Although I'm not vegan, I love the challenge of coming up with plant-based versions of junk food. Whether it's Better Chocolate Chip Cookies, or a Vegan Spinach Dip, There's a certain thrill in striking upon a convincing plant-based alternative after repeated trial and error. It's also nice to create something that's better for our bodies and the planet, allowing you to indulge in something you love with a clear conscience.
Since my mother wouldn't dream of feeding us cheese out of a jar, I'm fairly certain my first experience with Chili Con Queso was in a school lunch. I find it more than a little disturbing that my first experiences with junk food like corn-dogs, tatertots and sloppy joes were all in elementary school lunches, but that's a topic for another discussion. Fast forward a number of years and my high school lunch of choice was a bean burrito with chips and cheese from Taco Bell, mainly to save time and lunch money for Street Fighter II matches at the comic book shop across the street from my school.
By the time I tried nachos made with real cheese, the velvety smooth, glow-in-the-dark orange variety had become such the norm, that I was shocked and a little turned off by the rubbery clumps of cheese clinging to the chips. By this time, I was also old enough to know that the engineered "cheese product" I'd been eating was loaded with unpronounceable additives that I'd rather not ingest, which put an end to my love for chili con queso and all things chips and cheese.
Fast forward another decade and a half, and while contemplating my next plant-based conversion to tackle, this Tex-Mex classic came to mind. For the base, I decided to use raw cashews for their richness and inherent sweetness. If you're not into nuts, drained silken tofu also works, though the finished dip is lighter and will retain a bit of soy flavor. The cheese flavor and color comes from the nutritional yeast and turmeric. To keep this as simple as possible, I used chili powder and smoked paprika, which gives the dip a flavor similar to chipotle chilies, but if you want something with chunks of chilies, try adding some roasted green or red chilies.
By boiling the cashews for a few minutes, you can skip the overnight soak they usually require, which means that you can have your very own bowl of plant-based Chili con Queso in about 12 minutes from stuff you probably have in your pantry! With it's rich velvety smooth texture, funky cheesy taste, and smoky chili punch, this easy dip will assuage even the most persistent of cheese cravings regardless of whether you're vegan or not.
- Add the water and cashews to a pot and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, remove the pot from the heat and let the cashews cool slightly.
- Add the boiled cashew nuts and liquid to a high speed blender along with the nutritional yeast, chili powder, onion powder, salt, smoked paprika and turmeric. Blend the mixture, slowly working your way up to high speed and then blend until the mixture is velvety smooth.
- Check the consistency of your queso and add more water if it needs it. It should be pourable, but thick enough to not run all over the place. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve warm with chips.
NOTE: To get the silky smooth texture of Chili con Queso with cashews, you need to use a high-speed blender such as a Vitamix. The blades in food processors and regular blenders just don't spin fast enough to give you a smooth dip.