Three cheers for vegan snacks!

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I have tried and tried to learn about football. Many people have taken the time to sit patiently by my side while a game is on and gently whisper explanations like, “OK, see, there are a series of things called downs …” Right away, my mind trails off. Despite my total lack of comprehension of anything that happens on the field, I enjoy Super Bowl parties: the spectacle, the ads — and the snacks.

This year I decided to challenge myself to make a Super Bowl-worthy vegan dish. I wanted to make something that was hearty and savory, and I wanted it to be good enough that my omnivorous friends would enjoy it too. Should I make chili? No. Too obvious! I decided to take on a greater challenge: a heavy, gooey baked pasta dish.

Can You Say Soysage?

Normally for an occasion like a Super Bowl party I prepare a baked pasta dish I call Testosteroni. I use penne or ziti, but gemelli, rigatoni, fusilli, rotini, and radiatori work too. Feta cheese, green olives, capers, and a sauce made of puréed roasted red pepper and crushed tomatoes spiked with red pepper flakes complete the dish — it’s sort of an Arrabiata-meets-Putanesca kind of deal … a salty, saucy mix. However, I couldn’t find any vegan cheese that even vaguely resembled feta, so instead I decided to go with a baked vegan ravioli dish with “sausage” in marinara sauce.

The first time I made it, I served it to my veggie dining co-op. I used Tofurky Italian Sausage and Soy Boy Rosa Ravioli (tomato pasta filled with a roasted sweet red pepper and organic tofu filling).

I chickened out when it came to adding vegan cheese and used real mozzarella. The result was delicious. The flavor of the Tofurky Italian Sausage was really good and the texture wasn’t bad, even though it wasn’t like real sausage. The ravioli were fantastic. They had a nice flavor and I liked the fact that they were lighter than cheese ravioli. I’m ready to use vegan ravioli from now on simply because I prefer it. However, as good as the dish was, it wasn’t vegan since I had used real cheese.

The next time I made it, I decided to bite the bullet and make it with completely vegan ingredients. I picked the toughest room I could to taste-test it: the meat-eatin’-est house around. (How much do the members of this household love meat? One of their kid’s first phrases was “More meat!” and when we recently talked about what would make a good filling for a piñata, she suggested — predictably and with complete sincerity — “Meat!”)

I made the same dish for them, only this time I used Field Roast Italian Sausage instead of the Tofurky. The flavor of the sausages was very good (although I thought the Tofurky ones tasted more like real Italian sausages) and their texture was more like real meat.

Topping It All Off

Instead of using cheese to top the dish, I decided to try using seasoned breadcrumbs to make a sort of savory streusel. I mixed breadcrumbs with smoked paprika, salt, and olive oil. The flavor was good but the texture was off-putting, in part because I used too many breadcrumbs and there was simply too much topping. One of my friends asked if the dish really needed any topping, since the rest was so good on its own. I guess it doesn’t, but it seemed undressed (topless, as it were) without one.

That night I woke up and sat bolt upright in my bed. I probably should have said, “Eureka!” but instead I cried “Garlic bread!” In my sleep, I had hit upon the idea of cutting thin slices of a baguette, topping them with a fresh garlic and margarine mixture, and adding them to the top of the dish a few minutes before serving — just long enough for them to toast a bit. Mixing a little flat Italian parsley into the margarine-garlic mix couldn’t hurt either. (Since the partially hydrogenated oil present in some margarines turns out to be quite unhealthful, consider using a brand that doesn’t contain it, like Smart Balance.)

Of course, you can always use soy cheese. Some of it tastes good and melts well. Go in with a friend on buying a few different brands and have a “tasting” — that’s the best way to find one that you like. Test the different cheeses for their melt-ability by grating them and then toasting them on bread in the oven.

That said, here is the recipe for a hearty vegan ravioli bake. Top it (or not!) in whatever way you choose.

Vegan Baked Ravioli and “Sausage”

Serves 6-8

“Sausage” and Ravioli

Two 25-ounce jars of marinara sauce (I used an organic version from Whole Foods’ 365 line. If you use jars that aren’t exactly 25 ounces, it will still be fine.)
10-ounce package of Rosa Ravioli, or similar amount of other ravioli of your choice
1 package (4 links) of vegan “sausage”
1-2 pinches of red pepper flakes (optional)

 

Topping

Either
1 1/2 to 2 cups soy cheese, grated
or
Several 1/2- to 3/4-inch slices of baguette topped with a garlic-margarine mix (3-4 tablespoons of margarine and one clove of fresh garlic, crushed and chopped fine)
Salt
A few sprigs of parsley (optional), stemmed (which, of course, really means de-stemmed!) and cut into thin strips

 

Place the oven rack in the middle of your oven. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and put a large pot of water on to boil.

Photo: iStockphoto

When the water comes to a boil, add the ravioli and cook them until they are cooked through. They don’t need to be perfectly al dente because they are about to be baked, but they should be edible. When the ravioli are done, drain them.

Cut the sausage links into bite-size pieces.

Pour one jar of sauce into a 10″ x 15″ baking dish. Add the drained ravioli and pieces of sausage in such a way that they are fairly evenly distributed throughout the pan. Pour the second jar of sauce over everything so that it’s covered. (If you don’t need to use the whole jar and everything’s covered, that’s fine. Save the rest for another purpose). Add the cheese if you want to use cheese.

Cook the dish for about 30 minutes. Check it after 20 minutes. Take it out if the cheese begins to get too tough. If you are planning to top the dish with garlic bread instead, cut the baguette into slices and make a spread using 3-4 tablespoons of margarine and one clove of minced or pressed garlic. Sprinkle a pinch of salt into the mixture. Spread the slices with the garlic-margarine mix. Put these aside until the last 3 minutes of baking time.

The margarine should melt and the bread should begin to get a little bit brittle but not too brown during that time. Keep an eye on it, though, in case you have a hot oven or the pan is close to the heating element.