Macaroni & cheese is the comfort and warmth of my childhood in a bowl. It seriously merits poetry.
anchor deep and pull sharp
sharper than a picture’s soft
Soft boiled eggs and buttered toast,
biscuits with sausage gravy,
homemade mac & cheese,
that’s my mom
in all her Walton’s glory
Food memories live in the soft spot
under your ear, behind your jaw
and in the passages
of your nose
They warm your insides
steam up your windows
hug your throat
and tell you not
to forget your raincoat
What then would induce me to stop eating my favorite food on earth? An experiment, of course. In my latest hypothesis dairy is the potential villain, the trigger for eczema that has plagued me for the last thirteen years.
A few months ago I read this article about the relationship between inflammation and chronic conditions (hay fever, arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even depression to name a few).
There are plenty of potential environmental triggers for these conditions, but there’s also a good chance it’s an undiagnosed food sensitivity (not to be confused with food allergies which are life threatening). According to the article up to 40 percent of the population has a gluten sensitivity, “enough to notice brain fog, bloating, gastric distress, or fatigue after eating wheat.” Dairy sensitivity is similar.
The article suggests eliminating a food type for two weeks to see if symptoms are reduced. Then, add the potential allergen back into your diet and see what happens. (This should probably be done under a doctor’s care, but I kind of skipped that part.)
I’ve suspected allergies as a potential trigger for my eczema, but hadn’t considered food sensitivities. Since then I’ve toyed with the idea of using myself as a human guinea pig. I recently brought it up (again) during a conversation with a friend, and finally decided to dive in headfirst. I chose to go dairy-free first because it seemed easier to leave cheese off a sandwich than to make a sandwich without bread.
I made some really interesting discoveries during those two weeks, and will probably do a series of posts (including 5 new recipes!) One thing’s certain, there’s no substitute for cheese-sharp cheddar, Brie, and bleu, dill havarti, chevre, and Gouda too. I tried a vegan “cheddar cheese” on my salami sandwich. (Does this make kittens cry?) It was unforgivably squishy, like a raw, salty tofu. Sad kittens or no, that sham of a fake cheese went straight into the garbage.
Two weeks without dairy wasn’t as hard as I thought. Although, towards the end I went grocery shopping and found myself wistfully buying cheddar-colored foods like yellowish orange split peas, and this gorgeous orange cauliflower.
For the last year or so I’ve been substituting cauliflower for the noodles in my homemade mac & cheese recipe, pretending the veggies cancel out the cheese sauce (technically, this is a cauliflower gratin, but it satisfies the same craving). I thought, might as well take a shot at making a non-dairy “cheese” sauce. I’d heard of nutritional yeast as a vegan substitute for cheese a few years ago. It couldn’t possibly be as nightmarish as that slab of salty orange tofu. Why not?
Nutritional yeast has a nutty, cheesy flavor on par with a good 80s pop song. It’s actually a de-activated yeast in the same family as edible mushrooms. (Yes, there’s a fungus among us. Not very appealing? Consider it’s a replacement for moldy milk, aka cheese.) It’s a complete protein that comes in flake and powder form similar to grated Parmesan, and is often fortified with B vitamins.
I based my recipe on a vegan mac & cheese I found on vegweb, altering it substantially based on the reviews. I also used fresh onion rather than relying on garlic or onion powder. I kicked up the flavor even further borrowing a technique from curry making. The recipe called for oil, so l figured I might as well fry the onions to deepen the flavor without taking much time.
Honestly, the resulting dish blew me away. The caramelized onion and cheese flavor is deeply satisfying, not unlike its muse. It comes together faster than traditional macaroni and cheese. No waiting for milk to boil! Of course you can use noodles instead of cauliflower if you want it closer to the real thing.
Macaroni & Cheese Free Mac & Cheese
¾ cup non-dairy milk (I used original whole grain rice milk, but might try unsweetened next time)
½ cup nutritional yeast
¼ cup water
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp white pepper (use black pepper to make it gluten-free)
2 tsp (or 2 squirts) mustard
½ cup oil (vegetable, corn, something neutral)
1 onion, sliced thin
4 inch long piece of whole grain baguette or 1 ½ slices sandwich bread
1 Tbsp non-dairy butter spread (I like Earth Balance)
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1) Preheat oven to 400º. Heat oil to med-med high heat in a large cast iron skillet while you slice the onion. When oil is shimmering, fry onion 5-7 minutes till deep brown in spots. Remove from heat and let cool.
2) Meanwhile, remove core and cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces. Steam in microwave safe bowl with ½ cup water. Cover with paper towel and microwave for 2 minutes, stir well, heat another 2 minutes, stir again. Steam another minute or so until fork tender. Put cauliflower in a large, shallow baking dish.
3) When cool enough, add onions and the frying oil to blender with remaining sauce ingredients and blend well.
4) Pinch bread into smaller pieces and put in food processor with butter spread and tablespoon nutritional yeast. Process for 30-60 seconds till crumbs are tiny.
5) Pour sauce over cauliflower and stir to coat. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Bake at 400º for 15-18 minutes until bubbly and starting to brown around the edges. Serve warm and cozy. Leftovers keep well in the fridge for at least five days.