I love tacos. Who doesn't? I get squash taco cravings on the regular – so I felt it was finally time to get you in on this party. And if you're at all skeptical about this hearty fall vegetable jumping in on your fiesta – trust me, you're going to love it. And so will your friends – even the meat-eating ones! The squash is crispy and flavorful, the colorful veggies add a touch of freshness, and the jalapeno lime crema sauce brings the flavor harder than Bobby Flay. In fact, this sauce is probably the real reason behind my taco cravings. This stuff is the real deal.
I was first introduced to squash tacos in Toronto, at the well-known vegetarian eatery Fresh. Despite living in three different apartments, I always happened to live about five minutes from a Fresh. By the end, I was a bit obsessed. And as if it couldn't get any worse, our relationship developed into a full blown addiction when they started partnering with bike couriers for office deliveries. I could still get my Fresh fix even on nights when I was stuck in the office working through dinner – which sometimes happened more often than I'd like to admit! I'll always have fond memories of those moments when my squash tacos and green smoothie arrived at the office. It was like Christmas morning…that is, until I'd remember I was still at the office.
Now that I live nowhere near a Fresh, it's time to improvise. I used my memory of the flavors as inspiration, and then played around some. In the end, I'm really happy with how this recipe turned out. There's minimal active cooking involved, but based on the final product, you would barely know it.
In this version, I opted for Kabocha squash, sometimes referred to as Japanese pumpkin. On the outside, the squash has a dark green and almost dull finish; but on the inside, it has intensely orange flesh. The squash is thick and meaty, which holds up well during roasting so it doesn't get mushy. And, since it's the season for squash, you can load up for real cheap. Lately my local grocer has had baskets of Kabocha squash on sale – literally begging to be bought and cooked into tacos.
One of the main reasons I'm so pleased with this recipe is that the squash is crispy and flavorful, but without any deep frying! At first, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to match the crispiness, because I'm sure the restaurant versions are fried, but in the end panko breadcrumbs saved the day. Panko is lighter and airier than regular breadcrumbs, so it's the perfect base for the coating. But, since panko crumbs tend to be a lot larger, I found that I was losing a lot of them to the baking sheet. To fix this, I started doing two things. First, I dip the squash into liquid. To keep the recipe vegan, I use non-dairy milk (but any milk or egg would work as well). Then, I quickly pulse the panko and spices in the food processor, before coating the squash. A quick whirl in the food processor helps grind the panko down to a size that better adheres to the squash, while still maintaining that airy quality. The final products are perfectly crisp squash pieces, ready for taco perfection. And not to mention, baked squash as opposed to fried, is a massive win for #health.
The jalapeno lime crema comes together in a cinch. The blender transforms soaked cashews and avocado into a luscious, creamy base. The combination of lime juice and cashews are reminiscent of a sour cream – albeit a much healthier, dairy-free version. It's important to soak the cashews beforehand, because it's the only way they'll get super smooth and creamy in the blender. This step is literally the only advanced "thinking" required – and it just involves throwing a handful of nuts into a bowl of water before bed (or in the morning). You can do it! But, if you forget to soak the cashews, I'd actually recommend leaving them out as opposed to using dry, unsoaked ones. The avocado should give the sauce sufficient body, but you may need to adjust the liquid slightly.
The assembly comes next. I included kale, tomatoes and red onion as the vegetable add-ins, but it's really up to you. My only guidance is to use lots of sauce. Spread a generous serving of crema directly on the taco shell, then pile high with squash and toppings, and add a bit more sauce on top. Garnish with lime and cilantro.
Crispy Squash Tacos
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs (gluten free, if needed)
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 pinch cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1¼ lb kabocha squash, peeled and cut into ½-inch thick pieces
- ½ cup non-dairy milk (plain, unsweetened)
Avocado Lime Crema
- ¼ cup raw cashews, soaked (see note 1)
- 1 avocado
- 2 to 3 jalapeno peppers, deseeded and roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
- 2 to 4 tablespoons water (more as needed)
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 10 to 12 small tortillas (6-inch/15 cm)
- Thinly sliced kale (optional)
- Chopped tomatoes or pico de gallo (optional)
- Finely diced red onions (optional)
- Fresh cilantro (optional)
- Lime wedges, for squeezing (optional)
- Preheat: Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Start Squash Tacos: In a food processor, combine breadcrumbs, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, salt, and black pepper (see note 3). Pulse until breadcrumbs are half their original size. Transfer to a plate.
- Coat squash: Pour milk into a medium bowl. Dip a piece of squash in milk, then into breadcrumbs (use your clean hand to press breadcrumbs onto squash). Place the squash onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat to coat all pieces. Bake until golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes, flipping half way.
- Make Crema: Meanwhile, rinse and drain soaked cashews. To a blender, add cashews, avocado, jalapeno, lime juice, grapeseed oil,
2 tablespoons of the water, and salt. Blend until smooth, adding additional water to thin, if needed. Scoop the sauce out of the blender and set aside.
- Assemble: Wrap a stack of tortillas in foil. When the squash is almost done, add the tortillas to the oven and bake until warm, about 10 minutes. Serve with crema and toppings of your choice.
- Soaking cashews: The cashews should be soaked to the point that they feel soft when squeezed between your fingers. You can quick-soak cashews by pouring boiling water over them and soaking for at least 30 minutes; or use room-temperature water and soak overnight.
- Food processor alternative: If you don't have a food processor, you can pulse the breadcrumbs in the blender once or twice (be careful not to over process though, because you still want some texture). Or, place the breadcrumbs in a resealable freezer bag, then run a rolling pin over top.