Creamy, luscious pasta strewn through with tender kale, sweet caramelized fennel, onion, and garlic… Are you into this? What if we added a bubbly, browned cheesy top and crunchy herbed breadcrumbs? Are we there yet?
It’s the ultimate winter comfort food!
I’ve lightened things up a bit by incorporating a lemon + garlic-infused cashew cream as the luscious, saucy element that binds all of the good things together, rather than a sauce based on heavy cream or roux (a toasted butter and flour mixture).
My version is both cashew “cheeze-y” as well as actual (dairy) cheese-y because I add shredded fontina and Parm to the mix, too. This might sound odd — why go to the trouble of making a non-dairy cream sauce if you’re going to add cheese to your pasta?!, you might be wondering. But hold on…
My reasoning is two-fold: (1) raw cashews are much easier to keep on hand than heavy cream (and quicker/easier to make than a roux) and (2) this is a “dairy/cheese-sparing” approach. The cashew sauce replaces the cream/butter in the sauce, and it allows me to use less cheese in the overall dish (about 2/3 cup vs 1-1/2 cups or more in the typical cheesy baked pasta scenario). So, the idea here is to lighten things up a bit rather than create something that’s entirely dairy-free.
However, if you prefer, you can very easily make a completely vegan, non-dairy version of this — simply use the vegan cheese of your preference (Daiya, Kite Hill, etc). Just choose a cheese that melts reasonably well, such as a mozzarella-style variety.
And when you’re in the mood for an even easier, no-bake version, simply toss the pasta and veggies with the cashew cream sauce, add some nutritional yeast to increase the cheezy factor or stir in a couple of handfuls of shredded dairy or non-dairy cheese (such as a Parmigiano-style). Garnish with leafy herbs and toasted breadcrumbs, and you’ll be well on your way to creamy pasta heaven.
Creamy baked penne with kale, fennel + herbed breadcrumbs
Dairy-free-adaptable, Gluten-free-adaptable (see suggestions in post above and recipe below)
1 heaping cup raw cashews, soaked 2 hours and drained
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped (divided)
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (optional)
Celtic or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, trimmed/cored and thinly sliced (if the bulb has some of the frilly fronds attached, save them to use as a garnish)
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
1 pound kale (curly or Tuscan aka lacinato variety), washed, stems removed, roughly chopped (about 4 cups)
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional – can sub water if you prefer)
12 ounces whole-wheat einkorn penne (or other tubular pasta shape), or GF pasta of your preference
2/3 cup shredded cheeses of your preference (I used half fontina and half Parmigiano-Reggiano), or vegan/non-dairy cheese (such as a mozzarella-style and a parmigiano-style)
1 slice of stale country bread (I used She Wolf Bakery polenta boule), pulsed into rough breadcrumbs in a food processor (or 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs)
1/2 teaspoon dried herbes de provence
fennel fronds or fresh parsley leaves, for garnish
To make the cashew sauce, combine soaked/drained cashews with lemon zest and juice, half of the garlic, nutritional yeast, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 cup water in a blender or food processor. Blend until creamy, adding a little more water if needed to achieve a saucy/pourable consistency. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 400F.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and fennel and a pinch of salt. Cook until vegetables are beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add remaining garlic and chile flakes and cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Stir in kale, allowing the greens to wilt. Add wine (or water) and cook, uncovered, until liquid has mostly evaporated. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Keep warm.
Cook pasta in plenty of salted water, setting a timer for 3 minutes less than the package directions (since the pasta will cook with the vegetables and sauce for a couple of minutes and then bake in the oven this will prevent it from becoming mushy).
Place kale mixture over medium heat, and use a spider or slotted spoon to scoop the pasta into the skillet. Add cashew cream and toss gently to coat. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 minutes, adding 1/4 cup of pasta cooking water if needed to loosed up the sauce. Taste and add salt/black pepper if needed. Stir in half of the shredded cheese. Remove from heat. Sprinkle remaining cheese evenly over the top.
In a small bowl stir together breadcrumbs, herbs de provence, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle over pasta.
Bake until browned and bubbling, about 15 minutes. Garnish with fennel fronds or fresh herbs.