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    Tuesday, July 16, 2024

    Cauliflower enchiladas show the breadth of Mexican vegetarian cooking

    Margarita Carrillo Arronte had something to prove when she wrote “The Mexican Vegetarian Cookbook.”

    “I saw an opportunity to show to the world that Mexican cuisine is not what many people think: that it is greasy, unhealthy and unbalanced with little variety and excess sugar,” she writes in the introduction. “This is absolutely false and it shows the need to promote our culinary wealth and culture.”

    More to the point, perhaps: With her book, a follow-up to the hit “Mexico: A Cookbook” and published last year, the chef and restaurateur writes, “I saw the opportunity to show the deep vegetarian roots that traditional Mexican cuisine has. The further back we go in the history of the region, the more vegetarian the roots of its cuisine become.”

    The book is a treasure trove of 400 home-cook-friendly recipes. While classics such as chiles rellenos and tortilla soup appear, Carrillo Arronte also includes such surprises — at least to me — as a fresh fig cake (the fruit arranged like jewels over whipped cream and crispy meringues) and mushrooms roasted in corn husks. The variety and breadth are astounding, even though I do bemoan the absence of headnotes that could illuminate the traditions behind the dishes.

    Still, sometimes cooking is the best path to understanding anyhow? I knew the first thing I’d try were the Cauliflower Enchiladas, because those are two of my favorite words in the culinary universe, so I was confident I’d love them. Carrillo Arronte ties them to the state of Chihuahua, and to Mexico’s colonial era, the period starting from 1521 when it was part of the Spanish Empire.

    I don’t necessarily associate cauliflower with traditional Mexican cuisine, but that’s apparently my mistake: According to an article in El Restaurante magazine, after Europeans brought cauliflower to the New World, “Spanish friars cultivated it in the monastery gardens of New Spain.” A Mexico City friar’s handwritten cookbook that includes four recipes for cauliflower is dated 1780, according to cookbook author Karen Hursh Graber. Mexico has a much longer history than that, but two and a half centuries of cauliflower is good enough for me.

    Anyway, it makes sense: The brassica’s mild flavor is a great foil for the chiles so central to Mexican cooking.

    That’s the role it plays in Carrillo Arronte’s enchiladas, combining with feta (or the more traditional cotija, particularly a young one) for a super-simple filling. The rolled and filled tortillas are then bathed in a rich chile sauce and topped with cheese (and dollops of sour cream or crema) before being baked to melty, bubbly perfection. (For the record, dairy products were also brought to Mexico by colonizers.)

    If you’ve made enchiladas, you know that the trickiest part can be getting the tortillas to stay intact rather than crack as you roll them. The traditional technique is to quickly fry them in oil before dipping them in the sauce; the oil supposedly offers a barrier that keeps the sauce from soaking into the tortillas and causing them to break apart. I simply haven’t found that to be the case, so instead I spray the tortillas with cooking oil spray, briefly microwave them so they’re pliable enough to roll around the filling, and skip the dipping step. The sauce goes on liberally, and underneath it, the enchiladas are distinct.

    If the assembly seems like more than you feel like dealing with, I have to mention another shortcut: Do like my friend Clark, and anytime you see an enchilada recipe, make a layered casserole instead. Treat the tortillas as if they’re lasagna noodles, alternating them with sauce and filling, and you’ll get the pan in the oven that much more quickly.

    The Mexico City friar might not have done that in 1780, but something tells me he had more time on his hands, come dinnertime, than I do — and probably you, too.

    Cauliflower Enchiladas

    4 servings (8 enchiladas)

    Active time: 45 mins; Total time: 1 hour

    These hearty vegetarian enchiladas are filled with a simple but flavorful combination of steamed cauliflower and crumbled feta and bathed in a rich, slightly spicy sauce. The key to rolling the enchiladas without the tortillas breaking is to microwave them with a little oil so they become soft and pliable. Serve with refried black beans and rice, if you’d like.

    Make ahead: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 3 months; defrost and bring to room temperature before assembling the enchiladas. The steamed cauliflower can be refrigerated for up to 3 days before assembling the enchiladas.

    Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.


    1 pound (about 3-1/2 cups) cauliflower florets

    5 dried ancho chile peppers (2 ounces), stemmed and seeded

    2 cups boiling water, plus more for steaming

    1/2 small yellow onion (3 ounces), peeled and halved

    2 garlic cloves, unpeeled

    1 (15-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted

    1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

    2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican

    1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

    1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more to taste

    1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for brushing

    4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

    8 (6-inch) corn tortillas

    2 tablespoons Mexican crema or sour cream

    4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded


    Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.

    Pour 2 inches of water into a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Set a steamer basket inside, and transfer the cauliflower to the basket. When the water begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and steam the cauliflower until barely tender but not mushy, about 5 minutes. Transfer the florets to a cutting board, cut into smaller pieces and transfer to a large bowl.

    While the cauliflower is steaming, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until smoking. Add the chiles and cook, stirring once or twice, until pliable, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer to a small bowl, cover with the boiling water and let soak until soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Return the skillet to medium-high heat.

    While the chiles soak, add the onion and garlic to the empty dry skillet and cook, turning occasionally, until lightly charred all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Peel the garlic, discarding the skins, and transfer the cloves and the onion pieces to a blender. Add the chiles and all their soaking liquid, plus the tomatoes, vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper, and blend until smooth.

    In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Using a splatter guard if needed, add the pureed chile sauce and cook, stirring occasionally, until it slightly thickens and darkens, about 10 minutes. Taste, and season with more salt and pepper as needed.

    Add the crumbled feta to the bowl with the cauliflower and toss to combine.

    Brush the tortillas lightly on both sides with oil and microwave them on HIGH for about 30 seconds, until hot. Let cool slightly.

    Spread 1 cup of the sauce on the bottom of an 8-inch-square casserole dish.

    Working with one tortilla at a time, put a generous 2 tablespoons of the cauliflower mixture along the bottom third of the tortilla and roll the tortilla around the filling. Set the roll, seam side down, on the sauce in the dish, and repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling.

    Spoon the rest of the sauce over the enchiladas. Top with dollops of the crema. If you have a little extra cauliflower filling, sprinkle it on the sauce. Evenly sprinkle the Monterey Jack on top.

    Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Serve hot.

    Substitutions: Vegan? >> Use vegan feta, such as Violife brand; vegan cheese shreds, such as Daiya brand; and vegan sour cream, such as Tofutti or Kite Hill brand. Feta >> cotija or queso fresco. Monterey Jack >> Pepper jack, mild cheddar or a blend.

    Variations: You can turn this into a lasagna-type casserole instead of filling and rolling the enchiladas: Lay four corn tortillas on the sauce in the bottom of the dish, cover with the cauliflower filling, lay the remaining four tortillas on top, and finish with sauce and cheese and bake as directed.

    Nutrition per serving (2 enchiladas, plus sauce): 452 calories, 46g carbohydrates, 49mg cholesterol, 23g fat, 10g fiber, 20g protein, 10g saturated fat, 843mg sodium, 5g sugar

    Adapted from “The Mexican Vegetarian Cookbook” by Margarita Carrillo Arronte (Phaidon, 2022).

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