So, we’re going on three months since I cold turkey (cold cow?) cut dairy out of my life, and guys, I have to tell you something—it really hasn’t been that big of a deal. Mostly because I still eat meals like these gooey, hearty, savory Vegan Stuffed Shells. Life ain’t so bad without the cow.
I never, in a million years, thought going dairy-free would be so easy. I love me some really good cheesy pizza and buttercream and all that goodness, so I thought cutting out dairy was going to be a big problem—but I’ve figured out some amazing alternatives to my old dairy stand-bys that have made the transition a breeze! A few weeks back, I shared with you how I now make coffee creamer and queso and sour cream, and today, I’m going to show you how I use cashews to make dairy-free ricotta and parmesan cheeses—all to stuff into some shells and smother in marinara sauce.
This recipe is one of those old dairy stand-bys that has transitioned seamlessly into dairy-free. I used to eat cheese-tastic stuffed shells ALL the time—they are so easy to put together, so simple, so tasty, and really crowd-pleasing. I’ve never met anyone to turn down a big pile of stuffed shells!
And, as it turns out, they are just as simple, tasty, and crowd-pleasing when you make them dairy-free.
There are a lot of “cheeZy” plant-based recipes out there that claim they are EXACTLY LIKE their cheese counterparts, to which I respectfully call bull. But this one? It can honestly fool just about any omnivore out there. You should have seen when I fed these vegan stuffed shells to my omnivore parents a few months back. It seemed like after each bite they took, they had to say, “I can’t believe these don’t have cheese in them!” I’m still not sure they believe me.
Before we dig into the nuts and bolts of this dish, I want to talk about one ingredient you’ll see that might throw you for a loop: nutritional yeast. Don’t be scared. It’s a terrible name for something that is really not all that scary. Let’s talk through it.
Nutritional yeast (some people call it “nooch”) isn’t yeast in the put-it-into-bread-to-make-it-rise sense. It’s actually a deactivated version of that kind of baker’s yeast. It has a nutty, savory, slightly cheesy flavor to it that is wonderful when you’re trying to replicate that je ne sais quois that cheese has. It’s a very popular item in a lot of plant-based kitchens because it adds the savory flavor that is missing from a lot of foods when you take out animal products.
Nutritional yeast is bright yellow and comes in flakes—honestly, it looks dead up like fish food. It used to be that nutritional yeast was impossible to find here in the Midwest. I remember just five or six years ago, only one of the multiple health food stores in my area carried it in the bulk section. Now though? Now, you can get it almost anywhere.
Definitely at health food stores. Probably at your supermarket. And maybe even your local grocer—if the little country grocery store in the next town over from me in rural Indiana carries it, there is a good chance your store will, too. Check the bulk bins or with the herbs and spices.
You’ll see recipes out there call for a quarter or even half cup of the stuff, and I know some folks who really like that much of it, but I honestly can’t handle more than a tablespoon or two in any given recipe—it is really strong. I treat nutritional yeast like a seasoning, not an ingredient. A little bit goes a long way! Okay, now let’s dig into these vegan stuffed shells. First up, you’ll want to make your Cashew Ricotta and Cashew Parmesan.
Cashew Parmesan takes all of 30 seconds to make and I think it looks and tastes so much like the grated, shaker kind of parm you get at your local pizza parlor. I put this stuff on everything—pasta, salads, scrambled eggs, and it’s bowl-you-over good on popcorn.
We keep it in a shaker jar in our fridge—and it lasts for weeks. I think we’re on week four or five of our current batch.
Cashews don’t do a great job of replicating stretchy, melty cheeses like mozzarella or cheddar, but they do do a great job of replicating ricotta! You’ll need to pre-soak your cashews before you make this dish, so make sure to either plan ahead or do a quick soak like I explain in my previous cashew post.
And now that you have those two recipes in your back pocket, you can turn them into Vegan Stuffed Shells! You can stuff your shells just with the ricotta and be done with it, but I almost always stuff these babies with spinach and mushrooms (just mix them into the ricotta filling before stuffing—no need to sauté). You really can’t mess these babies up.