My childhood motto was: Bring on the cream sauce. No surprise, fettuccine Alfredo was a favorite dish of mine. And I’m not talking about the original, slightly more elegant version, which was made tableside with a server tossing pasta with copious amounts of butter and cheese. I mean the sturdier, Olive Garden-style version, with butter, cheese, and cream. But as an adult, that kind of dish doesn’t appeal to me as much anymore, since one bite will usually satisfy the craving and any more will give me a stomachache.
While writing a book about cauliflower for Short Stack Editions, I discovered how much I loved a cauliflower purée as a substitute for dairy. Which led me to wonder: Could cauliflower create a convincing vegan fettuccine Alfredo?
With the right blend of other ingredients, indeed, it can. The cauliflower, steamed until ultra soft and then puréed, creates a silky base. Cashews, softened alongside the cauliflower, add richness. Nutritional yeast, long loved by vegans for its cheesy quality, stands in for the Parmesan.
Cauliflower lends itself well to vegan and vegetarian recipes because it's such a chameleon. It has a mild enough flavor that it can be pushed in many different directions without asserting itself too much. It also has the ability to mimic different textures, whether a silky sauce for vegan-ized renditions of creamed spinach or saag paneer, as a ricotta-like filling for a vegan lasagna, or a thick and spreadable vegetarian pâté.
Much like Kenji, I like a little brightness with my Alfredo sauce these days, so I added a bit of lemon zest. If you’re a purist like Daniel, leave it out. I also liked the technique Kenji uses to make a garlicky sauce: He grates the garlic raw and lets the heat of the pasta soften its bite.
The main thing to remember is not to be afraid of the salt. Parmigiano-Reggiano is plenty salty, while nutritional yeast is not. To get the “cheesy” quality, be sure to salt the pasta cooking water and the sauce. If, after you toss everything together, it tastes a little bland, add a little more salt. You’ll know it’s seasoned enough when you take a bite and think it tastes just like fettuccine Alfredo.