Crispy Squash Tacos with Jalapeno Lime Crema
Crispy baked squash, fresh vegetables and a generous dollop of jalapeno and avocado lime crema. Serve atop your favorite tortillas and you've got yourself a mouthwatering feast fit for vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike! Vegan. <jump to recipe>
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 WITH JALAPENO LIME CREMA
MAKES 10 TACOS (VEGAN)
1 1/4 lb / 565 g kabocha squash
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 pinch of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup non-dairy milk*
10 small corn tortillas (6")
Toppings: Chopped kale, Sliced baby tomatoes, Diced red onions
Garnish: Fresh cilantro, Lime wedges
Jalapeno lime crema:
1/4 cup cashews, soaked (4-12 hours)
1 avocado, skin and pit removed
2-3 jalapeno peppers
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon neutral oil (e.g. grapeseed or avocado)
2-4 tablespoons water**
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375°F. Set aside two baking sheets and cover with parchment paper. Peel the kabocha squash and slice into thin wedges ~1/2" thick.
In a food processor, combine breadcrumbs, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, salt, and black pepper. Pulse for 20-30 seconds until the ingredients are well combined. The panko breadcrumbs should be the texture of very rough sand. Pour breadcrumbs onto a plate. Pour the milk into a bowl.
Take individual pieces of sliced squash and dip them into the milk. Then, transfer the squash to the plate of breadcrumbs. Cover completely, on both sides. The more breadcrumbs that stick to your squash, the better, so use your hands to really press the coating onto each piece. Place breaded squash on lined baking sheet. Bake squash for 30-40 minutes. At the half way point, flip squash to ensure even baking.
While the squash bakes, prepare the crema. Rinse soaked cashews thoroughly, then add to a blender. Add avocado flesh to blender. De-seed your jalapeno peppers and give them a rough chop. Add jalapenos, lime juice, oil, 2 tablespoons water and salt to the blender. Add additional water as needed, until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Scoop the sauce out of the blender and set aside.
Prepare additional garnishes, such as finely chopped kale, sliced baby tomatoes, diced red onions, cilantro and lime wedges. If you prefer warmed tortillas, wrap in tinfoil and place in the oven for ~3 minutes before serving. To assemble, spread crema on base of tortilla. Add a generous serving of crispy squash and additional garnishes.
-Kabocha squash doesn't necessarily need to be peeled, but I prefer it in this recipe. It helps the squash cook faster, and the breadcrumbs better adhere without it. I find that a vegetable peeler is most effective, but you could also use a knife.
-*The non-dairy milk you use for dipping should be unflavored and unsweetened. You could also substitute regular milk or egg.
-**Depending on the strength of your blender, you may need to add a couple extra spoonfuls of water when making the crema sauce.