“Cheesy” Penne with Mushrooms and Peas


I had a food awakening a few years ago.

I was tired, almost all of the time. I had put on about 30 pounds and felt puffy, all over. I saw a doctor, had X-rays, and was put on three different medications, including an inhaler. Just shy of 50, I thought, Am I getting old and sick? What’s happening to my body?

Then I read Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book, Eat to Live. Dr. Fuhrman is a physician, author, and self-described “nutritarian” who believes in fueling the body with high-nutrient, plant-based, whole foods. I decided to try it because his approach seemed sane and healthy. I studied his recipes and bought the ingredients (so many plants, my shopping cart looked like a mini jungle).

Within the first five days of eating a whole-food plant-based diet, with absolutely no animal products, I threw away my three medications, inhaler and all, and never looked back. In four months I dropped those 30 pounds. I started running again because I had so much more energy. I was sleeping through the night. Food became not only fuel, but medicine. It was healing my body. As our Belle Vie nutritionist Bridgette likes to say, this way of eating is the difference between surviving and thriving.

Over the next year, I created a plant-predominant way of eating. Plant-predominant for me is a less strict approach to veganism. I like to call it vegan adjacent. I’m plant based at home, but if I go out, when I travel, or when I go to a friend’s house, I might eat differently. If I have two or three meals a month that contain animal product, I don’t beat myself up. This approach works for me because it’s sustainable over time.

I started inventing my own recipes and searching out recipes of well-known vegan and vegetarian cooks. After about six months, I was amazed—I never looked or felt better.

But then, and don’t ask me why, I slacked off. Plant-powered eating became a part-time thing for me. And then a sometime thing. The more I slacked the worse I felt.

Fast forward a couple of years and here I am in LA, the land of green juice and farmers’ markets. This was the perfect place to be plant-strong. I knew I could do it—I had the recipes and the vegan track record to prove it. But I also knew that for this to work long-term, I needed something I didn’t have on my first go-round: a way to imitate the foods I love. I’m talking about cheese, people. It’s one thing to not eat meat anymore; it’s a whole other ballgame to give up cheesy sauces and spreads. I didn’t think I could stick with it without coming up with an alternative.

Then I found it. The no-cheese cheese sauce of my dreams. I concocted this masterpiece and the first time we had it at Belle Vie we could not stop talking about it for days.

Cheesy Penne with Mushrooms and Peas

Sheri and I were sitting one night at Belle Vie wishing for a cheesy gooey pasta from days gone by. Then I remembered a cheese sauce recipe I’d seen somewhere and I thought about a dish from Mia Francesca’s, a restaurant in Chicago, that had a rigatoni, sausage, and peas swimming in a creamy tomato sauce. Inspired, I put together this healthier version and we loved it. Every time I make this cheese sauce, I find a different way to use it: on steamed broccoli, vegan nachos, as a dip, with rice and beans. After I made this the first time, I wrote in my recipe journal: “This is it. This is the light and the path and the way to creamy, saucy, cheesy goodness.”


TOTAL TIME: For cheese sauce 20 min. For the penne dish, 20 additional minutes

For the Sauce:


2 large gold potatoes, peeled and quartered

¼ onion (a wedge, peeled)

1 large or two slender carrots, peeled and cut in three chunks

½ cup raw cashews

2 tablespoons miso

½ cup nutritional yeast

1 heaping teaspoon garlic powder

1 heaping teaspoon onion powder

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste


In a medium pot, boil water.

Place the potatoes, carrots, onion and cashews in the water.

Boil until the vegetables are tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork (about 10 minutes).

Using a ladle, add the vegetables and nuts and some of the water to your Vitamix or a very high-speed blender (but get a Vitamix if you can swing it – nothing else compares).

Continue to add more water until you have a sauce-like consistency

Add the miso, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, and onion powder.

Keep whirring.

Add salt and pepper and additional veggie water as needed.


For the penne dish:


1 box (16 oz.) red lentil, quinoa, or brown rice penne

2 cups vegetable broth, plus more for sautéing

1 cup frozen peas

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups cremini mushrooms, sliced

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

2 cloves garlic, minced

Sauce (recipe above)


In a large pot, boil the pasta in salted water. Drain and return the pasta to the pot and set aside.

In a small pot, boil the vegetable broth.

Add the peas and simmer until the peas are soft (just a few minutes).

Save ¼ cup of the broth. Drain the peas and set aside.

Add the olive oil to a hot pan. Add the sliced mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Sautee until the mushrooms are nicely browned.

Add the garlic and a few splashes of broth. This prevents the garlic from burning without using an overly large amount of oil in the dish. *

Add the mushrooms and peas to pot with the cooked pasta. Add the cheese sauce to your liking. Mix well and simmer slightly over low heat to meld the flavors. Season with salt and pepper.

*Note: Olive oil is about 200 calories per tablespoon. It’s good for browning, but when you can, replace it with vegetable broth or even water. This is the key to low-fat cooking.



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