“‘I could never be vegan, I love cheese too much’ said every vegan before going vegan.”

True, it’s a cliché + tired meme at this point, but one that rings true for us here. Cheese—or more accurately, our love of it—was something that stood in the way of us moving from vegetarian to a totally animal-free, cruelty-free lifestyle for years. And this was in the 90s, mind you, when your vegan cheese alternatives numbered in the ones, roughly (props to you, Tofutti Slices, you bright orange, rubbery, maybe-only-edible-in-the-most-technical-of-senses things, you).

Now it’s 2019 and we’ve come a long way, baby, both in the store-bought realm and in the home-cooking one. A recipe that ties the two together well in our minds is one we’ve been pulling out of our party bag of tricks a lot lately—vegan quest, a creamy, rich, cheesy dip that highlights the bold flavors of roasted chilis + tomatoes and has roots in thew Southwest; most notably, Austin, Texas. At a glance, it might seem like an intimidating recipe, but once you get the cashew cream base down, the rest of the recipe comes together pretty easily and quickly.

Here’s what you need:

Homemade Cashew Cream (from roughly 1.5 cups of soaked raw cashew pieces; see below for instructions and additional ingredients)
7 oz. Follow Your Heart American Style Slices
4 tbsp. Miyoko’s Cultured Vegan Butter (our local Trader Joe’s carries this at about half the price of most other places somehow FYI)
4 Large Fresh Anaheim/New Mexico Green Chilis
3 Serrano Peppers
1 Jalapeño Pepper
3 Roma or Large Other Ripe Tomatoes

4 Large Cloves of Garlic
(uncut, unpeeled)
Juice from 1/2 Lemon
Sea Salt (to taste)
A Few Dashes of Your Favorite Hot Sauce
Water (to thin when necessary)
Garnishes: your favorite store-bought or homemade salsa, chopped cilantro leaves, sliced jalapeño

As mentioned, the base of this our everyday homemade cashew cream—something that’s really pretty easy to make if you’ve got a decent blender and something that’s a super-versatile kitchen staple for us. The cream’s appeared on these pages a few times before, and we walk through the basics of how to make it with our recipe for fresh pasta, but, basically, it’s a matter of soaking a cup or two of raw cashews in water overnight and blending until excessively smooth with olive oil, a touch of sesame oil, a heaping helping of nutritional yeast, a couple cloves of raw garlic, a drop or two of hickory smoke extract, a dash of sea salt, maybe a peeled, chopped shallot, and, ideally, some homemade brine and pickled cauliflower stem or something along those lines to give it some funk. That last bit is the ‘secret ingredient’ that really pulls the cream over the top in terms of taste. We simply salt a plate full of cut cauliflower stems and let them stand for anywhere from a few hours to overnight at room temperature. But this cashew cream ‘recipe’ is all about experimentation and evolution—it’s a little different for us every time and we tend to enjoy not having any hard + fast rules for portions so we can let the process and product grow and change over time or to meet particular cooking needs. Like a very rich taste? Add more olive oil. Like more of a sharp taste? More salt and maybe a little vinegar. Smoke? Add more…well, smoke (you can find liquid smoke in most grocery stores these days, usually near the barbecue sauce—look for the ones that are just water and smoke extract ideally). The end product should be something that’s really rich and creamy and very much crave-able.

Usually with our standard staple cashew cream, we try to keep it as thick as possible so we can use it in a wide range of ways, keeping it thick for a vegan crème fraîche; thinning it out a bit for something more cheese-sauce-like. In this case, since we’re cooking it with other ingredients afterwards, it doesn’t really matter how thick the cream is, so we added some water to the blending process, which makes it easier and quicker to get that smooth texture you’re looking for. The other difference here is that we added a little apple cider vinegar to give it a sharper kick and a fresh carrot cut into pieces to give it a richer color and a little more substance.

Once you have your cashew cream at a good place, pre-heat your broiler for a couple minutes and the place the peppers, tomatoes, and unpeeled garlic cloves on an un-oiled baking pan; then place the pan under your broiler, leaving it there for about five minutes, until the vegetables’ skins are blackened on one side. Take it out and flip everything over carefully with some tongs or super-calloused hands. In most cases, you can take the garlic out at this point as it’ll be pretty cooked through. Broil everything else flipped for another five minutes or so and then remove from heat. In our case, we actually used pretty firm, large, on-the-vine tomatoes, which took longer than the peppers, so we removed the peppers when they looked done and cooked the tomatoes longer on their own. You basically want to get both to a point where their skin is pretty black and pulling away from the flesh. Then let them sit until they’re cool to the touch and melt your vegan butter over low heat in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot. Once everything’s cool, peel the tomatoes, discard the skins, roughly chop and add to the pot once the butter’s fully melted. Same for the peppers, but you’ll also want to remove the seeds, which can be done easily by slicing long-ways and running under cold water (that’ll help any stubborn skins to come off too). The garlic is likely pretty liquified at this point, so you can probably just squeeze the insides into the pan and discard the papery skins.

Stir everything together and let it sauté for a few minutes on low heat, then carefully add what should be about 45-50 ounces of homemade cashew cream (about 3/4 of a blender container’s worth). Stir to mix everything together and then take your store-bought sliced vegan cheese and chop into small cubes. We specifically call out Follow Your Heart in the ingredients above because we like their company and products, but you can use anything similar, even blocks instead of sliced, sliced is just usually more available. The basic idea is you want to add some pre-made vegan cheese that’ll give the finished product a little more stretchiness and add to the nice, sharp flavor. Whatever you choose, add the chopped up cubes to the mixture along with squeezed lemon juice and stir to incorporate and allow it to start melting the cheese down.

Cover with a heavy lid and cook on low until the store-bought cheese is melted, uncovering and stirring to make sure everything’s incorporating together well and the bottom’s not beginning to burn. With the thickness and texture of this queso, you’ll most likely be able to keep it on low the whole times you’re cooking it. If it seems too cool to melt the added cheese though, turn your heat up appropriately, just keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t start bubbling too much. If the queso starts to get too thick or the bottom’s starting to burn despite stirring and scraping, just add some water gradually to thin it back out; once the cheese is melted, you can just cook off the water to get it to your desired, thick and creamy consistency. Then salt and add any desired hot sauce to taste. If there’s not enough of a cheesy taste for you, try adding some more nutritional yeast and/or more store-bought cheese. Once you dip a chip in and like what you taste, you’re done.

Yeehaw! Enjoy, pardner!