Meat Free Mondays – Butternut Squash Enchiladas

Enchiladas in our house is almost a weekly tradition, but these Butternut Squash Enchiladas took the whole concept and turned it on its head.

That’s because our enchiladas typically are stuffed with leftover chicken, pork or beef combined with beans, rice, cheese and a zesty red enchilada sauce. They are a great way to get a second day out of any leftover protein.

Butternut Squash Enchiladas

Butternut Squash Enchiladas

But this recipe for Butternut Squash Enchiladas comes from one of my favorite bloggers, Becky, over at Veghotpot, who was one of the first vegetarian writers I discovered after my daughter, Maggie Mae, announced she was becomine a vegetarian last year.

It contains, no meat, no cheese, no beans, no rice and no enchilada sauce. Are you sure that’s even an enchilada, Becky?

While it certainly is different from the enchiladas we are accustomed to, it was delicious and probably a lot healthier as well. Sandi described the flavor the best, noting that it was a nice balance between the sweetness of the butternut squash and the zestiness of the salsa and tomatoes.

The only problem I had was finding butternut squash. Being a hard squash, they usually are available year-round, but I had to visit three stores before I finally found one at Aldi’s. Earlier, I had panic-bought an acorn squash and planned to substitute before Sandi shot that idea down, noting that the flavor pairing would be off. As usual, she was right.

As it turns out, the recipe contains no cheese because Becky is apparently lactose intolerant. (She offers some amazing cheese substitute recipes in her blog today.) But I didn’t miss the cheese at all, especially after I topped my enchiladas with my homemade guacamole and some fat-free sour cream.

Butternut Squash EnchiladasLast week, Becky announced that for the second year in a row she would be participating in the Vegan MoFo Challenge, in which bloggers pledge to write at least 20 blogs featuring vegan recipes, ie. not only no meat, but no cheese, egg or other animal products whatsoever.

For a fleeting moment, I considered the idea, but in the end I love my meat and cheese too much to make that kind of commitment. Still, I will be carefully watching what she posts, especially when they are amazing recipes such as this one for Butternut Squash Enchiladas.

Butternut Squash Enchiladas

1 Butternut Squash, peeled, seeded cut into quarter-sized slices

1 White Onion, rough chop

3 Garlic Cloves, rough chop

1 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 TBS Cumin

1/2 TBS Chili Powder

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1 cup Salsa

10 oz can Diced Tomatoes

4 or 5 Whole Wheat Tortillas

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Combine squash, onion, garlic, oil, cumin and chili powder in a mixing bowl, season with sal and pepper, toss and pour out into a baking pan. Bake until squash is soft and onion is carmelized, stirring once or twice, about 40 minutes. This can be done ahead of time.

2. Combine the salsa and tomato sauce in a mixing bowl.

3. Spray a 8-inch square baking pan with pan spray. One at a time, spread a generous amount of the squash mixture in a tortilla, top with the salsa mixture and roll into an enchilada. Place seam side down in the baking pan. Repeat until all the squash mixture has been used. Top with the remaining salsa mixture, cover with foil and bake at 375F for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking another 10 minutes so the top gets crispy.

Remove from oven and serve immediately with guacamole, extra salsa and fat-free sour cream on the side.



Homemade Tortillas

Tortillas are one of those things I’ve always been interested in making, but are just so cheap to buy that I never bothered.

Like pasta, they are actually quite simple to make and the flavor of homemade tortillas is far superior than storebought. Not only do they taste fresher, but the ingredients are pure and simple with no preservatives or even fat added: corn flour, called Maseca, water and a little salt. That’s it!

Unlike pasta, tortillas require no special equipment to make. You can use a simple rolling pin or even your bare hands if you want. I used a standard sized rolling pin, which actually was too large to maneuver effectively.

Traditionally, a smaller rolling pin with a length of only about 6″ or 8″ is used, or a tortilla press. These are simple machines that smash down the dough between two metal plates. I went and bought this one (for $12 at WalMart) after making these tortillas because I plan on making lots of homemade tortillas in the future.

When I first started working in restaurants back in the early ’90s, tortillas were a staple of “la comida familia”, literally “family meal” or the communal dinner that was served to the restaurant staff just before service began.

Usually, these simple meals — mostly grilled meats and vegetables such as green peppers, onions and jalapenos slapped into a tortilla — were eaten standing up, often while still working as I rushed to get my prep ready for service. Yet they were among the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten.

I attempted to recreate one of these comidas familias with some grilled chicken and grilled vegetables, mostly from my garden, including jalapenos and green peppers. I served it with a chipotle sour cream, fresh salsa, homemade guacamole and tortilla chips.

Homemade Tortillas

2 cups Maseca (Corn Flour)

1/-14 cups Water

1/4 tsp Sea Salt

1. Mix together ingredients until they form a soft, smooth dough. I used my Kitchen Aid mixer, which is the total gringo way of doing it: Unnecessary and overly complicated. Next time, I will simply mix it all up in a bowl with a wooden spoon then finish kneading it by hand.

2. Let dough rest for about 10 minutes, then divide it into 16 peices. Roll each peice into a ball about the size of a golf ball. Store the dough balls under a damp towel as you work with the other peices so they don’t dry out. Meanwhile, put your cast iron skillet over a medium heat.

3. Press down each dough ball between two sheets of plastic so that they form a flat tortilla about 4″ in diameter. Peel if off the plastic and lay it directly into a dry, heated skillet. Cook for about 50 seconds the flip over and cook the other side for 50 seconds. Remove and store inside a clean dish towel or tortilla holder until the rest of the batch are cooked. Serve immediately.

These were so delicious, easy and fun to make that I may never buy factory made tortillas again!

Meat Free Mondays – Mexican Street Corn

I was destined to make this recipe.

You see, I was at the local farmer’s market the other morning when I came across this unusual corn. It’s called Mirai (me-RYE), which is an ultra sweet hybrid that has an amazingly soft texture. It’s so tender that you can literally eat it raw.

Mirai corn is not widely available because it’s super soft texture makes it too tender to be machine picked. It all has to be harvested by hand.

Fortunately, there’s a farm in Harvard, Illinois, just outside Chicago where I live, that grows the corn and sells it at local farmers markets, which along with farm stands is usually the only place you can find it.

In Japan, it is hand harvested and sold as a dessert. It definitely is that sweet. When I first tasted it, I thought it had been soaked in sugar water.

So when I arrived home with all this Mirai corn — I got a little excited and bought too much — I was trying to figure out what to do with it when I came across this recipe for Mexican street corn in Runner’s World magazine, of all places!

I’ve been an on-and-off subscriber to Runner’s World (and an on-and-off runner) for probably the past 20 years, but I’ve never paid attention to the recipes, most of which tend to be directed more at the athlete than the epicurean.

But this recipe — submitted by Mark Bittman, the excellent New York Times food writer, who I’ve mentioned in this blog before — just leapt off the page at me.

I had never heard of Mexican street corn before and wondered if it was just something that perhaps Bittman simply made up. But a little research revealed that Mexican street corn is in fact a well known dish that is served not only by street vendors in Mexico, but in various other versions all around the world. I did not know that.

What I do know is that it’s delicious, easy to make, and is hearty enough to be a meal all by itself. And when you make it with the sweet Mirai corn, you could even serve it as a desset.

Mexican Street Corn

4 ears Fresh Corn, shucked

1/4 cup Reduced Fat Mayonnaise

2 TBS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 TBS Chili Powder

Grated zest and juice of 1 Lime

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

1/4 cup Fresh Cilantro, chopped

1 cup Tortilla Chips, crushed

1 oz Queso Fresco Cheese

1. Preheat your grill. Soak corn in water for at least 15 minutes prior to grilling, then place on the grill, not directly over the heat, and cook until done, turning frequently. Because Mirai corn is so tender, this took only a minute. With other kinds of corn, it could take as long as 15 minutes. Let the corn get a good char on it, but don’t burn it.

2. In a bowl, combine mayonnaise, oil, chili powder, and the lime zest and juice. Meanwhile, place the tortilla chips in a sealable plastic bag and smash them until they are crumbs.

3. Brush the cooked corn with the mayonnaise mixture, then sprinkle with the tortilla chips, cilantro and queso fresco. Serve warm.

Queso fresco (literally Spanish for “fresh cheese”) is a white crumbly young cheese that tastes almost like Feta, but not as strong. It can be found in any Mexican market and even in many chain grocery stores.

Seafood Fridays – Shrimp Diablo

Shrimp Diablo is one of those dishes that takes a lot of different forms, depending where you get it.

Some versions are Italian-inluenced, served with a tomato sauce over heavy pastas. Some are Mexican style, served with Spanish rice. There are even French variations, with a tomato cream sauce spiked with white wine. Others are more mainstream American, with the spiced garlic shrimp served by themselves in a small broiler plate.

The common denominator are that they are all spicy, usually via either red pepper flake or cayenne pepper. That’s where the “diablo”, Spanish for “devil”, comes into play.

For this recipe, I took the best elements of each. While keeping the spicy shrimp, I threw out all the heavier ingredients — the cream and tomato sauce — and replaced them with lighter ingredients, namely chunky tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and garlic.

The result was a refreshing pasta dish that is appropriate even during the warmest summer months. As I stated a few days ago, with all the hot weather this summer, it has been a challenge to come up with fresh dishes that are light and delicious without repeating the same themes over and over again, like big salads and grilled foods.

This dish definitely fits into that category. By using angel hair pasta — rather than a denser pasta like spaghetti, vermicelli or linguini — and reducing portion size, it’s an entree with bold flavors that won’t weight you down. And the spiciness and acidity of the marinade balance the sweetness of shrimp.

Marina City as seen from the Chicago River

It could have been even lighter had I made my own pasta using my favorite new toy, but my daughter, Maggie, and I spent the afternoon on Chicago’s wonderful architectural boat tour and I simply ran out of time, opting for store-bought angel hair instead.

Shrimp Diablo

1 lb 21/25 Shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 tsp Cayenne Pepper, or more if you like it spicier

Juice of one Lime

1 box Angel Hair Pasta

1 medium White Onion, small dice

1/2 Green Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

1 Jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

1/2 cup Dry White Wine

28 oz can Diced Tomatoes

6 Garlic Cloves, crushed

1/2 cup Black Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

Sea salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/4 cup Parmesan Cheese, grated plus more for garnish

Parsley sprigs for garnish

1. In a small bowl, combine shrimp, 1 TBS EVOO, 1 TBS of the crushed garlic, cayenne and lime juice. Season with salt and pepper, toss, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to marinate

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions, about 4 minutes. Strain and return to pot. Toss with 2 TBS EVOO and 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Put a sauce pot over a medium heat. When hot, add 2 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onion, green pepper and jalapeno and cook until onions are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in remaining garlic, cook another minute, then stir in the white wine. Reduce heat and cook uncovered until wine is reduced by about half. Add tomatoes and olives, season with salt and pepper to taste, cover and cook over a low heat until tomatoes begin to break down, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Put a saute pan over a high heat. When very hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add shrimp and all the marinade. Use a wooden spoon to arrange the shrimp into an even layer and cook until shrimp begin to brown, about 3 minutes. Toss and cook until the other side is browned.

5. To plate, use a tongs to arrange the pasta in a tall pile in the center of a pasta bowl. Use a kitchen spoon to ladle the sauce over the pasta. Arrange the shrimp artfully around the pasta. Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese and garnish with parsley sprigs.

This is one of those dishes that creates a lot of dirty pots and dishes, but it’s light and refreshing summertime flavor makes it all worthwhile.

Mexicali Taco & Co.

I’m a fan of Mexican food and in the area of Chicago where I live there are a lot of places where I can indulge my craving for a good taco or burrito.

But on a recent trip to visit my brother and his new bride in Los Angeles, he took me to a place that blows away any Mexican restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in Chicago.

Carne Asado Taco and Chicken Vampiro

Carne Asado Taco and Chicken Vampiro

Mexicali Taco & Co., located at 702 N. Figueroa St., in downtown Los Angeles, started out as a taco truck in a vacant lot, but this past February it expanded into an attractive, if spartan, storefront restaurant across the street from an adult high school.

The food was incredible. The menu is small — offering less than a dozen items — but each was prepared lovingly and tasted incredibly fresh and delicious.

My brother is a passionate fan of the place and even had them cater his recent backyard wedding reception from their taco truck, so I asked him to order for me. I wasn’t disappointed because he ordered everything on the menu.

Everything we tasted was wonderful, but the standout was the chicken vampiro, which is a perfectly crisp quesadilla made with a soft, lush Mexican cheese and garlic sauce. I also enjoyed the carne asada cachetada, which is a tostada topped with beef, Mexican cheese and an aoli chipotle sauce.

But it doesn’t end there because diners are invited to customize their selections with a wide variety of homemade salsas and crisp fresh toppings. It’s like I died and went to Mexican food heaven!

Even though we went during the lunchtime rush and there was a long line of people waiting to order, the counterworkers were efficient in moving the line quickly and the kitchen had our food ready in just a few moments. There’s even a walk-up window where people walking past the restaurant on the sidewalk can order food to eat on the street.

The prices were extremely reasonable — $2.25 for the finest taco you will ever eat and $3.75 for the vampiro. The most expensive thing on the menu was the nachos, and it was only $6.

Despite its humble beginnings as a food truck, Mexicali Taco & Co. is no roach coach turned Mexican restaurant. The people who created this menu and prepare this food really know what they are doing and the entire experience — from the brightly colored dining room to the “old school” bottles of Coca Cola made with real cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup to the cheerfulness of the employees — made it simply an unexpected treat.

My brother, Kevin, in front of his favorite Mexican restaurant

My brother, Kevin, in front of his favorite Mexican restaurant

Apparently, a group called LA Taco runs an annual “Best of” contest, and Mexicali Taco & Co. has won the top prize in the past. I’m not surprised because the food was great and the quality of the experience was superb.

So if you find yourself in Los Angeles at lunchtime — or even late night, the kitchen’s open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays — check out this treasure of a taco joint. I can’t wait to go back there!


Chicken Quesadillas

Here in Chicago, we have a regional Mexican restaurant chain called “Pepe’s Tacos”. It features all the usual things you expect to find in a Mexican restaurant, but it has more of a homespun feel to it.

There is one very close to our house and when we don’t feel like cooking, my wife and I like to go there for a quiet dinner out. It’s extremely inexpensive, but it’s still a sit-down restaurant and just a comfortable experience overall.

The plates that come out of the kitchen always are set up the same way: a little refried beans, a little Spanish rice, some lettuce, a dollop of guacamole and then whatever entree you ordered, such as burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, etc.

That got me to thinking: What if I made one of my Mexican dishes and set it up like a Pepe’s Tacos plate? That would be kind of cool, right?

Well, what I remembered halfway through making these delicious chicken quesadillas was that the cook at Pepe’s Tacos is prepping once for a couple of hundred plates per night, while I was doing the same prep work for only two plates.

Still, although it was kind of a lot of work, the end result was pretty great. The quesadillas were especially wonderful. My wife even said it was one of her favorite things I have ever made. Home run!

Next time, though, we’ll probably just go down the street to Pepe’s Tacos.

Chicken Quesadillas

4 6″ whole wheat tortillas

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, about 8 oz

8 oz Chihuahua cheese, shredded

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil, separated

1 ear corn, boiled and kernels removed

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 TBS cumin

1/2 TBS chile powder


Refried beans

Spanish rice

Lettuce, shredded


Fat-free sour cream

Baked tortilla chips

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, season both sides of chicken breast with salt and pepper and place in pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Cook until one side is golden brown, about 3 minutes, then flip and sear the other side another 2 minutes. Put the entire pan in the oven and cook until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. This can be done ahead of time.

2. Dice chicken into 1/2-inch peices. In a mixing bowl, combine chicken, black beans, corn, cumin and chile powder.

3. Preheat oven to 200F. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add one tortilla. Arrange 1/4 of the cheese onto the tortilla, then half the chicken/bean/corn mixture, then the 1/4 more of the cheese. Place a second tortilla on top and press down firmly with your hand. Cook until bottom is golden brown, about 3 minutes, then flip and cook until the other side is golden brown. Remove from pan and place on sheet pan. Repeat the entire process so that you have two quesadillas. Place sheet pan with tortillas in oven to keep warm until you are ready for plate up.

4. To plate, place a little shredded lettuce in one corner of the plate, place about a half cup of refried beans at the opposite corner. Place some Spanish rice in between. Cut the quadillas into four peices. Arrange the quesadillas in a shingle pattern down the center of the plate and top it all off with a dollop of guacamole.

For quick Spanish rice, I just combined long grain white rice with 1/2 water, 1/2 spicy V-8 in my rice steamer. It turned out very well.

I usually serve this with salsa, tortilla chips and fat free sour cream on the side.

Have you ever tried to replicate some of your favorite restaurant dishes at home? How did it turn out? Let us know in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Meat Free Mondays — Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas

We love enchiladas. It’s one of our favorite meals to make and we have it at least twice per month.

The great thing about enchiladas is that you can fill them with anything you want. They are particularly great for using up leftovers or if you want to make a vegetarian dish.

So when I found this enchilada recipe — which I found on this blog by the2beths, one of my favorite blogs — I just knew I had to try it. It had some funky ingredients and even the way it was assembled was way different from my enchilada recipe.

The good news: It was delicious. The sweet potato did not overwhelm the complex flavors of the enchilada as I suspected it would. Instead, it kind of complemented the mushroom-pepper-onion-jalapeno-spinach filling. I also thought the sweet potato would make it too dense, but it didn’t at all. It was light and moist.

The bad news: With the enchilada sauce on the bottom of the casserole dish, instead of mixed in with the filling like I normally make it, the enchiladas stuck to the bottom and fell apart as I tried to plate them.

This may have been because I made them a few hours ahead of time and held them in the refrigerator until we were ready to have dinner. Or it may have been because I used generic store-brand whole wheat tortillas. But next time, I will assemble them the way I normally do.

But despite the plating disaster, I loved the flavor of these enchiladas. Plus, it gave me an excuse to make our guacamole, which I think is why we have enchiladas (and quesadillas, for that matter) so frequently: We can’t get enough of our guacamole.

Sweet Potato and Black Bean Enchiladas

1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped


3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 15-oz can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

8-10 button mushrooms, chopped fine

1 green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, medium dice

1/2 red onion, medium dice

2 cups fresh spinach, stems removed and cleaned

1 tsp chili powder

2 tsp cumin

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1 12-oz can enchilada sauce

6 8″ whole wheat tortillas

1 cup salsa, plus more on the side for service

1/3 cup shredded Mexican cheese

1/4 cup fresh cilantro chopped (full disclosure: I bought this but forgot to put it in)

1. Bring a small pot of water to a boil then add the sweet potato and boil until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and mash.

2. Preheat oven to 375F. Put cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add onion, green pepper and jalapeno and cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until mushrooms browned, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and spinach and cook until spinach is wilted, about 3 more minutes. Add black beans, cilantro, cumin and chili powder and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until heated through, about 2 minutes, and remove from heat.

3. In a casserole dish, spread 1/2 of the can of enchilada sauce around the bottom. One by one, fill the tortillas a schmeer of mashed sweet potato topped with a dollop of the filling, then a TBS of salsa. Roll up like a burrito and place seam side down in the casserole dish. When all tortillas are filled, pour remaining enchilada sauce over them and sprinkle with the cheese. Cover with foil, bake 35 minutes then remove foil and bake another 10 minutes to brown up the top.

I serve my enchiladas with homemade guacamole, salsa, fat free sour cream and baked tortilla chips. This is one of our favorite meals.

What dishes do you love so much you make them at least a couple of times per month? Tell us about them in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!