Skillet Cheesy Italian Squash Casserole

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(Becky, the Mama.)

In my home state of Texas zucchini grows in backyard gardens with such profusion that almost everyone I knew had a steady pile of it sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be washed, diced, sliced, grated, grilled baked, steamed, frozen — or ignored until it grew mildew and could finally be thrown away without guilt. My mother remembers having to remove a bunch of zucchini from my kitchen sink in order to make room to give one of my newborn babies their first bath. During Texas summers it is almost impossible to walk to or from your car without at least one neighbor strong-arming you into accepting a bag or bucket of ever present green squash. Everywhere you turn, zucchini lurks.

To get my children to eat their share of it, I invented Skillet Italian Squash Casserole. By cooking the squash until just crisp tender, then topping it with an Italian style tomato sauce, gooey cheese, and buttery crackers, I had a winner! It was a family favorite for many years.

Soon after we married, nine years ago,  my husband Greg let me know, “I’m not really a squash kind of guy.” So I avoided serving him squash in any form. But the other day, I threw caution to the wind and made this casserole anyway, since I liked it so much. He graciously agreed to try it. To my surprise, he loved it, too.  Ate every bite. I made it again tonight, and there was not a speck of squash left on his plate,

One day we came home from some errands to find a grocery sack of [zucchini] hanging on our mailbox. The perpetrator, of course, was nowhere in sight … Garrison Keillor says July is the only time of year when country people lock our cars in the church parking lot, so people won’t put squash on the front seat. I used to think that was a joke …” Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

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Skillet Cheesy Italian Squash Casserole

5 smallish to medium squash, yellow or zucchini or a mixture of both
Salt & Pepper
1 T. olive oil
1 large clove grated garlic
1 cup crushed canned tomatoes (preferably the kind with basil)
½ t. oregano
2 t. brown sugar
1 c. grated cheese (I like mozzarella but really, any cheese you like & have on hand will be yummy)
3 T. butter
20 buttery crackers, such Ritz or Townhouse (I used Ritz wheat crackers)
2 T. grated Parmesan Cheese

Directions:
Heat oven to 400 degrees

Slice squash about ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper. Heat oil in an 10-12 inch iron skillet on high flame until very hot. Put squash and garlic into pan and saute until many of the pieces are golden on the outside and cooked until just crisp-tender.

Remove from stove top and pour crushed tomatoes evenly over the top of the squash. Sprinkle the tomatoes with oregano and brown sugar. Top with grated cheese. Melt butter in a medium-sized bowl in the microwave. Crumble crackers into the melted butter, add Parmesan and mix. Pour this crumb mixture on top of the cheese, then place the skillet in hot oven. Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes or until squash is tender, cheese melted, and cracker crumb topping is golden.

Veganize This: Substitute vegan ‘Mozzarella” and “Parmesan” cheese and dairy-free butter and you are good to go on this one.  Simple to do!

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Baked Macaroni and Cashew Cheese

Yesterday was our Vegan Anniversary! We celebrated by making this baked macaroni with cashew cheese, a version of one of our favorite go-to vegan dishes.

Baked Macaroni & Cashew Cheese

Two years ago Jared and I were on a Spring Break vacation at our favorite little island in Florida. Want to see how we celebrated back then? Jared is going to kill me for posting this.

Oh yes, that’s how we rolled! I believe that is a plate of barbeque pork nachos bigger than Jared’s head, a grouper sandwich hanging from his mouth, some grilled shrimp, a side of onion rings, and I don’t think that green St. Patty’s Day beverage is a tall glass of wheatgrass. Though we don’t have a photo to prove it (thank goodness!), I too helped devour this heart attack waiting to happen. Little did we know, this was one of our last meaty meals. We certainly went out with a bang didn’t we!?

On our drive back from Florida to Texas, we listened to some books on CD that I had randomly grabbed from our local library’s limited selection. One of them shared some pretty compelling information from The China Study that had us thinking twice about the dairy and meat in those nachos we’d devoured the week before. As we finished up the book, Jared proposed a challenge.

“Let’s try it. Let’s go vegan for a month and see how we feel,” he said.

A challenge I’d wanted to make myself, but would never have dreamed of proposing to my meat, cheese, and potatoes eating manly man of a man.

“Let’s do it,” I agreed!

And 24 months later, here we are with no plans of turning back.

Jared has even become quite the little vegan chef. He found the original recipe for the macaroni and cashew cheese and made it for us the first time. It was so good I asked him to make it again for both of our family’s Christmas dinners. To our surprise, even his teenage brother, the guy who has to have Kraft shells & cheese at every family gathering, liked it. We made it for my mom and Greg when they visited a few weeks ago and Greg announced “This is better than real mac and cheese.”  I like the original a lot, but decided to make some tweaks to it to shake things up a bit.

Who knew you didn't need cheese to make a creamy and delicious macaroni casserole!?

Rachel’s
Baked Macaroni and Cashew Cheese

Inspired by Epicurean Vegan

Serves: 6-8 people 

Ingredients

16oz small whole wheat pasta, cooked al dente (shells, rotini, elbow macaroni, or penne are all great)
1-1/4 C raw cashews
1/2 C nutritional yeast
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp white pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small white onion, chopped
2 Tbs EVOO
4 C unsweetened nondairy milk (I used almond)
3 Tbs cornstarch
1/2 C canola oil
3 Tbs Earth Balance (vegan butter)
1/8 C barley miso (any miso would probably work fine, the original recipe called for light miso)
1 cup dairy free sour cream
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp Tabasco (optional)
Panko break crumbs
Smoked Paprika (optional)
Italian Seasoning (optional)

Directions

Start by boiling your pasta water and preheating the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large saucepan saute garlic & onions in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt over medium heat for five minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large food processor bowl finely grind the cashews, but don’t let them turn to a paste (or you’ll end up with cashew butter–not a bad result, but not what you’re looking for here.) Add the nutritional yeast, onion powder, salt, garlic powder, and white pepper. Pulse a few more times until it looks like a fine powder.

Process until it is a fine powder, but before it turns into cashew butter

Add the onions and garlic to the food processor bowl and pulse a few times.

If the pasta water is boiling, go ahead and drop the pasta and set your timer for 2-3 minutes less than the package recommends. You want to pull out your pasta when it is al dente because it will continue cooking in the oven.

In the same large saucepan as you used for the onions and garlic combine one cup of milk and the cornstarch on high heat. Stir constantly with a whisk until the cornstarch dissolves. Gradually add the rest of the milk, stirring as you go. Finally add canola oil and Earth Balance. Bring the mixture to a simmer then decrease heat to low-medium, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Turn off the burner, add miso and sour cream and stir until incorporated.

With the food processor running, gradually add the wet ingredients to the work bowl. Blend for about 2 minutes or until smooth and creamy. Next blend in the lemon juice and tabasco (optional).

In a large casserole dish, pour the cashew sauce over the pasta. You want to have a lot of liquid because it will reduce as it bakes.

To avoid dry casseroles, always make sure they have have plenty of liquid before they go in the oven to bake. For best results, add a smiling bouncing baby in the background as you cook. 🙂

Cover the top of the dish with a thin layer of panko bread crumbs. I like to add a sprinkle of smoked paprika and Italian seasoning, but it would be just fine without it if you don’t have it. Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees or until the bread crumbs are golden. Serve immediately.

Baked Macaroni and Cashew "Cheese"

Notes: If you have leftover cheese sauce, save it and use it on the leftovers since the sauce tends to thicken over time. Add a pat of Earth Balance and a drizzle of nondairy milk  to your leftovers before reheating to keep it nice and creamy. I’ve also added chickpeas and veggies to this dish before baking to up the nutritional profile and it was really tasty. It’s a very versatile casserole and hard to mess up. Though I’ve never used dairy milk, butter, and sour cream, I imagine it would work great in this too if that’s what you have on hand.

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