Nacho cheese and ranch dressing? Done.

Vegan and low-no fat, to boot.

IMG_0578Green lentils and jasmine rice with vegan Cafe Rio dressing and steamed broccoli with nacho cheese sauce

Let’s start with the nacho cheese.

A couple of months ago, I decided to check out Susan’s Fat Free Vegan site again and, low and behold, I ran across her fat free recipe for nacho cheese.  I kid you not, this is the best vegan nacho cheese I’ve ever had!  The texture is even uncannily similar to “regular” nacho cheese.  Other than the fact that it doesn’t work well when you put it on nachos that you heat up in the oven (it ends up running every where), this stuff is truly amazing.  I’ve made my own little tweaks to her recipe which you can find in the notes.


Vegan Nacho Cheese Sauce

by Susan of Fat Free Vegan


  • 1 cup plain, sugar-free non-dairy milk
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/4 cup mashed yams (sweet potatoes work, too)
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch or cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 -3/4 teaspoon salt (optional or to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Chipotle powder or cayenne, to taste (optional)
  • 1 10-ounce can Rotel Diced Tomatoes and Chilies, drained and liquid reserved


  • Double the entire recipe
  • Replace half or all of the mashed yams with russet potatoes (half the sub will give you better color)
  • Replace the can of Rotel with approximately 8-10 ounces of canned diced green chilies


Put all ingredients except Rotel tomatoes and chipotle into the blender.  Blend at high speed until smooth.  Pour into a saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until boiling.  Reduce heat to low and continue cooking and stirring until mixture becomes very thick.  Stir in the drained tomatoes.  If the sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved tomato liquid.  Check seasoning, and add chipotle powder to taste if you like it spicier.
Serve with burritos, tacos, nachos, steamed vegetables, potatoes, you name it.


Recipe Notes:
  • I usually make a double batch.  I also don’t specifically use mashed yams; I microwave a clean, poked yam until cooked (5-8 minutes) and add the rough amount called for.  After blending, if it doesn’t have that nice golden color typical of nacho cheese, I’ll sometimes put in another small chunk of cooked yam and blend again.
  • A friend of mine has made her sauce a few times with sweet potatoes (not yams) and says it tastes good (at the very least, it sure smelled good to me).  Just remember that the sauce won’t be as golden colored.
  • I’ve used both fresh and bottled lemon juice.  Fresh is obviously better but bottled is fine.  The catch: bottled tends to be stronger so I usually put in just under the amount called for.
  • Make sure you let the sauce reach boiling where it starts to form bubbles!  That’s when the magic happens and the sauce changes from runny and slightly chalky tasting to thick and smooth.  The difference will be fairly obvious as you’re stirring.
  • If you don’t stir constantly, the sauce can end up lumpy.  Minus presentation points, this is not that big of a deal because it still tastes the same.
  • I don’t have chipotle powder so I’ve used varying combinations of cayenne and chili powder before.  Sometimes I don’t use it at all.  It depends on the Rotel you use – the first time I made this with Rotel, I had the plain kind (i.e. no heat associated with it) so it needed some cayenne.  Other times I’ve used mild Rotel and that alone is plenty.
  • The very very first time I made this sauce, I actually didn’t have any Rotel.  I substituted with Costco brand salsa and it turned out different but great!  Actually my favorite thing to do is, when I make a double batch, to use one can of mild Rotel (I hardly ever drain it because the sauce is usually so thick) and add Costco salsa to taste.
  • Some friends of ours usually make this sauce without the added can of Rotel because, so they tell me, they can’t find any.  By all means, the sauce without the tomatoes and chilies is perfectly fine by itself but the Rotel (or salsa) brings it up to a whole different level!

— — — —

Now onto the vegan ranch dressing.  Specifically, a vegan version of Cafe Rio‘s house ranch, their Creamy Tomatillo Dressing.

Growing up in Southern California, I’ve been swept up in the whole Chipotle restaurant movement and wanting to go there for food on a weekly basis (and sometimes getting close to that).  To my chagrin, nary a Chipotle existed in Montana when we moved here – but we did spot a Cafe Rio.  We decided to finally try it one day with mediocre expectations and, to our surprise, actually walked away with the conclusion that we liked it better than Chipotle!  I know, blasphemy!, you’re thinking.  But we have taken several friends there or convinced them to go to one where they live and they all have come up with the same conclusion!

My favorite item at Cafe Rio is their vegetarian salad.  Now how I order it, it’s definitely not vegan (read: cheese!) but it’s so amazing and a rare treat that I’m willing to go that route.  Now the thing that takes the salad just over the top is the Creamy Tomatillo Dressing you can get with it.  So good – but so not vegan and my body can tell this is the case a few hours after eating there.

IMG_0595Quart jar with vegan Cafe Rio dressing

Recently while waiting for a roasted potato to finish, I had an instant craving and desire for this dressing on the finished product.  I ran a quick search online and came across a recipe posted on Good Clean Food that worked out for me.  There are two listed recipes there (the first with very low fat, the second with much more) and I made the first one.  (11/21/14 Update: I recently tried making a tofu version because, let’s face it, I wanted to make an even creamier version to try out on meat-eaters. They loved it – and it was so very creamy! I’ve included in below.) Here’s my take on it:

Vegan Cafe Rio Creamy Tomatillo Dressing

Adapted from Good Clean Food, makes approximately 2 1/2 to 3 cups (almost fills a quart jar)

INGREDIENTS, tofu-free version:

  • 1 1/4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk
  • 3 tomatillos, quartered
  • 2-4 smashed cloves of garlic (depends on how strong your garlic is)
  • 1 jalapeño or less, deseeded (unless you want some heat!)
  • 1/3 cup raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional)
  • 1 3/4 tablespoons (aka scant 2 tbsp) chia seeds
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Spike seasoning OR onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • A few shakes to 1/8 teaspoon of xanthan or guar gum (optional)
  • 2 roughly chopped green onions
  • 1/2 cup packed cilantro

INGREDIENTS, tofu version:

  • 1 12-ounce package extra-firm silken tofu (the vacuum-packed kind, such as Mori-Nu), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional)
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk
  • 3 tomatillos, quartered
  • 1 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 2-4 smashed cloves of garlic (depends on how strong your garlic is)
  • 2 roughly chopped green onions
  • 1/2 cup packed cilantro
  • 1/2 – 1 jalapeño or less, deseeded (unless you want some heat!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Spike seasoning OR onion powder


If making the tofu version: blanching the tofu first helps take away some of the “beany” taste. Bring water to a boil, add the tofu cubes, bring to a simmer and let cook for 2 minutes, then drain.

Except green onions and cilantro, blend (hopefully in a Vitamix or Blentec) all ingredients till combined.  Make sure it’s blended well enough that the cashews don’t make it grainy but rather are completely smooth. Add in green onions and cilantro, blend until just finely minced (presentation points).

Goes well with salads, a mayonnaise substitute for sandwiches, drizzled over potatoes, mixed in with mashed potatoes, with soft tacos – use your imagination!

Recipe Notes:

  • If you don’t have a Vitamix or Blentec, the cashews are going to work best if you soak them for 6-8 hours or more. If you’re running out of time, boil the cashews for at 2 minutes and let sit in the hot water for as long as you can. At that point, even a food processor should do okay.
  • The first time I made this, I had absolutely no fresh ingredients and wildly substituted the tomatillos, cilantro, and green onions with canned green chilies and pickled jalapeños – it still worked!
  • Most of the time, I throw in an extra green onion and/or eyeball a generous amount of cilantro.  Because, truly?  More herbs = more flavor.
  • That first time I made this, on a whim I also added nutritional yeast to enhance the creamy factor.  It worked out so well that I made this a permanent addition.  I’m guessing I’ve used approximately 1/4 cup each time.  You can certainly add more or less of it.
  • Update on 6/17/14: I made our most recent batch with a fresh jalapeño instead of my previously listed “4-8 pickled jalapeño slices (optional).”  We like eating things on the spicy side so I also threw in half of the seeds – that’s where the heat comes from!  For us, it was the right amount of spicy warmth and the dressing didn’t have the slight bitter taste to it like it does when pickled jalapeño slices are used.
  • After blending, let it sit for a minute and then check the thickness.  If still on the runny side, add 1 tsp of chia seeds or ground flax seed, blend, and let sit for another minute before checking thickness again.  It will significantly thicken up after refrigerating but you definitely don’t want it runny before that.
  • I once bought xanthan gum for trying out lemon meringue pie with aquafaba and found out that it’s usually used as a food thickening agent, usually in salad dressings. I found out that the ingredients are very less likely to separate after sitting in the fridge for a few days when using it!
  • Sometimes this recipe makes more than a quart jar, sometimes less.  It mostly to depend on the size of the tomatillos.  When I end up with a lot and after tasting, it’s always felt like it needed more salt and lime juice; when it’s a smaller batch, I hardly have to adjust these flavors.  Lesson learned: never forget to taste to check the seasonings!

IMG_0580Breakfast sandwich with chickpea breakfast scramble, vegan Cafe Rio dressing and lettuce

My fat free/low fat vegan lifestyle has taken a wonderful turn with discovering these two recipes.  I make these on almost a weekly basis because either recipe can be eaten with just about anything!


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