La Bodega y el Vegetariano

Palate-Pleasing Shopping and Cooking Sin Carne

by Cecilia Peterson

Latin American cuisine boasts bold, comforting flavors with incredibly diverse and amazingly versatile ingredients. Chiles of all levels of spice infuse sweet chocolate. Mild and substantial root vegetables are seasoned with light but surprisingly powerful marinades of garlic and lemon.

While most standard components of Latin cooking can be found in any well-stocked supermarket, there is a variety of products and produce to be discovered in a bodega, or Latino market. Though Latin American cuisine is largely meat-based, the variety of vegetarian ingredients in a Latino grocery store coupled with a few items from your local natural foods store is more than enough to create countless delicious vegan meals without sacrificing authentic flavor.

One thing to be especially vigilant about when looking at packaged foods, even when they appear to be vegetarian, is whether they contain lard or other types of animal fat. Many canned foods might contain it, especially certain brands of refried beans. Some brands of enchilada sauce contain chicken fat. Goya brand is normally pretty safe; their refried beans use vegetable oil, and their condiments, if containing animal products, are well-labeled.

There is a variety of produce and vegetarian products to be discovered in a bodega, or Latino market.

Latino markets are a paradise of flavor, so omitting meat from a recipe can easily be made up for with a plethora of chiles and spices that enhance a dish in such a way that all the qualities of the original dish are still present. For example, chipotle peppers (found dried or canned) can be used when a recipe calls for ham or ham hock; their smoky-sweet flavor works as a beautiful replacement. But be careful! A little goes a long way.

Also, canela, a cinnamon-type spice used in many Mexican dishes, can be added to a dish that requires beef. It is milder than traditional cinnamon, but it has the rich and subtly sweet flavor that beef provides in some dishes.

Following are a few more ingredients that are found in most Latino markets, along with some popular ways to use them. These recipes will familiarize you with both your local Latino supermarket and the flavors of Latin cooking. Try these dishes and then begin experimenting on your own!

Recipe Index

Guanábana (Soursop), Mango, Maracujá (Passion Fruit), y Papaya

These are all popular tropical fruits of Latin America. Mango and papaya can often be found in any supermarket, but they rarely taste as good as the ones you find in a Latino market. Plus, you can get all of these as frozen fruit pulps at a Latino market, making it easy to prepare yourself a quick, refreshing batido—no peeling, no pitting.

Batido de Frutas (Fruit Milk Shake)

(Serves 2)

A twist on the typical smoothie.

  • 1 cup soymilk
  • ½ cup vanilla-flavored soy ice cream
  • ¾ cup frozen tropical fruit pulp
  • Sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.) or other sweetener to taste
  • ¾ cup crushed ice

Place all ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 159 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 28 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 83 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Quinua (Quinoa)

A high protein grain originating in northern Chile or Peru, where the Incas first domesticated it. Long hailed as a high-energy food, cooked quinua can be added to nearly any dish, providing a unique texture and a light, nutty taste.

Cold Quinua Salad

(Serves 4)

Perfect for a summer picnic or outdoor barbeque!

  • ½ cup quinua or quinoa
  • 3 cups water
  • One 15-ounce can black beans, drained
  • 1 cup cooked sweet corn kernels, drained
  • ½ cup diced red bell pepper
  • ½ cup diced green bell pepper
  • ½ cup chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions (all white parts and approximately 1 Tablespoon of the green parts)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • ⅓ cup red wine vinegar or rice vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼-⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Place quinua in a fine mesh strainer and rinse under cold water until water runs clear. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil, add quinua, and cook until completely translucent. This will take approximately 10 minutes. Once cooked, drain the quinua and return it to the saucepan. Cook quinua on low for approximately 3 minutes. Pour into a large bowl. Add black beans, corn, and vegetables and toss with the quinua.

In a non-reactive bowl, whisk together the olive oil, mustard, vinegar, salt, and pepper to make the vinaigrette. Pour over salad. Toss in cilantro and serve.

Note: This salad will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator. It will, in fact, become more flavorful as time goes on and the quinua, beans, and vegetables marinate in the vinaigrette.

Total calories per serving: 354 Fat: 16 grams
Carbohydrates: 45 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 601 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams


Calabaza can be loosely translated as pumpkin, but in reality, it is an entirely different vegetable. While it can replace pumpkin or acorn squash in most recipes and vice versa, calabaza has a flavor all its own. You can get it at most Latino markets year-round, but it is best in season, during the fall or winter. It is usually sold in pre-cut wedges.

Sopa de Calabaza (Puréed Pumpkin Soup)

(Serves 4)

Good for days when you can see your breath.

  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cilantro
  • ½ teaspoon ground cayenne
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon or canela
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1-½ Tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • ¾ Tablespoon molasses
  • Water as needed
  • ½ pound calabaza, peeled, cleaned, and cut into ½-inch pieces
  • ½ cup chopped white onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 quart vegetable broth or vegetarian chicken-flavored broth (available at natural foods stores)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup soymilk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small saucepan, toast the cumin, cilantro, cayenne, and canela on medium-low heat for approximately 1 minute, shaking periodically to prevent burning. When spices become fragrant, add olive oil, brown sugar, and molasses to the saucepan, stirring constantly over medium heat, and adding water slowly until all ingredients are uniformly combined. The mixture should take on a syrupy quality. Pour the mixture into a medium mixing bowl and toss in calabaza. Coat the calabaza in the spiced oil and spread out on a sheet pan covered with foil. Bake until caramelized and soft, approximately 30 minutes.

Coat the bottom of a dutch oven in oil and sauté onions and garlic over medium-low heat until onions are soft and translucent. Add calabaza, broth, salt, and pepper and simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes, uncovered.

Remove from heat and ladle soup in batches into a food processor or blender. Purée until smooth. Ladle mixture back into pot and stir in soymilk. Heat for 1 minute over low heat and serve.

Total calories per serving: 356 Fat: 29 grams
Carbohydrates: 23 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 471 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Nopales (Cactus)

These paddle-shaped parts of the prickly pear cactus are high in fiber and delicious grilled over the barbeque. To prepare nopales, cut approximately half an inch off each end of the paddle and shear off needles with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Then, rinse under cold water.

Nopales con Pico de Gallo

(Cactus with Chopped Tomatoes, Onions, Garlic, and Cilantro)

(Serves 6)

Delicious alone as a salad or in quesadillas, burritos, or anything else that needs a tangy kick.

  • 4 small or 3 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, minced (For less spice, de-vein the pepper and throw away the seeds.)
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 medium-sized nopales
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar or rice vinegar

In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, and cilantro.

Prepare the barbeque with a medium-high heat. Combine garlic and half of the oil in a mixing bowl. Brush nopales with oil and garlic mixture and season with salt and pepper. Grill over barbeque until limp, approximately 5 minutes on each side. Cut into thick strips and toss into tomato mixture. Pour in remaining oil and vinegar, mix, and serve.

Note: Like the Cold Quinua Salad), this dish keeps well, soaking up flavor as time goes on.

Total calories per serving: 125 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Yuca (Yucca)

A fibrous root vegetable, white in color and very mild tasting. Yuca soaks up any flavor added to it, making it very easy to work with. You can find this in bags of frozen chunks at your Latino grocery store.

Yuca con Salsa de Ajo

(Serves 6)

A combination of bold spring and summer flavors with the warm mildness of winter comfort food, this dish is satisfying any time of year.

  • Water to cover yuca in large pot
  • Juice of 1-½ lemons, divided
  • ½ teaspoon salt, divided
  • One 8-ounce bag frozen yuca
  • ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves crushed garlic

In a large pot, mix enough water to cover the yuca, the juice of half a lemon, and half the salt. Bring to a boil. Add the yuca and cook until soft. Drain and set aside in a medium-sized bowl.

In a small saucepan, heat the oil on high. When it is very hot, turn off the stove and add the garlic. It will cook in the residual heat of the pan. When the garlic is cooked (approximately 5 minutes), add the juice of a whole lemon and the remaining salt. Cook over low heat for another 2 minutes, stirring constantly.

Pour garlic sauce over yuca and serve.

Note: This dish lasts about 3 days in the refrigerator.

Total calories per serving: 168 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 16 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 200 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Plántanos (Plantains)

Resembling a large banana, plántanos are used almost everywhere in Latin America. Like any starchy plant, though, they shouldn’t be eaten raw. They can be cooked at any stage of ripeness—when they are green they are savory, when they are black they are sweet. They can be baked or fried with no flavoring, but add some salt and oil for a delicious side dish. Though you can find plántanos at most supermarkets, Latino markets usually have higher quality ones. Plántanos can take up to two weeks to ripen fully, depending on how green they are. You can speed up the process by letting them ripen in a paper bag.

Plántanos Maduros Asados (Baked Ripe Plantains)

(Serves 4)

This recipe stuffs the plantains with guava paste and cracker meal, but you can stuff them with anything from refried beans and vegan mozzarella cheese to roasted red peppers. Or even just have them plain.

Guava paste can also be found in a Latino market. Goya makes a very good one. It comes in a rectangular slab approximately a foot long.

  • 4 very ripe plántanos or plantains
  • 4 Tablespoons cracker meal (usually found next to the bread crumbs in most supermarkets)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 4 slices guava paste (approximately a centimeter in width)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim and discard the ends of the plántanos. Do not peel. Place the rest of the fruit in a shallow baking pan. Bake for 15 minutes. While plántanos bake, mix the cracker meal and salt with oil until the oil is uniformly distributed.

Remove pan from oven. Holding a plántano with a pot holder, use a sharp knife to make a lengthwise slit in the skin. Peel and split lengthwise to the heart. Remove the black center strip and fill the space with a slice of guava paste and 1 Tablespoon of the cracker meal mixture. Repeat with the other three plántanos. Place pan back in oven and bake a few minutes until cracker meal begins to turn golden brown. Serve hot.

Note: This dish keeps for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.

Total calories per serving: 296 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 68 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 155 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Cecilia Peterson wrote this article while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.