Zucchini Filling

This filling could be used in a variety of applications.  It would be a fine enchilada filling, were it not summer and much too hot for me to even consider turning on the oven.  It would be excellent in empanadas, baked or fried.  For now, however, it’s been relegated to quesadillas, as that’s what I could manage.  But these were some seriously awesome quesadillas, folks.

Quesadillas are usually a quick, low-stress sort of thing. One of my favorite applications of quesadilla theory is to zap some spinach while the quesadillas are cooking in the pan and then stuff it in there with the melted cheese and a little salsa. It takes about five minutes, start to finish. Not these, oh, these are an undertaking compared to that.

Zucchini needs to not be watery in order to be good, and the salting process, which is the longest part of this recipe, is also what makes it successful.

Once this filling was prepared, I fried up some corn tortillas, shredded a bunch of pepper jack cheese, stuffed the tortillas full of zucchini filling and cheese and pan-toasted them briefly. Wonderful.

6 zucchini, shredded (use the food processor, for crying out loud)

Canola oil for the pan

1 large onion, slivered

1 jalapeno pepper, minced

1 chipotle pepper, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 ears corn

Place the shredded zucchini in a colander and season well with salt in order to draw out moisture.  Place in the sink or over a large bowl; set aside.  In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil until hot but not smoking.  Add the onions to the pan; reduce heat to between medium and medium-high.  Sauté the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are somewhat browned.  While the onions are cooking, bring enough water to barely cover the corn to boil in a medium saucepan.  Salt the water when it comes to a boil and add the corn.  Cook for five minutes, turning at least once.  Remove and place in a large bowl to cool momentarily.  When the onions are browned, remove them to a small bowl, season with salt and pepper, and set aside. 

Squeeze as much moisture as possible from the reserved zucchini with your hands.  When it is as dry as is practical, heat a small amount of canola oil in the large sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking.  Add the garlic, chipotle pepper and jalapeno pepper to the pan, and allow to sizzle for a few seconds.  Add the zucchini, and toss gently occasionally until heated through. 

While the zucchini is cooking, cut the corn off the cob into the large bowl, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.  Once the zucchini is hot, add the reserved onions and corn and toss gently.  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Lime-Cumin Carrots

Carrots always seem to be the last thing left in the fridge at our house the night before we absolutely must go to the grocery store.  At that point, they often go into a lentil salad or get roasted with some potatoes and onions.  Tonight, though, we were making some black beans, so I decided to give the carrots a seasoning that would fit with the Mexican theme.  I put these in my black bean tacos, which I thought was great.  I cut the carrots the same size as the black beans so they’d harmonize nicely.

Canola oil for the pan

6 carrots, cut into bean-sized pieces

½ t. cumin seeds


Juice of half a lime

¼ t. paprika

Pepper to taste


Heat a small amount of canola oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking.  Toss in the cumin seeds and allow to fry briefly, until slightly darkened.  Add carrots, season with salt and sauté for about two minutes, until almost crisp-tender.  Sprinkle the lime juice over the carrots and sauté, stirring, until evaporated.  Remove from the heat and add paprika and pepper to taste.

Black Bean & Citrus Salad

I didn’t try very hard on the food styling on this one – not feeling so good this weekend, so I just made my plate and took a snapshot of it.  This is a favorite entrée salad.  Tortilla chips are nice underneath it or crumbled on top, but not necessary.

For the beans:

2 1/2 c. dry black beans, sorted, washed, and soaked for at least eight hours/overnight, or quick soaked
canola oil to sauté in
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 chipotle chili en adobo, minced
1 t. cumin

1/2 c. minced cilantro
juice of 1 lime
hot sauce to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Heat canola oil in large pot or pressure cooker; sauté onion until well-wilted and slightly translucent.  Add garlic, chipole chili, and cumin, and sauté briefly.  Drain soaked beans and rinse, then add to the pot.  Add water to cover plus 1 inch; if pressure-cooking, fit lid, bring to pressure, and cook for 20 minutes, releasing pressure by running cooker under cold water.  If using a regular pot, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Simmer for 1 hour or until tender.

In either method, drain beans, reserving cooking liquid, and add cilantro, lime juice, hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste.  Add back about 1 c. of liquid – enough to prevent the beans from drying out excessively, but not so much as to make them excessively sloppy.

For the dressing:

1/4 c. canola oil
1/3 c. orange juice
1 T. WFM private label hot sauce
1 T. minced cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together vigorously until emulsified.

Remaining ingredients

3 oranges, cut into sections
2 grapefruits, cut into sections
5 oz. package fresh spinach
1 c. grated cheese (I use a sharp cheddar because that’s what I always have around, but jack or feta would work well too)
2 avocados, cut into wedges and peeled

Combine citrus sections in a bowl.

Plate salad by placing greens, then beans, cheese, avocado, and citrus sections on plate.  Drizzle with dressing.  Toss at table rather than beforehand – it gets ugly once tossed, but it’s still delicious.  Makes 4 entrée-sized servings.

Adapted Rick Bayless Tamales

I love watching and reading Rick Bayless, but I haven’t cooked many of his recipes. They always sound delicious, but they’re almost always not recipes for a weeknight. There are usually 12 things that need to be prepared – not just chopped – *prepared* – before the dish can even go together. This even tries my patience, and as a frequent preparer of Indian food, I have a pretty high tolerance to bajillion-ingredient recipes.

But I wanted to try a new tamale dough recipe, so I thought I’d give Mr. Bayless a chance. He might not even recognize this recipe, I’ve stripped it down so much – I just wanted a basic tamale dough, and this started out as Juchitan-Style Black Bean Tamales, and was meant to be steamed in banana leaves. I was not going to go that far on this occasion. I have abridged the ingredients and simplified the preparation. Also, I’ve used veggie broth instead of chicken broth and butter as the fat instead of lard or vegetable shortening. I should probably find a non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening to use in tamales, but they’re so much effort, I’d hate to make a batch that didn’t work out because of the fat.

Why did I use a recipe at all if I’m going to decimate it, then? I stripped this down to make sure it was a good basic recipe – I usually load my tamales up with a variety of things, including spinach, cheese, beans, onions, and tomatoes. This makes them inauthentic but good, and a solid basic recipe helps that a lot. They were good to begin with, though next time I’ll probably add a little bit of sugar. So here’s my very adapted, totally bare-bones tamale dough. I promise a more tasty and elaborate version next time.

1 package dried cornhusks, soaked in hot water for at least 30 minutes
5 ½ oz. butter (room temperature)
1 ¾ c. masa harina mixed with 1 c. plus 2 T. hot water, then allowed to cool (I popped it in the freezer and stirred it a few times)
2/3 c. cool vegetable broth
½ c. chopped cilantro
1 t. salt

Place a steamer rack in a large pot and fill with water to almost touch the steamer. Set it on a burner turned to medium heat. If it comes to a boil before you’re ready to put the tamales in, just turn it down slightly.

With an electric mixer, beat the butter for a few seconds until smooth. Continue beating as you add the masa (fresh or reconstituted) in three additions. Add the cilantro. Beat in enough broth to give the mixture the consistency of soft (not runny) cake batter; it should softly hold its shape in a spoon. Season with salt, about 1 t., depending on the saltiness of the broth.

To form the tamales, shake a cornhusk dry and place it in your dominant hand with the narrow end facing toward your body. Using a spoon or measuring cup, place about 1/3 c. filling on the corn husk, near the right-hand edge and about halfway down. Slightly shape it into a log shape. Roll the husk shut from right to left and set it down. Tear a thin strip from another husk, fold the narrow bottom of the husk containing the tamale over and tie it with the thin strip. Set the finished tamale aside and repeat with the remaining dough.

Place all the tamales, open ends up, on the steamer rack, and steam for 1 hour. Remove the husks before eating. (You laugh, but it happens.) Serve hot with salsa on top.

Fresno Tacos

Fresno’s two most prominent ethnic groups are Hispanics and Armenians. We have no prior experience with Armenian food, but I was intrigued by the big jar of bright red stuff I found on a shelf at Whole Foods along with other jarred spreads. It was labeled “Ajvar,” and “Hot,” and the brand name was “ZerGut,” which Michael assures me is not German but which sounds like the German words for “very good.” So after looking at it on the shelf for a number of weeks, I bought it and decided we would try it. It is an eggplant spread – the second ingredient is sugar – and there are a respectable number of red peppers in it. It’s a stunning bright red-orange color. It wasn’t actually made in Armenia but in Turkey, and Michael found results on the web that led him to think that it was Macedonian, but I figure there’s eggplant spreads from there to India, and if I’m one country over, it probably means the grandmothers just make it with at least one difference substantive to the people in either country. This is sort of like the two different older women at the Aphrodite market in Arlington who both told me, on two successive visits to the store, the only proper way to make tabouli. One was Bulgarian and one was Lebanese. They both said, “Now the Lebanese/Bulgarians, they’ll tell you a different way, but this is the Bulgarian/Lebanese way, which is the real way to make it…”

So home we came with our ajvar, and since it was heavy with red peppers, I decided I would use it in some Mexican application. We made black bean tacos, and instead of putting salsa on them, we spread the fried corn tortillas thickly with ajvar before putting the beans and other toppings in. They look very dramatic with the red spread against the black beans and yellow tortilla.

They were good. It didn’t occur to me until we were eating that the incorporation of ingredients reflected the mix of populations in this strange place we’re living. If I had some Armenian cheese, we could have struck a better balance between the ethnicities – and I’m sure there’s someplace in Fresno where I can get Armenian cheese. If you can find some Ajvar in an ethnic market where you are, give it a try.

For the beans:
oil for the pan
2 c. dry black beans, soaked 8 hours or overnight and drained
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 chipotle chili, minced
1/2 t. cayenne pepper

Saute the onions until almost translucent, then add the garlic, chipotle chili, and cayenne pepper. Place the beans in the pot. Add water to cover plus an inch or so. If using a pressure cooker, bring to pressure and cook for 25 minutes. Otherwise, cover the pot, bring the beans to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until tender, which may take a couple hours. When tender, drain and season with:

salt and pepper
hot sauce if they need it

While the beans are cooking, fry corn tortillas in oil for the tacos. Two taco-loving people can easily go through a dozen tortillas with this recipe. Corn oil gives the best flavor, but since I don’t usually have it in the house, I use canola oil. Use a small frying pan, slightly larger than the diameter of the tortillas, and cover the bottom with a puddle of oil. Heat it over slightly higher than medium heat, and fry the tortillas one at a time, turning once, just until they lose their dull color. A pair of forceps-style tongs (not salad tongs) or a small metal spatula is the best tool for this. As you remove the tortillas from the pan, let the oil drain off of them, then place them on a plate with folded paper towling between them. Once they’re fried, you can cover the plate with foil and pop them in a 200 degree oven to keep warm.

Taco toppings:
For these tacos, we used just lettuce and shredded sharp cheddar cheese as toppings. Assemble the tacos by warming a small bowl of ajvar in the microwave, spreading it on the tortilla, then topping with beans, cheese, and lettuce.

Tortilla Casserole

I am crazy about this recipe. The combination of beans and corn tortillas is my favorite thing in the world to eat. Tacos were my favorite food growing up. My mom made them with actual fried corn tortillas, not with taco shells, and at the point that I could be trusted to handle such things, I was in charge of frying the tortillas for dinner. To see the stiff, cold, pale tortilla go into the hot oil and emerge in only a few seconds, brightened, puffed, and suddenly undulating dangerously from my tongs was instant gratification cooking. After dinner, I would happily sneak leftover tortillas all by themselves. Fried tortillas remain a favorite. They’re one of my major comfort foods, & are central to the enchilada recipe below and this casserole recipe, as well as the tacos we make at home. When I was in Mexico this summer, I had a boxed lunch of tortillas & beans on one excursion because I knew that the scheduled lunch was barbeque. As everyone else was eating barbeque, coleslaw, and lasagna, the guide walked by me and said, “Look, she’s Mexican!”

My mom made a taco casserole when I was a kid. It was based on ground beef seasoned with cumin and some tomato paste, I think, & used cheese and black olives. After I became a vegetarian, I started making a version with refried beans, which makes a great fast dinner. Once you’ve fried the tortillas, the assembly is easy and after that all you have to do is pop it in the oven while you make a salad. It’s also a very flexible recipe – if you have leftover chili, you can use chili instead of all beans. The cheese can be omitted for vegans. If you happen to have fresh or frozen corn, some of that can go in here. Chopped green or black olives are welcome if you’re not married to an olive-hater. Leftover rice, jarred roasted peppers, the little bit left in those two jars of salsa – all welcome here. I’ll give a basic recipe but expect that you’ll zig and zag with it as you prefer. It adapts well to more or less liquid, but works best if the mix is a little soupy when it goes in the oven.

Preheat the oven to 375.

Heat 2 T. oil in a small skillet. Fry 12 corn tortillas over medium-high heat until softened, (less than a minute) draining them against the side of the skillet and placing them on layers of folded paper toweling when done. Forceps-style tongs or a pancake-turner style spatula are your best aids here.

Grate 6 oz. sharp cheese and set aside.

Cook 2.5 c. pinto or black beans (measured when dry and prepared like Standard Pinto Beans, below) or open two cans of vegetarian refried beans or three cans of regular black or pinto beans. Drain any plain canned beans you use. Add 2/3 c. salsa to the completed beans and salt and pepper and hot sauce if they need it after that. If you are using canned beans, add 1/2 c. chopped cilantro if you’ve got it. Put any other additions (olives, peppers, corn, etc.) in here.

Pick the right casserole for the job. Deep and shallow both work – just pick one that will hold the volume. Start with the beans, spreading 1/4 of them in the bottom of the casserole, adding the cheese and topping with three tortillas. Tear one tortilla in half if it makes them fit better. Repeat with additional layers. Tear the tortillas for the last layer into strips and place them on top of the final layer. Bake for 25 minutes, until heated through & tortillas on top are slightly crispy. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Potato & Zucchini Enchiladas with Red Chili Sauce

I made this for dinner tonight. It is a reliable classic that I’ve been making for years – the recipe comes from The Best 125 Meatless Mexican Dishes. Unfortunately, I’ve never bothered to try any of the other 124 recipes, because I started with this one and it’s such a hit every time I make it. This recipe has gone to several Christmas Eve dinners in Indiana and at least a couple dinner parties. I have not done too much to this except up the amount of cheese called for; the original recipe was rather stingy with it. And I’m going to ask you to fry the tortillas, which the original doesn’t. It adds some fat, of course, but then the tortillas don’t all break into shreds the instant you try to fill them.

Place in a large bowl, cover with water & weight down with a plate:
10 dried New Mexico chiles
Microwave for 10 minutes & then set aside to cool.

4 medium potatoes, peeled & diced
1 jalapeno chile, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
1 T. oil
2 medium zucchini, diced
1 medium onion, chopped

Peel & dice the potatoes and boil in heavily salted water until tender. Heat the oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot but not smoking, toss in the cumin seeds. Cook until they change color, then add the onions and sauté for a few minutes. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Add 2 cloves of the minced garlic, the jalapeno, & the potatoes. Cover and cook 5 minutes longer. Season with salt & pepper and set aside.

6 oz. sharp cheese (you choose; I like Grafton 2-year cheddar)

Remove the chilies from the water. Cut the tops & stems out (kitchen scissors are much easier than a knife) and pull the seeds and membranes out. Drain the chiles and place them in a blender with:
2 1/2 c. vegetable stock (I like The Organic Gourmet’s – comes in a little jar & looks like Vegemite)
the reserved 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
and puree *thoroughly*. A few minutes at least. Believe me, it’s important – you’re putting it through a sieve in a minute. Preheat the oven to 350. Heat a T. of oil in a small skillet and fry:
12 corn tortillas
one at a time, setting them aside on paper toweling when they are warmed through and softened.
In a saucepan, heat:
2 T. oil
and when hot, add:
3 T. flour
and stir constantly until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Strain the chile puree into the pan, forcing it through a sieve with a spoon or spatula, and add:
2 t. apple cider vinegar
2 t. oregano (pref. Mexican)
1 bay leaf
Cook, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes over medium heat, until somewhat thickened. Remove the bay leaf. Spread 1/2 c. of the sauce over the bottom of a 9×13 in. glass or ceramic baking dish. Place a dinner plate on your work surface. Working with 1 tortilla at a time, briefly immerse it in the sauce to coat it lightly, then place it on the plate and put a portion of the cheese and then the filling down the center of it. Roll the tortilla up loosely and place it seam-side down in the baking dish. When all the tortillas have been rolled and filled, pour all of the remaining sauce over them. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake 15-20 minutes at 350 to heat through. Allow to stand 5 minutes before serving.