No nuts or tofu necessary for dishes that rely on vegetable staples and cheese
|A major contributor to these vegetarian meals is the poblano chili — a slightly sweet and usually mild pepper that has a rich, smoky flavor. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)|
Mexicans love their meat, and the cuisine is renowned for its carnitas, tacos al pastor, beef stews and barbecued goat. But what about Mexican vegetarian meals?
Looking through Mexican cookbooks in search of meatless recipes, I found the pickings slim. Mexican vegetables such as chayote, zucchini, corn, verdolagas (purslane) and sweet potatoes seem to be used most often to augment stews or complement meat dishes.
Some of the vegetarian dishes I did find substituted raw walnuts for taco meat or stuffed enchiladas with tofu.
But meatless dishes have a long history in Mexican cuisine. The diet of the Aztecs and other Indians was heavy on grains, fruits and vegetables, and it wasn’t until the Spaniards colonized Mexico that the carnivorous culture of pork and beef became the backbone of what we now consider Mexican food.
It turns out there are many purely vegetarian dishes that are authentically Mexican, filling and interesting in their complexity. One of my favorite ingredients is huitlacoche — known here as corn fungus. There is nothing subtle or simple about huitlacoche.
It’s true that its black fungus-y appearance is a bit startling, but its pungent, earthy taste combines beautifully with sauteed serrano peppers, chopped onion and garlic.
Growing up, we would warm up a tortilla with a slice of Oaxaca cheese and a generous helping of huitlacoche and fold it over like a quesadilla.
But Mexican vegetarian dishes don’t have to be so exotic. Mushrooms sauteed with pasilla chili and the herb epazote is another favorite.
Even the humble zucchini can take a starring role. Stew cubed squash with onion, serrano peppers, a little tomato and corn, and use that as a taco filling. I add zucchini blossoms when they’re available.
A major contributor to my vegetarian meals is the poblano chili, a slightly sweet and usually mild pepper that has a rich, smoky flavor. Rajas — peeled and cut poblano strips with sauteed onions — make a terrific taco stuffing, but I also use them in lasagna, layering them with noodles and a Mexican version of ricotta (see recipe). It’s so easy to make and so delicious that it’s now a staple of my dinner parties.