Meet your new favorite (secretly healthy) pasta salad recipe for potlucks, parties, and backyard cookouts. Vegan Pimento Macaroni Salad takes the irresistible flavor of pimento cheese and marries it with macaroni salad, complete with crunchy celery, bell pepper, and red onion. Your choice of pasta makes this dish whole-food plant-based (WFPB) and/or gluten-free. This recipe is also soy-free with a nut-free option.
Welcome to the healthy vegan macaroni salad recipe you didn't even know you wanted. I mean, until about a week ago I certainly didn't know I wanted some newfangled interpretation of macaroni salad. Oh, but trust me, friends! Make this just once, and I think you'll fall in love with it like we did. In case you missed my recent enthusiasm over Vegan Pimento Cheese, brace yourself because it's happening all over again.
Tender macaroni wrapped in an ultra creamy, tangy, cheesy, and slightly spicy pimento cheese sauce (instead of the mayonnaise typically used in macaroni salad), tossed with fresh and crunchy chopped celery, sweet yellow bell pepper, red onion, and pimentos.
In fact, I bet if you take this to a party full of omnivorous eaters and don't tell them beforehand that it's vegan, oil-free, and contains ZERO mayonnaise, they'll never guess! I mean, just look at that sauce...
How to Make Healthy Pimento Macaroni Salad + Some Tips
This recipe takes less than 30 minutes start to finish. A high-speed blender makes it quick and easy. If you don't have one, soak the cashews in hot water for 1 to 2 hours (or soak sunflower seeds for about 1 hour), then drain them before making the sauce.
This recipe consists of 3 basic components:
- the pimento cheese sauce, made in a blender
- chopped veggies - celery, yellow or orange bell pepper, and red onion (plus pimentos from a jar)
- cooked pasta
I recommend blending the sauce first. It gives the flavors time to mingle while you chop the veggies and cook the pasta.
As soon as the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and rinse with cold water until the pasta is cool to the touch. This keeps the noodles from sticking together and brings the temperature down. Since macaroni salad is served cool, this is a critical step in speeding things along.
Next I like to give the pot a quick rinse with cold water, too. Then pour half of the sauce into the pot, add the rinsed and drained macaroni, and stir to coat. Add more sauce, and stir, stir, stir until the pasta is completely coated.
NOTE: it may seem like there's TOO much sauce at first, but don't worry.
Next, add the chopped celery, pepper, onion, and pimentos, and stir to combine.
I reserved a small amount of each veggie to sprinkle on top before serving. This is optional, of course, but I do think it's nice to see a few bites of colorful veggies on top, and it lets people know what's in the dish.
The day I shot these photos I used standard, organic white macaroni elbows, but you can use any pasta you like, from whole-wheat to gluten-free varieties.
When it comes to macaroni, I find mouthfeel to be an important part of the overall dish. So if you don't need the dish to be gluten-free or whole-food-compliant, or if you're sharing it with friends who are used to classic macaroni salad, you may want to opt for a good quality white pasta.
Make this Vegan Macaroni Salad Nut-Free
As I mentioned, this recipe is already vegan, soy-free, oil-free, and becomes WFPB and/or gluten-free simply by your choice of pasta. Now, all we need is a substitute for the cashews to make it nut-free. And guess what... raw sunflower seeds work like a charm!
I'm currently updating many of my cheesy recipes to include a seed-based option for those with tree nut allergies and for parents who need nut-free recipes (many schools are nut-free). Also, cashews are expensive, making them less accessible, and there are complex ethical and environmental concerns surrounding cashew production.
So just like I wanted to show that we don't need to rely on coconut milk to make creamy vegan desserts, there's no need to rely on cashews as much as we have been either.
I hope you enjoy this fun and flavorful vegan macaroni salad! If you try the recipe it would make my day to hear from you.
Comment below and give it a star rating to let everyone know how it turned out, and feel free to tag me in a pic on instagram with @myquietkitchen!
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Vegan Pimento Macaroni Salad
For the sauce:
- 1 ½ cups raw cashews (sub 1 ¼ cups raw sunflower seeds for nut-free)
- 1 cup water
- 3 Tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 4 ounces roasted red peppers, drained
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 Tablespoons hot sauce I used Crystal brand.
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 2 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt I know this seems like a lot, but remember it's for an entire package of pasta!
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
For the salad:
- 16 ounces dry macaroni elbows (use whole-grain or gluten-free, if needed)
- 1 cup chopped celery (about 5 large stalks)
- 1 cup chopped yellow or orange bell pepper (about 1 large pepper)
- ¾ cup diced red onion (about 1 small onion)
- 4 ounce jar of pimentos, drained very well and chopped
- *If using a standard blender, first soak cashews in hot water for 1 to 2 hours (or soak seeds for 1 hour). Then, drain and follow recipe. In a high-speed blender combine all sauce ingredients. Gradually increase speed, then blend on high until completely smooth. Set sauce aside.
- Cook pasta according to package directions. Immediately drain in a colander and thoroughly rinse with cold running water, tossing/stirring pasta until it's cool. Drain well.
- Pour about half of the sauce into the pasta pot. Add the macaroni and stir to combine. Add more sauce, and continue to stir making sure all of the macaroni is completely coated. It will seem very saucy at this point but will thicken as it sits and after adding the veggies.
- Reserve a tablespoon or two of each of the veggies for garnish, if desired. Add remaining celery, bell pepper, onion, and pimentos to the pot. Stir to combine.
- Transfer to a serving bowl, and sprinkle reserved veggies/pimentos on top. Refrigerate for one hour (or longer) before serving.