Cheese Free Italian? Really?

We have a weakness for Mediterranean foods in my home, and the Americanized versions used to feature heavily in our mealtime rotations.  Pasta, pasta, pasta with tomato sauce, pesto, mushrooms, whatever and plenty of CHEESE please.  And so it was with great curiosity, and more than a little skepticism that I regarded the Raw Zucchini Manicotti on the menu of a fabulous vegetarian restaurant in Asheville.

Vegan and raw manicotti?  Hunh?  It didn’t even make sense to me, but on the recommendation of the diners making fairly obscenely joyful eating noises at the table next door we ordered this odd dish, and (choirs of angels singing here) holy moly it was great.  I described this dish, and the super scene in Asheville at the time and swore to myself, ahem and to you, ahem….. that I would replicate it one day.  That day has come, a mere 7 months later…

Faced with a fridge of zucchini on the edge of spoiling, eggplant that had been sitting far too long, a fresh batch of sunflower cheese, and my friend Somer’s moxerella cheese, I knew it was now or never, well at least not for several more months.  Two Italian dishes without pasta or cheese, coming up.

I started with a dish I’d been thinking about for a while, Eggplant Rollatini.  I turned to my friend Deborah Madison for guidance on this one as I don’t have a lot of eggplant or rollatini experience.  Her version calls for 2 large globe eggplants and about 2 cups of filling – she has several versions of what to fill it with.  I had one medium regular dark purple eggplant (that color STILL gets me) so I decided to follow her quantity advice for filling and use it for both the eggplant and the zucchini dishes.

Dairy Free Eggplant Rollatini

  • 1 medium sized eggplant
  • 1 c cheese type (or cheeze type in this case) filling
  • herbed olive oil for drizzle
  • fresh tomatoes (or leftover tomato sauce) for condiment

I followed Deborah Madison’s basic rollatini procedure.  Cut the eggplant into slices 1/3 inch or less (or they’ll be unrollable).  Sprinkle slices with salt and let stand (to remove some moisture).  Rinse the slices and blot dry. Brown in a warm pan with oil (you could do this a variety of ways).  Don’t worry if they look dry.  Remove from heat.  When cool enough to manage, plop about 2 Tbs of filling in the center and roll it up – secure with toothpick if necessary.  Because my eggplant was not very large, rolling became tucking.  Perhaps I should call mine Eggplant Tuckatini…  These can be stored in a baking dish, in a single layer covered with foil until you are ready to eat (i.e. great make-ahead dish).  When ready, preheat oven to 400 and bake until warm through 20-25 minutes.  Serve with herbed olive oil and tomatoes (or sauce).

Vegan Raw Zucchini Womanicotti (hehe)

  • 2 medium sized zuchhini
  • 1 c filling as above
  • herbed olive oil as above
  • fresh tomatoes as above

This dish has the biggest flavor bang for the effort of any I have every made.  No lie.  It was sublime.  My husband made obscene noises while eating – while that may not appeal to you, it was intended as an indication of high approval.  To prepare the zucchini I used a mandoline (I know AAAGGH you’ll cut your finger off).  I VERY CAREFULLY used a mandoline.  I suppose you could do it by hand, but that would require far greater knife skills than I possess and I am quite sure I would truly cut my finger off then.  At any rate, you want the zucchini cut lengthwise in a thickness that you could conceivably roll.  Lightly salt the zucchini and let it set a while so some of the water comes out – will help with the rolling.  Blot zucchini dry.  Plop an amount that looks sensible in the middle of the roll and wrap the sides around it.  Honestly, I’m not super aesthetically gifted in food prep, so I imagine you could find a way to do this that would create a prettier product, but I was late, we were hungry and the kids were losing it, so there you are.  Drizzle with oil and tomatoes.  Eat and revel in simple amazing yum.

Cheeze Filling

Put in food processor.  Blitz.  Done.  I was tempted to add herbs, and next time I might, but I thought the olive oil would be a safer way to add more flavor while preventing child rebellion due to “little green things in the cheese part.”  It would be yummy with some basil, rosemary or thyme, but it was fabulous just like this.

Herbed Olive Oil

  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • small handful basil

I put these into a blender and made lovely green herby oil, but there’s no reason you couldn’t chop the basil and add it to the oil by hand.

The family verdict?  The eggplant detractors were not convinced, but I enjoyed it.  EVERYONE ate the zucchini.  The adults watched in horror as the children had seconds, limiting our potential scarfing.  Amazing.  I will make MUCH more next time.  I will also be thinking about how to make it appetizer sized.  Delish and for us a delightful reminder of a glorious spring day in the mountains.

I Love Lucy or Vacation Eating

Sheeeeee’s baaaaaaaaaack. Hey friends. As you might have guessed, I have been enjoying a bit of a hiatus. Big Sis graciously covered my fanny online as I took some time with our super parents in a super retreat. We are the lucky beneficiaries of an annual trip in the summer (Big Sis first, we second) that never fails to restore some well-being and hope for humanity (no, really), but I have to confess that it doesn’t typically do a lot for my healthy habits. I had great hopes for maintaining my course on this trip (as I managed to at the beach, where I had Big Sis to help me avoid the ice cream), but I’m afraid this time, I was pretty much like Lucy on the chocolate line. If you are unfamiliar with Lucy on the chocolate line, you may be very young, and I suppose we’ll have to forgive you for that. Regardless of the reason for your unfamiliarity, I would encourage you to check out the fabulous Ms. Ball (in the chocolate and two other food-related scenes) here. The picture above says it all, though. Cheeks full, and a determination to look as though nothing is wrong…. I just couldn’t stop myself.

Now look, don’t get me wrong, regardless of what your internal or external rules are about food, I think it’s pretty reasonable to willfully ignore them now and again. It’s not a point I want to argue – I am just not willing to be that rigid or hold myself to that high a standard. I don’t need to be disappointed in myself that often. With that said, on our trip some sort of switch flipped and it seems that after the first transgression, despite feeling bloated, overly-full, greasy, and a little nauseous, I just couldn’t stop. And so I arrive home feeling spiritually, mentally, and familially refreshed, and further affirmed that for me, there are some kinds of food I really just can’t do, and if I DO choose to eat them, I should do it when I’m with Big Sis so we can be sure it won’t happen the next day too. 😉

On our road back to normal digestion this morning, I chose to give my daughter a soft landing with pancakes.  The kids enjoyed their little fluffy vegan breakfast friends with a little syrup on the first, and then jam on those that followed.  Mommy and Daddy enjoyed pancakes with fresh Western New York blueberries with some date cream spread on top.  And after I had the first two and I felt satisfied?  I stopped.  So there.  And for dinner tonight?  Homemade pasta with both red sauce and vegan pesto options….  that’s what I call getting back to normal in style.  Many kudos for my wonderful husband’s consistently awesome homemade pasta, and many thanks to fabulous sister-in-law and family for giving us an excuse to do it up with multiple options.  Vegan pesto was enjoyed by all but the youngest in the crowd (my wonderful but picky daughter and my wonderful but picky niece).  So here you are, the cheapest pesto I’ve ever made.  All the yum and none of the pricey ingredients. 🙂

Welcome Home Vegan Pesto

  • Double batch sunflower cheez spread (omit the dill)
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 6 cups packed fresh basil
  • 1 t  salt
  • 6 Tbs olive oil

Follow the recipe  for the sunflower cheez spread (to which I am now hopelessly and willfully addicted, by the way), omitting the dill (unless of course you like dill in your pesto), and adding a large clove of garlic.  Process the cheez until it is as smooth as your patience will allow.  Add the basil, additional salt and the olive oil and process again until ingredients are incorporated.  The pesto will not be as green as traditional pesto, but like traditional pesto, it WILL oxidize, so the color will go from green to brown when left uncovered or as time passes.  Stir for better color.  This recipe makes A LOT of pesto.  Cut it to your satisfaction, freeze some, OR play all week with new combinations based on your fan-flippin-tastic vegan pesto.  I’m betting you can guess which option I’m choosing. Delish.

Dairy-Free version of Tomatoes with Mozzarella

I wish I could take the credit for how pleased I am with myself, but in truth I am very pleased with Angela Liddon… and with gardens, and summertime, and the smell of tomato leaves, and, and, and … Sorry, I’ll try and calm down.  Creating something tasty and healthy that includes things from one’s own garden grew is just so exciting!

We haven’t had a speck of rain in 2 weeks, which is great for playing kickball in the back yard but obviously not so great for the garden.  However, shower water, dishwater and lots of love have allowed some lovely tomatoes and basil to come our way.

One of my favorite things to do with tomatoes is slice them, add a slice of fresh mozzarella (you know the soft kind that comes in a tub with liquid) a leaf or two of fresh basil and maybe a drizzle of olive oil.  Truly a summertime treat!  However, as my husband can’t have dairy right now, I did not want to eat this in front of him.

Certainly one solution would be to eat it in the closet or in the basement, but I don’t have to stoop that low anymore!  Angela Liddon has a delightful recipe for cashew/basil cream cheese that fit the bill.

Here is the recipe:
Vegan Cashew Basil Cheese Sauce (she calls it sauce but it is pretty firm)
1 cup raw cashews
1/3 – 1/2 tsp. Himalayan sea salt -not sure the geography of my salt but it worked 😉
1/2 tsp. cold-pressed sunflower oil – I used safflower oil
1 fresh basil leaf
1 small clove garlic
1.5 Tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Place 1 cup of raw cashews in a blowl of water, cover, and asd soak overnight in the fridge.  When cashews are ready, drain and place all ingredients (cashews, salt, oil, basil, garlic, yeast, and lemon juice) into a food processor and process until smooth, stopping to scrape sides of processor as necessary.  Keep refrigerated.

Squeezing in the lemon juice.

Then, place a dollop, or a slicey kind of scrape off the top of your wonderful cashew cheese onto a slice of fresh tomato, top with another basil leaf if you desire, and enjoy.


Now, if you don’t have any tomato plants of your own, acquire some tomatoes from a farmer’s market, or better yet from a neighbor so you can pick it yourself in the wonderful summertime heat and make sure to smell the leaves as well.