¡Viva Mexico! – Part 1: Healthy

I’m very blessed with SILs who know and encourage my adventures in the kitchen. A few times (without consulting with one another) they’ve given me similar gifts for Christmases or birthdays. This past Christmas, one SIL gave me a fun assortment of culinary books/cookbooks to flip through, garner inspiration from, and improve my culinary skills with. I’ve been slowly flipping through them one-by-one and dog-earing certain recipes to explore more closely.

The books/cookbooks encompass a broad range of ideas, cuisines, and special diets. The first one I perused was The Gluten-Free Revolution: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know about Losing the Wheat, Reclaiming Your Health, and Eating Happily Ever After by Jax Peters Lowell. For a little over a year now, I’ve switched about 90% of my diet to gluten free eating, so to be able to delve further into this from a more authoritative source (as opposed to my brief Google searches). I’m not sure I’m committed to completely diving into a gluten-free lifestyle since, despite my trying many available brands and varieties, many gluten-free breads are DRY and unappetizing. I’m not willing to rule out bread altogether. I’d rather just enjoy the gluten-laden stuff in moderation.

While I was going through The Gluten-Free Revolution, there were recipes regularly sprinkled throughout the text. Many sounded good, but one stood out to me above the rest. Roasted Chili Polenta with Shiitake Tomatillo Sauce not only sounded delicious (we love polenta!), but simple as well! At least it sounded simple… I’ll get to that later on. It also had the air of a dish that sounded totally sophisticated and lacking an accompanying picture, turned out quite different from what I expected. I’ll also get to that later on.

This recipe from Lowell’s book actually originates from the Rancho La Puerta resort in Tecate, Mexico. More specifically, from one-time resort chef Bill Wavrin’s repertoire which he’s canonized in his award-winning Rancho La Puerta Cookbook. The health and spa-based resort is heavy on ovo-lacto vegetarianism with a bit of seafood thrown in and focuses on total well-being as opposed to just luxury like many resorts in Mexico. Despite this recipe being noticeably vegetarian, it could easily be adapted to please any Texas cattle baron. Especially with my own incarnation on this dish. However, my incarnation is definitely not as health-forward as Rancho La Puerta’s. But more on that later…

This dish is good and definitely healthy, so you could definitely enjoy it as-is, but it was far more complicated than I expected (for a casserole). I’m definitely going to give you the recipe, but I’m also going to give you my conceptualization of the dish. It’s almost as if it’s begging me to! So I guess this will be a healthy-unhealthy set of posts. Do with it what you will.

Original Recipe Ingredients:
2 onions: 1 diced, 1 julienned
1 rib celery, diced
3 red bell pepper: 1 diced; 2 stemmed, seeded, and roasted
1-1/4tsp EVOO
7 cloves garlic, minced
1tsp ground cumin
1/4tsp red pepper flakes
2c fresh corn kernels
1/4c polenta
2c carrots, shredded
4tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
1c nonfat yogurt
2-1/2c Parm, grated
2-1/2c Monterrey jack, grated
Kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper
Soy sauce
6lg egg whites, slightly beaten
4c veg stock
Anaheim or Ortega chilies, washed, roasted, peeled, and seeded
1 leek, white part only, julienned
2 shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, and julienned
2 tomatillos, husked (sub green tomatoes if tomatillos are unavailable)

1) Preheat oven to 375°. In a sauté pan over med heat, sauté 1 diced onion, celery, and 1 bell pepper in 1/2tsp EVOO until soft (~6-8min). Add 3 cloves garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes and cook, stirring 2-3min longer.
2) Remove mixture to a mixing bowl. Add 1c corn, the polenta, carrots, 2tbsp oregano, cheeses, some cracked black pepper, soy sauce to taste, and egg whites. Set aside. In a blender, add stock and 1c corn. Purée until smooth and mix into onion mixture. Combine well.
3) Coat an ovenproof casserole with olive oil or cooking spray and layer the chilies on the bottom. Evenly pour batter carefully over top chilies. Cover with foil and bake for 1hr15min.
4) While the casserole is baking, sauté 1 julienned onion and leek in 1/4tsp olive oil over med heat until onions are very brown (~8-10min). Add in the mushrooms, 2 cloves garlic, 2tbsp oregano and sauté until mushrooms are soft (~5min more). Remove to a mixing bowl.
5) In saucepan, combine tomatillos, 2c veg stock, and 1 clove garlic. Simmer over med heat for 15min. Remove to a blender and add in 2 bell peppers and purée until smooth. Combine with onion-mushroom mixture and adjust seasoning. Return to saucepan and bring to simmer over med heat for 1-2min.
6) When the casserole is ready, allow to rest 15min before serving and serve sauce warm over each serving.

The final dish was far removed from what I envisioned from the title. I wasn’t expecting a casserole. Usually, when I pick a recipe to try, I judge whether I want to make it based on the title and the ingredients. I rarely read the accompanying instructions beforehand… It’s just my method. Sure I questioned the egg whites in the ingredients section, but they were such a small component in the grand scheme of things…

Cornmeal vs. Grits vs. Polenta

When I think of a Southwestern-style polenta, I think of a silky, cheesy grits-type substance topped with roasted chilies and smokey, chipotle beef (shredded or chunky). Not to throw too much shade at a James Beard award nominee, but when you call something “polenta,” you would think it would call for more than 1/4c of polenta to serve 8-10. In my humble opinion, I believe 1/2-1c would be better since this recipe came out rather loose. The extra polenta would help to thicken the dish and increase its claim in being considered as “polenta.”

While it’s true that polenta can come in the form of a solid, baked dish, this dish in particular came out more like an egg and cheese casserole with an identity crisis (Mexican, Italian, and Asian ingredients) than a baked polenta. While I was at my part-time gig today, I managed to scoop up the necessary ingredients to create my (albeit unhealthy) own version of this dish.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed in this dish. It was healthy and probably really good for us and I’m not averse to vegetarian meals every once in a while. I however couldn’t shake the desire for beef with these flavors. What are some of your favorite vegetarian dishes?

Currently reading: The Pioneer Woman Magazine, Summer 2019


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