Cheese Substitutes: Nutritional Yeast and Vegan Cashew Cheese Sauce


To give you a sense of how much we love cheese in my family, I will tell you that my mother once toyed with breaking the law bucking the system to smuggle carry cheese in her suitcase on a return trip to Paris. When I asked her, “Do you feel like this cheese is really worth maybe getting arrested by customs?” she took a long time thinking about it. So did I. Because really, a good cheese might just be worth getting into a little hot water. Our people are French in heritage and we love our cheese. Cheese, however, does not always love me–one of many cruel food ironies.

As we start our marathon training in earnest this week, I am on the lookout for some replacements that will give me the satisfaction of cheese without the tummy trouble on my long run the next day. I am also exploring other plant-based sources of protein and nutrition during marathon training with the help of a great website, The No Meat Athlete. We have been reducing our meat consumption for several years now, so this is just one extra shift in our journey.

In general, I am not a big fan of cheese substitutes (and as I’ve detailed, I do love good cheese). Cheese substitutes often get the texture or flavor wrong and overall I’d rather NOT have cheese than to pretend I’m having cheese that tastes like salt or playdough. I have found some great ideas from other blogs that hold promise for me to enjoy some cheese-y flavor without any tummy trouble. If you are interested in trying something new or just shaving off some saturated fat from your diet, give these a try!

Nutritional Yeast

The first good cheese substitute is nutritional yeast. I know, sounds gross, but bear with me here. Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast super high in B12. It is also a complete protein. So, by itself, it is very good for you and it has the added benefit of the wonderful umami flavor of Parmesan cheese. Nutritional yeast comes in large flakes, so this is not something you would serve on crackers, but it is amazing in soups, stews, scrambled eggs/egg substitute or in a pasta dish. You can mix it with some olive oil to add to foods or just sprinkle it over foods like you might a dry cheese. Definitely, it’s worth a try. Not sure if you would like it? You can buy nutritional yeast flakes in the bulk bin of Whole Foods or other natural food stores and try just a little to see if you like it.

Vegan Cashew Cheese Sauce

Cashews are amazing little nuts that, when softened, can replace peanut butter and even cheese! I love reading the blog My Whole Food Life (check it out!). She has terrific ideas, recipes and now videos! I saw THIS video for a cashew cheese sauce and thought it would be great for nachos. It is easy to make, tasty and great for serving with corn chips, quesadillas or even drizzled over burritos. I’m not sure, but you could probably use this to make a vegan mac and cheese. I add a little more cumin and some red pepper flakes to the sauce because I like it spicy, but you could make this sauce yours in a million ways. Unlike conventional cheese sauce, this is healthy (have you read the ingredients in processed queso?) and without the heaviness  or tummy issues of milk-based cheese. Watch the video, starring her lovely daughter and her husband and see for yourself! If you like what you see, you can subscribe to her YouTube channel and get more quick videos!

Tuna Pasta Salad

  We have reached that point in the summer when I don’t like cooking anything complicated, especially if it will heat up the kitchen at the hottest part of the day. Grilling is always an option, but sometimes you just want something light and cool for supper. Enter this salad! It has a lovely combination of protein and carbohydrates that will leave you satisfied, but not sluggish. It keeps well for about 48 hours in the refrigerator, so if you have a small family, you can have leftovers for lunch the next day with no problem!

This salad is meant to be served at room temperature or a little warm, but it is also very good cold, especially if you add an extra squeeze of lemon.

A note about canned tuna. I try to buy the most sustainable tuna I can afford, and prefer tuna packed in olive oil. Trader Joes has a very affordable Skipjack tuna that is dolphin safe. If you decide to use tuna packed in spring water, you may need a bit more olive oil to keep the salad from getting dry.

Tuna Pasta Salad (makes 4-6 servings)

  • 1 pound pasta
  • 2 cans of tuna, drained
  • 1 head of butter or Romaine lettuce, washed and torn into bite-size pieces
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives (optional)
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  1. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta to al dente according to package directions.
  2. Drain pasta and toss with the olive oil. Set aside to cool about 5 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the tuna, lettuce, olives, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
  4. Add the cooled pasta to the bowl. Toss all ingredients together.
  5. Correct seasonings as needed.
  6. Serve immediately at room temperature or refrigerate and serve cold.


Protein Recovery Smoothie

  After a long run or intense training, I’m usually pretty hungry, but also pretty lazy. I don’t want to cook anything and sometimes even a sandwich just seems to take too much effort. I started making these delicious protein smoothies and they fit my post-run needs perfectly: they are easy, quick, delicious, and healthy. With no mystery ingredients or preservatives, these smoothies taste like a chocolate milkshake (more like a Wendy’s frosty), but fit into a clean eating diet. Win-win!

Full disclosure: Learn from my unfortunate experience. Bananas can have a laxative effect on some athletes. If your tummy is sensitive to banana (mine definitely is) have this AFTER your workout, not before 🙂

Speaking of bananas, I freeze my bananas in little bags and use them in smoothies right from the freezer. This prevents me from finding gross, rotten bananas in my fruit bowl and they thicken the smoothie more if they are frozen. If you don’t have any bananas frozen, just use a room temperature banana and maybe add a little more ice. No big deal.

Raw cacao is an incredibly healthy, minimally processed cocoa powder that retains its antioxidant properties because it is not heat processed. It is more expensive than regular Dutch processed cocoa powder, but it has an amazing, rich chocolate flavor without bitterness. Worth the extra pennies, but you can use other unsweetened cocoa powder as well if that is what you have.

Enjoy these warm, summer months, but keep yourself hydrated and your body fed!

Protein Recovery Smoothie (makes 1-2 servings, depending on how hungry you are!)

  • 1 peeled banana, frozen
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of organic peanut butter (any nut butter will work)
  • 1 tablespoon raw, hemp seeds
  • 1/4 cup organic, raw cacao powder
  • 1/4 cup organic rolled oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup ice
  • 1-1 1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk or hemp milk
  1. Put all ingredients in a blender.
  2. Blend until smooth.
  3. Serve immediately with a straw or a spoon.
  4. Enjoy!

Buddha Bowl

  Buddha bowls are pretty much what they sound like–fat little happy bowls full of goodness. I’ve read various theories about the name Buddha Bowl–some think that the bowls are like a rounded Buddha belly and some liken the bowls to those that monks use to ask for their meals. I think maybe it’s just trendy, but if that is the case, they are at least trendy and delicious! Like all bowl meals, these are very flexible, allowing you to create whatever you like with whatever is seasonal.  Also, these are a great way to use up those leftover grains and vegetables in your refrigerator. Buddha bowls seem to have a formula of sorts and this seems to represent: grains + greens+ vegetarian protein + fermented vegetables + light sauce.

Our bowls contained black rice, baby kale, toasted chickpeas, roasted local vegetables (mushrooms, zucchini, onion, peppers), steamed sugar snap peas, kimchi, tahini sauce and a fried egg. The egg, of course, does not make this a true vegetarian dish, but if you eat eggs, I highly recommend adding one. A note about black rice. Black rice is higher in nutrients, antioxidants and fiber than white rice. In my experience, it takes longer to cook (more like wild rice), so if you use it, be prepared for longer cooking times! It does have a nuttier, smokier flavor and we love it!

Buddha Bowls (serves 3)

  • 3 cups cooked organic black rice (or other grain)
  • 6 cups organic, baby greens
  • 2 zucchini, ends removed and cut into bite sized pieces
  • 1 bunch baby broccoli, washed and cut into bite sized pieces
  • 4-6 fresh shitake mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 1 small, yellow organic onion, peeled and chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 1 organic bell pepper, trimmed, washed and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 2 cups sugar snap peas, steamed lightly
  • 1 can organic chickpeas
  • 2 cups kimchi or other pickled, fermented vegetable
  • 3 farm eggs
  • Tahini sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Drain and rinse the can of chickpeas. Toss with salt and pepper and any seasonings that you like. Put drained peas in a cake pan or other shallow pan and add to the oven. Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently. They should be a little crunchy, but not burned.
  3. Line a sheet pan with foil. Add zucchini, mushrooms, onion and pepper and broccoli to the baking sheet. Toss all with the toasted sesame oil, salt and pepper and arrange in a single layer. Roast vegetables in the oven (while chickpeas are roasting) for 20 minutes, flipping them over at 10 minutes.
  4. Assemble your bowls. Line each bowl with some fresh greens. Add a cup of the grains to the center of each bowl. Arrange the roasted vegetables, sugar snap peas, chickpeas, kimchi and tahini around the rice.
  5. Heat a saute pan over medium heat and cook the eggs, sunny side up, until done (about 2 minutes).
  6. Top each bowl with an egg.
  7. Serve immediately.


Blueberry Lemon Jam

20130617-080549.jpgBlueberries are awesome little powerhouses of nutrition. High in antioxidants, fiber and vitamins, they are sweet little health heroes. For me, as much as I like blueberries, I tend to like them better when paired with another flavor. Unlike our local blackberries, blueberries are just a bit too sweet for me. When partnered up with a more tart flavor, their sweetness is a bit more in balance. I love the combination of blueberry and lemon (and our blueberry-rhubarb combinations this spring were terrific also). So this weekend, I made a new jam experiment with just blueberry and lemon. The result? I think the blueberries taste far better in this jam than in plain blueberry itself! The lemon and lemon zest really brings out the brightness of the berries. This is a keeper!

One of the wonderful things about making jam with blueberries is that a lot of the work is done for you. Unlike strawberries, which require hulling and chopping, blueberries just need a quick wash and a check for any remaining little stems and you’re ready. Also, blueberries have a lot of natural pectin, so you don’t have to use any pectin at all, unless you’re in a hurry. If you want to use a pectin recipe, try using Pomona’s Universal Pectin. It is harder to find (Whole Foods does carry it, as does Amazon), but you can make low sugar jam using this pectin. Typically, I use about 1 cup sugar for 6 half-pints of jam. I love that because what I want to taste is the fruit, not sugar. Other pectins require almost 1 cup sugar for each cup of fruit, which seems ridiculous.

This recipe uses two kinds of lemon juice–bottled lemon juice (this is to provide enough acid in the jam that the jam will remain shelf stable) and fresh lemon juice and zest (for fresh lemon flavor). This is one place you want to buy an organic lemon. Actually, any time you are zesting citrus, you want to use an organic or pesticide-free fruit because you are using the part of the fruit that is most exposed to pesticides and toxins.

Blueberry Lemon Jam (makes 5-6 half pints)

  • 8 cups fresh blueberries (preferably pesticide free)
  • 1  or 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup bottled lemon juice**
  • Juice and zest from one organic lemon
  1. Fill a canning pot with water, insert the rack and add 6 half pint canning jars. Heat over high to boiling, then turn off heat and let sit until you are ready.
  2. Wash the blueberries in cool water and pick off any remaining stem pieces.
  3. Put the washed, wet blueberries into a non-reactive stock pot and heat over medium. Mash berries with a potato masher several times while cooking.
  4. When blueberries and juice come to a low boil, add the sugar, lemon juices and zest. Stir well to dissolve the sugar.
  5. Turn heat down a bit and keep blueberries at a low boil, stirring frequently, for about 45 minutes or until the berry mixture gels.
  6. Remove hot jars from the canning pot (carefully!) and set them on a clean tea towel. Put the jar lids into a bowl and pour some of the hot water over them to cover.
  7. Carefully ladle jam into the hot jars, leaving 1/4″ of headspace. Add lids and bands, just tighten bands to finger tightness.
  8. Return the filled jars to the canning pot, cover pot, and heat over high to boiling. Boil for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, remove cover, and let sit for 5 minutes.
  9. Remove jars from the hot water bath and let sit undisturbed for 24 hours. Check seals and store in a cool, dry place for up to 1 year.

**You can use fresh lemon juice, but because bottled juice is more consistent in its acid content, the bottled stuff may be more reliable.

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