Anyone who knows me well knows I have an obsession with Mexican food, particularly chicken enchiladas suizas. If I could, I would make Mexican food one of the main groups on the food pyramid. Unfortunately, Mexican cuisine is notorious for its high fat content thanks to knock off Mexican fast food chains like Taco Bell (did you know that Taco Bell is headquartered here in Irvine?). While it’s definitely tempting to walk across the street from school for a Mexican food-fix, I’d rather opt for my own healthier, easy-to-make version.
I was pleasantly surprised by this soft taco recipe I discovered during my search for healthy Mexican food. As Taco Bell would put it, this recipe “thinks outside the bun” by using ingredients that aren’t typically found in Mexican dishes. Instead of the usual cheddar, Monterey Jack or Mexican Cotija cheese, these tacos are filled with ricotta cheese. This gives them a significantly lower sodium and fat content. Did you know that ricotta cheese not only has less fat than cottage cheese, but also has five times less sodium? I think any dieter out there who relies on cottage cheese as a staple of their diet should consider replacing it with ricotta. With its high protein, calcium, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid content, ricotta beats cheddar any day, especially when it comes to heart health. Even though I thought the use of ricotta cheese in this Mexican dish was unusual (I always think Italian food when I see ricotta as an ingredient), I found it to be a suitable and tasty substitute for the other more customary cheese choices.
Another atypical ingredient in this taco recipe is spinach. Popeye discovered the power spinach packs back in the early 1900s, and researchers are recognizing its power today as an anti-cancer agent. Packed with vitamin C and over a dozen bioflavonoids, spinach really does make you “strong to the finich.”
Even though the original recipe didn’t call for mushrooms, I decided to add them since mushrooms and spinach together make a great flavor combination. Mushrooms are also quite the super food. Popeye might have considered eating them along with his spinach if he knew that they, too, are high in iron and nutrient-rich. It’s also no wonder that in early Greek civilization, mushrooms were consumed by warriors to give them strength during battles. And do you think it’s a coincidence that Mario (of Super Mario Bros.) doubles in size and gains extra strength when he finds a super mushroom? I’m willing to give credit to the game designers for doing their homework on that one!
The other change I made to the original recipe was to use whole wheat flour tortillas instead of corn tortillas. The whole grains in these tortillas convert carbohydrates into maltose, which helps the body better absorb vitamins and minerals. (A great choice to help utilize all those extra nutrients you’ll be getting from the spinach and mushrooms in the filling.)
This recipe gives new meaning to eating Mexican fast food. While the ingredients in authentically prepared Mexican dishes actually possess many health benefits, most of them are lost in modern-day ingredient substitutions and preparation processes. With a little cuisine creativity, this soft taco recipe provides a quick, healthy alternative to an old favorite. Give it a try and see if you don’t agree!
Ricotta Spinach Soft Tacos
Adapted from Food Network Magazine
Makes 2 tacos
1/3 cup ricotta at room temperature
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 clove of garlic, chopped
Salt to taste
1 tbsp olive oil (for frying pan)
1/4 of a white onion, sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rings
1/2 cup white mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 tbsp diced green chile peppers, drained (I used Trader Joe’s Fire Roasted Diced Green Chiles)
3 1/2 cups fresh spinach, stemmed
1 tsp ground cumin
2 small whole wheat flour tortillas (or 1 large tortilla cut in half)
Salsa verde (I used Trader Joe’s Salsa Verde)
NOTE: The spinach, mushrooms, and onions can be purchased at Trader Joe’s (pre-washed, sliced and chopped). This will save you a lot of time by cutting down on prep-work in the kitchen. The leftover ingredients can also be used for salads, omelettes or frittatas. Yum!
Combine the ricotta, cilantro, and half of the garlic clove in a small bowl. Season with salt.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over high heat. Add the onion and mushroom and cook without stirring until lightly browned (about one minute). Add the chiles, spinach (in batches), and cumin and stir until the spinach begins to wilt. Add the remaining half of the garlic clove and cook until the spinach is completely wilted (about 3 minutes). Season with salt and turn off stove heat.
Microwave the tortillas on a damp towel for 10-15 seconds. Divide the warm spinach mixture among the tortillas, top with the ricotta mixture and a spoonful of salsa verde, and fold. Serve with more salsa verde for dipping.