Sunday, May 5, 2013

Vegan Taco Night

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I’m posting an overview of ideas for a great vegan taco night.

It is not overly difficult to veganize a meal that is already full of beans and vegetables. Indeed, its simplicity is largely why I haven’t bothered to post about it before now, despite the fact that I’ve eaten it as often as once a week at times. Still, despite the fact that a decent taco night at its most basic requires nothing more than a can of beans and a tortilla (and the tortilla is negotiable), there is definitely some room for embellishment. Over the years I’ve figured out a number of tricks to jazz it up into an appealing and even fairly fancy meal.

Here are some of the components that can be improved or varied for a more exciting taco night:

  1. Beans
In my house, beans are the really the primary ingredient, providing most of the nutrition and a lot of the texture and flavor as well. My favorite trick is to use a combination of both refried or pureed beans as well as whole beans stirred in for texture. I also often combine two or more different types of beans: pinto beans would be classic, but black beans are also very good. Even black-eyed peas or kidney beans combine pretty seamlessly with the typical seasonings.

There are a few things to remember about beans. First, that they will absorb any flavoring or spices you add to them, as long as they are warm and fully cooked at the time. Second, that they do benefit greatly from said added flavors, particularly acidity or heat. Low sodium beans that have a couple splashes of lime juice and a generous pinch of cayenne and cumin can outshine their salty brethren any day.

Vegan-wise, store bought refried beans need to be checked for lard, a traditional pork based Latin ingredient. It’s also a good idea to seek out low-sodium beans, considering that a main dish sized serving that provides enough protein for a vegetarian meal may be double the suggested (side-dish) serving on the back of the can. If the sodium level is moderately high to begin with, it’ll be astronomically high after doubling. I find that generic brands of beans are often considerably lower in sodium than name brands without even announcing themselves as such, so be sure to check them out.

If you can’t find any good refried beans at the store, it’s not super hard to make homemade. Just sauté some onions and garlic with some olive oil and the seasonings of your choice. Add cooked or canned whole beans with some liquid such as water or veggie broth and mash in the pan (or puree in a blender if you’d rather).  Heat through and adjust flavorings such as salt, pepper and lime juice, and adjust texture too by adding more liquid as necessary. The cool thing about this is you can use any bean you want and add any flavors you want. You can make it super spicy or tangy or garlicky.

  1. Veggies & fruits
Onions and peppers in a grill pan
Fresh, sautéed or grilled veggies can add a tremendous amount of flavor, texture and nutrition to a taco. Grilled or sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms top the list for me in terms of flavor. I like to cut onions and bell peppers into long strips and toss them with a little oil and spices and throw them in a grill pan until they are softened and browned to my liking. Mushrooms for tacos are good sautéed with minced garlic until they release their juices and get lightly browned. Other grilled veggies that are good in tacos: zucchini, eggplant, and corn. If you’re feeling experimental, you could try things like asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, root vegetables such as potatoes or sweet potatoes, or squash.

Raw tomatoes and sweet onions can add a lot to a taco too. Cilantro is a somewhat divisive ingredient—you either love or hate it. I like it, but I usually use a light hand with it, or serve it on the side so people can make up their own minds about it. Fresh chives or green onions are another fresh herb that’s a good choice.

As far as the greens are concerned, switching out the iceberg for some shredded cabbage would be authentic and nutritious. Kale and broccoli slaw are options too. You can also try tossing your greens with a compatibly flavored dressing before adding them instead of putting them on plain; that can be a major flavor boost.

Sometimes pickled, brined or marinated vegetables are used in tacos as well, particularly spicy ones. This can make a very zesty addition.

Tangy fresh fruits such and mango and pineapple make killer taco ingredients. Some fruits (pineapple, peaches) can be grilled as well.

  1. Salsa, Guacamole and other toppings
    Fresh Pico do Gallo with mangoes
A big fresh bowl of Pico de Gallo or other fresh cut salsa/ salsa cruda can seriously make my day. And my taco. It’s a good, tasty way to up your quota of fresh vegetables without having to be dutiful about it.  This is the ingredient that I use to jazz up my tacos more often then any other, and it never disappoints. The mango version is particularly good. Regular jarred salsas are good too.

Homemade Guacamole
Authentic, 100% avocado guacamoles are almost always vegan. Mediocre, mayonnaise with green food coloring versions generally are not. Guacamole is something that is worth making from scratch anyway, since it’s so fast and easy. Here’s my recipe. Mock-guacs based on other pureed green vegetables are an option if you need to keep a very tight reign on your fat intake, although they’ll never fool you completely. Edamame based mock-guacs have the best flavor of those I have tried. Other people swear by peas, asparagus or lima beans. Most mock-guacs benefit greatly from a generous amount of onions, garlic and spices.  If you can spare the fat, do splurge on the real stuff once in while. It’s heart healthy unsaturated fat after all.

Faux cheese, melted directly on a tortilla
Faux dairy such as soy sour creams and vegan cheeses are a nice option if you can get them. A bit of a splurge nutritionally, and sometimes financially, but I don’t mind that in moderation. Meltable vegan cheeses will have a better chance of actually melting if spread in a thin layer on top of the tortilla as you soften it than merely mixed into the filling. If you decide to make your own tofu sour cream, you could try making it tangier than usual with extra lemon/lime juice to better approximate crema, if you wish, or puree in other compatible ingredients such as cilantro.

Nutritional yeast sauces may be more common in vegan mac and cheese recipes, but they’re good in tacos as well, both in the filling and spooned over the top enchilada style.

  1. Seasonings
Commercial spice mixes as well as many restaurant house seasonings typically contain three primary ingredients other than salt and MSG: onion powder, garlic powder, and paprika. This is partly because they are cheap, since they are made from vegetables and not imported spices. But it’s also because they really work when it comes to building a good flavor base. So these three are a good start when it comes to creating a any homemade spice mix that approximates the flavor of other options without the sodium and additives.

Another key Latin spice is cumin. Despite its presence numerous curries and other spicy food, cumin itself does not provides any heat itself, just flavor, so don’t shy away from it in mild mixes. Dried oregano and thyme are typical herb choices.
I also like to add cinnamon to my taco seasoning. I think it makes it taste more complex and balanced.

For heat cayenne pepper or re pepper flakes would be an option.  So would chile or chili powder mixes, or even just black pepper if you’re generous enough with it. FYI, chile powder = ground dried chile peppers, chili powder = spice mix that includes peppers but also cumin and other spices typical in chili soup.

A certain amount of salt is necessary for restaurant style results. This can be decreased some with salt-free seasoning mixes such as lemon pepper, but not completely. It’s up to you how far you want to go.

If you taste your seasoned taco filling and can’t quite put your finger on what’s missing, try adding a pinch of sugar. It can balance out acidity and bring the other flavors together.

Incorporating Seasonings into your taco: Many of the spices involved taste much better if lightly toasted, especially in oil, than they do added raw. A handy way to do this is to take any ingredient you’re planning on sautéing anyway such as onions or other vegetables or a faux meat filling and adding the spices for the last couple minutes in the frying pan. This will not only make the spices taste better but also thoroughly infuse the other ingredients with more flavor.

  1. Taco “meat”
If you were raised on meaty tacos, you may find your tacos missing something even if they’re full of beans and veggies. I generally find omnivore guests seem to prefer having the fake meat there as an option as well. Don’t worry, the texture and flavor of ground meat is very easy to fake, especially with plenty of spices.

  1. Rice or other grains
Plain rice, whether brown or white, can always be added to bulk up a taco. However, I think the best form of rice for tacos is pilaf style. This is a method that involves toasting and flavoring the rice, so that you end up with a highly flavored, generally firm textured, rice that really contributes to the taco instead of just lying there.

Brown rice, toasted and flavored with tomato paste
To make pilaf style rice: Saute some onions and garlic, and possibly other veggies such as peppers or mushrooms. When they are mostly done, add raw rice and toast it for a few minutes in the sautéing oil, until the grains smell nutty. Then add the proper amount of liquid needed to cook the rice, more typically veggie broth than water, salt and pepper, and any additional flavorings that apply. For Latin style pilafs, a tablespoon or two of tomato paste and some cumin works nicely. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer low until done, resisting the urge to stir excessively. Stir in any addition ingredients that don’t benefit from long simmering at the end, such as fresh cilantro or other herbs, and stuff into your taco.

This method works just as well for brown rice as white, as long as you use the appropriate cooking time and amount of liquid. It also works for other grains and even grain shaped pastas.

  1. Miscellaneous Add-ins
Basically whatever sounds good to you. Green or Black olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts as well as more unusual things such as some forms of edible cactus.

  1. Form/Assembly
The truth is, once you have the methods and ingredients for a killer taco night down, it’s not going to take much to turn it into a killer fajita or enchilada night. Just a few tweaks here and there. Here are some different options:

    • Enchiladas
Enchiladas with nutritional yeast sauce
Merely roll up or fold your favorite taco fillings in tortillas and drench with a nice chile sauce, heat, and you basically have enchiladas. You can experiment with different sauces—the other day I mixed some salsa into some leftover nutritional yeast sauce and used it as an enchilada sauce. It was pretty good. Verde (green) sauce is a common variation, and there are classic versions that even have their own names: enchiladas with mole sauce are called enmoladas, and ones drenched in a thinned refried beans sauce are called enfrijoladas.

I’ve also had burritos/tacos served with so much juicy sautéed veggies, salsa and guacamole spooned on top to the point that the tortilla softens and the dish becomes enchilada-esque without quite crossing over. It’s quite good.

    • Burritos
Burritos are basically overgrown tacos folded a bit differently, so there’s no big adjustment required. If you’re aiming one of those really big restaurant style burritos, keep in mind that they start out with very large tortillas—ten to twelve inches in diameter. Little six-inch tortillas have no chance of maintaining structural integrity with similar amounts of filling.

Folding burritos that stay together is much easier if you start with softened (briefly heated) tortillas. Just place them in the microwave or a dry skillet for about 30 seconds, until warm and floppy. It’ll fold without tearing that way.

Another tip is to lightly smearing the edges where the seams will be with something that can act as glue, such as refried beans or guacamole.
Finally, if you are having trouble with sogginess and falling apart, reconsider your dry-to-wet ingredient ratio, decreasing the amount of runny salsas or sauces and increasing absorbent ingredients like rice.

Some restaurants also like to take the assembled burrito and cook it briefly seam side down on a dry frying pan or griddle to help it seal. It’s worth a try.

    • Tostadas/Taco Salads
A tortilla could of course be deep-fried into a bowl shape and then filled, restaurant-style, but who deep-fries regularly these days?

A better option is to bake or grill the tortilla until crispy instead. It can be left flat and then have the fillings merely piled on top, or some effort could be made to shape it into a bowl by pressing it into a small baking dish.

The simplest way to the simulate crispy chip-like tostada shell is to just use a layer of tortilla chips with filling piled on top. It doesn’t look quite as pretty, but it tastes quite similar.

    • Nachos
      Vegan Nachos
Speaking of chips, the classic application would be nachos. These can include basically anything that goes in a taco, including salsa, beans, faux meat, guacamole and more.  Cheese is traditionally prominent; you can omit it entirely or try and substitute it with fake cheese or a nutritional yeast sauce

Sometimes I like to serve the chips separately from the toppings instead of piling them on top in order to prevent sogginess and make scooping easier.

    • Quesadillas
Here’s my favorite quesadilla recipe. The truth is, any taco filling can be used in a quesadilla as long as they’re spread out thin enough to work.

    • Fajitas
Fajita w/ grilled strips of onion and pepper
The term fajita to me basically means a taco with grilled strips of something or other as a prominent feature. Traditionally it would be strips of meat of course, but grilled strips of onion, bell pepper and Portobello mushroom would work as well in a vegan version. So would grilled strips of seitan or another meat substitute, or a combination of all of the above.

So there you go. All the tips I can think of for a great, healthy Latin Feast. Enjoy, and happy Cinco!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Taco night will never be the same. What great ideas.