Mexican Lasagna

Recently, I have begun exploring the world of Twitter as both a student affairs professional and a food blogger. It’s quite fascinating, really. One of the themes that comes across the Twitter-radar every Monday is the concept of a meatless dinner. It’s tagged as #meatlessmonday and seems to be gaining quite the following. One of my goals this year was to explore more vegetarian eating, so this seemed like a perfect way to dabble and expand my repertoire of meatless recipes. Truthfully, at first I was intimidated. I could only think of about two recipes, and they were variations of beans and rice. Not very exciting, I know. Then I remembered Mexican lasagna, and my heart leaped for joy. I used to make this all the time, and as life sometimes happens, it just fell off the radar. Ladies and gents, boys and girls, children of all ages, it is back on the radar, and I am happy to share it with you for your own Meatless Monday enjoyment!

Mexican Lasagna [adapted from Healthy Cooking for Two (Or Just You!)]

1 can black beans (14.5 oz)
1 can diced tomatoes (14.5 oz)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
chopped green onions (Perhaps 2 – 3 stalks. Mine were very long and made a scant 1/4 cup.)
chopped cilantro, to taste (for some, this may be none)
1/4 cup diced green chiles
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
1/2 cup sour cream (I used low fat.)
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder (less if you are using strong Penzey’s chili powder)
6 corn tortillas

1. Empty black beans into a colander, and let drain while you are preparing the rest of the ingredients. The original recipe said to rinse them. I didn’t do this either time I made the recipe and cannot tell that my choice negatively impacted the dish. Feel free to rinse them if you wish.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. Open and drain about half the juice from your can of tomatoes. Then in a non-reactive bowl, mix the tomatoes, minced garlic, chopped green onions, cilantro, green chiles, cumin, and chili powder. Stir well to combine.

Tomato Goodness Mixture

4. Grate cheese.

Honestly, I rarely measure cheese.

5. Stir/whisk the sour cream to make it airy/light and easily spreadable.
6. In a non-stick pan (I recommend using an 8″ pie pan – despite what is pictured below), spread a small amount of the tomato liquid. You are just looking for a thin layer to cover the bottom of the pan. Put one whole tortilla down and break one tortilla in half to make it fit and cover the remaining space. Spread some of the tomato mixture on top, making sure to cover the edges. Spread about half of the beans on top of the tomato mixture. Top with about half of the Monterey Jack cheese.

7. Repeat the tortilla-tomato-bean-cheese layering process. This should use up your beans and Monterey Jack cheese.
8. Top with your final set of tortillas and the remainder of the tomato mixture.
9. Gently plop and spread the sour cream on top of the tomato mixture. I do mine in sections. It will be messy and imperfect. This is okay. Sprinkle your cheddar cheese on top. It is important to cover the edges of the tortillas with tomatoes or sour cream or cheese or any combination. If left uncovered while cooking, they’ll dry out and be bad eats.

Cheese on Top - Oven Ready

10. Put the pan on a jelly roll pan to catch any drips or cheese melts down the side of the pan and slide into the oven for 15 – 20 minutes until the cheese is gooey and melty and things are bubbling around the edges. When you take it out, let it sit for 5 minutes so it can cool. Otherwise, if you try to eat it immediately, it will be boiling-lava hot and take off the inside layer of your mouth. Not good.

Right out of the oven!

If you prefer it spicier, you can up the chili powder or add more green chiles or add fresh peppers. I made this twice and just happened to have the green chiles on hand the second time around. I am definitely going to try adding more the next time I make it. That’s why you won’t see them in the picture below, though. The first time I made this, I didn’t drain any of the juice from the tomatoes because the original recipe directed me not to. I didn’t remember whether or not I had from when I used to make it, so I went ahead and followed the directions. However, although the lasagna was still delicious, it was quite runny, and I didn’t care for all the extra liquid in the dish. Draining about half the liquid the second time around really did improve the integrity of the dish, in my opinion. You are welcome to try it both ways to see which you prefer. It is your kitchen, and you are the boss of it, after all. You could also swap out the kind of beans if you don’t like black beans or didn’t have them in the pantry. Mozzarella would be an agreeable swap for Monterey Jack.

I understand that for some of my friends, cilantro is an anathema, which does make me a little sad. However, for those of you who are practically in love with it like me, let me offer you a tip or two on chopping cilantro and herbs in general. First of all, I’m a bit of a cilantro purist in most cases. I don’t particularly care to eat the stems, without good reason admittedly. I think they carry the same cilantro taste as the leaves. I just don’t want to eat them. Unless the whole bunch is going in the food processor, I will take the few extra moments to pick off the leaves and toss the stems. However, don’t feel like you have to do this. It is probably easier to just chop the stems and all. If you are like me and are anti-stem, you now have a bunch of loosey-goosey leaves all over your cutting board, so now what? Well, dear reader, so glad you asked. Gather, bunch, and scrunch those leaves into a tight little pile under your fingers. Very carefully so as to avoid your fingertips, slice through the pile, moving your fingers back as your knife slices its way through the pile. At the end, either rotate the pile 90 degrees or your knife (whichever is easier), and slice again.

It will be a little messier this time through, but you’ll still get most of it chopped through a second time. Anytime I’m chopping herb leaves that are big enough to stack, scrunch, or roll, this is the method I use rather than chopping individual leaves. It works less well with smaller leaves like thyme, but you can still gather them into a pile and run your knife through, right to left, and it will do a fair chop job. Don’t be afraid to restack and cut again if necessary. I’ve also found that storing my herbs in either a container of water or a damp paper towel lengthens their life in my fridge. I put the plastic produce bag on top of the cilantro to help protect it from being banged up while in the fridge, too. No sense in letting your herbs go to waste if you can help it, right?

Meatless Monday is not a new concept at all. Much like many fashion trends make a reappearance many decades later, this food trend seems to have made a resurgence on the food scene. Way back, back in the days of World Wars I and II, there were national endeavors lead by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman to reduce our meat consumption in an attempt to aid the war effort. In 1917, New York City hotels managed to save about 116 tons of meat in just one week. That’s a crazy amount of meat, y’all!! In 2003, Meatless Monday was brought back as a public health initiative in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future. There are environmental, financial, and health benefits to going meatless, even once a week. You can check some of them out here, but reducing your consumption of meat reduces the carbon footprint of your grocery bill, reduces the amount you spend on meat which can be some of the most expensive items in your cart, and can potentially help curb obesity. Those sound like pretty good reasons to give a try to me. Every little bit helps in all those areas. You can check out this website for more information and recipes.

When you make Mexican lasagna for one or two with the recipe above, there are definitely leftovers which is fine by me. You could wrap individual portions in plastic wrap, then freeze them for a later date. Me? I just pop the portions in the fridge for lunch later in the week. I microwave it for about a minute, perhaps a smidge longer, and it’s delicious eats at the office. Yes, please! I end up having Meatless Monday dinner, Meatless Tuesday and Thursday lunch, and it’s all quite delightful. I hope this recipe encourages you to give Meatless Monday a try. And if you don’t want to wait until Monday to eat it, I don’t blame you. Have a meatless whatever day you like. It is your kitchen, you know. 🙂 Happy eating!

Nutritional content: 1/6 of the pan – makes 6 servings in an 8″ pan
Calories: 257
Carbs: 26 g
Protein: 13 g
Fat: 12 g
Calcium: 20%
Fiber: 5.5 g
Iron: 5.4 %

Philly by Food, Part 2

My apologies for making you wait, dear readers, to hear all about the other wonderful food encounters I had while I was in Philadelphia. If reading about the deliciousness of the Starr restaurant empire didn’t make you want to hop on a plane or jump in the car and head over to the city of Brotherly Love, then perhaps there will be something here that will push you over the ledge. Or reading about scrapple may be enough to put you off the local diners for good. Try to keep an open mind, though; you just never know. But let’s not start with scrapple. I’m excited to tell you about Reading Terminal Market.

Ladies and Gents, Reading Terminal Market is enough to make me want to move to Philadelphia and work in, if not live near, Center City. Just so you don’t look like the full-blown tourist that I did, it is pronounced “Redding” and not “Reading” (like you would a book). We weren’t corrected until we asked, so clearly they get that mistake often.  I’m sure it identifies you as a tourist more clearly than a neon arrow pointing at your head might so I’m glad to help you out. Reading Terminal Market is pretty much my foodie dreams come true in one building. It is a HUMONGOUS structure devoted entirely to food in various formats. It is laid out in blocks with street signs hanging from the ceiling to help you navigate your way. There are the wee farmer’s markets and the more typical grocery store-type areas of produce and pre-packaged granolas and mixes of that sort. There is an entire Amish section of meats, cheeses, pastries, pickled foods, and bread. There are butchers, fish counters, cheese counters, olive counters, pasta counters, and even a couple of trinket shops. There are a couple of general seating areas, and most of the restaurants have counter seating.

There are restaurants galore: Mediterranean, Cajun, Middle Eastern, Mexican, gyros, coffee, bakeries, crepes, a diner, pretzels, and more. We ate the most amazing pretzel dogs from Miller’s Twist, y’all. Seriously, my mouth just watered a bit thinking about them. The pretzel was soft and chewy, the dog was hot and juicy, and there was melted cheese inside that brought the whole thing together. Mmm…mmm…good! Lunch one day came from Olympic Gyro which was super fast and quite delicious. The fries were a french fry lover’s (as I am!) dream: crispy-crunchy, salty, not overly greasy, but just a bit. They were the good rectangular kind that frequent high school cafeterias or mall food courts. Don’t judge – if they are cooked right, they are quite tasty. The gyro was also really quality. I love a good tzatziki sauce which they had, and they didn’t put too many onions on there, which I don’t love. I give it 2 forks up! Metropolitan Bakery had these cute, little single-serving rolls that I appreciated so I didn’t have to buy a mamajama loaf of bread. I particularly enjoyed the rosemary olive oil roll. Now you try to say that 3 times fast. It’s tricky to get out even once! I may give those a go in my own kitchen. Seriously, friends, it made my heart both happy and sad just to walk the aisles of this place. There was so much food everywhere and so much of the kinds of food I love. Yet, I couldn’t buy it because I was going back to a hotel. Where on earth was I going to put a hunk of salmon, pray tell?? The Market is amazing, and you should be sure to go and go more than once when you visit Philly. Please forgive my lack of photos. I was too “in the moment” to take pictures every time I was in there.

Of course I ate cheese steak when I was in Philly. How could I not? Puh-lease! We went to Jim’s Steaks, which is where my friend Bailey felt was the best place to take us. He’s a Philly native so I trust his judgment. Plus when we got there, there was quite the lengthy line out the door and around the corner. That’s a good sign, y’all. People don’t wait in a long line for bad food. When we got inside, there was a little bit of culture shock, I’m not going to lie. I think I just wasn’t mentally prepared for it. There was a long snake line (like you might see at a theme park ride) and at the front, you tell the man at the large grill what you want. But it’s in special code. It goes something like this, “one with provolone, onions and peppers.” You do not tell the man you want a cheese steak because that is all they are serving up behind the glass so you will look silly telling him that. You can change out the cheese or the fillings, but it’s always “one with….” There is a huge, gigantic, enormous pile of beef just cooking away next to an equally large pile of onions, and the chef just scrapes up what he needs from the edge. As he scrapes up, another cook adds to the back of the pile. It was a very fascinating arrangement. I wanted to take a picture, but it was clearly not the time or place for that. I got mine with provolone which was good, but I do wish I’d gotten it with “whiz.” I’m honestly not really a Cheese Whiz fan, but that seems to be the standard, local way to get the sandwich, so when I go back, I will try it that way. It’s good to know the big pile of meat isn’t really seasoned. For some, that’s a plus. For others, it just means additional toppings. It’s your sandwich; you are the boss of it so you get to choose. Do make sure you get a cheese steak though when you go. I’ll judge you if you don’t. And that’s really something to be afraid of, you know. Not. 😉

And last, but definitely not least, we visited South Street Diner. This place can cook some crispy bacon! Can I get an amen, Stacey? Seriously, y’all. I’m a crispy bacon eater so I specified, and boy, howdy, did they deliver. I feel very strongly about this as a positive recommendation. It wasn’t burned which sometimes restaurants think is an acceptable substitute for crispy. Burned and crispy are sooo not the same thing whatsoever. There was much happiness when the crispy bacon arrived.

Check out the crispy bacon!

With the crispy bacon also came…<cue drum roll>…scrapple. Ahh, yes. Let’s talk scrapple, my friends. I’d seen it on several menus, and it was all over this diner menu. I asked Bailey, my Philly native friend, what it is, and he begins to extol the deliciousness of scrapple and how it’s a Philly delicacy and he will be ordering some so that we can all share and partake. Yes, but what is it? Well. Hold on to your plates and forks. Before we get to the nitty-gritty, you should know that the waitress is prohibited from accurately explaining scrapple because then nobody will want to order it. She told us it was a “fried pork product.” Bailey, the truth teller and keeper of no secrets, broke it right on down for us that scrapple is the result of all the formerly unwanted parts of the pig, “from the snout to the tail,” that are cooked and eventually fried.

Well. Okay. Dig in. It looked sort of like sausage. It tasted sort of like sausage with similar seasoning and a similar texture. Yet, there was something fundamentally different. Mostly I tasted pork and sage which isn’t so bad. I admit, I ate more than one bite. It was strangely curious to me. Intellectually, I am sort of grossed out, to be honest. Yet, my mouth wasn’t grossed out by eating it, leaving me conflicted.

Scrapple Bites

I can promise you that a recipe for scrapple will never, ever, ever appear on this blog except by way of a brave guest blogger. I looked up a recipe, and it’s too much for me. I did learn from the recipe that a primary difference between scrapple and sausage is the inclusion of cornmeal. I’m pretty sure if I was with a native Philadelphian in Philly again and it was ordered, I’d probably eat a couple of bites. Here is a whole lot of info on scrapple if you feel like you need way more details than I’ve given you. But, gentle eater, click at your own risk. Once you know, you can’t unknow, trust me.

I ate a few other restaurants that were all really good, and there are still others that I want to try the next time I go. Smokin’ Betty’s was very delicious. Mugshots Coffeeshop had very good food and was quite thematic for being across the street from a prison. Dunkin’ Donuts has QUITE the presence up there, and I had breakfast there many mornings. We don’t have them down here, really, and I’m mostly a Shipley’s gal so DD was an out-of-the-box experience for me. The coffee was good so I feel like it met my expectations there. You may want to skip the sugar or ask them to go lightly on it; they aren’t shy with it. They also have a lot of flavors which I always appreciate. I had no idea when I went that Philadelphia would be such a culinary delight so I was surprised in an enjoyable way. It was happy eating all week long, scrapple included!

Scrapple Eaters!