Today was one of those days when I was in the mood to eat vegetarian. I know, it doesn’t happen often enough, but me, the unashamed omnivore does occasionally enjoy a healthy meal. But I also wanted comfort food so carbs were definitely going to be on the menu. I had a ton of vegetables in the refrigerator and wanted to use them. Then I saw a commercial on the television for Mexican food and decided that was what I would make for dinner. And thus a recipe is born!
This is how it often happens for me. I look in my pantry and refrigerator and throw a bunch of things together. There are failures along the way, but by and large this usually turns out pretty well. And I know that many of you do exactly the same thing. I have done this year after year but only recently started writing down the recipes. This dish can be served as a vegetarian main course with a tossed green salad, or alongside grilled chicken, steaks, hamburgers, or pork chops.
I love writing recipes. Yep, I’m crazy, but they are like putting together puzzles to me. Do we have all the pieces, are they in the right order, do the patterns match? I will start with a barely legible, poorly written “recipe” and make sure that all the ingredients mentioned in the list are explained in the directions and visa versa. How many times have you been going along, carefully following the directions when suddenly you are told to add something that isn’t in the ingredients list. Don’t you hate that! I know I do.
Today’s recipe is a takeoff on a Chili Mac recipe. Those typically have ground beef in them but you can leave it out and still have a delicious, filling entree. But, if you have a family that loves the flavor of beef, add some beef bouillon granules (ground up bouillon cubes) for the flavor without the meat. To keep it vegetarian, vegan or dairy-free, use vegetarian granules and leave off the cheese. Everyone in your family will be happy, even the pickiest little eaters in the crowd.
I was also craving cheese so I topped the casserole with slices of cheddar, but you could use any of your favorites. Monterey Jack, havarti, ricotta, mozzarella, even feta would all work. You just want something that melts well and will stand up to the strong flavors in the sauce.
When you want to add flavor to an ordinary dish, look to your spice cabinet. I tend to use individual herbs rather than mixes because I like to control the ratios and change them depending on my mood and the direction I want to take each dish. However, today I used a wonderful seasoning blend called “Taco Fiesta” from Spice of Life in Paso Robles, California. Made from a blend of chili powders, spices, cumin, cayenne, paprika, garlic, onion, salt, pepper and oregano, it gave my sauce all the flavors I was looking for in one bottle. I did boost the cumin a bit, but you certainly don’t have to. If you wanted more heat (I purposely kept it mild so it would appeal to a broader audience), add in some ground chipotle or more cayenne to kick it up.
Lori Foster, the owner and “spice crafter” of Spice of Life is a great lady and I know you will enjoy her products too. Make sure you check out her whole array of offerings. In addition to her blends, she also offers a large selection of individual herbs, spices and ground chiles. She has done a lot of the work for you and gives you suggestions as to which foods each seasoning blend works particularly well with. She uses all natural, premium spices, herbs and teas and a portion of all sales are donated to charity. Make sure you tell Lori “Hi” from me!
One of the ways to please people who normally only like dishes with meat in them is to use a variety of flavorful vegetables to “trick” the palate. When your taste buds are happy, you won’t notice the lack of ground beef!
I love the flavor that bell peppers add to dishes. Did you know that they are actually not a real pepper? They are technically fruits, but like tomatoes, are considered vegetables in culinary terms. When Christopher Columbus brought the plant back to Spain, Europeans called all known hot and pungent taste “peppers.” So naturally the new capsicums fell into that category.
When I was growing up the only bell peppers I was aware of were the green ones. They tend to be more bitter and less sweet and were too much for my hypersensitive palate. Then I grew up and discovered that bell peppers come in a wide variety of colors including red, orange, yellow, white, rainbow and my personal favorite, purple. Not only do the red, orange and yellow peppers add vibrant color to foods, but they also contain more vitamins and nutrients than green peppers do. Red peppers have nine times more of the beta carotene lycopene and twice the vitamin C. One red bell pepper contains nearly three times more vitamin C than the average orange!
Have fun playing with different combinations of vegetables for your vegetarian and vegan meals. Use lots of seasoning to perk up your taste buds, and discover how delicious healthy food can be! Enjoy!!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Don’t overcook the pasta – remember that it will continue to be cooked in the oven after you have boiled it. You want to make sure that the pasta doesn’t become mushy. Always taste a piece of your pasta to judge the “doneness.” Don’t depend on the time listed on the box. If you do, your pasta will be over cooked every time.
Kitchen Skill: How to Chop an Onion
Cut the stem end off and peel back the dry outer layers. If you leave them attached to the root end, you’ll have something to hold onto while you cut the onion. Cut the onion in half lengthwise – through the root. By leaving the root intact, it will hold the onion together while you slice it.
Working with one half at a time, lay the onion flat on the cutting board. Slice it lengthwise, to within about 1/4-inch of the root without cutting into it. If you want a small dice, make a lot of slices very close together. For a large chop, the slices will be farther apart. Turn the onion 90 degrees and slice opposite of your first cuts. The sharper your knife, the less you will cry!
- 1 lb fusilli, penne, or other formed pasta
- Kosher salt
- Olive oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 2 tsp taco seasoning
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp beef or vegetable bouillon granules, optional
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 1 (4 oz) can chopped mild green chiles, to taste
- 1 (28 oz) can crushed fire-roasted tomatoes
- Freshly ground pepper, to taste
- About 4 oz cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, sliced thinly
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Fill a large stockpot 3/4 full of fresh water. Bring to a boil over high heat and add 2 tbsp kosher salt. Cook pasta for about 7 minutes or until al dente. Drain and return pasta to the stockpot while the sauce finishes.
- In a medium saucepan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil to just below the smoke point. Reduce heat to medium and saute onions and bell pepper until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the taco seasoning, cumin and salt, stirring until evenly distributed. Add the bouillon granules if using. Stir in garlic, celery, carrots and 2 tsp chiles. Cook, stirring often, for 4 to 5 minutes or until vegetables are al dente with a bit of bite still to them (taste to test them).
- Stir in tomatoes, reduce heat to low and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Taste, add ground pepper and more chiles to taste.
- Spread about 1/2 cup of the sauce over the bottom of a 9x13-inch casserole dish. Pour the rest of the sauce over the pasta and toss until evenly coated. Transfer pasta to the casserole dish and top with slices of the cheese. Bake, uncovered, for 20 to 30 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted.
- Serve immediately with a tossed green salad.
- Yield: about 6 servings