Make Vegetarian Mexican Recipes That Taste Like Classic Meat Dishes

Trying to eat more plant-based meals but have been avoiding your favorite Mexican foods because you can’t go for another plate of black beans and rice or another order of quesadillas?

Or you are tired of trying to make dinner out of pico de gallo and tortilla chips? We hear you and we’re here to help! 

Yes, there are a lot of easy ways to get Mexican flavors that are plant-based like, say, through a vegetarian version of classic tortilla soup, by making vegan burrito bowls, or making a simple corn salad. 

The Problem With Meatless Mexican Recipes

But then there are those recipes that try to substitute meat with meatless alternatives. Too often vegetarian Mexican recipes simply take the classic Mexican dish and simply omit the meat.

That's fine if you’re talking about black bean burritos, but it doesn’t always work. A lot of the time the end result is a vegetarian recipe that leaves you unsatisfied and well, still hungry. 

Mushroom Gorditas on a counter

How To Substitute Vegetables For Meat In Mexican Cuisine

You can do so much more than simply subbing in pinto beans, bell pepper, and sour cream and calling it good. Our advice is to think about what that particular meat you are eliminating is bringing to a dish and see if you can mimic those flavors and textures with something else.

As in, is it providing fat, umami, texture, all of the above? Then start thinking of what vegetables can take their place.

The swaps you probably already see in other plant-based dishes are nuts to seem like ground meat, mushrooms to mimic seared meat, or cauliflower as a sub for fish or steak.

But you can go way beyond that. Let’s take a look at a few examples to see what we mean. 

Chicharrones 

Chicharrones are those addictive pork skin snacks that are crisp, salty, fatty, and dripping with umami. They are eaten as a snack, used to garnish pozole, or stewed with salsa verde as a guisado. 

An equally low-carb but also vegetarian option is grated-aged cheese. Hard cheese like Gruyere or aged cheddar will give you all the same feels if you grate them, sprinkle a handful on a hot pan, and let it crisp to a golden brown.

Tuck that crackling cheese into a warm tortilla with your favorite guacamole recipe and you have yourself a killer taco with all the rich umami you crave from chicharrones. 

Al Pastor

What about Al Pastor? This term is synonymous with the tall cylindrical rotisseries of meat (typically pork) that are shaved into one of the most beloved tacos around. In fact, when our guests travel we always add it to their bucket list of must-eat street foods in Mexico City.

We’ll admit the toothsome bits of pork loaded with spices are pretty freaking amazing. But what we really love about Al Pastor is the intense, complex marinade and the smoky charred flavor. 

The good news is that we can take this marinade and use it on any number of hearty vegetables that are great on the grill: winter squash, eggplant, sweet potatoes or mushrooms would all be excellent made “al pastor”. Serve this with Mexican rice and refried beans and we promise you won’t miss the meat. 

Birria

Of all the classic foods from the state of Jalisco, birria tops our list. The term "birria" translates to mean insignificant things without value but we'll argue all day long that birria adds tons of value to our culinary lives!

Traditionally this dish is a stew that's made by combining goat (and sometimes lamb or beef) with adobo and spices. The result is a shredded texture with tons of flavor that can be eaten alone or in a taco.

Our favorite plant-based substitute for the meat in birria? Slow-cooked collard greens. To make it you take all the same ingredients—adobo sauce, guajillo chiles, onions, and garlic—and cook the collards low and slow are tender, broken down, and flavorful. Tuck them into a quesadilla or make a torta by piling them into a roll layered with smashed avocado, sliced onions, and loads of cilantro.

Another way to use collards? In these Potato and Collard Green Crispy Tacos With Ancho Chile Crema recipe that you'll find in my latest cookbook. 

Barbacoa

Truth be told barbacoa is one of our favorite Mexican recipes. As in, we'll travel far and wide if we hear of a roadside spot or a market that has legit barbacoa tacos.

This dish is traditionally made with beef or goat that is slow-roasted for hours over an open fire or in some cases a pit dug into the ground and covered by agave leaves. 

It just so turns out that the humble carrot makes a surprisingly good vegan substitute for barbacoa. Once roasted in the aromatic rustic sauce, carrots take on a subtly sweet lushness, plus it roasts in a little over 30 minutes so you can satisfy that Barbacoa craving way faster than when using beef. Scroll down to the recipe and see if you agree. 

Interested in learning more? Follow Hola Jalapeno on Instagram for inspiration and order a copy of my new cookbookPlant-Powered Mexican where you’ll find all these vegetarian Mexican recipes, plus other favorites like black bean soup, vegetarian enchiladas, and over 70 more plant-based dinner recipes including some that are perfect for the instant pot!  

Vegetarian Carrot Barbacoa Tacos Recipe

Roasted Carrot Barbacoa Tostada Recipe with Charred Jalapeño Yogurt Sauce

This recipe is reprinted with permission from Plant-Powered Mexican by Kate Ramos

Sweet roasted carrots make excellent barbacoa. Traditional barbacoa involves slow-roasted meat cooked in a wood-fired pit for hours and hours until it is tender and can be shredded into tacos.

For a plant-based version, roasted carrots are not authentic, but an extremely delicious alternative piled on a crispy-fried tostada with a creamy jalapeño yogurt sauce. 

Tostada Technique

Frying a whole corn tortilla to make a tostada isn’t a special skill, but if not done properly can result in a tostada that is chewy and soggy instead of light and crisp—believe me, been there and have absolutely done that.

The trick is to make sure your oil is hot when the tortilla goes in. To be absolutely sure, measure the temperature of your oil with a deep-fry thermometer (they are inexpensive and available online and in most grocery stores). It should be between (350° to 375°F).

If you don’t have a thermometer, stick the edge of the tortilla into the hot oil, it should be immediately covered with bubbles. If not, wait another minute and try again.

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

For the Charred Jalapeño Yogurt Sauce:

  • 2 medium jalapeños
  • 2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt 

For the Barbacoa carrots:

  • 3 pounds carrots, trimmed, peeled, and cut in half
  • 6 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded, and rinsed
  • 1 bottle (12 ounces) beer
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh Mexican oregano or Mediterranean oregano, tough stems removed
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

For the tostadas: 

  • 1 cup avocado or sunflower oil
  • 8 corn tortillas
  • Salt, for seasoning

INSTRUCTIONS

Make The Charred Jalapeño Yogurt Sauce:
Place the two jalapeños and two unpeeled garlic in a dry comal or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until charred on all sides; the garlic will take less time so remove that first. Remove the garlic peel and the stems from the jalapeños.

Cut the jalapeños in half and remove seeds if you’d like it less spicy. Add the charred vegetables to a blender with 1 cup whole milk Greek yogurt, 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Blend on high until smooth. Taste and add more salt or vinegar as needed.

Make The Guajillo Chile Sauce: Heat the oven to 400°F. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the 6 dried guajillo chiles and remove them from the heat. Let soak until tender, about 15 minutes.

Drain the chiles and combine in a blender with the 1 bottle (12 ounces) beer, 1 small red onion, 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh Mexican oregano, 6 cloves garlic, 1/4 cup blackstrap molasses, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper. Blend on high until smooth.

Cook The Barbacoa Carrots: Toss the carrots with the guajillo chile sauce in a large roasting pan until carrots are well coated. Pour into a roasting pan and spread the carrots into an even layer. Roast until the carrots are tender and cooked through but not mushy, about 40 minutes. 

Meanwhile, to make the tostadas: Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add tortillas one at a time and fry until crisp and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle with a little salt. Pile carrots on the tostada shells and drizzled with jalapeño sauce. 

Get More Plant-Based Mexican Recipes

From now until November 9, when you pre-order Plant-Powered Mexican you also get a companion ebook for free! This ebook, Mexican-Inspired Desserts and Drinks was written in collaboration with CA GROWN and has brand new, never seen before recipes for drinks like Strawberry Jamaica Iced Tea and desserts like Pumpkin Spice Mexican Wedding Cookies that you will absolutely love. 

So pre-order now! And then email a screenshot of your order to plantpoweredmexican@quarto.com. You will receive your free ebook within 24 hours. 


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Photo Credit: Opening photo by Foxys Forest Manufacture; all other photos by Kate Ramos

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