My family has always been great about providing a vegetarian entrée at holiday get-togethers. I consider myself pretty lucky in that department. We’ve got a lot of Italian in the family, and fortunately, vegetarian Italian food is pretty darn easy to do, and everybody loves it – not just the vegetarians. Lasagna, baked ziti, and stuffed shells have adorned my plate at many Christmases past.
It wasn’t until I cut out dairy that things got challenging. Pasta with lots of sauce and cheese? Easy? Ditch the cheese and suddenly things can get a little boring. That’s why these days I try to bring a vegan main dish whenever possible, and I try not just to bring something that I’ll enjoy, but something that everyone, whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, can get down with.
The key to getting everyone interested in checking out your vegan dish is to make it a more interesting version of something they might otherwise be all about. Everyone loves stuffed shells, and adding butternut squash and crunchy walnuts instantly ups the intrigue factor, so they’ll all want a taste.
Butternut squash is some pretty amazing stuff, which is why you’ll find it in both the sauce and the filling of these shells. Blended up with some creamy cashew cheese, it adds some creamy smoothness and sweet flavor to the filling. Since I like a little bit of extra texture in my shell filling, I went and added some crunchy walnuts too. The sauce is a simple blend of roasted butternut squash and onion with some creamy non-dairy milk, and to make it even more creamy, cashews.
All in all, these shells are rich, creamy, and delicious, with a nice blend of sweet and savory flavors. Your family should be pretty impressed if you serve them up over the holidays.
- 1 medium 3 pound butternut squash, cut into 1 inch cubes (about 6 cups)
- 1 large onion coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ pound jumbo dried pasta shells
- 1 ½ cups raw cashews soaked in water 4 to 8 hours, drained and rinsed (divided)
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 ¼ to 1 ¾ cups unflavored soy or almond milk divided
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves about 8 leaves, plus extra for garnish
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Place butternut squash and onion into a large roasting pan or oven safe skillet and add olive oil. Toss to coat. Place into the oven and bake until squash is tender and onions are lightly browned, about 45 minutes, flipping once or twice.
- While the squash bakes, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Drain the shells into a colander, return them to the pot, and toss with a few dashes of olive oil to prevent them sticking together.
- To make the filling, place ⅔ of the cashews (this will be about 1 ⅓ cups after soaking, because they expand a bit) into the bowl of about a food processor fitted with an S-blade. Add garlic, ½ cup of milk, and lemon juice. Blend until the mixture is mostly smooth (it doesn’t have to be perfect). Add half of the roasted squash and onions, and all of the walnuts and sage leaves. Pulse a few times just to mix the ingredients, keeping the mixture a bit chunky and being careful not to over-blend them. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
- To make the sauce, place remaining squash and onions into the food processor bowl. Add remaining cashews (just over ½ cup), ¾ cup of milk, and nutmeg. Blend until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Thin the mixture with up to an additional ½ cup of milk. It should be saucy and a bit thicker than soup. Season with salt to taste.
- Spoon about ⅔ of the butternut squash sauce into the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Stuff each shell with about 2 tablespoons of the filling, then place into the baking dish. When all shells are filled, cover the dish loosely with foil. Bake until heated throughout, about 20 minutes.
- Warm the remaining sauce up on the stove or in the microwave, adding a few additional splashes of milk if it gets too thick. When the sauce is hot, spoon it over the baked shells. Sprinkle with some additional fresh sage and serve.