This probably looks and sounds like a disgusting dish, but I promise that is not the case. This pasta is sort of like your once-dowdy aunt after a makeover and visit from a guru: you used to steer clear from her unhealthy visits, but somehow her unexpected transformation has left you pleasantly surprised – and marking the calendar for the next visit, astonishingly. It’s all an unlikely marriage, to say the least. But it’s not Mac N Cheese, it’s not Kraft Dinner. Carrots in baked pasta? Isn’t that worse than ketchup with macaroni and cheese? And what’s with soy cheese? Can that even melt, you ask with your nose scrunched up in disgust?
No, it’s not worse; it’s actually a great combination of earthy depth and bright sweetness. And yes, it can melt – although I was equally surprised to learn that. This dish was a great experiment, you see, and happily the result was so successful it earned the right to Be Posted. I’ve been on a sort of healthy eating quest for the past few weeks, actually, and one of my “test eating methods” has been to try veganism. For someone who looooves homemade spaghetti and meatballs, flank steak, filet mignon, eggs any way, salmon, brie cheese, and ice cream, this decision is about as close to insanity as any I’ve ever made. I honestly don’t know why I’m trying it other than to say that I tried it. So far, it’s been almost impossible to follow, and a week is all I can do.
Not that being a vegan isn’t a good thing, but it restricts my recipe choice so much that it takes fun out of cooking (save this recipe and some interesting but somewhat bland steamed tofu dumplings I made a night or so later). For someone with a broad palette who likes to experiment, veganism is not for me. I tried a bout of vegetarianism after that, and it sort of stuck – I do like legumes an awful lot, which helps – but now I’ve crafted a custom “diet” that is dairy-free, gluten-free (just to see how my body likes it), and sans meat except for fish and shellfish. So, I do eat eggs and Things From The Sea, but other than that it’s mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts, and non-wheat grains (rice, quinoa, buckwheat, etc) entering my mouth. So far, so good. Of course, I have broken the rules here and there, but it’s largely been a success. My tummy is happy and I still have plenty of recipes to choose from – the “to test” list is ever-growing, after all….
But back to this crazy pasta dish. I lifted the recipe from Style at Home, I think, which is a great Canadian decorating magazine. It was originally supposed to use orange juice and orange zest for cooking down the carrots instead of the apple juice, but I had neither on hand at the time. But that’s okay because the apple compliments the carrot very well. I will try the orange-flavored version at some point in the future, however. As for the soy cheese … well, I took a complete chance with that, but it paid off! It melts fine and tastes fine – but only fine. It’s not a spectacular choice because obviously soy simply cannot develop the fermented tang that real dairy cheese can. So, if you’re not a vegan, please use real cheese: a mild to medium aged cheddar will do well. Whatever version of this dish you make, I guarantee you will want seconds. I did.
- 3/4 lb carrots, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup or so of apple juice, organic if possible
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 9 oz whole-wheat rigatoni, fusilli, or penne
- 1 1/2 cups soy cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
- 1 Tbsp chopped tarragon
Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine carrots, juice, a dash of salt, and 1/4 cup water in medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer until the carrots are very soft, about 30 minutes. Use a hand blender to purée, but don’t make baby food out of it; some small chunks of carrot will add texture and body to the finished dish. Meanwhile, cook the pasta until it is al dente; reserve 1 cup of the cooking water. Drain the pasta, then add in the carrot mixture and reserved pasta water. Cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens and coats the pasta, stirring frequently for about 5 minutes. Add 3/4 of the cheese and stir until creamy, about 2-3 minutes longer. Add the tarragon and adjust seasoning. Pour the pasta mixture into a medium baking dish and top with the remaining cheese. Bake* until cheese is melted and slightly browned, about 20 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
* Note: In retrospect, this pasta can be eaten without baking it. I really didn’t think the carrot-cheese mixture gained anything by baking, but it didn’t hurt it, either. Your call (and your experiment!); let me know what your views are….