On the surface, this glow-y orange business is a more indulgent outing than we’re all used to here, but a craving’s a craving and OOOOH. Em. Gee. This one turned out pretty great. The “queso” itself is bonafide wholesome–the application of it determines the trash factor for real. The first thing you have to do when you fix up a vegan nacho cheese-y situation, is let go of any pre-conceived notions/misguided hopes that your creation will taste like a vat of dairy thickened with that good old butter (more dairy) + white flour roux. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but taking vegetables and health food staples, but then also hoping for cheese is very bad math.
I’ve had entirely cashew-based versions of vegan nacho cheese before and loved it every time, but I do find it rich. A cashew-based anything is really tasty, but the fattiness sometimes makes for a flat-seeming overall flavour. Then I thought of butternut squash pasta sauce and how naturally creamy it is (and also how undeniably orange it is). And then I went into the backyard to check on my gnarly and twisted up butternut vines. The little squashes still aren’t ready, but they are steadily making a fine mess in a hidden corner of my vegetable garden. I wound up buying one at the store solely for this purpose. So!
My point with hippie nacho cheese-making: it can’t just be all the fatty and rich plant-based things blended together. People obsess over cheese because of umami characteristics (among other reasons)–the fifth taste that hints at a crucial presence of sneaky-satisfying glutamates in foods. It’s pleasantly savoury in a way that may not be immediately apparent. Also, addicting. Before you even begin to replicate a food like queso with vegan considerations, you’ve got to strategize on how to make it really work. It’s key to remember that all-out replication might not be an appropriate end goal. I was just aiming for a squash-y, lightly cheese-y and spicy sauce to eat with nachos. A woman can dream!
I roast the butternut squash to get some caramelization, but not too much. You need the moisture for a lush consistency. I sauté shallots and jalapeño down to almost paste-like consistency, just to fully develop the sugars in the shallots and to tame the bite of the jalapeño. Then I went in with some of my pantry stock, more specifically items that had natural umami qualities: tamari, miso, and dijon mustard. These add-ins help to strike out the predominantly sweet flavour of the squash. The broth I used to thin the mixture was rich with shiiitake mushrooms–another savoury pal of ours. The nutritional yeast is the more obviously cheese-y flavoured component. If you’re hesitant to buy it only for this, I urge you to try it sprinkled and mashed into avocado toast. A final addition of finely minced pickled jalapeños really balanced everything out for me.
From here, you can go all deluxe nacho with the salty toppings and beer like me, or you could sensibly pour it over some roasted vegetables and brown rice. Or something like that. I’m trying leftovers on roasted cauliflower tomorrow. Anyway, I’m on my way to a food blogger event and a much-needed break in Pennsylvania this week. Catch ya on the Instagrams!
OMG VEGAN BUTTERNUT QUESO RECIPE
Print the recipe here!
SERVES: makes about 3 cups
NOTES: All the little add-ins like dijon, garlic, cumin, and hot pepper can easily be adjusted for quantities that suit your taste–I did a lot of adjusting and re-blending before I got mine the way I wanted it. Just make sure you salt the mix adequately and definitely use the nutritional yeast! Also, a hot tip if you forget to soak the nuts/seeds: simmer them in a small pot of water for 10 minutes to speed up the softening.
1 small butternut squash
salt + pepper
1 large shallot, fine dice
1 jalapeño, fine dice (use seeds if you like it hot)
2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup of raw cashews/pine nuts/ sunflower seeds, soaked for at least 2 hours
2 cloves of garlic, peeled + rough chopped
1 1/2 tbsp nutritional yeast
2 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp tamari soy sauce
1/2 tsp light miso
vegetable stock (to get the blender going)
squeeze of lime juice OR splash of pickled jalapeño brine
1/4 cup minced pickled jalapeños
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment.
Cut the squash down the middle, lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and discard. Rub the flesh of the squash with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place squash halves, cut side down, onto the parchment lined baking sheet. Slide the tray into the oven and roast until squash is tender when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes. Let squash cool slightly.
While squash roasts, heat a small sauté pan over medium heat. Pour a good bit of oil into the pan and add the diced shallots. Stir them about and cook until very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the diced jalapeno and cumin to the pan and stir. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Cook until vegetables are very soft and have taken on a sort of dry-paste consistency, about 7-10 minutes, lowering heat if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Scoop the cooked squash flesh into a blender pitcher. Discard squash peels. To the blender, add the soaked nuts/seeds, garlic, nutritional yeast, dijon, tamari, miso, a tablespoon or so of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Add enough vegetable stock to the blender to get everything moving. Gradually bring the blender speed to high and blend the mixture until you have a smooth purée. If you need to add more stock at this point, also make sure to add another little splash of olive oil as well (this helps with the lush texture). Add the sauteed mixture of shallots and jalapeno to the blender and blend mixture until smooth again. Taste the queso at this point and re-season, add lime juice/jalapeno brine etc. to your liking. You can also add vegetable stock/more olive oil to achieve your desired viscosity.
To serve, heat the queso in a small saucepan over medium. Once you get some bubbles coming through, serve it up nacho-style, over roasted vegetables, with pasta, or any other way you can dream up.