As a vegetarian, Mexican food is pretty easy to make at home — tacos, burritos, enchiladas, these are all things that have a pretty simple format, but can support huge variation. But when Food Network show Mexican Made Easy wants to do a vegetarian episode, what do they choose? A trifle, lasagna and a salad.
Any cooking show's ethnic food is a dodgy proposition — I think what makes these cheese sticks Mexican is just the cilantro — but it highlights a tremendous failure of imagination with vegetarian food.
This is especially depressing since the vast majority of what I eat is "vegetarian ethnic" food — "American" food is pretty meat-centric, shaped by generations of agricultural policy to heighten cheap meat and cheap starches. And because I'm lucky to live in a place where "Mexican" breaks down into endless regional differences (from Oaxacan to Korean), I know that "Mexican" is both spices and format, and is pretty damn easy.
So, mainstream+vegetarian+ethnic hits this culinary intersection of suck, where this food that could have been tasty and simple ends up a bland, uninspired hassle. It's no wonder that most folks think they couldn't be vegetarian — I couldn't either if I had to live on "Mexican mac and cheese."
Luckily, there are some (still easy) ways to make your Mexican food exponentially better.
The first is to grind your spices fresh. Put cumin in pretty much everything, usually when you're cooking sauteeing the onions (pretty much every vegetarian Mexican dish involves building from some onion sautee or another). You can use dried oregano, but fresh cilantro is much better. Adding a pinch cinnamon can add depth, especially with beans. Black beans have more flavor than pinto beans (which is why pinto beans make better refried). The spicing goes from dark to light — add things like cumin, dried peppers or bay leaves earlier, add things like cilantro, fresh peppers or avacado later. Salt cautiously throughout.
Most of all, just season a little more than you think you should and cook the vegetables a little less.