The first few times I heard the term “mac and trees” it was a reference to the get-your-kids-to-eat-vegetables bowl of mac and cheese with broccoli, and it made me think of that old Mollie Katzen book, “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.” But at some point, I started hearing vegans using the term for their plant-based version of the dish (along with spellings such as “mac ‘n’ cheez”), and this time the reference was to the cashews (tree nuts) that made the sauce so creamy.
To vegans, blending soaked cashews with water or vegetable broth for dairy-free dishes is old hat. But if you’re new to plant-based cooking, the technique will strike you as a revelation. This recipe goes even further, adding sun-dried tomatoes to the mix for tang, plus nutritional yeast and a little miso for umami and depth. The effect evokes sharp cheddar, or perhaps I should say “cheddar” (to hopefully fend off the haters).
It’s quick, too: Rather than soaking the cashews in advance, you boil them for 10 minutes, helping them soften enough to get truly silky when you puree them in a Vitamix or other high-powered blender. (It works in a conventional blender, too, but the sauce won’t be quite as smooth.)
If I were to bake this, I’d add a hefty layer of bread crumbs for crunch, but for the stove-top version, it’s all about the garnishes, including chopped cashews and roasted pumpkin seeds. Tender pasta and creamy sauce make for a classic bowl of comfort, but even something comforting needs a little contrast.
Make Ahead: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week; reheat before adding the pasta.
3/4 cup raw cashews, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup loosely packed sun-dried tomatoes, preferably not oil-packed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more as needed
1 pound small dried pasta shells
1/4 cup cornstarch (may substitute tapioca flour)
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
2 teaspoons white or yellow miso (optional)
6 fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnish
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton, sweet or hot)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for garnish
Roasted hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas), for garnish
Freshly cracked black pepper, for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the cashews and boil for 8 minutes. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, and boil for 2 minutes more. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out the cashews and tomatoes; transfer them to a blender (preferably a high-powered one such as a Vitamix), along with 2 cups of the cooking water.
Add 1 teaspoon of the salt to the remaining water in the pot. Once the water returns to a boil, add the pasta shells and cook according to the package directions until tender. Drain.
While the pasta is cooking, add to the blender the cornstarch, nutritional yeast, miso, if using, the basil, garlic, smoked paprika, crushed red pepper flakes and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Blend on HIGH for about 2 minutes, to form a very smooth sauce.
Pour the sauce into the now-empty pasta pot, then place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring, until the sauce begins to thicken, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot and watching for splatters and pops. (Use a splatter guard, as needed.)
Reduce the heat to medium and stir in the cooked pasta; keep stirring until the sauce becomes thick and gooey, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste, and add more salt, as needed.
To serve, chop some of the extra cashews. Divide the mac and cheese among serving bowls, and top with chopped cashews, basil, red pepper flakes, pumpkin seeds and black pepper.
Adapted from “30-Minute Vegan Dinners: 75 Fast Plant-Based Meals You’re Going to Crave,” by Megan Sadd (Page Street Publishing, 2019).
Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 410; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 490 mg; Carbohydrates: 68 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 14 g.