The Whole Enchilada

Enchiladas, like so many brilliant culinary innovations, date back to the ancient Mayans. Corn was plentiful, which gave rise to the fundamental, unassailable corn tortilla. Of course, they were called tlaxcalli at the time, later changed by Spanish conquistadors who couldn’t pronounce the word and forever changed the course of history. While tacos might seem like the most obvious use, a strong argument could be made that enchiladas were the first tortilla-based delicacy written into the annals of history. Originally, the dish consisted of nothing more than empty corn tortillas, rolled for a compact bite, and dipped in chili sauce. Before they were ever fried or filled, people have found these edible vessels worthy within their own rights.

Thus, I present to you an entirely controversial proposal: Try taking the tortilla out of the enchilada.

I promise, that’s not a hypothetical request or an impossible riddle. It occurred to me early on in the pandemic, when grocery deliveries were more akin to a new episode of Chopped, bringing with it a new mystery basket each week. Pasta has always been essential, but the exact form it would take was a bit of a wild card. Not a problem if you’re swapping ziti for penne, but giant manicotti tubes instead of pastina? Something was lost in translation on that exchange. Having never made manicotti before, those jumbo cylinders sat in the pantry for quite some time.

While I may be old, I certainly wasn’t around when the Mayans were creating this ground-breaking food, so my association with enchiladas is more strongly linked to the sauce and filling. One day, craving something with Mexican flair but lacking the traditional nixtamalized base, I came across that Italian staple just waiting for a purpose, and had this wild idea. Why smother them in plain red sauce when we could spice things up a bit?

Thus, Enchilada Manicotti were born. Perfect for a fiesta, family dinner, or cozy night in, the chewy pasta casing is stuffed with high-protein soyrizo and drowned in piquant enchilada sauce. Arguably easier than the contemporary take on this dish, you don’t need to worry about finicky tortillas cracking or unrolling in the oven. After a bit of assembly, you can take the rest of the night off, since it pretty much cooks itself.

Try a few different twists to make this formula your own:

  • Tender cubes of buttery gold potatoes add more heft to the filling, but this could be a great opportunity to sneak in other veggies, like riced cauliflower, diced zucchini, corn kernels, diced bell peppers, or a combination of your favorites.
  • Add shredded vegan cheese to the filling and/or topping, if you want to increase the richness and crave-worthy goo-factor.
  • Go all-out and make everything from scratch, including your own soyrizo, enchilada sauce, and sour cream for a real show-stopper of an entree that will impress all your friends and relatives.
  • Swap the red enchilada sauce for mole or chile verde sauce when you want a flavorful change of pace.

What can you serve with Enchilada Manicotti?

Both enchiladas and manicotti are ideal complete meals in and of themselves, needing no additional flourishes to completely satisfy. However, there are still plenty of complementary accompaniments you can consider to round out your plate:

  • Green salad or cabbage slaw
  • Yellow rice or cilantro rice
  • Black beans, pinto beans, or refried beans
  • Pico de gallo or your favorite salsa
  • Sliced avocado or guacamole
  • Tortilla chips

Is it Ital-ican, or maybe Mex-alian? Honestly, neither really capture the free spirit and full flavor of this dish. I’m perfectly satisfied to call it “delicious” and leave it at that. No matter what, you’ll want to leave room for a second helping.

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Pearls Before Wine

Given the choice of any bottle on the shelf, red wine is probably the last variety I would reach for when I want a drink. Why, then, do I keep buying it regularly, and sometimes even more often than my preferred whites and roses? Few ingredients can unlock such a wide range of flavors, transforming an average dish into something spectacular. Red wine is my secret ingredient for many savory recipes.

The science behind cooking with wine really is fascinating. The alcohol content is almost completely nullified, leaving behind great taste without the buzz. Much like salt, the alcohol itself doesn’t exactly add to the final flavor but instead helps other elements taste more like themselves. It adds acidity for brightness, and umami for greater depth and savory richness.

Although you shouldn’t cook with something you wouldn’t drink, the very best bottles are not great cooking wine, especially when it comes to reds. Your best bets are a merlot, cabernet sauvignon, or red blend, and should cost somewhere between $3 to $15 a bottle. Choose a young (not aged) wine with low tannins, since these can impart a bitter aftertaste.

The best red wine to cook with, of course, is whatever you have leftover! That’s where this simple, comforting, yet dazzlingly luxurious side dish comes in. Acini di pepe take center stage, which are really just a fancy way of referring to pearl couscous in Italian. The Translation means “seeds of pepper,” which makes a final flourish of cracked black pepper only fitting.

Balancing out these intense, robust flavors, candy cap mushrooms introduce an unmistakably sweet flavor, shockingly much like maple syrup with an added earthy undertone. The combination is complex, nuanced, and truly greater than the sum of its parts. Even if you’re not much for red wines either, you’ll want to keep some on hand to whip this dish up in 15 minutes flat.

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On the Chopping Block

In this interconnected world separated by only wires and electrical impulses, it’s hard to imagine that any great invention could still fly under the radar, largely undetected by the masses. Yet, the chopped cheese sandwich exists exactly in this grey space. Wildly popular in its native New York bodegas, the rest of the world remains ignorant of such simple pleasures. I’m certainly not the first, nor last, to tout such an ingenious combination of bread, meat, and cheese, which is another point of controversy in itself. Also known as the shortened title of “chop cheese,” this fully loaded hoagie is just as heavy in cultural significance.

No one can pinpoint the exact origin of the chopped cheese sandwich, though it’s indisputably born and raised in the outer boroughs of NYC. Records date it back to about the 70s, but it’s quite possible such a creation existed before anyone thought to write such an experience down for historic preservation. Only after Anthony Bourdain made a fateful visit in late 2014 with his camera crew did the rest of the nation start taking notice.

Overnight, “upscale” versions appeared on New American menus, commanding steep price tags, well above actual market value. It was a slap in the face to all who cherished the concept, twisting it into a symbol of gentrification without any credit going to its true origins. To this end, I will never claim to make the best, most authentic, or most original rendering- But I can promise a darned tasty meal.

Born of scrappy persistence, the point of a chopped cheese sandwich is to take the bits and bobs, odds and ends, and maximize their flavor potential. That’s exactly why I save Sugimoto shiitake stems. A bit tougher than their supple caps, they need more finessing to enhance their textural impact, but still possess volumes of bold, rich flavor. Who could dream of throwing away such savory diamonds in the rough? They just need a bit more polishing to reach perfection.

In fact, I would never start with whole, fresh shiitake for such a dish. Did you know that these incredible mushrooms have two kinds of aroma? The first comes before eating, as the smell wafts from the cooked dish before you dig in. The second arrives with every subsequent bite, bumping up the flavor from start to finish. Only a long, slow soak can unlock the full potential for both of these stages, combining to create a fusion of umami intensity, far beyond range of your average meatless protein. Sugimoto is the only brand I’ve tried that truly captures this complete experience.

Back to the meat of the matter. Give me your rough, your affordable, your leftover proteins! Traditionally made from chopped hamburgers, this is where the sandwich gets its name. Anything goes here, whether you prefer something veggie-heavy, bean-based, or super beefy. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be fully formed patties. Finely minced homemade seitan, as seen here, was my favorite version yet, and I can’t wait to try it with everything in my arsenal, from rehydrated soy curls to tempeh. The magic is in the combination of juicy protein, melted yellow cheese, and crisp fresh vegetables piled high on a soft hoagie roll.

It would be easy enough to use prepared vegan queso or sliced cheese here, but I went the DIY route to make sure you’ll get that perfect, gloriously gooey bite every single time. Just whisk, heat, and pour. No nuts, no nonsense, and you can make it in minutes with basic pantry staples.

Speaking of awesome sauces, let’s not glance over the second layer of shiitake wallop. Hidden like a landmine right beneath the sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, a pinch of dried Sugimoto shiitake powder explodes with another round of bold flavor in the mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise. Such an unassuming spread is usually an afterthought, but leveraged properly, completes the flavor profile with a final round of richness.

It’s not fussy, definitely not fancy, and absolutely guaranteed to be messy, specifically designed to hit all the pleasure sensors in the brain with one giant wallop of umami. That’s the essence of what makes a chopped cheese sandwich so great.

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Tidbits from Tibet

Like any reasonable human fortunate enough to try them, I love momo. All dumplings are delicious, but something about this Tibetan specialty is particularly captivating. These two-bite round bundles look like beautifully wrapped packages, which isn’t too far from the truth. It’s a real gift because making momo from scratch is no quick fix meal.

Funny enough, despite that, the thing that I crave most when I think about momos aren’t the dumplings themselves, but the unbelievably creamy tomato soup that comes with an order of jhol momo. Spicy, rich, and intensely flavorful, it’s essentially liquefied chutney that’s been spiked with toasted sesame seeds. Once blended, that nutty goodness transforms the brilliant red brew into the best kind of tomato bisque on the planet.

I still haven’t mastered momo, but I have cracked the code on a shortcut jhol achar soup. Garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorns dance in this aromatic mixture, bolstered by the natural sweetness of lightly caramelized onion. Canned, fire-roasted tomatoes add an instant earthy, woodsy, smoky complexity, while tahini ensures a smooth finish every time.

This soup is so good that you don’t even need dumplings to make it a meal… But if you do have access, it certainly doesn’t hurt. If you can’t get your hands on vegan momo, homemade, frozen, or otherwise, other [unconventional but delightful] additions and serving suggestions include:

  • Diced avocado
  • Steamed vegetable gyoza or wontons
  • Gnocchi
  • Diced and roasted sweet potato
  • Chickpeas

On really cold days though, I’m happy to just pour it into a thermos and sip this soup all day. It’s soothing, invigorating, and restorative all at once.

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20 Soup-erb Vegan Soup Recipes

Every season is soup season if you ask me, but January is legitimately designated as National Soup Month. Considering the colder temperatures, it really is the best time to cozy up with a hearty bowlful, be it creamy, brothy, chunky, or otherwise. Just like salads, almost everything can be categorized as “soup” if you try hard enough, so where does the intrepid, undecided cook start?

When you want to get something on the stove without stressing over the best recipe, I’ve got you covered. These are my 20 most popular plant-based soup recipes that are all tried and true. I’ve made each of them scores of times myself, and if you don’t believe me, the glowing comments don’t lie.

Pull out your biggest stock pot and get ready to stew up a double batch. These foolproof formulas will bring you comfort and joy all year long.

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