Vegetarian Chilaquiles (not a vegan recipe…yet)

March 3, 2011

Vegetarian Chilaquiles

Vegetarian Chilaquiles or "Mexican Lasagna"


During a recent vacation in Mexico, one of the most popular dishes our group (made up of all omnivores, plus me) ate was chilaquiles, also known as Mexican lasagna. It’s quick to throw together and can be made with just vegetables, or enhanced with beans, if you so desire.

After eating refried beans and cheese at every meal in Mexico, I swore I didn’t want any more for awhile. Then the day after I got home, I went to the warehouse club, found queso fresco, and got the other ingredients to make chilaquiles and refried beans. I’m not regretting that decision. In fact, I made some to serve friends while I told them about my trip and showed them photos.

The first batch I made, I was skimpy with the tortilla chips, so there was too much filling. The second batch I was too generous with the chips, so it got too dry. You’ll soon find out what ratio works well for you.

It’s great comfort food, kind of chewy, warm, gooey if you use cheese, with as much of a spicy kick as you want. The top tortillas stay crunchy, but the ones inside get chewy and softened with the filling. And if you use a salsa made with fruit, you get sweet and sour in addition to the spicy and salty flavors. Yum!

Play around with this and have fun with it. It’s easy to see why this is such a popular dish. You’ll soon figure out your favorite combination of ingredients, but here is a basic vegetarian recipe to start with, followed with ideas for variations to try.

I’m planning to develop a vegan version of this, so stay tuned for that.

Vegetarian Chilaquiles

(these are approximate amounts; you can use more or less, to your taste)

2 TBS oil
1 green pepper, sliced
1 onion chopped
1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce
2 cups prepared salsa
8 oz queso fresco, crumbled*
about 11-12 oz tortilla chips

To make the filling, saute oil, green pepper, and onion until soft. Stir in tomato sauce and salsa. Mix well.

In a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish, spread a layer of tortilla chips about 2 chips deep.

Spread on about 1/3 of the filling. Sprinkle with 1/4 of the queso fresco.

Repeat twice more, using all the sauce. Then top with just tortilla chips and cheese. In other words, make sure the last layer on top is just chips and cheese, so your chips do not get all soggy.

Bake at 350 degrees F for about 40 to 45 minutes, until cheese is melted.

!Buen Provecho!

*NOTE: Queso fresco is a soft, tangy cheese similar to ricotta. You can also use crumbled ricotta, or shredded jack or mozzarella.

Tortilla chips on the bottom

Tortilla chips on the bottom of the casserole dish

One layer of vegetarian chilaquiles

One layer is done. Repeat to fill the dish.

chilaquiles are ready to bake

Top with chips and cheese. These are ready to bake.

Variations:

    -Add fresh chopped chiles to the sauté mixture
    -Add canned chiles to the filling
    -Add cilantro
    -Make your own salsa
    -Try using a non-typical type of salsa. For example, the warehouse club had mango-peach salsa.
    -Add drained and rinsed, cooked black, pinto, or kidney beans to the filling
    -Use corn tortillas instead of tortilla chips
    -Add corn

How to make the most delicious popcorn I’ve ever had

March 20, 2010

Buttery popcorn without butter

The most delicious popcorn I’ve ever had was not in some movie theater. It wasn’t some exotic flavor in a gourmet restaurant. It was, of all places, in the remote jungles of Indonesia.

There was nothing special about the popcorn per se. The secret was obviously in the oil…extra virgin coconut oil, which the women made by cooking the coconut for hours until the fat separated.

After I came back home, I tried to re-create the yummy-ness and found that I could.

Vegan Buttery-Tasting Popcorn
Ingredients
2 Tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil
2 Tablespoons popcorn (preferably organic)
salt to taste

Place the oil and ONE popcorn kernel into a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Put on high or medium-high heat.

One kernel of popcorn and coconut oil in the pot

When the kernel pops, add the remaining popcorn. Hold the lid on with one hand and use the other to move the pot back and forth over the burner rapidly, to prevent burning.

Use a pot with a tight-fitting lid

After about 40-60 seconds, the corn will start to pop. This lasts for about 20-30 seconds.

Watch out–there is a bit of sputtering. Keep that lid on!

AS SOON AS the corn stops, remove it from heat, and dump it into a bowl. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy!

Extra virgin coconut oil can be found in a health food store. Be sure it’s food grade, not cosmetic grade. It probably won’t say as much on the label. Look for guidelines as to how much to consume or how to add it to food; then you’ll know it’s food grade.

Don’t be surprised if you have to spoon it out of the container and it won’t pour. Coconut oil solidifies at 76 degrees F. It’s perfectly fine to use either solid or liquid.

You can try to use less oil, but in my experience, you lose the flavor. There is no real coconut flavor to the finished popcorn, only a luscious butteriness without the butter.

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Vegetarian Thai Cooking Class

December 6, 2009

The first thing I did upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was head to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s on Ratchapakinai Road, next to the Sumit Hotel, about 4 doors up from the Thai Red Cross office, which is easy to spot.

Look for the plants in front of the tiny shop.

I had a bowl full of something luscious, with coconut milk curry and vegetables, and I was immediately happy.

Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class from The Farm, an organic farm about 20 minutes out of the city. It was a well-organized class, the food was delicious, and it was a nice break to get out of the city and spend a relaxing day making mouth-watering food. I highly recommend it.

This time I wanted to take a class that was specifically vegetarian, not just a cooking class that substituted vegetarian ingredients. Since May Kaidee’s had a cooking class available, I had to taste the food before signing up.

No use taking a cooking class from somewhere with tasteless, or worse, awful food.

So I was relieved that the food was delicious and that it was close enough to my guesthouse, which meant I would be coming back often to eat. (I did–I went every day except when I was out of commission due to food poisoning…grr.)

Class started at 9 am with a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Then the other three students and I, plus Duan, May’s sister, who runs the Chiang Mai restaurant with her husband, daughter, and brother, set off for the local market.

There Duan pointed out and explained several ingredients crucial to Thai cuisine. She showed us sticky rice, kaffir limes, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, holy and Thai basils.

Choy sum swarming with bees


Most of the produce was already familiar to me, including long beans, choy sum (Chinese greens with yellow flowers that the bees were swarming around), gailaan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli, and what Duan called kale), round and long eggplant, pumpkin (large, flat, and brown, like a more rowdy cousin of the Japanese kabocha).

The Thai papayas are enormous, at least eight inches long, orange and shaped like a cylinder. The papayas in Hawaii are much smaller, shaped like yellow pears on steroids.

We also saw the rice noodles that people ordered by width and watched the vendor chop them with her cleaver before putting them into a tiny plastic bag secured with a rubber band. The thin version, like fetuccini, are what is used to make Pad Thai, the popular fried noodle dish. The uncut sheets are the wrappers for uncooked spring rolls.

After filling our baskets, we walked back to the shop, past a rotund yellow dog that took up half the road. Cars, people and motorcycles inched around it to pass. We couldn’t decide if she was pregnant or just obese.

The Somphet Market Dog--fat or pregnant?


Back at the shop, we chopped some baby corn, greens, and cauliflower before heading upstairs with bottles of drinking water, to get to work.

Each of us had a station with a wok and shared areas with dark and light soy sauce, chili paste and already-chopped garlic and chilies.

For each recipe, Duan walked us through the steps. “Put one spoonful of oil in your wok. Now add chilies, half spoon, and garlic, half spoon.” Spoons were the Asian soup spoons, the long ones with handles bent upwards, that come with bowls of gau gee min and ramen, Asian noodle soups.

“Now, quickly…KHON!

That meant “Stir!” in Thai. We spent many hours that day khon-ing.

“Next put tofu and vegetables….khon faster!”

And so it went. After the first three dishes, I lost track of how much of what went into what. Fortunately, all the recipes had been printed out for us, so we stopped after a few to make notes about substitutions and anything else not already written for us.

Duan prepares rice wrappers to make uncooked spring rolls.


Each of us had a tasting spoon, which we kept in a pocket in the front of our aprons, for sampling the dishes as we finished. This was an interesting part of the course, because we learned how much of a difference in flavor small substitutions could make.

For example, clear Tom Yum, coconut Tom Yum, and Tom Kha soups were identical, save for the amounts of coconut milk we added, but the flavors were more different than you’d imagine.

Four hours later, we had a spread large enough to feed us all for lunch and dinner. Fried noodles, soups, several kinds of curries, and the famous Kao Soi, a northern Thai curried noodle specialty.

The finished uncooked spring rolls: light, fresh, chewy, crunchy, spicy, and refreshing, all at once.


We also made lip-smacking peanut sauce, and May Kaidee’s famous and possibly the most popular dish on the menu: Pumpkin Hummus. Various seeds, spices, chilies, and cooked pumpkin were pounded with a mortar and pestle. The end result was creamy, complex pumpkin magic.

Duan said it was their mother’s special recipe. She used to make it for them growing up, and they ate it with everything, from balls of sticky rice, to spread on bread as sandwiches, or as a dip with vegetables. It was easy to see why this was such a popular dish.

The only non-vegan things were the yogurt in the morning, plus the egg noodles in the Kao Soi. But that was a variation on a curry dish, so you could leave them out.

I gave my leftovers to my Thai massage friends, since I did not have a fridge in the guesthouse and did not want to tempt fate with even more food poisoning.

Thank you, Duan, An, Nain, and Opal, for delicious food every day, and for your help! Khob kun mahk kha!

If you are interested in taking the cooking class, visit the restaurant and talk to one of them. I highly recommend it.

May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Thai Crepes and Batik Class

December 3, 2009

I spent the day at Chiang Mai Batik Painting School with Ann, the teacher, at her home.

She served me some snack/dessert cakes she had gotten at her daughter’s school.

Thai mini dessert crepes

They were like miniature crepes, stuffed with a filling like you’d find in eclairs, and rolled like burritos. The Thai name sounded “like Tokyo,” she said. (Don’t ask me about pronunciation, however…when I tried to tell my Thai massage friends about it later, I said “Tokyo” several times, trying different high-low-middle-rising-falling tones in combination, before they finally figured out what the heck I was talking about!)

I resorted to basic batik techniques to make a pillow case, keeping my elephant friends in mind:

If you have free time in Chiang Mai or are interested in batik, get in touch with Ann. She offers beginning and advanced classes.


The Secret to Those Delicious Pancakes

December 2, 2009

During my cooking class at May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the other students asked Duan, May’s sister and the woman in charge of the shop, what the secret was to their pancakes.

“We use a mix,” she replied, “and coconut milk.”

“Ah, it must be the coconut milk,” my co-student answered.

I hadn’t tried the pancakes yet, so I added that to my list of must-try’s.

Two mornings later, I was in the mood.

Pancakes with a tropical Thai twist

The cake was crisp around the edges of one side, and where it had soaked in honey, it tasted almost like coconut custard, even though the texture was completely different.

The honey had a fragrance of jasmine (pikake in Hawaii) flowers, a surprisingly light yet complex addition to the dish. I asked and found out it was longan honey, from the blossoms of the longan tree. Fruits are like chocolate brown, ping-pong balls and have a texture and taste similar to lychee.

The slices of mango, juicy and slick, made the cake feel not so rich, yet still luxurious.

Unfortunately, a trio of Brits sat at the table next to me and began smoking, which totally destroyed the delicate flavors and aromas.

I moved to a table far away, but all I could smell was cigarettes, so I gulped the last three bites down and left. No faster way to ruin a meal than cigarettes. What a shame, since I had been enjoying myself completely.

Oh well. I’ll have to try to re-create the dish at home and see if I can make it with whole-grained flour and no eggs.


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