I fell in love with Alfredo at age 11. After dithering painfully over dozens of options at an Italian restaurant, my mother wisely commanded: “Order the Alfredo. You’ll like it.”
I obeyed, but I was skeptical. At that age, I recoiled from any new food. The fettuccini part was, of course, safe and familiar, but slathered in a cream-based white sauce instead of the usual red, it became suspect. When my plate arrived, I encrusted it with Parmesan, praying that a thick coating of cheese might make it more like the pasta dishes already part of my small repertoire. But, after a single bite of those buttery, peppery noodles, I never looked beyond the word “Alfredo” on any menu again. I didn’t care what gnocchi was or how to pronounce “pasta fagioli.” In the realm of Italian American cuisine, I had found my soul mate.
And our bond was bliss until I became a vegan eight months ago.
Naturally, I didn’t want to surrender the pleasures of this comforting meal, though I knew my relationship with dairy-rich Alfredo would have to change. I feared that soy-based substitutes and cheese-free recipes would render my true love unrecognizable to me.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I can create a vegan version of my favorite dish. Soaked nuts are the key ingredient: softened after a long bath, cashews take on a smooth, cream-like texture after a turn in the food processor. Nutritional yeast adds a savory depth of flavor that is reminiscent of cheese.
Rich and creamy, this vegan Alfredo satisfies in a way that I never imagined possible from a dairy-free dish. Thanks to well-placed substitutions and just a little finesse, I’m very happy to say that Alfredo and I are still going strong.
Creamy Cashew Alfredo with Baby Spinach
- ½ cup raw cashews
- 8 ounces whole-wheat fettuccine
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ¼ cup chopped shallot (about 1 small shallot)
- 2 small garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- ½ teaspoon red chili flakes
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¼ cup boiling water
- 2 cups baby spinach, packed
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup of basil, cut into thin ribbons
Soak cashews in a bowl of water overnight. Drain and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook pasta according to package instructions. (Before draining the pasta, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid.)
Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook until lightly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
While the onion and garlic cook, combine the cashews, nutritional yeast, salt, lemon zest, chili flakes, paprika, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor. Process for 30 seconds seconds and then scrape down the bowl. Add the boiling water and process another 30 seconds. When the onion and garlic are brown, add them to the mixture and process again until smooth, about another 20 seconds.
Transfer the mixture to the skillet and keep warm over medium heat. Add the drained pasta and baby spinach, and about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking liquid. Using tongs, toss to coat the pasta and wilt the spinach. Add up to another 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid if a thinner texture is desired. Season to taste with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper and top with basil just before serving.
Serves: 2 to 3