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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Ruffle Some Feathers

For all its ready-made convenience, frozen phyllo dough can still be a beast to work with. Forget to thaw it out overnight and you’ll be stuck waiting for hours until it’s pliable. Wait too long, however, and it’ll become as brittle as a dried out twig. Bake it too close to the heating element and the top will burn before the center ever feels a blush of warmth. Under-cook a carefully layered tower, and all your intricate assembly can turn into one murky morass of pastry. It’s enough to make you want to crumble the whole sheet into a ball.

Well, have I got the dish for you! Ruffled milk pie is exactly the catharsis for anyone that’s struggled to deal with fickle phyllo. Traditionally a sweet type of galatopia, which in the simplest terms is just a Greek milk pie. Sometimes there’s semolina involved, sometimes it takes the form of a crustless baked pudding, but the best ones involve that gossamer-thin golden pastry, phyllo.

Before you slam the freezer door shut on this idea, hear me out. Rather than stacking up sheet after sheet in a precarious towering column, all you need to do is roll them into little rosettes, fit them into a pan, and bake without a worry in the world. Since the bottom is immersed in custard, the lower sheets stay soft like bread pudding, while the tops that jut out become shatteringly crisp, without any careful oven calibration required.

Naturally, I could never do anything completely traditional, so my version is savory rather than sweet, designed as a showstopping entree for any brunch, garden party, celebration, or casual affair. It’s so quick and versatile that there’s no reason why you couldn’t just whip it up on some random Tuesday, too. A blend of chickpea flour and nutritional yeast gives it a distinctly eggy flavor, like a quiche or frittata with the crust on top.

Fresh mint and lemon zest add bright pops of flavor in every bite, highlighting tender fresh asparagus that’s woven throughout the matrix of phyllo and custard. Any seasonal vegetable would be fantastic here:

  • Consider peas or chopped artichokes for a change of pace while spring is in high gear.
  • For summer, switch it up with diced zucchini, green beans, corn kernels, or bell peppers.
  • When fall comes around, beets, diced pumpkin, or acorn squash would make a vibrant splash.
  • Finally, consider some wintry options like shredded Brussels sprouts, carrots, or chopped kale to see you through the colder months.

There’s truly never a bad time or place for such a versatile, deeply satisfying, and reasonably healthy meal. It’s certainly a good reason to embrace phyllo again, even if you’ve been burned before. This one is perfect for beginners and believers alike.

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Braised and Confused

It used to be a running joke that my seal of approval was more like the kiss of death to any burgeoning product or brand. I’d fall madly in love, declare it to the world, and that would be the end of it. Overnight, packages would quietly disappear from shelves, replaced by something different entirely. The object of my affection would vanish into thin air, ghosting me like all the misguided suitors on Hinge.

Thus, another beloved product bites the dust. Hodo, my favorite tofu maker the world over, recently scaled back production of this rare treat, selling in only limited markets. While certain parts of the country remain unaffected, immersed in a wealth of soy-based delights as always, I find myself without access to some of my cherished favorites.

Photo by colin price

Braised tofu, tender yet toothsome, was affected by that merciless culling. Nutty, complex, and creamy firm tofu infused with a savory and sweet Chinese five-spice blend, its subtle nuances set it apart from the pack. Plenty of renditions exist in Chinatown, as a classic staple of the cuisine, but none care so much about quality ingredients as Hodo.

Heartbroken, the only consolation is the ease of DIY replication. Though instant gratification is now off the table, they’ve generously shared the secret formula to recreate this braised beauty at home.

Once seasoned, it’s ready to eat as is, adding heft and flavor in spades to any stir fry, salad, or platter of crudités, even. Flavorful and satisfying all by itself, there are far worse snacks than a few thinly shaved slices draped delicately over crisp cucumbers or slices of toasted baguette.

Braised tofu is dead; long live braised tofu! It’s up to us home cooks to carry the torch now.

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A Wealth of Flavor

New Year’s traditions are fraught with superstition. Grappling with the end of an era and beginning anew can be daunting, so it’s no surprise there are countless beliefs associated with easing the transition. If only there was a way to ensure good fortune for the next twelve months, surely that would provide a bit of comfort. Everyone has their own unique approach especially when it comes to guaranteeing good luck, though at the end of the day, it often comes back to the dinner table.

Black-eyed peas are famously linked with good luck, particularly in the southern states, sometimes causing a run on the humble staple in times of scarcity (otherwise known as supply chain disruptions in our modern day.) Native to West Africa, the dish began life as an all-purpose celebratory food without specific meaning, eaten for any joyous occasion. The peas could be seen as a charm to ward off the Evil Eye, and because they were numerous, growing in size when they cooked, they could represent growing fortunes or families.

Enslaved West Africans brought these traditions with them to the south, melding cultures to find New Year’s Day the best time for such an auspicious food. Their popularity spread just like the prolific field pea itself, spilling over into all households; good food is a universal language, after all. Some add greens into the mix to symbolize paper money, and the addition of cornbread is like gilding the bowl with gold leaf, in addition to simply being delicious. This is often known as Hoppin’ John, though the origin of the name is highly debated.

Considering such a wealth of historic flavor, I didn’t want to mess this up. I’ve made black-eyed peas before, but I never fully understood the significance. For an impoverished people that could count beans as currency, the tenacity, strength, and optimism it would take to proceed into another 365 days in good spirits is unimaginable. I have a hard enough time feeling positive about the future on a good day, and I’m aware of just how incredibly fortunate I am already.

In keeping with the spirit of the dish, I’m hoping that it will help increase my wealth this year, because I’m entering it in the Big Mountain Foods Recipe Contest! You can find out more about this dynamic meatless brand on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Taking the place of a customary ham hock or turkey wing, Lion’s Mane Mushroom Crumble adds an extra layer of umami along with a considerable protein punch. Though unconventional, I think it’s natural for the dish to continue to evolve as further cultural fusion occurs. Even before crafty cooks had access to a global palate of flavors, no two bowls of black-eyed peas would ever taste the same. Everyone has their own take on the concept, and of course, everyone’s own rendition is indisputably the best.

I need all the luck I can get heading into 2022, so I doubled up on auspicious offerings by putting cornbread right into the bowl. Rather than a fluffy square of golden corn, baked separately, I made mine as buttery dumplings that simmer right in the broth. It’s quicker, easier, and adds a satisfying heft and delightful chew, almost like fluffy cornmeal gnocchi.

No matter how you celebrate the coming New Year, I hope it’s full of pennies, dollars, and gold, literally and figuratively.

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No Bones About It

What’s your go-to Chinese food order? When the menu is as thick as a novel, which section to you flip to first? I find it’s always a struggle to balance cravings for the familiar with the impulse to try something new. Venturing into unknown territory can be risky, but the delicious payoff could be even greater. This is true of any cuisine, but few cover such breadth and depth of different flavors; if you can’t read the original Hanzi, you never know exactly what might land on your plate.

For my family, I could usually predict what would end up on the table, especially if we’re talking about standard Americanized Chinese food. When I was younger and much pickier, it was always a tofu and vegetables in garlicky brown sauce for me. Probably chicken with black bean sauce for my mom, and some sort of stir fried noodle for my sister, hold the vegetables. We most likely got a plastic quart container of wonton soup to share, maybe some fried rice, and extra crispy wonton strips, even though my mom hated how greasy they were.

Scenes like this replay in my mind all through the holiday season. Chinese takeout is an essential part of Christmas to me, this single most important tradition that must be observed every year. While everyone else tore into presents underneath a big evergreen tree, we dug into paper takeout boxes at the kitchen table. Everyone picked at least one dish they wanted most and everything was shared, but the only thing that I never ate was my dad’s choice of boneless spare ribs.

Lurid red and gleaming in the light, I just didn’t understand them. How can ribs be boneless, for one thing, and what gives them such an unearthly color? Unwilling to gamble on the unknown, I stuck with my staples, year in an year out. Only now, as a vegan, avid food explorer, and nostalgic child of the 90’s, have I returned to the concept with insatiable curiosity.

My dad still loves the dish, so there must be something to it. Luckily, bones are not something I ever need to worry about with vegan proteins, taking mystery meat out of the equation entirely. Beet juice is my favorite source of scarlet food color, lending a subtly earthy flavor that harmonizes beautifully with mushroom stock at the same time. Garlic, ginger, and five-spice powder sing out clearly from that savory soy base, creating the signature flavor that truly defines the dish. Soy curls soak in all that flavor in half the time of traditional prep, speeding right through the cooking process with the help of an air fryer.

Most places would pride themselves at having meat so tender that it practically melts in your mouth, but that was not such a selling point for my dad. Even if the food was still blazing hot upon delivery, he would put the whole thing straight into the toaster oven to crisp up the edges. As such, my rendition is on the extra-crispy side, blackened around the edges, super juicy, and thoroughly lacquered with sweet, sticky glaze all over.

Whether you’re celebrating the holidays with your family or just craving this old school staple, these are the boneless spare ribs you wish the local takeout restaurant would make. At least, they’re everything I wanted from the dish, any time of year.

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