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The things people do with zucchini have a tendency to perplex me. While cauliflower has become a standard-bearer for the potential of vegetables to replace meat in a variety of dishes and kale is ubiquitous in everything from soups to salads to risottos to noodles and everything in between, zucchini is often relegated to being a less tasty addition to bread than bananas or – more tragically – standing in as an alternative to pasta (I refuse to use the abominable portmanteau) that is perhaps healthier for the body (though certainly not for the soul).

I find this all baffling because zucchini has so many strengths as a vegetable. It has a wonderful fresh flavor and delicate firmness that are both retained when cooked. It roasts wonderfully without needing gobs of oil (I’m looking your way, eggplant). Left raw and sliced thin, it can form a salad of itself with a light vinaigrette.

I could go on and on; really, I should just say that zucchini is a vegetable I frequently consider when replacing meat in recipes. And as a New World crop, it was a natural inclusion when I started working on a recipe for vegetarian enchiladas – something I had wanted for a long time, and something that can be difficult to find at restaurants.

That’s not to say that restaurants don’t have vegetarian enchilada options. If you go to a Mexican restaurant, usually (assuming it’s not an all-meat affair) you find up to two options for vegetarian enchilada options: cheese enchiladas and a somewhat nebulous garden enchilada. Both can be great, but both have their issues.

The cheese enchilada is smooth, heavy, and cheese-centric. If you want that, it’s a great option, but sometimes you want texture and a more complex flavor. The garden enchilada, meanwhile, usually refers to an enchilada containing a hodgepodge of ingredients, including spinach, onions, corn, squash, mushrooms, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it often comes across more as health food than something you want out of an enchilada (Emily took this a step further and said they often come across as being made of the frozen vegetable medley bag from the grocery store). They also tend to fall apart midway through eating.

In making these enchiladas, I wanted to pair a savory, earthy filling with a tangy, spicy enchilada sauce. I also wanted some melted cheese without overdoing it. It took a few tries, but I think I’ve put together a recipe that does zucchini justice.

Is the recipe perfect? It is a time-consuming recipe, and because it takes up lots of stovetop real estate, it can make it difficult to make a side of refried beans or Mexican rice. That being said, I think the effort is worth it, and you may not even need a side accompaniment. I also criticized garden enchiladas for falling apart when you eat them, and these zucchini enchiladas start falling apart before you even bake them, so they don’t address that problem. But considering how they taste, I’m pretty sure you’ll be scraping the plate anyway.

zucchini enchiladas

for the filling:

  • 2 pounds zucchini, cut into pieces about 1″ long and ¼” thick
  • ½ cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chile powder
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • salt, to taste
  • safflower oil, for frying

for the sauce:

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 ancho chile
  • 1 guajillo chile
  • 1 chipotle chile
  • 1 12-ounce can tomato sauce
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 small handful cilantro sprigs, roughly chopped
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 5 peppercorns
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon cider or pineapple vinegar (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons safflower oil

for the enchiladas:

  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 8 ounces cheese such as cheddar, Monterey, or Chihuahua, grated

to finish:

  • a few lettuce leaves
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • sour cream

In a small saucepan, heat 2 cups water, ancho, guajillo, and chipotle over high heat until boiling. Cover and bring the pot down to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove lid from pot and let chiles cool.

In a mortar and pestle, combine chiles, garlic, cilantro sprigs, salt, and peppercorns. Grind everything down into a gritty chile paste, thinning the mixture with the water the chiles were softened in if necessary.

Heat safflower oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Once the oil is warm, add the chile paste and remaining water from the chile soaking. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, for five minutes. Add tomato sauce, coriander, oregano and continue cooking. Once the sauce is beginning to bubble, reduce heat to low and cover. At this point, taste the sauce and add brown sugar if the sauce still needs sweetness and vinegar if the sauce could be tangier.  Continue cooking for twenty more minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, add a tablespoon of oil to an iron skillet and heat over medium high heat. Once the oil is warm, add the pumpkin seeds. Reduce heat to low and cook seeds, stirring frequently, until they are brown (some might start popping). Remove seeds from pan and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet and turn the heat back to medium high. Add zucchini to the skillet and fry, stirring frequently, until the zucchini begins to char. You might need to add a little more oil, but try not to soak the zucchini. Once most of the zucchini has started to brown, reduce heat to medium and toss in the cooked pumpkin seeds, cumin, chile powder, and paprika. Cook for 3 additional minutes, stirring frequently. Remove skillet from heat and add salt to taste.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

To assemble the enchiladas, spread a couple of spoonfuls of enchilada sauce over the bottom of a lightly oiled 9″ by 13″ casserole dish. Roll a little bit of filling and some cheese in a corn tortilla and press seam-side down into the dish. Aim to use half the cheese and all of the zucchini for the filling. If the enchiladas unroll in the pan, you can try pressing them down on the sides. If the tortillas rip, it’s fine – this dish tends to become a goeey mess in the end anyway. If you have any leftover filling after making all the enchiladas, try stuffing it in between the enchiladas as best you can. Pour the remaining sauce over the enchiladas, making sure you coat the tops of all the tortillas. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the enchiladas.

Bake for 10 minutes, or until the sauce is slightly bubbling and all of the cheese has melted. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve enchiladas with lettuce leaves, avocado slices, and sour cream.