The Art of Vegan Mimickry: The Quest for Alfredo

by by Molly Cousins

illustration by by Annika Finne

I’ve been exposed to a lot of atypical foods during my 21 years; I’ve eaten raw conch, chocolate-covered ant clusters, Rocky Mountain oysters, ostrich burgers, alligator bacon, and spam—a lot of spam, actually. Some of these are more easily explained than others: I’ve got a cousin in Utah who used to send my family an “exotic meat basket” every Christmas, and growing up I spent my summers snacking on mussels and quahogs with my grandparents. Like everyone else, my family has its favorite comfort foods; it’s just that ours is pan-fried spam sandwiches with pickles, mayonnaise, and Colby Jack cheese.
I started out as a carnivore, but for some unknown reason I have since lost my predilection for meat. Why, you ask? Perhaps I got sucked up into the neo-hippie health-nut culture of Brown University and the East Side, or maybe it was for some grander moral purpose. Most of us know the environmental effects of raising flatulent ozone-butchering cows for food, the nefarious plots of food corporations, and the myriad of cruel practices inflicted on Wilbur and Bessie while they wait for the shredder. (If you’re not, pick up The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, Animal Liberation, or any one of those food manifestos out there.) Maybe one of these persuaded me, or maybe during puberty my taste buds simply did a 180. Either way, I’ve gone cold turkey on animal flesh.
Eating vegan can be just as culinarily adventurous as eating carnivorously—sometimes more so. The various flavors and textures I come across while eating vegan food never cease to fascinate. Some are an obvious attempt to mimic “regular” food while others are a clear stand-alone. Frankly, most vegan mimicry is usually just plain disappointing. Soy yogurt is disgusting and scarily chunky, and vegan chicken nuggets taste like breaded sponge. Weird, seemingly contradictory concoctions with obnoxiously clever names like “fakin’ bacon” and “roast without the beef” have already found their grocery niche. Many of these meat-alternative products seem like an interesting thing to try out (maybe, just maybe, I’ll find something like the real thing). Some get the texture, some get the taste, but upon closer inspection most are sure to repulse any vegetarians/vegans who abstain from meat for reasons other than for self-punishment. Even the nutritional benefit to eating this stuff is tenuous at best – I can’t pronounce most of the ingredients, which to me signifies “Stay away!”
Ironically, the growing market for “alternative foods” disregards what is supposed to be the central idea of eating vegan—food that is better for you also tastes better. True, most of the vegans I know are in it for a combination of the health, environmental, and humane aspects, but that doesn’t mean that taste has to be secondary. We want to be able to satisfy cravings for ice cream and Ruebens when we need to, and some of these alternatives do a bang-up job of recreating the texture and taste we’re craving (see: Like No Udder, Providence’s purple vegan ice cream truck). Dying tempeh with beet juice so that it more closely resembles bacon, but isn’t full of additives, is an ingenious idea. That said, we’re not going to eat fake ham and fake cheese sandwiches every day—it’s not satisfying and, as I see it, sort of defeats the point of veganism. For most people, a major selling point for veganism is that, at least until very recently, it eliminates most processed foods from the diet. Fresh foods do taste better, especially when done right. While the general perception is that vegans sacrifice taste for health, this isn’t the case. Only when unprepared—for example, out at a restaurant without vegan options—does it appear that vegans live lives full of bland boiled vegetables accompanied by brown rice and salads without dressing. Eating complex carbohydrates and fresh foods full of vitamins and nutrients is better for our day-to-day functioning and, if done right, can taste better than that grilled cheese that will leave you lethargic and craving more in just an hour. A well-executed vegan “alternative” to grilled cheese will satisfy your craving and fill you up with the right nutrients.
That having been said, vegan attempts at dairy products are my latest obsession. I have yet to come across a cheese-alternative that could fool me, but I have to give credit for inventiveness. I also fully realize that I may never find something healthier than cheese that tastes, feels, and melts like cheese. That’s okay with me, as long as I have an option to satisfy cravings with a close approximation that tastes good and is good for me. I recently purchased a copy of the Un-Cheese Cookbook—which at times bears closer resemblance to a chemistry textbook than it does a cookbook. Some recipes require ingredients like agar (a gelatinous substance that comes from algae) or raw cashew milk, while others are simply a combination of mustard, vinegar, and spices. I’m a little frightened of agar, not to mention I have no idea where to purchase it, so for the time being I’m going to stick with what I know is affordable and what I’m likely to use again in the future.

MOLLY COUSINS B’11 cooks with baconnaise.

Vegan Acorn Squash Alfredo
My latest challenge has been vegan alfredo sauce. Most of us have probably had alfredo—basically all it consists of is cream, butter, and parmesan cheese. Delicious, for sure, but it sounds sort of difficult to veganize, no?
After bookmarking and post-it-ing half a dozen recipes over the past few months, I finally found one that didn’t prominently feature any deal-breaking ingredients. I practically skipped all the way to the grocery store to pick up my acorn squash, which the recipe suggests as a means of achieving the creaminess we usually associate with alfredo. Soon thereafter I had a delicious, creamy sauce and a holiday weekend ahead of me. Life was good again.
The general concensus was that it was delicious, although we were split as to whether the texture mimicked that of non-vegan alfredo (the taste didn’t). It satisfied my craving, which was ultimately the most important part for me. Some of the less healthy recipes I’d found called for two sticks of margarine, a tub of vegan cream cheese, or gobs of soy yogurt to recreate the thick consistency of a real cream sauce, but I think that using squash instead was an effective solution, although it did lend an extra—albeit muted—flavor into the mix. As far as a non-dairy version of a dish composed entirely of dairy products goes, I’d recommend it. However, in the future, I’d be interested in experimenting with tahini or hummus in the sauce to make it even creamier. The competing flavors of the Dijon and apple cider vinegar added a surprising tang to the dish —I enjoyed it, but it might disconcert those looking for a true dairy doppelganger.

Instruments and Ingredients
+food processor
+casserole pan
+bottle opener

+1 medium acorn squash (5-6” diameter)
+1/3 c nutritional yeast
+3/4 c plain soy milk
+1/2 c chopped parsley or basil
+2 tbsp Dijon mustard
+2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
+2-3 cloves garlic
+1 tbsp dried oregano
+1 tsp thyme
+2 tsp real maple syrup
+1 tsp red pepper flakes
+1 dash cayenne
+beer, barleywine, or wine of your choice (or all three)

Preheat your oven to 350F. Fill casserole dish with 1/2 inch of water. Slice your squash in half horizontally and scoop the seeds out. (This step will probably take a while—cutting those buggers up is difficult. This is why I always mash or purée my squash, as an attempt to salvage the appearance of my dish. Mangled squash cubes generally look less appetizing than a smooth pureé.)
Plunk your squash (or squash fragments) into the casserole dish cut-side down. Roast for 60 minutes or until soft when poked at with a fork. Be very careful when taking the pan out of the oven, as that water is now extremely hot. Remove the squash parts carefully and let them cool for a few.
In the meantime, dump every other ingredient into your food processor. If you’re planning on serving the sauce with pasta, heat your water and get the pasta cooking. I recommend whole-wheat penne, although you could certainly serve over broccoli or cauliflower. (One of my housemates simply ate the sauce with a spoon, so I guess there’s that option as well.)
Once the squash is cool enough, scoop the flesh out and plop it into the food processor. Process it for a minute or so until it’s an even consistency. Taste and season with salt/pepper accordingly. Sneak a few spoonfuls. Once your sauce vehicle of choice is ready, combine, pour the wine, and chow.