New Year, New Challenge

(Originally published in The News Review on January 5, 2016)

Creamy Tomato & Kale Pasta 

It’s a new year and I’m up for a challenge. Often I set a goal to accomplish some physical feat that will force me to up my game in the exercise department. I enjoy learning new skills and pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. We’re not talking marathons here, as I am definitely not a runner, but setting my sights on climbing a mountain or trekking through the wilderness for a few days gives me something to shoot for.

For 2016, I’ve decided to take on a culinary challenge. We’ve been gradually moving toward a more plant-based eating pattern for several years. I switched to purchasing locally raised beef and chicken quite a while ago and because they’re more expensive than meat from factory farms, I cut back on how often I serve them, choosing quality over quantity. Still, I’d like to reduce my consumption of animal products, including dairy and eggs, even further. I want to incorporate more vegetables into our diet at every meal of the day. With that goal in mind, I’ve been researching and testing vegetarian and vegan recipes the past few months to find dishes my husband, my son and I all enjoy eating. Anyone can make food taste good with enough butter, cheese, cream and/or bacon. Can I learn to create mouth-watering meals using only grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds?

I don’t intend to become a full-fledged vegan or even a vegetarian, but I’m excited to see how far I can go in that direction without sacrificing flavor and enjoyment. There are environmental and health benefits to replacing even a portion of the animal fat and protein we consume with plant-based options. Armed with two new vegan cookbooks, YumUniverse by Heather Crosby and Oh She Glows by Angela Liddon, as well as my copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, I’ve been chopping, slicing, dicing, roasting, blending and steaming my way through dozens of inspired, hunger-satisfying recipes like Portobello Mushroom Fajitas, Chickpea & Cauliflower Curry, Sweet Potato-Peanut Stew, Tofu Chocolate Mousse and Chia Seed Pudding. Not every recipe I’ve tried has been a winner (I’m still struggling with quinoa!), but the vast majority are keepers that have earned their place in my culinary repertoire.

The dish I’m sharing today, which I’ve dubbed Creamy Tomato & Kale Pasta, has won my family’s stamp of approval, including my parents. The first time I made it, my son had two helpings, took leftovers in his lunch the next day and polished off the rest as an after-school snack. He said if I hadn’t told him there was tofu in it, he would have thought it was chicken. So, yes, it’s that good! If you prep all of the ingredients before you begin, this dish goes together very quickly.

About the ingredients:

Tofu, also known as soybean curd, is most commonly sold in blocks packaged in water in the refrigerated section of the supermarket or in aseptically sealed (no refrigeration needed) boxes in the health food aisle. It comes in several textures, soft, firm and extra-firm. Soft tofu is great for adding to smoothies or dishes that require a creamy consistency. Firm and extra-firm tofu work better for slicing and dicing to sauté or use in stir-frys. Freezing extra-firm tofu and then thawing overnight in the refrigerator before using gives it a chewy texture much like cooked chicken. Soybeans are one of the most common GMO crops, so I always buy organic tofu to be sure it was not made from genetically-modified soybeans.

Nutritional yeast is sold as golden, powdery flakes in the bulk foods section or health food aisle. It’s a good source of B vitamins and several minerals and adds a cheesy, nutty flavor to vegan dishes.

Creamy Tomato & Kale Pasta
Serves 4

This is adapted from the recipe for Luxurious Tomato-Basil Pasta in Oh She Glows by Angela Liddon. I’ve added the tofu for protein, switched out kale for the spinach and changed the directions significantly.

½ cup raw, unsalted cashews
8 ounces organic, extra-firm tofu*
1 cup non-dairy milk (almond, hazelnut, soy)
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
3 ounces (half a 6 oz. can) tomato paste
½ teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper
4 ounces rotini or other small pasta
1 ½ teaspoons olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 can petite-diced tomatoes or 1 3/4 cups fresh tomatoes, diced
2 cups (packed) chopped kale
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano

In a small bowl, cover the cashews with cold water and let soak several hours or overnight. (Optional, but it makes the nuts more digestible.)

Remove tofu from packaging and place it on a plate lined with a few layers of paper towels. Cover with additional paper towels and place something heavy on top to press out part of the moisture in the tofu. A heavy pot or a brick works well. Let stand while you prepare the sauce.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta according to package directions just until al dente. Drain, return to the pot, cover and set aside.

For the sauce: Drain and rinse the cashews. In a blender or food processor, combine the cashews, non-dairy milk, nutritional yeast, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Toss a small amount of the sauce with the drained pasta to keep it from sticking together. Set the rest aside while you cook the vegetables and tofu.
In a wok or large frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic until almost translucent. Cut the pressed block of tofu into into half-inch cubes and add to the onion and garlic. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes, kale, basil and oregano. Cook, uncovered, 5 - 7 minutes, until kale is wilted. Stir in the cashew sauce, cover, reduce heat and simmer 5 - 10 minutes. Combine with the drained pasta, season with additional salt and pepper, if desired, and serve warm. Leftovers reheat beautifully in a toaster oven or microwave.

*Freezing the tofu in its container and then thawing overnight in the refrigerator before using will give it a chewier, more meat-like texture, but this step is entirely optional.

Wilting the kale

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