You may remember me humble bragging about the potluck dinner I attended at Dana Cowin’s apartment last fall. It was a crazy honor to be included in the evening and to meet some of my cookbook idols (like Deb of Smitten Kitchen) in the process.
Over the course of the evening, we each had to share a story about a kitchen mistake and how we rectified it in the form of our potluck contribution that night. (For more on my meatballs and other embarrassing mistakes, click here). It was inspiring to know that even Merrill Stubbs and Amanda Hesser burn their toast, but one of my favorites was Serena Wolf’s tale of her béchamel fail.
Serena got her start in the kitchen in a slightly more stressful atmosphere than my post-college 4th floor walk-up in Flatiron: at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. There, she learned that mother sauces can, indeed, be a real mother %*$. Béchamel in particular, which involves combining flour and melted butter in a pot and then whisking in milk until thick, was an extremely laborious and anxiety-inducing process.
Having made a lot of mac n’ cheese in my day, I’ve totally felt that stress before, and it was doubled the many times I got distracted and accidentally singed some of the milk mixture on the bottom of the pan. Those brown burnt bits are not a good look for creamy béchamel.
I’ve fought my own lazy instincts over the years to just see what would happen if I added milk and cheese to the pot and melted them together. So it was with deep gratitude and awe that I listened to Serena recall the time she did just that, while cooking dinner for her boyfriend’s parents whom she’d just met. The story ended with a chunky cheese sauce secretly being disposed of in the family’s backyard. Luckily, I hear cheddar makes an excellent flower fertilizer.
As impressive and hilarious as this scenario was, what really stuck with me was Serena’s solution to all of these cheese sauce woes: cauliflower puree.
I’ve wanted to make a healthy nachos recipe for a while now, and since Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner (holy crap, I can’t believe it’s Mayo already…), that lit some chipotle fire under my butt to figure out a solution to this comfort food fave. As much as I love the cashew moment at Empellon in NYC, I knew that I didn’t want to go the full vegan route with homemade cashew cheese. If I’m going to the trouble of making nachos, I want at least a few of those indulgent strands of REAL cheese clinging to every bite.
As I was brainstorming, Serena’s cauliflower cheese hack came to mind and it seemed like the perfect compromise. It’s not completely dairy-free, but it definitely requires much less cheese to make a thick, creamy sauce. Plus, since I was skipping the official béchamel step, I knew I could get away with using almond milk instead of whole.
I used pepper jack to give the sauce some added kick, and the final result was so good, I ended up eating the remaining ½ cup that didn’t make it on my tortilla chips with a spoon. If you have leftovers, you can use the cauliflower cheese as a base for Mac n’ Cheese, or as a topping for baked sweet potatoes, or as a strange mid-day snack, as I did.
One of the things I love about this healthy nachos recipe (sorry, more humble brags) is that it uses the whole head of cauliflower start to finish. This is something I’ve tried to get more in the habit of since starting the Farmer’s Market Challenge. The remaining half gets roasted, along with some cremini mushrooms and jalapenos, and thrown on top of the nachos for even more veggie goodness with every mouthful of cauliflower cheese.
Speaking of the FM Challenge, I’m going to be featuring more menu round-ups from fabulous bloggers like Serena in the coming weeks. As you know, I’ve been struggling with balancing my book writing with creating new content for this site. I’ve also wanted to highlight some of the amazing food talents out there who are producing so much creative inspiring content of their own. Two birds, one stone. So get ready for more recipes and stories from my favorite ladies of the web!
In the meantime, I hope you’ll give this spring-y healthy nachos recipe a try at your frisky Mexi fiesta next week. I promise you will want to inhale the cauliflower cheese with a spoon instead of using it to feed your flowers.
Healthy Nachos with Mushrooms, Jalapenos, and Cauliflower Queso
- 1 head cauliflower cut into small florets, divided
- 1 pound cremini mushrooms thinly sliced
- 2 jalapenos thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- Olive oil
- Sea salt
- 1 large shallot thinly sliced
- 2 cups whole milk or almond milk
- 1 cup shredded jack and/or cheddar cheese
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- 1 bag corn tortilla chips or sweet potato chips
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Toss half the cauliflower florets with 1 tablespoon olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt. Arrange evenly on one baking sheet. Toss the mushrooms, jalapenos, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Arrange in an even layer on the second sheet. Roast in the oven until the vegetables are caramelized and tender, 25 - 30 minutes, redistributing once halfway through. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan or pot, bring the shallot, remaining cauliflower, milk, and ½ teaspoon salt to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat, covered, until the cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes.
- Puree the cauliflower mixture with an immersion blender, or transfer to a food processor or stand blender, until smooth. Return to the pot and stir in the cheese. Cook stirring constantly until melted. Add some extra milk or water, if necessary, so the cauliflower queso is a drizzle-able consistency.
- Arrange the tortilla chips on one of the baking sheets. Heat in the oven until warm, 2 minutes. Scatter the veggie mixture on top of the chips and drizzle with the cauliflower queso. Garnish with the scallions and serve immediately.
I love this post so much (not just because of my cameo, I swear), and these nachos deserve some sort of healthy hedonism trophy. I’d be happy to help you fashion some sort of bronze cauliflower if you like. xoxo
Phoebe Lapine says
I want a cauli TROPHY!! Thanks for the inspiration lady. I would definitely thank you in my acceptance speech.
Sarah G says
This is great! I recently made “Mac and Tease” from the “My New Roots” blog where you make the “cheese” sauce with roasted butternut squash and nutritional yeast. It is amazing! I really like these recipes- making a sauce with veggies! If someone needed or wanted to skip the cheese I wonder if using nutritional yeast in your recipe for cauliflower queso would do the trick? I really can’t wait to try this!
Phoebe Lapine says
That book is so on my list – I don’t know why I haven’t acquired it yet!! will have to try that recipe very soon. Nutritional yeast definitely gives it that cheesy flavor. I think you might miss the slightly gooey/stringy texture in the queso on nachos, since it’s not baked, but you could definitely give it a try! I don’t put that much cheese in this one – just enough to get that slight goo. xo