Cheezy Shells


shells1Velveeta shells and cheese is that boxed pasta dinner that we all pretended was disgusting but secretly inhaled by ourselves when we needed a 4,000 calorie pick-me-up. Back in the day I actually added to the horror by mixing heavy cream into that plasticky orange goo before adding the shells. I could also consume the whole box in one sitting, not because I was that hungry, but because I was territorial with food and refused to share. These days when I’m looking to hurl I’ll just think of those childhood memories and run to the nearest trashcan.

If I’m not looking to sicken myself and want to nourish my body at the same time – #lifehack – I’ll whip up this plant-based knockoff. My sister Molly went vegan for the month of January and immediately panicked at the prospect of eating meals, especially pasta, without cheese. I mean, she is in a deeply committed relationship with pasta and cheese. Has been for most of her life. I went through the same cheese breakup anxiety a few years ago, so I totally understood. Lactose is one hell of a drug. Thankfully my friend Alex had been experimenting with different cheezy sauces for pasta, and he made one with a hint of rosemary that I absolutely adored. With his help and a few tweaks, we ended up with this little number. We even threw some veggies in the mix too. Now, I will say, this dish does not taste like Velveeta (thank sweet baby jesus???), but its flavor is complex and its umami level is on point – same with the texture. And it’s Molly approved, so you know it ain’t terrible.

Cheezy Shells

  • 3/4 box of pasta shells
  • 1.25 c or so of starchy pasta water
  • 1/2 onion
  • 4-5 garlic cloves
  • 3 medium carrots
  • 3 scallions
  • 1 bell pepper (red, orange, or yellow)
  • 1/2 c nutritional yeast
  • 5 tbs olive oil, divided
  • 1 tbs mellow white miso
  • 1 tbs tomato paste
  • 1.5 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3/4 tsp Herbamare, plus salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • Optional: 1/2 tsp garlic powder, dash of hot sauce, additional olive oil

I have a mini meltdown if stacks of dirty dishes accumulate when I’m cooking, so I made sure this recipe could be made with ONE POT. Yeah, strap in because it’s going to be a wild, almost dishless ride.

Step 1: Dice the onion and mince the garlic. In a medium-sized pot (~2 quart or more) sauté the diced onion in 2 tbs of olive oil for 10 minutes over medium heat, until the mixture is softened and slightly caramelized. Add the minced garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté for another five minutes. Add the rosemary for the last 30 seconds of cooking. Now turn the heat off. Throw the mixture in your blender.

Step 2: Dice the bell pepper and slice the scallions. Throw the pepper in the pot with 1 tbs olive oil, salt, and pepper (to taste). Sauté over medium heat for 8 minutes, or until the veggies are cooked but still maintain a crunch. Add the scallions halfway through. Transfer this mixture to a bowl.

Step 3: Peel and roughly chop the carrots. Fill the pot halfway with water and season with a little salt. Once boiling, add the carrots and cook for maybe 6-7 minutes at most – these babies cook fast. Fish the carrots out of the water (do not drain!) and transfer to the blender.

Step 4: In the same water, cook your pasta. You’ll have to add more water to cook all the pasta you need, but you won’t need an enormous pot and a swimming pool of water to cook it (see argument here). Once the pasta is cooked, save 1.5 cups of the starchy water and set aside, then drain the pasta.

Step 5: Blend and assemble. You should have the onion mixture and carrots in your blender. Now add a cup of the starchy water, the yeast, tomato paste, miso, Herbamare, pepper, and optional garlic powder and hot sauce. Start blending and add additional starchy water as necessary. You want a creamy sauce, nothing too thin. Imagine that IBS-inducing Velveeta swill; you can create an almost identical consistency with this recipe. I add a tablespoon or two of good olive oil to the sauce while it’s blending to create a richer flavor.

Dump your pasta back in the pot with the remaining 2 tbs olive oil. This is important. You want to fry your pasta a little before mixing in the sauce. The pasta deities kept this a secret from me for years, but frying the pasta in a little oil imparts an airy, almost crisp texture to it. Let that sizzle for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously. Now dump the sauce and vegetables on the pasta and mix.

Serve immediately. Savor the fact that you’re not eating plastic garbage.

Tips & Tricks

  1. Unless you have additional sauce to revive it, this dish does not take to being leftovers well.
  2. Using one pot will increase your cooking time. You could throw a frying pan in the mix and sauté/caramelize the veggies (step 1 and 2) in the pan while completing steps 3, 4, and 5 in the pot.
  3. Use cheap white, enriched pasta shells for this one. They’re $1 at Kroger. I tried using whole-wheat / organic / non-GMO Whole Foods overpriced bullshit, and the texture, even after frying the pasta in oil, was too stiff and grainy.
  4. If you don’t have them on hand, you can swap the mellow white miso and Herbamare for another kind of miso paste and regular salt.
  5. I have not tried this swap yet, BUT I think it’ll be amazing: sweet potato. Replace the carrots with sweet potato. Just thought of it as I typed this post up. Oh, Ann, you clever son of a biscuit eater.

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