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Plant-based mac and cheese

Everyone has different definitions of comfort food, but most have a few things in common: In the depths of winter, we want something warm to keep the shivers at bay. When we’re stressed and stretched thin, we want hearty, rich foods, often dishes that remind us of childhood.

Yet most of the top picks for comfort food are not considered especially healthy, because they are often awash in butter and cheese with nary a green vegetable in sight. By putting a plant-based spin on some of your favorite home-cooked fare, you can enjoy the comfort you crave with added nutrition.

These recipes may seem a bit more involved than what you typically tackle for a weeknight meal, but they call for a lot of pantry staples and hands-off baking time. With a few extra minutes in the kitchen and a handful of smart swaps, one of these plant-forward dishes may become your new comfort-food classic.

Butternut Mac and Cheese

Mac and cheese

Makes six servings
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup raw cashews
  • 1 tbs. avocado oil
  • 2 cups cubed butternut squash
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 1/4 cup unsweetened nondairy milk
  • 1 tbs. lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 tbs. nutritional yeast
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 lb. brown-rice macaroni, or other pasta of choice
  • 1/2 cup minced almonds or panko breadcrumbs

Directions

Place the raw cashews in a heat-safe bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Lightly oil a 2-quart baking dish.

In a large skillet, warm the avocado oil over medium-high heat. Add the squash and onion, and cook until the vegetables start to sizzle, about two minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add the garlic, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the vegetables cool slightly.

Place the drained cashews in a blender with the nondairy milk, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, nutritional yeast, salt, paprika, and turmeric. Add the cooled vegetables and blend to create a smooth sauce.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni for half the time given on the package directions, about four to five minutes. Drain well. Return to the pot, add the sauce, and stir until combined.

Scrape the macaroni into the oiled baking dish and smooth the top. Sprinkle with the minced almonds or breadcrumbs, and bake, uncovered, until golden brown and bubbling, about 25 minutes. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes before serving.|

Black Bean Enchiladas

Black bean enchiladas

Makes four servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Sauce

  • 2 tbs. avocado oil
  • 3 tbs. all-purpose or chickpea flour
  • 1 tbs. ground cumin
  • 1 tbs. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 tsp. lime juice

Enchiladas

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1 large red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 tbs. avocado oil
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 12 6-inch corn tortillas
  • 1/4 cup raw pepitas
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place a saucepan over medium heat and warm the avocado oil. Add the flour, cumin, and chili powder, and stir to make a paste. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is fragrant, about a minute. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and tomato paste and stir to combine, then gradually add the stock, whisking constantly to break up lumps.

Continue to cook, whisking frequently, until the sauce has thickened, about eight to 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the lime juice.

In a 9-x-13-inch baking dish, combine the onion, zucchini, and pepper. Add the avocado oil, the remaining salt, and the oregano, and stir until coated. Cover the pan with foil and roast for 20 minutes, then uncover and roast for 20 minutes longer. Let the vegetables cool slightly, then transfer to a large bowl; wipe out and set aside the baking dish. Add the drained beans to the veggies and mix.

Wrap the tortillas in foil and warm in the oven for 10 minutes, or use a steamer basket.

Pour 3/4 cup of the sauce into a wide, low bowl. Place a tortilla in the bowl, and flip it to lightly coat each side with sauce. Place about 1/4 cup of the vegetable mixture in each tortilla, then roll it tightly and place it in the baking dish. Repeat until you have a row of enchiladas down the center of the pan, pressed tightly together. Pour remaining sauce over the rolled tortillas, covering them completely. Sprinkle with pepitas.

Cover the pan with foil and bake until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Serve sprinkled with cilantro.|

Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie

Lentil mushroom soup and shepherd's pie

Makes six servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup French lentils, rinsed
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 1/2 lb. parsnips, peeled and chopped
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened nondairy milk
  • 2 tbs. avocado oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sea salt, divided
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 8 oz. baby bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 large carrots, sliced
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tsp. dried sage
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbs. all-purpose or chickpea flour
  • 2 tbs. tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • 1/4 tsp. paprika

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and lightly oil a 9-x-13-inch baking dish.

In a 2-quart pot, bring the vegetable stock and lentils to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and cook until the lentils are tender but not falling apart, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain the lentils and reserve the stock. Measure the stock and add water, if needed, to make a 1/2 cup.

While the lentils are cooking, place the parsnips in a second large pot and cover with water by an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the parsnips are tender when pierced, about 10 minutes. Drain, then place the parsnips in a food processor. Purée until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the nondairy milk, 1 tablespoon avocado oil, and 1 teaspoon salt, and purée to mix.

In a large skillet, warm the remaining avocado oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until it begins to sizzle, about two minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, and add the mushrooms, carrots, and remaining salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are shrunken and browned and other veggies are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add the thyme, sage, pepper, flour, and tomato paste. Stir until combined, then add the reserved stock from the lentils and bring to a low boil. Cook for about two minutes, then turn off the heat. Stir in the peas and cooked lentils, then scrape the mixture into the baking dish and smooth the top.

Spread the parsnip purée over the lentil mixture. Sprinkle with the paprika.

Bake until lightly browned and bubbling, about 35 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

This article originally appeared as “Plant-Based Comfort” in the January/February 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Spinach Lasagna

Spinach lasagna

Makes eight servings
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 tbs. extra-virgin avocado oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cups cubed eggplant
  • 8 oz. baby bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 tsp. sea salt, divided
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/4 cup avocado oil
  • 3/4 cup chickpea flour
  • 3 cups unsweetened nondairy milk
  • 2 tbs. nutritional yeast
  • 9 no-boil brown-rice lasagna noodles, or other noodles of choice
  • 2 10-oz. packages frozen spinach, thawed, excess water squeezed out

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and lightly oil a 9-x-13-inch baking dish.

In a large pot, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, eggplant, and mushrooms, and cook until the vegetables start to sizzle, about two minutes. Reduce heat to medium and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is tender, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one minute, then stir in the tomato sauce, oregano, and basil, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes.

In a large saucepan, warm the avocado oil over medium heat, then whisk in the chickpea flour. Cook, whisking frequently, until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce the heat so it bubbles gently for about two minutes. Gradually add the nondairy milk, whisking constantly until smooth. Whisk in the nutritional yeast and remaining salt. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, until the sauce has thickened, about eight to 10 minutes.

Spread 1 cup of the vegetable mixture in the bottom of the baking dish. Place three lasagna noodles in the pan, evenly spaced. Sprinkle half of the spinach over the noodles, then drizzle 1 cup of the white sauce over the spinach, then 1 cup of the vegetable mixture. Place three more noodles on top and pat down evenly, then sprinkle with the remaining spinach, and drizzle with 1 cup white sauce. Top with three more noodles, pat down, and cover with the remaining vegetable mixture.

Cover the pan with foil and bake for 20 minutes, then uncover and drizzle with the remaining 1/2 cup white sauce. Bake, uncovered, for 15 more minutes, until the white sauce is lightly golden.

Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing.|

Vegan Chocolate Cheesecakes

Makes six servings
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes, plus 4 hours’ cooling time

Crust 

  • 1/2 tsp. melted coconut oil
  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  • 1 tbs. maple syrup
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt

Filling

  • 12 oz. firm silken tofu
  • 1/2 cup coconut cream
  • 1/2 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate, melted
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tbs. arrowroot
  • 2 tbs. nutritional yeast
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/8 tsp. sea salt

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and lightly oil six 1-cup ramekins.

Place the walnuts in a food processor and process until finely ground. Add the maple syrup, coconut oil, and salt, and pulse until just combined. Firmly press about 2 tablespoons into the bottom of each prepared ramekin.

Clean the bowl of the food processor, then drain the tofu and transfer to the food processor. Process until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the coconut cream and melted chocolate, and quickly process before the chocolate hardens. Add remaining ingredients and blend until very smooth. Measure scant ½-cup portions into each ramekin.

Bake the cheesecakes until the edges are dry and puffed and the center jiggles slightly but is no longer liquid, about 35 minutes. Cool to room temperature on a wire rack, about one hour. Refrigerate, uncovered, until cold, at least three hours before serving.

Photography by: Andrea D’Agosto; Food Stylist: Paul Jackman

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