Gearing up for Cinco de Mayo: VEGAN TACO NIGHT! (gf, corn-free, soy-free, nut-free, bean-free)

TACOS! I haven 't made t hem s inc e I was in highschool. Both tacos and fajitas were in regular weekly rotation in my house grow...

TACOS! I haven't made them since I was in highschool. Both tacos and fajitas were in regular weekly rotation in my house growing up as my dad LOVES spicy food. He describes himself as a hot-head. I am not exaggerating. His favorite cuisines include fiery Indian and Mexican. He makes obscenely spicy curries and homemade chili. He also adds ridiculous amounts of hot sauce to most of his meals. When I was growing up I went through a big phase where I thought I would become a chef. I was always inventing recipes and testing them out on my family (not much has changed about that). I always had to BEG my dad not to season the meals I prepared before tasting them. Like clockwork, I would set a plate in front of him and before I could stop him he'd invariably cover it in black pepper, salt and hot sauce. He loves big flavors and heat.

Tacos were something he always loved to make for us as kids. He would turn to an Old El Paso seasoning mix and ramp up the flavor with his own spices and seasonings. It was always spicy and delicious. 

When I met my husband I soon discovered that he loved Mexican food. He was trying to be a good vegetarian and trying to eat quinoa all the time. He would frequently make quinoa tacos for dinner. I never joined him because for a long time I thought I didn't like the taste of quinoa very much. I also thought it was a grain (it is actually a seed or pseudo-grain) and thought it seemed odd to eat grains in wraps -- "stodge on stodge" as my British brother-in-law would say.  My husband got sick of quinoa for awhile and has fallen out of his quinoa taco habit as a result. I, however, have recently embraced quinoa wholeheartedly in its many forms -- flakes, whole grains, flour.... I make porridge, crumbles, cookies, cakes and brownies with it now and I often eat quinoa instead of rice when we make or order in Indian curries. We even had quinoa sliders at our wedding, they were delicious.

I eat quinoa almost every day now. I usually make a savory porridge of quinoa flakes, millet grits and amaranth flakes.  Amaranth and quinoa are very similar seeds. They both produce flowering plants related to Spinach. They have very similar nutritional profiles -- the same nutrients and similar levels of proteins. I actually prefer the taste of amaranth for some dishes as it is less bitter and is loaded with more vitamins and minerals than quinoa contains. I have started to use amaranth flakes to thicken sauces as they add body and silkiness and minimal flavor. This week I experimented with them in a fantastic vegan cheeze sauce recipe (below). 

There is a lot to love about quinoa and amaranth. They are both nutritional powerhouses and complete proteins. They are packed with vitamins and minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, vitamin E, vitamin B6, riboflavin, niacin, panothenic acid, folate, potassium, zinc, copper, selenium and phosphorus. Amaranth is even known to release HGH (human growth hormone) in the body which is a great thing. They are also full of beneficial amino acids which build brain cells.

Best of all, both Amaranth and Quinoa are GLUTEN-FREE!

After a very long and unnecessary delay, I decided to try to create my own vegan quinoa tacos.   The quinoa taco meat turned out really delicious and very "meaty" in the end. While I was eating it I had a hard time remembering that my meal was vegan! 

I realized that our taco night was a good opportunity to create my first attempt at a Vegan Cheeze Sauce. I have been searching for cheeze recipes ever since I stopped eating dairy earlier this year. Most of the ones I have found online use cashews as their base. I am allergic to tree nuts so I haven't tried those recipes. The rest of the recipes seem to involve soy or squash or sweet potatoes. My soy allergy led me to try a squash-based cheeze sauce. Pureed squash gives vegan cheeze sauces a cheddar-like colour and a thick and smooth texture. The cheesiness in most recipes comes from either nuts or tahini or nutritional yeast. I have not cooked much with nutritional yeast. I try to limit my yeast consumption and always assumed it was wise to avoid it.  

After I became fixated on the idea of making a vegan cheeze sauce, I did some research into nutritional yeast to see just how bad it is for you. It seems to be debatable. Some argue it is a nutritional godsend for vegans and vegetarians as it is loaded with B vitamins and minerals. It also provides savory, salty and cheesy flavor with no dairy. Others worry that it contributes to candida overgrowth in the body and should be avoided. I decided to be optimistic and experiment with it. 

I now officially LOVE nutritional yeast.

I added it to my vegan cheeze sauce along with some pumpkin seed butter (similar in taste and texture to tahini) and the combination was fantastic.  For our taco night, the cheeze sauce was the first thing I made. After tasting the finished product I was beyond excited for dinner.

The vegan cheeze sauce should really be hot when you eat it. 

By simmering the blended sauce in a pot, the amaranth flakes cook more thoroughly and create a convincing melted cheese texture. The chia seeds do their slimy trick and also thicken the mixture, creating a cohesive melty sauce that's very similar to the texture and structure of melted cheese.  Be sure to stir the sauce often as it will stick to the pan if left alone. 

We made our "tacos" with my version of homemade gluten free "tortillas" which turned out like savory crepes or thin cheesy pancakes. You could skip this part of the recipe and serve your taco meat and toppings in a bowl or wrap them in corn or flour tortillas or even swiss chard or collard green leaves. 

My husband and I made this recipe on my day off from a very long week and weekend (groan) at work. We ate the meal in our own ways. I chose to eat my taco meat and toppings in a layered "Tex-Mex Bowl" with a torn homemade tortilla (savory crepe) on the side for dipping. My husband made two stuffed tacos using our "tortillas" (savory crepes) as wrappers. 
My Tex-Mex bowl for our 'taco night'

My husband's "tacos"

We both made slightly different quinoa "meat" to suit our own tastes. We both loved the meals we made.

This meal would be a great way to pay homage to the vibrant celebration of Cinco de Mayo which is coming up fast next weekend!

If you don't enjoy tacos or Mexican food in general, my vegan cheeze sauce recipe would be a lovely addition to many other meals. 

A few ideas include:
  • mac 'n' cheese
  • cheese fries or chili-cheese fries
  • cheese sauce drizzled broccoli 
  • cheese filled omelet  or puda (Indian chickpea flour omelet)
  • cheesy stir-fried potatoes 
  • cheese sauce drizzled baked potatoes 
  • grilled cheese sandwiches
  • cheese burgers or cheese covered veggie burgers list could go on and on.

The recipes below appear in the order we made them for our 'taco night'.  

Please note that we pre-cooked and fluffed the quinoa for our "taco meat" recipe below.

Danielle's Vegan Cheeze Sauce
Makes 1.5 cups

  • 2 cups frozen chopped butternut squash
  • 1 cup low sodium veg broth
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3-1/2 cup nutritional yeast
  • Dash rice wine vinegar
  • 1.5 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 tbsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp Chilli powder (optional)
  • 1 tbsp kelp flakes
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1/2 cup amaranth flakes
  • 1/2 tbsp pumpkin seed butter (you could also try tahini)
  • 1/4 lemon, juice of
  • 1/2 tbsp evoo

Make this sauce before you make your quinoa "taco meat". Heat the veg broth and water over medium heat. Add all the spices except the nutritional yeast. Add the squash and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Add to a blender or food processor and pulse until smooth. Add all remaining ingredients. Pulse and then blend until smooth. Taste! Add extra nutritional yeast if not cheesy enough. Add more onion powder if not savory enough. Blend thoroughly until smooth and thick. Allow to sit in room temperature for 5 minutes to allow the chia and amaranth to thicken the sauce. Blend again. Pour into a saucepan and warm it up over medium heat until it is slightly thickened to your desired consistency. The taste is enhanced as it cooks so don't skip this step!! Stir frequently as it will stick to the pan. Keep over low heat until ready to serve.

Lime Crema
Makes 1/2 cup
  • 3 tbsp soy-free vegenaise
  • juice of 1/2 organic lime
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutritional yeast
  • dash cumin (optional)
  • Dash chilli powder
  • 3 tbsp water
  • 1.5 tsp chia seeds

Stir ingredients together until smooth. Allow to sit in room temperature until thick for 10 minutes. Stir well before serving. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Homemade Corn-Free "Tortillas" or Savory Crepes
Makes 4 crepes (2 per person advised)
  • 3/4 cup millet flour
  • 2/3 cup amaranth flakes
  • 1.75 cups water
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • Dash sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp nutritional yeast
  • 2 dashes garlic salt
  • 1 tbsp evoo
  • 1 tbsp kelp flakes
  • 2 dashes rice wine vinegar
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly in a medium mixing bowl. Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium high heat. Pour small amounts of batter to make small and thin pancakes. They are ready to flip when edges are brown and bubbles appear on surface of the pancake. If you try to flip and edges are sticky, do not flip and wait until they are easily flipped ( a minute or 2). If you make these in advance, stack them on a plate covered with paper towel and place them in the oven at 150F to stay warm until ready to serve.

Danielle's Tex-Mex Quinoa "Meat"
Makes one taco bowl base
  • 1.25 cups COOKED black and red quinoa
  • 1 tsp chia seeds
  • 1 cup low sodium veg broth
  • 2 tsp chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp kelp flakes
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 dash garlic salt
  • 1 dash sea salt
  • 2 tbsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp nutritional yeast
  • 2 tsp vegenaise
  • 1/4 lime, juice of

Heat the olive oil over medium high heat until hot. Add the spices and stir through oil for 30 seconds. Add the onions and lower the heat to simmer them until softened. Add half the quinoa and sauté 1 minute. Add the veg broth and stir. Add the chia seeds and stir. Add the vegenaise and stir to incorporate. Add remaining quinoa and another dash of chilli powder and stir. Lower heat and stir every few minutes until ready to serve.

My Husband's Tex-Mex Quinoa "Meat"
Fills 3 taco crepes.
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 tbsp chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1/4 red onion, chopped fine
  • 2 dashes Braggs liquid seasoning
  •  1.25 cups COOKED black and red quinoa

Heat coconut oil in a non-stick pan over medium high heat. Add onions and spices and saute until translucent. Reduce heat to simmer. Add quinoa and Braggs seasoning and saute for a few minutes. 

Suggested Toppings for "Vegan Tacos" or "Vegan Tex-Mex Bowl":
  • Salsa
  • Guacamole
  • "My Vegan Cheeze Sauce"
  • Grated cucumber
  • Chopped Swiss chard or lettuce
  • Squeeze of lime 

My husband wrapped his taco meat and toppings in our homemade "tortillas", while I made my meat and toppings into a layered "Tex-Mex Bowl" with a torn "tortilla" on the side for dipping.

Vegan Tex-Mex Bowl:
Makes 1 large serving.

  • 1 serving of "Danielle's Tex-Mex Quinoa Meat" (recipe above)
  • 3/4 cup of warm "Danielle's Vegan Cheeze Sauce" (recipe above)
  • 1 cup of swiss chard, chopped and lightly steamed
  • 1/2 small zuchini, chopped into small pieces
  • 1/4 English cucumber, grated with a cheese grater
  • Large dollop salsa
  • 3 tbsp "lime crema"
 I layered the ingredients listed above in a large pasta bowl in the order they are listed in above from bottom to top. I ripped up one of our homemade "tortillas" and served the pieces with my bowl. I drizzled the "lime crema" over everything that I layered.

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