Despite having been born lactose intolerant, I loved eating creamy foods as a kid. Macaroni and Cheese, Fettuccine Alfredo, and basically any pasta with cream sauce appealed to me. Eventually I moved away from the ultra-heavy cream sauces and gravitated more towards the lighter cream sauces with more flavor, but if there was ever a choice between a cream sauce and a tomato sauce over pasta, cream always won out.
There was one dish in this category that that I particularly loved - Shrimp Pasta with Basil Cream Sauce. When my dad was first learning to cook, he started making this pasta dish with sautéed shrimp, spaghetti, and cream sauce with garlic and green onions. I thought it was just about the best thing ever. It was usually reserved for Saturday night dinners, and one of my tasks would be standing watch over the cream sauce, waiting for the cream to thicken. It usually took a while, and I always took my job just a bit too seriously, as new cooks often do when they're given little tasks by more experienced cooks. In the end though, it always tasted delicious, and I'm pretty sure that I always cleared my plate.
As I've gotten away from eating very much dairy these days, with Greek yogurt and a few cheeses being the only remaining dairy items in the rotation, I've been searching for a way to satisfy my cream sauce desire in a dairy-free way. This is not an easy task. The combination of richness and mellow sweetness in heavy cream is pretty difficult to replicate.
My first step towards the discovery occurred when I made Mollie Katzen's Cashew-Coconut Sauce recipe from her book Vegetable Heaven. The sauce was a Thai-inspired cream sauce over rice noodles using coconut milk as the base and cashews to thicken the mixture. This sauce is amazing, and perfect if you're looking for a good Thai take-out substitute, but it's not a traditional cream sauce.
Giada De Laurentiis also puts almonds in her Penne in Almond Sauce recipe, blending them with chicken stock in the blender before adding cream. I remember watching the show with this recipe and just hoping that she wasn't going to add any cream because the sauce was really thick and creamy without it. Ultimately, she added 3/4 cup of heavy cream to the sauce (a 616-calorie and 66-grams-of-fat addition!) at the end, but the idea of using almonds in a cream sauce still intrigued me.
Summer squash is a welcome addition to the produce rotation in our house. It's pretty inexpensive and readily available during the summer - you can get one squash for $0.79 at Trader Joe's right now. The squash has a really mild, sweet flavor, not to mention a light, creamy color, that makes it perfect for this sauce. I added some fresh basil leaves to the sauce from our rooftop herb garden, as well as a couple cloves of garlic, one green onion, and some red pepper flakes, to give the sauce some flavor and bring it closer to the Basil Cream Sauce I remember.
I was honestly a little shocked by how great this sauce turned out. I had never thought that a "low-fat" cream sauce could be so rich and flavorful. It really proves that you can eat your favorite foods, whether they're traditionally considered "healthy" or not, and just cook them in a nutritious way. I hate to rule out entire categories of food in my diet (no ice cream, no burgers, no fries, etc.), because doing so fails to take into account that such foods can be prepared in healthy ways. The truth is that you can alter most traditional recipes to make them healthier without sacrificing flavor. Taking that even further, many recipes can be radically reinvented to produce the same texture and flavor results using vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
This recipe is obviously a radical departure from the traditional cream sauce, but it is just as delicious, way more nutritious, and even quicker to make. After you steam the squash (which you can even do ahead of time and keep in the refrigerator), you just throw everything in the blender and the sauce is done and ready to be mixed with the hot pasta. This can be a vegan meal, but I decided to add some steamed shrimp for nostalgia purposes. This sauce also reheats really well in the microwave, much better than traditional cream sauces to be honest, which tend to get absorbed into the pasta. Use any type of pasta that you like - I went for the fettuccine-shaped rice noodles, but you can use long or short noodles. Lastly, this sauce can be used for more than just pasta. We tried it on top of broiled tilapia and it was delicious.
Squash cream sauce (4 servings as an entree, 6 servings as a side dish)
About 3 cups summer squash, chopped into 1-inch cubes and steamed until tender (about 2 medium squash)
½ cup cashews, unsalted and lightly toasted
½ cup almond milk (soy and low-fat regular would work as well)
6-8 fresh basil leaves, depending on the size of the leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 green onion, chopped into 1-inch pieces (optional: you can finely chop and sauté first if you like)
Zest of one lemon
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch of black pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Optional dairy addition: 2 Tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (not necessary, but it adds a little extra richness)
12 oz cooked pasta (we used rice noodles this time)
1 broccoli crown, chopped and steamed
Shrimp (we used about 1/2 pound), steamed
Basil, finely chopped for garnish
1. Steam the squash either in a steaming basket, bamboo steamer, or using a mesh colander fitted over a large saucepan (my mesh colander fits right into my 3-qt. saucepan). Add the squash, cashews, milk, basil, garlic, onion, lemon zest, salt, and red pepper flakes to the blender. Blend on the highest speed until the mixture is smooth. Taste to make sure the seasonings are correct - add an extra pinch of salt or pepper if necessary.
2. The sauce is done! Now you just need to boil your pasta and steam any vegetables that you want to add. I chose to steam both the broccoli and shrimp while the pasta was boiling. The broccoli is ready when it's bright green and tender, but still has a little bit of crunch. The shrimp cook quickly and are ready when they turn pink.
3. When your pasta is done cooking, add it back to the pot with your steamed vegetables and shrimp.
4. Pour the sauce into the mixture and gently mix with a large spoon, making sure not to break up the noodles.
5. Serve warm, and add a bit of chopped basil on top (and Parmesan cheese if you're not making this completely vegan).
Since this meal is so flexible with the type of pasta, vegetables, and seafood that you can add, I'm just going to give you the nutrition facts for one serving of the sauce, assuming you make this as your main dish and get 4 servings total. This recipe has no cholesterol and is high in manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, and vitamin C.
Serving Size 136 g