Cheesy Vegan Ziti

Just before the explosion of the Grunge Scene in Seattle, I left for New York with my then-boyfriend's rock band.

On a Greyhound Bus, we rode to the place where they would become rock stars. I went not as "the girlfriend," but to learn to be a band manager. After days on that bus, I discovered that it was possible for my derrière to be equally sore and numb.

We landed in Harlem in 1989 where I shared a studio apartment with five long-haired guys. Yes, our drain was permanently clogged. Um yeah, that was fun for a clean-freak. 😱

Wide-eyed and broke, I was pretty sure that New York City would swallow me whole.

After too many meals of Top Ramen, I got a job working for a real estate office. Little did I know my boss was connected to the mafia. It wasn't until the day Uncle Tony (shoulda tipped me off, right?!) had a “meeting” in his office that broke out in a fist fight that I put the pieces together. Don’t judge, I was young and naïve.

On special occasions, we scraped our money together to grab a slice. My favorite place was Sbarro. Even though I loved pepperoni pizza, I had recently gone vegetarian, so cheese with chili pepper flakes did the job.

There was always a dish that called to me and one day, I finally splurged on what would become my very favorite—Ziti.

Many Zitis and a few more months in our Harlem flat, I was ready to return to hot running water and a hair-free drain, so home to Seattle I went, just as the Grunge Scene was hitting. [Sidenote: I’m lucky enough to have seen Pearl Jam play their very first show, as well as Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Nirvana at tiny clubs. Don’t hate me!]

Even though neither my boyfriend’s band nor our relationship endured, the memory of Ziti did. As soon as I learned to cook, I went vegan and vowed to create my own delicious version of the luscious cheesy dish that felt better in my body and made my compassionate heart happier too.

To you, I offer my Cheesy Vegan Ziti with two possibilities for the ricotta cheese. Take your pick and enjoy!

Buon appetito,


 

Baked Ziti is a dish similar to lasagna, but without the fuss of layering. With fluffy macadamia nut or tofu ricotta and creamy cashew cheese folded into pasta tossed with homemade marinara sauce, this succulent dish is as perfect for a cozy dinner by the fire as it is an elegant evening of entertaining.

Rich & Cheesy Vegan Baked Ziti
By Allison Rivers Samson

Serves 6

Ingredients
Pasta

12 ounces ziti or penne pasta
4 quarts water

Marinara Sauce
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 teaspoons dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 x 28-ounce cans fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt

Tofu Ricotta
8 ounces extra firm tofu, rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced into ribbons or chiffonade
1/2 cup canned olives (I like Santa Barbara brand’s ripe green olives in a can)
1 1/2 teaspoons capers, drained

OR

Herbed Macadamia Ricotta
1 1/2 cups macadamia nuts, soaked 4 hours or longer and drained
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
1 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced into ribbons or chiffonade
1 cup coarsely chopped green or black olives

Cashew Cheese Sauce
1 cup raw cashews, soaked and drained
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried dill weed

Garnish
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Directions
1. Pasta: In a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. In a colander, drain pasta and rinse with cold water. Set aside.

2. Marinara Sauce: In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add olive oil and onion, and sauté for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until translucent. Add garlic, oregano, basil, and rosemary. Reduce heat to low. Add tomatoes and cover loosely. Simmer 30 minutes. Add salt and cook for another 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 350°F. 

3. Ricotta:

Tofu: In a food processor, purée tofu, oil, garlic, lemon juice, and salt until smooth. Then, add basil, olives, and capers. Pulse 2-3 times for a rough chop. Set aside.

Macadamia: In a food processor, purée macadamia nuts, water, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt for one minute. Scrape down sides and purée another minute, until light and fluffy. Transfer to a bowl and fold in parsley, basil, and olives.

4. Cashew Cheese Sauce: In a blender, process all ingredients until completely smooth.

5. Assemble: In a large bowl, toss ziti with marinara sauce and 2 tablespoons of fresh parsley (you may choose to reserve 1/4 to 1/3 of the sauce in case it's too much for you). Gently fold in ricotta so that there are a few teaspoon-sized chunks throughout. Swirl in cashew cream and pour into a deep 9 x 13-inch casserole dish. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with fresh parsley.

Pro-tips

  • Swap vegan pesto instead of the red sauce, or add your favorite additions like mushrooms, olives, or artichoke hearts.
  • Make the sauce and cheeses up to one week in advance and then when you’re ready to bake, boil up the pasta, assemble, transfer to the baking dish, and pop it into the oven.
  • This dish freezes well, so make a double batch and freeze one for quick-and-easy lunches or mid-week dinners.
  • The key to this recipe is to make the cashew cheese ultra-smooth. A standard blender will work by scraping down the sides and blending for several cycles. Rub a little of the cheese between your index finger and thumb to make sure it's completely smooth. For super-creamy cashew cheese sauce, consider a high-speed blender your new best friend.

Pro-tips

  • Make the sauce and cheeses up to one week in advance and then when you’re ready to bake, boil up the pasta, assemble, transfer to the baking dish, and pop it into the oven.
  • This dish freezes well, so make a double batch and freeze one for quick-and-easy lunches or mid-week dinners.
  • The key to this recipe is to make the cashew cheese ultra-smooth. A standard blender will work by scraping down the sides and blending for several cycles. Rub a little of the cheese between your index finger and thumb to make sure it's completely smooth. For super-creamy cashew cheese sauce, consider a high-speed blender your new best friend.

Jazz It Up!

  • Use vegan pesto instead of the red sauce, or add your favorite additions like mushrooms, olives, or artichoke hearts.
  • Top with red chile flakes for an added zip of spice.


© Recipe by Allison Rivers Samson, Wellness Coach, award-winning vegan chef and author of 
Quick + Easy DIY Salad BarThe Dairy-Freedom Cookbook, Comfortably Yum, and Co-Founder of The Dairy Detox.

Photo credit: Hannah Kaminsky

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