Attention! This recipe is the first of a few in a series I’m calling the Vegan Holiday Table. I’m so excited to share what’s up first on the menu – this creamy Spinach Artichoke Mac & Cheese. I don’t know about you but classic Macaroni & Cheese and the cult-favorite Spinach Artichoke Dip both just scream HOLIDAYS for me. They are two of my staples, have been for years, so for this festive dish I’m combining the two into one drool-worthy (and vegan) dish.
The “cheesy” base for this twist on mac & cheese is made from blending white beans, cashews and water with flavor elements like paprika, dijon mustard and the true star, roasted garlic. Roasted garlic just feels special and elevated. I couldn’t resist adding it to this celebratory dish because it adds such a deep and comforting flavor profile and really takes it to the next level.
Something I realized while developing this recipe – homemade toasted bread crumbs are worth the effort. Store-bought bread crumbs have their time and their place (like holding together a veggie burger), but for something like this, where the bread crumb topping is a visible and primary component, homemade bread crumb are where it’s at. They’re also super easy, even if all you have is fresh bread (which was me). Toss the freshly made bread crumbs (or store-bought panko crumbs if you must) with lots of extra virgin oil and plenty of sea salt. Then bake the bread crumbs until they’re extra crispy and perfectly golden. Heaven. Ok, I think it’s time we head to the recipe, yeah? Cheers!
Vegan Spinach Artichoke Mac & Cheese
1 head garlic
1 small sweet onion
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 heaping cup raw cashews (soaked if needed)
1 14-oz can white beans, lightly drained
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1 lb baby spinach
2 14-oz cans artichoke hearts (water-packed)
1 lb elbow macaroni
for homemade bread crumb topping
3-4 slices fresh bread (I used a peasant loaf)
time saver: use 2/3 cup+ packaged panko bread crumbs
Roast the whole head of garlic (see notes). Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for pasta.
When the garlic is finishing up, start the “cheese” sauce element. Dice one small onion (or half of a large onion). Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a small pan and add the diced onion, plus 1 teaspoon salt. Sweat onions for 6-8 minutes. Add paprika and nutmeg, sauté for a minute or two longer. Turn off heat and allow to cool slightly.
In a blender combine the onion/spice mixture, cashews, white beans, mustard, 1.5 cups water and the roasted garlic. Blend until smooth. Set aside.
Add pasta to boiling water. Cook to al dente, drain. Reserve 1-2 cups starchy pasta water before draining.
For the spinach-artichoke element, add a splash of water to a large pot and turn heat to medium and cook the baby spinach with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add spinach in batches as it wilts down. Drain artichoke hearts and roughly chop. I like to reserve 8-10 quartered hearts for the top of the dish. When all spinach is just wilted, drain off excess liquid and add chopped artichokes. Stir in the cheesy sauce, when heated through turn off heat. Add cooked pasta and gently toss with sauce until fully incorporated. Add pasta water to maintain creaminess until ready to plate for serving.
When ready to serve, stir in pasta water one last time before pouring into a large baking dish or serving bowl. Top with reserved artichoke hearts and a generous of golden toasted bread crumbs.
At this point it’s ready to serve but I like to place the finished dish in a 250-350 degree oven for 3 or so minutes to warm the dish and toppings, just before serving.
Homemade Bread Crumbs
Either use naturally dried out bread or toast bread slices/cubes until very dry (275 degrees, 10-20 minutes give or take). Once cool, food process or blend torn up dry bread until the biggest pieces are small but still coarse and textured. The smallest pieces will be very fine. Toss with 3+ tablespoons olive oil and salt to taste. I like them really oil and really salty. Spread into an even layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 325 or 350 until golden brown. Add more salt and/or oil during baking if desired. Toss bread crumbs periodically while baking.
Roasting Garlic: Use a sharp knife, cut all the way through the head of garlic, cross wise, just above the root end of the bulb, being careful to keep each end in tact. Drizzle with cut ends with olive oil and sprinkle with salt (technically optional). Place the two ends back together and wrap in a square of aluminum foil. Roast at 400 degrees (F) for 50 minutes, give or take. The cloves should be completely soft and light golden brown in color. This is a very basic method but there are lots of ways to roast garlic. When the garlic has cooled, squeeze the soft cloves out of the larger half, they will turn into a paste as you squeeze them out. Scoop out any extra garlic in the smaller half. Discard skins or reserve for making stock.
Make Ahead: the spinach-artichoke cheese sauce can be made up to 2 days in advance. Reheat in a large pot before adding freshly cooked pasta. Use the starchy salted pasta water to thin out sauce as needed. Bread crumbs can be made 2 days in advance. Store in an airtight container. Just before serving, transfer heated sauce & pasta to a serving dish and top generously with bread crumbs. Heat for a 3-5 minutes in a warm oven, if desired.