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5 Vegan Casserole Essentials (+ Lentil Shepherd’s Pie)

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Gena Hamshaw of the blog Choosing Raw eats a mostly raw, vegan diet without losing time, money, or her sanity. Let her show you how to make "rabbit food" taste delicious and satisfying every other Thursday on Food52.

Today: Whether you're looking to feed a crowd or just cook up some comfort food, Gena offers her tips on vegan casseroles for every occasion, with a recipe for Vegan Lentil Shepherd’s Pie with Parsnip and Potato Mash.

The word "vegan" conjures up many things, but "comfort food" isn't usually the first phrase that comes to mind. For all of the many reasons people choose to become vegan--health, animals, the environment--an intense love of stick-to-your-ribs fare isn't typically a motivating factor. What no one told me at the time, and what I try to tell everyone I know who is curious about the vegan lifestyle, is that vegan food can be every bit as comforting, rich, and satisfying as any of the foods we've all grown up with. From pasta to pastry, soup to stew, and casserole to cake, vegan foods run the full gamut of flavor, texture, and heartiness. Going vegan isn't really about sacrificing foods you love: it's about finding innovative ways to create those foods using plant-based ingredients.

Take casseroles, for example. Many of us remember them from childhood as foods that were made for big family dinners or special occasions. Casserole dishes were always an event in my home: when my mom made a lasagna, a moussaka (we're Greek), or a tuna noodle casserole, we knew we were in for at least four nights of delicious and filling food. Of course, the casseroles I remember from childhood aren't particularly vegan-friendly. Most of them involved meat, cream, eggs, or a generous layer of cheese. Or all of those things combined.

If you're worried that going vegan meant kissing such dishes goodbye, don't be. Vegan casseroles abound, and they're delicious even without dairy, eggs, or meat. All it takes is a little practice. Let me walk you through a few key ingredients for vegan casseroles (and any kind of vegan comfort food):

Legumes: Lentils and beans, as you'll see in my vegan shepherd's pie, can create a lot of "meatiness" in your casserole recipes. Try stuffing flour or corn tortillas with a combination of black beans and sweet potatoes and smothering it all in a tomato or tomatillo sauce for a fantastic vegan enchilada dish, or using brown lentils wherever you're supposed to add meat.

Cashew cream: Cashew cream is the secret ingredient behind many rich and creamy vegan sauces. Simply blend up a cup of cashews that have been soaked in water for at least a few hours and drained, a tablespoon of lemon juice, sea salt, and enough water to create the texture of a bechamel sauce. You can use a blender or a food processor to do it. I like to take baked eggplant and potatoes, layer slices of them in a casserole dish, and smother each layer in some cashew cream for a delectable scalloped potato and eggplant bake.

Mushrooms: Portobello mushrooms may be a little cliched as a vegetarian option on restaurant menus, but let's not hold that against them. Mushrooms do lend incredible mouthfeel and heartiness to vegan dishes, and they're delicious, too. I like to spread polenta into a dish and bake it for fifteen minutes while I saute a mix of cremini and baby bella mushrooms with garlic, vegetable broth, and herbs. I then cover the polenta with the sauteed mushrooms, slice it, and serve it as a quick, easy polenta casserole.

Non-dairy milk: Friends of mine who have been vegan for decades like to reminisce about the hardscrabble early days, when all that was available to vegans in the way of a dairy replacement was powdered soymilk, so repellent that they'd choose to eat cereal with OJ instead. Fortunately, non-dairy milk has come a long way, baby: almond milk, oat milk, rice milk, coconut milk, and soymilk can all be found in many tasty, minimally processed, organic varieties. Almond milk is my non-dairy milk of choice: it's especially good for mashed potatoes (as you'll see in this recipe). For soups and stews, as well as bread puddings and savory one-dish meals, coconut milk is a great option.

Vegan pasta In previous columns, a couple of you have mentioned that it's tough to find pasta without egg in it. Have no fear! Pasta from Barilla, De Cecco, and Ronzoni are all vegan (always check labels to be doubly sure). I'm a fan of using whole grain pasta, but I don't like the texture of whole wheat; what I do love are both quinoa pasta (available from Ancient Harvest Quinoa) and brown rice pasta (available from Tinkyada). You can use these to make noodle bakes and lasagnas.

If there's one casserole that screams "comfort food," it may have to be shepherd's pie. When I told friends of mine that I would soon be featuring a shepherd's pie in the New Veganism, they raised their eyebrows. "Isn't that about as far off from a vegan dish as you can get?" asked one friend.

The answer is no, not when you have lentils, cremini mushrooms, and a creamy topping of mashed russet potatoes and parsnips in your culinary arsenal. Spiced gently with dried rosemary and garlic, smothered in a mashed root vegetable mix that's good enough to serve on its own as a side dish, and full of plant-based protein and fiber, this dish is as filling and nutritious as it is tasty. And unlike many of the vegan shepherd's pies I've tried in the past, it's relatively simple to prepare. Check out the full recipe for my tips on which steps you can do in advance, and enjoy experiencing quintessential comfort fare in a new light.

Vegan Lentil Shepherd’s Pie with Parsnip and Potato Mash

Serves 6-8

2 1/2 pounds (about 4 large) russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
6 parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 cup almond, soy, rice, or other non-dairy milk
Sea salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large carrots, diced evenly
2 ribs celery, diced evenly
6 ounces baby bella, cremini, or button mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 cup brown or green lentils, dry
1 cup vegetable broth
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

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Tags: Celery, Parsnip, Potato, Vegetable, Vegetarian, Vegan, Gena Hamshaw