It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrées along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!
I've always been terrible at planning, which works out, since my wife plans enough for the both of us. Sometimes this can be relaxing: I never have to worry about making travel arrangements or sending thank you cards, as my wife is on top of it before I even realize that I've left it too late. Other times, it can be a bit more of a challenge. Case in point: inviting our neighbors over for dinner.
Normally, a semi-impromptu dinner party is no problem for me, but entertaining guests while maintaining a strict vegan diet is a little different, particularly when it's on the kind of freezing cold night that requires the heartiest of meals. Could I come up with something that would keep a dinner party of mixed omni- and vegan company satisfied?
"Honey, you have three options," I told her, mulling over the recipe projects I'd been working on recently—I never miss the opportunity to turn unwitting dinner party guests into a bunch of guinea pigs—"A big pile of nachos, tons and tons of baba ganoush, or enchiladas."
"Enchiladas," she said, with no hesitation.
The recipe I'd been working on is pretty straight forward. For the filling, I start with spinach sautéed with garlic, onions, ancho chili powder, and cumin. I've been a big fan of the tender-juicy-greens-stuffed-into-carbs format ever since tasting the kale sandwich at my buddy Charles Kelsey's Brookline sandwich shop Cutty's.
To add a little chewy bite to the mix, I stirred in a can of drained, cooked hominy, a trick I discovered when working on my Sweet Potato and Bean Chili recipe a couple weeks back. I also cooked up a batch of my Basic Salsa Verde, made with tomatillos, onions, jalapeños, and cilantro, and used part of it to flavor my filling, saving the rest to coat the tortillas.
I'm pretty picky about my tortillas, which is as it should be. You should be picky, too. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to like the same tortillas I like, but you should try and find ones you do. Good tortillas in a taco or enchilada are as important as good bread in a sandwich or good acoustics at the karaoke bar.
Luckily, I'm in possession of a few dozen excellent corn tortillas I brought back with me from a recent trip to San Francisco. After layering some salsa in the bottom of a casserole dish, I dip the tortillas one at a time into the salsa, stuff them with a bit of the spinach and hominy filling, roll them up, and place them seam side-down in the dish.
Almost ready to bake! We've just got one element left.
Not all enchiladas require melted cheese—in Mexico, they often come with just a drizzle of crema and a sprinkle of queso fresco or cotija, but unfortunately none of those options work for a 100% vegan version.
Now, there are a ton of vegan enchilada recipes out there, but my issue with nearly all of them is that they start out sounding great—fresh vegetables or beans for the filling, homemade enchilada sauces, fresh corn tortillas—until we get to the last step: "top with vegan cheese crumbles and bake."
I've tried my absolute best to enjoy vegan cheese substitutes, but none of them—not even the highly-touted Daiya—taste anything like cheese. I didn't buy heavily processed foods as an omnivore; why would I start as a vegan?
I much prefer taking an approach that lets real ingredients speak for themselves, rather than trying to imitate something that they'll never truly be able to stack up against.
A while back, I developed a recipe for Stuffed Poblano Peppers which were smothered in a smoky cashew sauce loosely based on a sauce served at New York's Empellón Cocina (hey, that's two Alex Stupak-inspired dishes in two days!). It's rich, thick, tangy, and everything you want in a creamy topping, with a unique flavor all of its own, not simply a pale imitation of cheese.
I made a big batch and dolloped it across my enchiladas before baking the whole dish in a hot oven, topping it with cilantro and thinly sliced white onions as it came out. Served with some rice and a batch of Spicy Vegan Refried Beans, it was a meal every bit as satisfyingly rich and balanced in flavor as any meat and dairy-based one would be. All in all, a successful test run that makes me excited to share the finished version with you now.
Of course, now that I have all these leftover refried beans, onions, cilantro, and tortillas, those nachos are just around the corner. Sometimes I do make plans after all.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.