butternut squash mac & cheese

butternut squash mac and cheese

To say that I’ve been in a food rut would be an understatement. Since I moved to California, my tastes, in general, have changed. I no longer want to resemble a bruise with all the black and blue I used to wear, so I’ve set aside the darkness in favor of the light–pale blues, creams, blush. Labels no longer interest me because I spend most of my days working in a coffee shop or a couch, and I rather pay down debt and book trips that hoard purses. I never thought I’d want anything mustard in my home, but now I’ve got gold and mustard all the joint.

And then there’s food. Before I left New York, I was disciplined. In the morning, I’d have a protein shake and there would always be some salad over the course of the day, and gluten and dairy were verboten. Now that I live in Los Angeles and have lost the ease in which I can move about a city when I eat out it’s planned around location and traffic, but mostly I cook at home or eat locally because it’s cheaper and I don’t have to worry about sitting on the 10 or 405 for an hour just to get across town. I’m lucky in the sense that eating healthier here is ubiquitous There’s no corner deli serving up bacon, egg, and cheese, and finding good bagels are challenging. Eggs, shakes, and acai bowls are the norm, and I’ve often had to roll my eyes at eateries that sport “bone broth” on the menu because they’ve basically gussied up chicken stock with some clever Kinfolk-esque re-branding.

I’m also lucky (and privileged) to live in a city where everything is in walking distance. I have two markets in a five-block radius of my home, and the Santa Monica Farmer’s market is worth a weekly visit.

But my tastes have changed. I can’t explain it. I’ve paged through the cookbooks that gave me joy in New York and I’m uninspired. I’m also tired of overcomplication.

A year and a half ago, I went at life so hard. Workouts weren’t worth it unless I felt like I was going to die. Cooking food wasn’t great unless I was hunting down ingredients. Work wasn’t purposeful unless I juggled a pile of projects. All this velocity became exhausting. Perhaps this is why I haven’t returned to the megaformer (I’m just not interested in pushing myself until I faint, vomit, or both, so now I spin or do pilates), stopped ordering ingredients off the internet, and have focused my energy on juggling 2-3 projects at a time.

So, this pasta. Last week, I was in Barnes & Noble and I found Maya Sozer’s book on the New Releases table and the burger on the cover gave me pause. I thumbed through the book and not only did I find the meals tasty and pretty easy to assemble, they were healthy. I’ve made dishes with squash as a “cheese” sauce, like this penne and chicken & this lasagna, but I’m trying to chill with my gluten and dairy intake (I normally have either once a week and I make sure it’s GOOD–like a baguette with butter, cacio e pepe, or a homemade grilled cheese sandwich). Enter this pasta.

I will say a few things. This sauce is a bit too much for a pound of pasta. I think you can dial this back by 1/2 cup and save it or add more pasta. And while this doesn’t taste like “cheese” (and it shouldn’t because that would be really lame), the nutritional yeast and cashews give a creamy, comforting texture, and the spice mixture gives the dish a pop. I fried up some sweet italian sausage and mixed that in, along with some diced sundried tomatoes and fresh parsley, and I hoovered two bowls and saved the rest for lunch tomorrow.

Easy peasy.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Maya Sozer’s Easy Vegan Breakfasts & Lunches (I modified based on what I had on hand)
For the mac & cheese:
1/4 cup raw cashews (this is important–you can’t use salted, roasted or any of that other nonsense)
1-3/4 cups cooked butternut squash or 3/4 of a 15oz can of squash puree
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-3/4 cups almond milk (must be unsweetened, unflavored)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons sweet curry powder (I have regular curry powder and it worked fine)
1 to 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (I didn’t use this as I didn’t have ginger on hand and don’t much like it in cream sauces)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound penne rigate or rigatoni pasta

Optional garnish:
Fresh parsley (or thyme)
sundried tomatoes, packed in olive oil

DIRECTIONS
Put all the ingredients, except the salt, black pepper and pasta, into a food processor or high-speed blender and mix until smooth. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. Add the butternut squash sauce to the same pot after draining out the pasta water. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the pasta is dressed with the sauce and is piping hot.

Add your garnishes, if you’re feeling it.

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