cooking. (Its nickname: nooch.) I’ve used it in sauces and the like to good effect, and I think it’s fabulous on popcorn.

As a pasta purist, however, I have a tough time swallowing its use as a substitute for one of the world's great cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano. And I knew that there would be no substitute for this dish’s crowning touch, another cheese: the pure-white ricotta salata, with its slight brine and uniquely firm yet slightly spongy texture that makes it perfect for shaving and crumbling onto vegetables that could use a little kick.

Couldn’t I shower the dish with those, just this once?

They relented. Actually, it didn’t take much convincing. They already had been making exceptions here and there, mostly for eggs, which is what prompted me to coin the term “vague-an.”

They appreciated the pasta that night, nodding in agreement and smiling, but in all honesty I suspect that if they make it themselves, they’ll be reaching for the nooch.

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