I am not a huge fan of trying to replicate meat or cheese dishes- it will never taste just like the original and I usually don’t want the original anyways- however every now and then I try my hand at animal product imitation. Rather than trying to make a perfect reproduction, I choose similar flavors and textures and let them shine in their own vegetable glory.
I was making squash ravioli (get the recipe here) for the first time, and when I tasted the filling the first thought that popped into my head was “mac ‘n’ cheese”. It was so smooth, rich and creamy with a slight golden color- I could already see it covering the half-moon noodles. It was too soon to abandon my plans of ravioli, so I continued their creation until they were fully developed into the perfect, plump, pasta pillows I have come to love- but the vision of mac ‘n’ cheese was still clear in my head.
The biggest flavor difference between a classic macaroni and my cheezey squash sauce was the touch of sweetness from the squash that the original dish does not contain. The solution was to offset the sweet flavor with something savory and salty- and, as it often does, the contents of my refrigerator provided the solution. Sitting in the vegetable crisper was an unopened package of okra, just waiting for its chance to shine.
When I was young, my mother convinced my sisters and I that we loved okra by showing us the hidden star inside each pod. And while I no longer need the star inside to convince me that I like okra, I did make sure to cut it so the stars are showing. Mac and cheeze with stars is WAY better than how I used to make it, mac and cheese with peas.
The first step in the cheese sauce is roasting squash, which makes up the base of the sauce. I always cook my squash face down in a glass pan with about half an inch of water in it. It keeps the squash moist and doesn’t allow the bottom to get crisp- perfect for the a blended sauce. I also added some soaked cashews to give it a creamy texture, and some nutritional yeast which gives it a hint of cheese.
The okra is used to bring some of the more salty, savory components into the dish. I fried it in a little olive oil with some garlic, curry, cumin, salt and pepper. They also add a change in texture, something that needs to be done to stop the dish from getting bland.
The overall result? A delicious, delicate, cheezy, star-filled (but not so photogenic) meal!
Mac and Cheeze with Pan Fried Okra
- 1 acorn squash
- 1 cup cashews
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp nutritional yeast
- Salt to taste
- ½ lb. of okra, cut down the length into ¼- ½ inch pieces
- 2-3 TBSP olive oil
- 2 small cloves of garlic, minced
- ½ tsp curry powder
- ½ tsp cumin powder
- 1 lb. macaroni or similarly shaped pasta
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Cut the squash in half and scrape out the seeds. Bake in a glass dish with about a half inch of water around it for 70 minutes or until thoroughly cooked. While the squash is cooking put the cashews in water to soak.
2. Take the squash out of the oven and place on a plate to cool. When it is cool enough to handle scoop the insides into a food processor. Drain the cashews and add them, along with the garlic and nutritional yeast.
3. Blend until creamy. Add a little salt to taste and set aside until you’re ready to make the mac and cheeze. This can be made a day or so ahead of time if that is more convenient.
4. Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil. Add the olive oil to a large skillet and allow to heat.
5. When the water is hot put in the noodles and cook as recommended on the package.
6. When the oil is heated, add the garlic, curry and cumin and stir once or twice to distribute through the oil. Add the okra and toss in the oil. Cook on a medium heat until the okra turn golden brown, crispy and thoroughly cooked.
7. When the pasta is cooked, turn off the heat, drain and return to the pot. Add the cheese sauce and okra and stir until combined. Add salt and pepper as desired.