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zucchini enchiladas

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.

vegetarian ramen broth

Way back in 2018 (during a rare spurt of posting somewhat consistently on this blog), I posted a recipe on this blog for ramen noodles, which Emily and I started making frequently after we became obsessed with noodle soups after visiting Japan. That recipe promised that a vegetarian broth would follow shortly.

Sixteen or so months later, I’m finally making good on that promise. While making a vegetarian dashi (the basic broth at the heart of tons of Japanese favorites, including most soba and udon soups) is relatively straightforward – omit the bonito and use more kombu – coming up with an all-purpose ramen broth proved more challenging.

This is because meat – or, more specifically, animal bones – are ubiquitous ingredients in a typical ramen soup. Cloudy tonkotsu ramen is produced by boiling pork bones for days. Torigara – or stock made from chicken bones – is a more common base, often flavored further with marinated pork. Not only are both bases heavy on meat, but they’re also notoriously complicated: purists often claim that replicating the flavors at home is impossible and can only be enjoyed at a ramen counter.

Coming up with a soup that mirrored the umami complexity of bone stock seemed a quixotic task at best. Instead, I considered the vegetarian ramen stocks I’ve liked – and the ones I haven’t liked – in coming up with this recipe. A good vegetarian ramen stock should provide a nice, savory undercurrent to the other ingredients. It shouldn’t feature bold flavors that overpower the other ingredients in the bowl. And it should be versatile enough to accommodate a wide variety of fresh and cooked ingredients (surprisingly good inclusions I’ve had that don’t come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine include a trifecta of New World foods – roasted tomato, avocado, and corn).

It took me lots of tries, but I finally managed to create a soup base that I’m satisfied with for this blog. I do still think that there is room for improvement, but this is definitely a sufficient starting point for vegetarians eager to eat a Tokyo-style ramen at home.

(For the record, the ramen bowl featured at the top of this post consists of noodles, black sesame seeds, stir-fried bok choy stems, fresh bok choy leaves, and broccoli microgreens.)

easy skillet potatoes

The potato is far and away the most consumed vegetable in the United States, so it surprised me when, a few years ago, Emily pointed out to me that it was rare that we ever ate potatoes. Every now and then we would make home fries with bean burgers, and I might make a potato soup or gumbo in the fall, but I could probably count on a hand the number of times I bought the ubiquitous five pound bag of russets from the store every year.

As it turns out, the reason we ate so few potatoes is that I don’t make very many side dishes. One of the greatest difficulties of eating a pescatarian diet is figuring out ways to incorporate favorite side dishes into meals. Some side dishes naturally work with any diet – it’s not difficult to add a side of steamed green beans to any meal. It’s a lot more difficult to come up with a way to eat something that’s often served as an accompaniment to meat – for instance, potatoes.

And all things considered, it’s probably good that Emily and I eat fewer potatoes than the average American, as they aren’t exactly the most nutritious vegetable in the world. That being said, they’re delicious, and I was determined to figure out a way to eat them more frequently.

As is often the case with our meals, the key to eating more potatoes involved figuring out how to make them as a main meal. After looking through a variety of cookbooks for ideas, I finally decided I wanted to make a one-dish skillet hash in which soft on the inside, crispy on the outside potatoes were topped with vegetables and a sauce to make a complete meal, trying a few different cooking methods to get the potatoes just right. After a little trial and error, I finally hit upon a fool-proof method in which you both fry and steam the potatoes, getting a nice crust on them while also ensuring that they cook through completely. You do need a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and a lid that can cover it to make the process work (and if you don’t have these in your kitchen, we strongly encourage you to invest in them).

The potatoes themselves are incredibly versatile, so feel free to experiment with flavor combinations. I really enjoyed topping them with roasted bell pepper, scallions, and salsa (a combination to which Emily often adds a fried egg). You can also serve them as a side or use them in another dish.

red beans and rice

When I graduated from college in 2010, I quickly discovered I was a little naive when it came to the difficulty involved in getting a job following a deep recession.

Something that did ease the burden somewhat is that I was learning how to cook at the time, and it is significantly cheaper to make your own meals from scratch than it is when you’re relying on sauces, mixes, and the like to make dinner. I started skipping the jarred spaghetti sauce, the seasoning mixes, and the frozen chopped vegetables for canned tomatoes, unmixed spices, and fresh vegetables and noticed an immediate savings on my grocery receipts.

When it comes to cheap meals, though, few things beat red beans and rice, which I once calculated can cost as little as 34¢ for a huge serving if you use budget ingredients (and perhaps less depending on where you shop). That said, even if you splurge on heirloom red beans and ingredients from the expensive grocery store, the meal is still among the most inexpensive you can make.

Admittedly, my red beans and rice recipe might be a little controversial, as it involves creating a roux. Roux is a typical component of Louisiana gumbo, but it’s certainly not in most recipes you see for red beans and rice, and it’s nearly certain to raise dismay among grandmothers from Louisiana. That said, those grandmothers undoubtedly cheer for LSU, which means we can discount their dismay – in addition to their general worldviews – entirely (editor’s note: the authors of this blog grew up in Arkansas).

When making a roux, be very careful – the oil becomes incredibly hot, and you can burn yourself easily if you’re not careful. You also need to be careful not to burn the roux: some cooks even say you need to stir a roux constantly. Personally, I’ve found making a roux to be fairly forgiving, but I would suggest stirring more frequently the first few times you make it, as differences between stoves can cause the timing to vary significantly.

Red beans and rice is a great meal on any cold night – or any time you’re looking to save some money, of course. We often eat it by itself, but it’s also great served with a side of greens and buttery pistolettes.

an interlude: chiles & chocolate has moved to new york!

So as all you readers of this blog (all five of you) have probably noticed, things have been pretty quiet on chiles & chocolate lately.

There’s a pretty good reason for this: Emily and I recently moved to New York to pursue new opportunities. We’re excited about the possibilities for both of us moving forward. Unfortunately, it will mean things might be slow on this blog for the next few months.

That said, our move to New York will hopefully inspire us to come up with new ideas for this blog going forward (being in a food mecca certainly can’t hurt, right?). We’ve already eaten falafel that’s actually crispy on the outside and green on the inside (sorry, Saleh – though your hummus is still the best!), walked into Ivan Ramen sans reservation, learned to never request a toasted bagel, and eaten ice cream more frequently than a person probably should when enduring sub-freezing temperatures. Emily and I have already come up with some new recipes we want to start testing as soon as we can get back in the kitchen.

So far, we’ve been exploring New York City from a series of short-term stays at Airbnbs throughout the city, but we’re about to begin some longer stays, and we’re hopeful that we can spend meaningful time in the kitchen over the next two months that will translate to more regular postings on this blog. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to exploring the city’s food culture.

skillet-baked ziti

One of the issues with running a food blog is trying to figure out if the recipe you’re posting is good enough. Sure, you might like it, and it’s reasonably close to your Platonic ideal of the dish, but there are a zillion other recipes for it out there in the blogosphere, and does the world really need another one if it’s not bringing anything new to the table?

It helps immensely when you’re planning on posting a recipe and your test batch comes out exactly the way you wanted it to, as it did when I happened to make the best baked ziti recently. With a complex flavor and a great texture, the meal was the perfect accompaniment to a cold (well, for Arkansas, anyway) winter night.

This dish was also great because I was able to make it in a single skillet, so I didn’t even wreck the kitchen in the process of making it. You start by building the sauce, frying an herb paste and tomatoes, before cooking the pasta directly in the sauce (with some added liquid, of course). You then add the dairy before finishing the dish in the oven.

This recipe does call for a nonstick, oven-proof skillet, and if you don’t have one – or if you’re nervous about using your cast-iron skillet for a gooey, acidic dish – I have successfully made this dish in a regular metal skillet, though I did stir things a little (read: a lot) more frequently. You could also cook the dish on the stove in a nonstick skillet and transfer everything to a lightly oiled oven-proof dish before adding the dairy.

Of course, everyone has different preferences when it comes to baked pasta, and this dish allows for some easy variations. Prefer browned cheese to a gooey mix of cheese and pasta? Use part-skim instead of fresh mozzarella (and stick it under the broiler for a couple of minutes to really brown things up). Want a saucier dish? Add tomato sauce with the tomato juice. As long as you follow the basic method, you should end up with a great pasta dish.

black bean soup with rice

Before I knew much about cooking, one of the most reliable meals I knew how to make was a simple black bean soup with a decidedly Latin flair. The soup used a number of ready-made ingredients – canned beans, frozen corn – that produces a very satisfying result that I still make from time to time when I’m wanting a hearty meal without putting in much effort. I frequently served it over rice, enjoying the dish immensely, but I always felt like it was a blasphemous way to eat black beans and rice.

When I first made a recipe for black beans and rice, I was a little disappointed – the dish was a little dry, and I thought that the flavors didn’t exactly come together. Many of the recipes I found involved cooking beans and rice in the same pot for long periods of time. While I can say the method produced beautiful, purple grains of rice, the overall flavor wasn’t very vibrant. Moreover, it had the problem that lots of rice dishes have in that every bite tended to taste exactly the same (I’m looking your way, sole-vegetarian-option-at-a-restaurant vegetable risotto). I tried making it a few times, finally deciding that it perhaps just wasn’t a dish I liked.

It was when looking through Gran Cocina Latina, Maricel Presilla’s encyclopedic tome of Latin cooking, that I discovered that the black bean soup I had eaten for years wasn’t quite so blasphemous, as Havana black bean soup is often served over rice. The key difference between the book’s recipe and my recipe was the use of a sofrito, a common component of Spanish cuisine that exists in various forms throughout Latin America and, in Cuban cuisine, is marked by the inclusion of bell peppers.

Armed with knowledge about the dish’s Spanish influences, I worked to refine the recipe, adding smoked paprika to the sofrito to add extra savory notes, grinding the aromatics into a paste rather than just chopping them, and replacing the vinegar with lime juice. On my first taste of the finished dish, I knew I had produced the black beans and rice I’d been searching for.

black bean soup in Dutch oven

You can eat this soup as is or with rice, though keep in mind that the rice allows you to have more leftovers, and the soup definitely improves the next day.

stovetop macaroni and cheese

Emily and I always look forward to the beginning of the cold weather season, which generally begins sometime in October in Fayetteville. Emily is excited to finally be able to wear tights and turtlenecks while I enjoy being able to once again layer a sweater on top of another sweater. We also enjoy the season because it means we can take more walks around our neighborhood and we can enjoy fresh apples and pears from the farmer’s market.

We also look forward to cold weather because it ushers in comfort food season, which we generally greet with a batch of macaroni and cheese. To be fair, we eat this dish year-round, but it’s always best when the summer heat has dispersed and you only want to eat warm things. As far as comfort foods go, you can’t do much better than macaroni and cheese.

There are some out there who feel the need to make a more sophisticated macaroni and cheese for adults that is far different from the fare that comes out of the blue box, though I personally think that such people should not be acknowledged by society there’s nothing wrong with making a better version of the childhood staple.  Generally, Emily and I make this dish with a more classic flavor using a one-to-one ratio of cheddar and Monterey, but for a more complex – dare we say more adult? – flavor, we’ve combined gouda and fontina to great success.

Melting and whisking cheese

Emily and I enjoy eating this as a main dish, but you could also serve it as an extremely satisfying side. And if you feel any guilt whatsoever about eating it, just think like a Southerner and consider it your vegetable for the day.

macaroni and cheese

ramen noodles

When Emily and I took a trip to Japan earlier this year, one of the things we were most excited about was the food. Before we left, we had scoped out a number of restaurants, and we were excited to try a variety of foods we had only eaten in Americanized forms.

As it happened, we ended up going to very few of the restaurants we had scoped out beforehand. However, the spontaneity made dining more fun, and the quality of everything was a revelation. We learned tofu has flavor. The simple preparations of vegetables inspired us to renew our efforts at making great vegetable side dishes. The quality of food at convenience stores had us questioning our entire worldview. And our first experience at a counter service soba shop specializing in tempura soba – and, incidentally, our first-ever experience of an intimidating chef who created an atmosphere of what we can only call dining in fear – made us crave noodles throughout the remainder of our trip.

Following that visit, we tried a variety of noodle dishes, including zaru soba, vegan ramen bowls, udon dishes, and yakisoba. However, the best noodles had were springy ramen noodles made with eggs by a ramen chef with a penchant for self-promotion. It’s important to note ramen noodles generally don’t include eggs – an alkalizing solution, kansui, gives noodles their familiar coloring, springy consistency, and curly shape – but eggs give the noodles extra richness that we appreciated.

On coming back to Arkansas, one of our first goals was to come up with our own recipe for ramen. While it’s taken us some time to perfect a good vegetarian ramen broth – and we’ll definitely be sharing that recipe soon – the noodles came together quickly. Traditional ramen noodles contain only four ingredients, and the use of eggs simply required us to change the amount of water added.

These noodles can be used for a variety of dishes, though we think they go best with the ubiquitous soup that generally involves making an incredibly savory broth. However, these broths usually take quite a bit of time to make, so if you’re impatient, you can also stir fry the noodles with cabbage, bean sprouts, and Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce to make yakisoba, which is also delicious.

refried beans

For a number of years, Emily and I frequented a restaurant with one of the most vegetarian-friendly menus I’ve encountered at any Mexican restaurant. In addition to standard options like huevos rancheros and chiles rellenos, it also offered vegetarian options for chimichangas and tamales — things typically found only on carne menus.

The best thing on the menu, though, was the rich, delicious refried beans. Silky smooth and wonderful alone or with chips, the beans were an outstanding comfort food. And the best part? They were made with oil rather than lard.

Though that restaurant is now closed, Emily and I have lots of fond memories of going there, and their lard-free refried beans inspired me to make my own version. It should be said my beans are less rich and smooth, and my heavy hand with cumin gives them a more Tex-Mex feel, and eventually I’ll perfect a recipe that approximates something closer to what that restaurant served. Until then, these simple beans suffice whenever I have a craving for refried beans.