By Kendra Murray.

Anyone who spends any amount of time with me, especially at the dinner table, knows I love cheese! Whatever form cheese happens to come in, whether a beautiful platter of fresh, local gouda and/or brie and charcuterie, a cheddar mozzarella blend on a pizza, or even a melty queso over some tortilla chips, it’s a winner in my book.

Since most Americans consume dairy from childhood as a normal part of their diet, it’s often overlooked as a contributor to health problems. However, I’d been reading a lot about folks having success when eliminating dairy from their diets. When researching a dairy-free life, I found many individuals stating when they removed dairy from their plates, their skin looked better and their chronic acne started to disappear. Others noted improved intestinal health and less bloating. What really fascinated me, though, claimed that congestion, sinusitis, and post-nasal drip were eliminated. As someone who has suffered from chronic sinus problems for most of my life, I figured taking a break from dairy was worth a shot.

When I announced to a friend that I was going to try a dairy-free diet for a month or so, she gave me a look as though I had grown another head. “Why on earth would you do that?” she queried.

After a week, I was asking myself the same question. Why on earth was I doing this? I had to pass when offered pizza, going out to eat was nearly impossible, and I was tired of making sacrifices when I was cooking. Fortunately, when I was nearing my breaking point (after only one week), I opened up a vegan cookbook and found some great recipes for dairy-free cheese sauces. Queso, mac & cheese, pizza… it could be done! The secret ingredients are blended up cashews for creaminess and nutritional yeast flakes for the cheese flavor. Once I started replicating cheesy sauces, I was enjoying the dairy-free diet a lot more. Still, nothing could replace a late night snack of cheese and crackers.

As the month wore on, I was missing dairy less and less. The most difficult days were when I was invited out to eat with family or friends. Looking at the menu was never enough; I always had to inconvenience my server to check in with the kitchen to determine if seemingly dairy-free meals did indeed contain dairy. Often, the rolls for sandwiches contained whey, a byproduct of cheese. Dairy is hiding in a lot of products, even some meats like linguica.

After what seemed like an eternity, my dairy-free month ended. I made it! Though I had gotten used to not consuming dairy, I was dying for a pizza with real cheese. So, my results? I think most of my sinus problems, like chronic rhinitis and congestion, do not stem from consuming dairy products. However, I did find that eliminating dairy made me feel less mucous-y, and I experience less post-nasal drip, which was certainly a success. Since completing this experiment, I’ve added dairy back into my diet, however, I can say that I do consume a lot less.

I whipped up this recipe after learning how to make creamy sauces from cashews. Most recipes out there call for raw cashews, but I like the deeper flavor that roasted nuts bring to the dish. And feel free to eliminate the bacon if you are cooking vegan and to substitute whatever veggies are available in season. No tomatoes yet? Try this with asparagus or zucchini from the garden or some nice local fungi, instead. Just adjust the roasting time to suit. Everything tastes good in a creamy pasta dish!

Kendra Murray spends her time working in land conservation in Dartmouth, MA. In her free time, you can find her visiting local farms, poring over cookbooks, and learning how to incorporate local ingredients into every dish.