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8-4-10_Hein_tofu_1.jpg (Ryan Poli with tofu. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

With a few exceptions, chefs aren't exactly the picture of healthful eating in their down time (or even on the clock, for that matter).

Which is why this vegan mac and cheese recipe on Perennial chef Ryan Poli's blog -- sprinkled with such phrases as "brown rice pasta," "vegan cream cheese" and "nutritional yeast" -- gave me pause.

Say wha? Ryan Poli, have you turned vegan?

"God, no," he says. "But my girlfriend is."

Ah, that explains it. Poli's love, Kelli Zink, an entertainment reporter for, is actually a "self-proclaimed seafood vegan -- a sea-gan," Poli says. "She loves when I cook for her. But I can't just riff off whatever I've got in my fridge. It's really tough. Every Sunday, we cook together and it's like a Top Chef challenge."

And because love makes you do crazy things, Poli has started fiddling around with vegan cooking. (It should be said that Poli respects tofu.) Nutritional yeast? "I had no idea what it is," Poli says. "I was like, what do you people eat? But it's actually very common. I got it at Whole Foods in the bulk section, and it's pretty cheap. They use it in place of Parmesan cheese. I think brewers use it for beer."

The first version of Poli's mac and cheese came about at Zink's parents' house during Christmas. Poli made a generous amount ("what I thought was too much") of gluten-free pasta with this cheesy vegan sauce, as well as a chefy, non-vegan version made with aged Gouda and all sorts of other lovely, stinky, artisanal wonders from Pastoral.

"Everybody chose the vegan pasta over the regular one," he says.

Poli revised the vegan pasta even further last weekend. This is how much he likes this dish: "We're actually considering putting vegan mac and cheese on the menu [at Perennial]."

Recipe after the jump.

The things you learn in a 75-minute lunch at Café Spiaggia:

-- Tony Mantuano has removed Rick Bayless from his Twitter follow list. The man is too prolific, says the Spiaggia chef. "I love him, but I just can't. It's too much," Mantuano says.

-- Spiaggia will be serving decidedly downscale pizza and beer tonight. In the private dining room, that is, for tonight's "Top Chef Masters" viewing party. Twenty bucks. 8:30 p.m. Go and root for Mantuano.

-- Susur Lee, Mantuano's fellow 'Masters' cheftestant, does not own a cell phone, nor does he have an e-mail address. "It's impossible to get a hold of the guy," Mantuano says.

-- Six-year aged balsamico tastes like nectar. (Check back here in a few days for more details on Spiaggia chef di cucina Sarah Grueneberg's scarily vast knowledge of balsamico).

-- Pasta cut using a gold die, a recent find now on the cafe menu, yields a rougher finish, thereby enabling the sauce to adhere better. "And you can charge more," Mantuano chuckles.

Pictured is fusilli with Nichols Farm greens, tomatoes and almonds -- toothsome yet velvety. (And look for more discussion of pasta made using traditional brass dies -- and an equally lovely dish -- in our Low Mileage Kitchen column next Wednesday).


A simple secret to great pasta

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This sounds like a great idea at any time of the year, but especially so these days, when many people have leftover holiday ham and other forms of pork in their fridge.

Ari Weinzweig (he of Ann Arbor, Michigan's Zingerman's deli, bakery, restaurant, cheese emporium, etc.), writing in the Atlantic's food blog, recalls a centuries old trick for making pasta better.

"All you have to do is stick a piece of pork rind or pancetta into your pasta cooking water," he says. "It really does give the pasta a nice bit of added flavor, and it as it did five hundred years ago and still today, can be done for very little cost. It's great way to use up ham bones or prosciutto rinds."

Do that, drain the pasta, then just finish it of with a bit of olive oil and some grated cheese, such as Parmigiano or Pecorino, and you've got a simple yet tasty dish that is elevated by the inclusion of the pork.

I'm looking forward to trying this out, as well as asking the butcher for some pork rind.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.



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