Get ready for a whole lotta beige.
I’m having a very love hate relationship with pork right now. On one hand, pork is unbelieveably delicious, and bacon is one of my major food groups. On the other, exposure to 18+ hours of smoking pig has left every one of my pores, hairs, lungs, bath towels, dogs and pieces of upholstered furniture embedded with immense amounts of microscopic pork particulate. Which is not as much fun as it sounds, trust me.
The week has been pretty meat-free since Memorial Day to give my kidneys some time to recover from protein overload, so it was as good a week as any to bust out The New Moosewood Classics for some tofu mac and cheese and a simple green salad and vinaigrette. Because if I’m going to eschew pork, there should at least be cheese. Lots and lots of cheese.
We’re already off to a good start with three three! THREE kinds of cheese.
I chose the recipe because I’ve been tired and stressed this week and wanted something comforting*, but approached it with a pretty high level of trepidation – I take my macaroni and cheese VERY SERIOUSLY. Not to toot my own horn, but my personal mac and cheese recipe is a decadent multi-cheese affair that can raise your cholesterol 27 points in the time in takes to fork up your second bite. And as dishes full of butter, cheese and starch are wont to be, it is DE-FRIGGING-LICIOUS. So it makes sense that I am mistrustful of a mac and cheese recipe with no butter, no whole milk and tofu.
I don’t really do tofu. I know, I know, it’s good for me, it can take on whatever flavor you want, you can cook it in lots of ways, etc etc etc. I know all these things. I just don’t care. It’s jiggly and weird. But it’s one of those things that I feel like I need to learn to like more; it worked for lentils, spinach and chickpeas, so I assume it can work for tofu. Since tofu icks me out more than those other things, I decided to start with baby steps and mask my tofu with cheese.
Some of you may think this is cheating. You are free to kiss my weirded-out-by-tofu ass.
*Also because I wanted something CHEAP. 60 pounds of pork does throw a bit of a wrench into the old grocers’ bill, wot wot?
These? Do not belong in my macaroni and cheese.
I’m of the mind that raw onions do not belong in my mac and cheese. Sauteed or caramelized onions, maybe, if they’re just sprinkled on top. But raw onions? I am not convinced. I am nothing if not a follower of directions, though, so onion was duly minced.
Blender cam, activate!
Since this is a tofu-based sauce there’s no roux and no bechamel, just a blenderful of raw ingredients: garlic, milk, yogurt, cheddar and parmesan, mustard, pepper, a pinch of nutmeg…
I eat tofu rarely. And by rarely, I mean never.
…and tofu. A big ol’ wiggly block of silken tofu. Oh, and turmeric to boost the mixture’s color, in the hopes that you’ll be fully fooled into thinking you’re eating real mac and cheese.
The whole mess gets blended into a pale yellow, thickish sauce. I dipped a pinky in to check for seasoning, and recoiled in horror: it was not good. The raw garlic and mustard were overpowering, and the cheeses – two very sharp cheddars and a pungent pecorino – were totally lost in the tangy-ness of the yogurt and the bland mass of the tofu. It was the embodiment of everything that keeps me from using more vegetarian and vegan cookbooks; a hideous wolf in sheep’s clothing, a vile health amalgam masquerading as a cheese sauce.
NOT TO BE TRUSTED.
I had to assume that the components would meld and the harsh flavors even out in the baking, so I dumped the sauce over a potful of al dente cavatappi, stirred in the raw onion – which at this point, seemed like EVEN LESS of a good idea than it had earlier – and poured the stinking, garlicky mass into a baking dish.
I WANTED it to be good, I really really did: it would be great to have a mac and cheese recipe that doesn’t have to be a twice-a-year treat and doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to have a cardiac incident after eating it.
More cheese: the cure-all?
I sprinkled maybe a little more additional cheese over the top than the recipe indicated. I know this is contrary to my own self-imposed rules, and all I can say is that I was scared.
I covered the dish and put it into the oven while telling myself, “Well, at least you’re not very hungry,” completely counter to my grumbling innards, which were about to lunge right out of my torso on their own accord to grab the first edible non-tofu object they could find. I also threw together the Moosewood’s vinaigrette – pretty straightforward and classic; red wine vinegar, olive oil, dijon, garlic, salt and pepper – and cleaned and shredded a head of romaine.
At some point the kitchen started to smell…not terrible. And then it started to smell okay, and then slightly good. So I decided to let my stomach begin to get excited at the prospect of a hot, yummy meal.
Pavlovian response: Activate!
I uncovered the mac for the last five minutes, and turned on the broiler for a minute on top of that to get the good crusty top that is the hallmark of delicious mac and cheese. It may not have come out bubbly and gooey, but it did take on some nice color and the cheese left on top crisped a little.
At this point, it smelled affirmatively good, but I still held myself back from full-on mac and cheese joy. Because, you know, tofu. Raw onion. No butter.
It was almost very good, and could be great with some tweaking. The oven time did even out some of the peaks and valleys of flavor, but the raw onion and garlic were still far too harsh – their sharp pops of flavor were sometimes just distracting and sometimes completely overwhelming, and much of the onion was still crunchy. The raw garlic in the vinaigrette (which was otherwise fine, if not particularly exciting) only make things worse.
Aside from that, I may have come around to tofu when served with lots of cheese. Although the sauce didn’t have the gooey texture of real-deal mac and didn’t cling to the pasta as well as I would have liked, but it was silky smooth and the flavor of the cheese came through nicely (the crusty top didn’t hurt either). The dish’s faults didn’t stop me from having a second helping and I felt like the inner diameter of my arteries was the same afterward as when I started. I’d definitely make this again with some tweaks: NO RAW ONION, less raw garlic, and maybe an egg in the sauce to help give it a little more body after baking.
And maybe bacon.
Final Score: Us, 1; Food, 0; Tofu, honorable mention.