Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Creamy White Pasta with Crispy "Ham"

Although it's somewhat rare for me, I do occasionally find myself craving a creamy white pasta sauce. There are several different avenues to go down if you're in the mood for a rich vegan pasta with white sauce. I tend to find that sauces with a nut base are the most satisfying (and protein-filled!). I decided the other night to use a cashew cream sauce. Sound crazy? I promise that once you infuse it with some sautéed onions and garlic (and a few other ingredients), you'll be pleasantly surprised with this rich, flavorful sauce!
White Pasta

Creamy White Pasta with Crispy Fried "Ham"
What You'll Need:
2/3 cup raw cashews (soaked for 2 hours*)
olive oil for frying (about 2 tbsp)
4 slices of vegan sliced deli ham, cut into 1/2" squares (optional**)
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 cup unflavored almond milk
1 tbsp + 1tsp lemon juice (from about 1/2 lemon)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)***
several leaves basil (optional)
nutritional yeast and toasted walnuts (for topping, optional)
1 lb of your favorite pasta (I like fusilli for this recipe)

What You'll Need to Do:
Prepare pasta until just al dente (then drain, and place back in the pot). Meanwhile, prepare your sauce!

First place about 1 tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan, and add in your chopped ham. Fry over medium-low heat until just starting to crisp up, about 3 minutes. Remove ham from the pan, and add the onion into the oiled pan, raising the heat to medium-high. Add a bit more oil if needed. Sautée the onions and garlic until the onions soften and just begin to turn golden, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool down.

Put your cashews and almond milk into the blender and blend until relatively smooth. Add the onions and blend until no chunks remain (if the onions are still warm you may need to stop and release the steam while blending so that your lid doesn't pop off!). Add lemon juice, salt, pepper, nutritional yeast, and about 1/2 tbsp of the ham. Blend. Give the sauce a taste and add a bit more salt and pepper, if needed. Add about 5 leaves of basil, and pulse a few times to chop it up a bit and disperse it into the sauce.

Add the sauce to your drained pasta and heat until warm. Top with chopped basil, a dash of nutritional yeast, and toasted walnuts, or any combination of the three!
White Pasta

Tips and Tricks
*I recently invested in a Vita-Mix blender. When I say invested, I mean invested. These incredibly powerful blenders are also incredibly expensive! If, however, you're a very dedicated cook (particularly one who likes to turn whole nuts, vegetables or fruits into liquid form), it may be worth the money. The few people I know who have them can't stop singing their praises. They come highly recommended in practically every vegan cookbook I've come across, and I have to say I have not been disappointed. If you have a high-powered blender like this (the Vitamix has 2hp!), you don't need to soak nuts, or worry about blending hot things, it's literally made for this type of thing. If, however, you do not have a high-powered blender there are plenty of ways to do (most) everything you can with a high-powered blender. When processing nuts, for instance, just soak them in water (in a non-plastic container) for a short while before blending. About 2 hours should be more than enough, but with cashews, even 20 minutes can do the trick.

**I was craving a pasta dish from my childhood when this recipe came to mind. That original dish had ham in it, and I love the way the saltiness of the ham plays off of the smooth, mild taste of the white sauce. I also like to throw a bit of ham into the sauce itself for a little more depth of flavor.  Not everybody likes these processed vegetarian deli meats, however. If you want an alternative, you could easily use tempeh bacon instead. If you're looking for a deli meat substitute, though, I do recommend the Lightlife and Tofurky brands (I love the hickory smoked Tofurky deli slices!). For this recipe I used Lightlife vegetarian ham.

***What is nutritional yeast? Just what it sounds like...yeast (often infused with a B-vitamin complex)! It is usually sold in flake (or powder) form, and can be found in the bulk food section of most natural food stores. It has a cheesy taste to it, and is great on top of (or in) pizza or pasta sauce. You can add it to sauce in much higher quantities to really impart a cheesiness. In this recipe it adds just a little extra flavor, but is barely detectable, and can be omitted if you don't have any on hand. I hope to write more about it in the future, as it really makes a great addition to any vegan diet, but in the meantime, you can read more about it here.

Bon appétit!

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