Mexican Casserole with Walnut Chorizo is a hearty, multi-layered marvel loaded with flavor and spice. Try this vegetarian casserole this week for a nutrient-rich dinner the whole family will love. This recipe post is sponsored by California Walnuts. I was compensated for my time, however all opinions are my own.
Vegetarian Mexican Casserole for Dinner:
A cheesy, comforting casserole that delivers full-fledged flavor AND nutritional perks? Sign me up! This one-dish wonder is layered with flour tortillas, spiced yogurt, walnut chorizo, salsa, and melt-y cheese. It marries slow-building heat with earthy spices and bright, tangy tomato. The cooling essence of cilantro tempers the heat of the chiles, creating a beautifully balanced bite. And, unlike most creamy casseroles, this one is a celebration of textures thanks to the added crunch of walnuts.
This Mexican Casserole is kid-friendly, and hearty enough to win the approval of vegetarians and omnivores alike. And while I recommend the whole casserole being a weeknight staple, at minimum you NEED to try the walnut chorizo. It delivers the same robust flavor and smoky edge as the classic cured meat, yet is completely plant-based. It’s one of the many examples of how versatile walnuts can be in savory applications.
How are Walnuts Harvested?
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to tour one of the many family-owned walnut farms in Lodi, CA as part of the California Walnuts Harvest Tour. We had an immersive experience learning all about how walnuts are grown and harvested, and their journey from farm to fork. (Fun fact: Over 99% of the walnuts consumed in the US are grown in California!)
It takes 4 to 5 years for a walnut to grow, and they’re only harvested once per year (usually in late Sept/early Oct). Since the whole walnut tree doesn’t ripen at once, the trees are “shaken” by special trucks to release the ripe ones. After the ripe walnuts are picked up and sorted, they’re brought to the plant for processing within one day.
The agriculture of walnuts is deeply rooted in tradition and family farming, and to see the process first hand was fascinating. I also loved the opportunity to meet some of the third- and fourth-generation walnut farmers who let us tour their beautiful orchards. I certainly walked away with a deeper appreciation for walnuts and have been excited to share in their culinary versatility with you all.
What are the Health Benefits of Walnuts?
Walnuts are tiny, yet mighty, nutrition powerhouses. And in an attempt to expand health outcomes, The California Walnut Commission has invested in health research spanning across 10 countries working with over 55 institutions and universities. Here are some of the key messages:
- Walnuts have the most ALA (plant-based omega-3 fatty acid) out of the nine tree nuts. Among numerous health benefits, ALA especially contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels.
- Walnuts are a good source of magnesium, gamma tocopherol (fat-soluble vitamin E), and polyphenols (plant antioxidants).
- Health outcomes from epidemiological research and clinical trials have linked walnut intake with improved heart biomarkers and cognitive performance, as well as lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity.
- Walnuts may increase sense of fullness and activate an area in the brain associated with hunger and cravings.
- Regular walnut intake is associated with positive shifts in sperm health for men.
- Toasting walnuts does NOT alter their nutrient profile. However, if you soak walnuts or remove their brawny skin, you could miss out on key nutrients.
One study I found particularly interesting looked at the association between nut consumption and weight change. This long-term observational study analyzed more than 20 years of data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, Nurses’ Health Study, and Nurses’ Health Study II. In total, these cohorts included 289,915 men and women ages 24-75. The results showed that increasing daily nut consumption (walnuts and/or other tree nuts) by just half a serving (14g or 1/2 oz.) was linked to less weight gain and lower risk of obesity, compared to not eating nuts.
The study’s cohorts were largely composed of Caucasian health professionals with relatively higher socioeconomic status; thus the results may not be generalizable to other populations.
How to Make Vegetarian Walnut Chorizo:
This recipe is inspired by a breakfast burrito we enjoyed on the California Walnuts Harvest Tour, which including a similar walnut-based chorizo.
In this recipe, the base is mashed pinto beans and chopped walnuts, which are infused with loads of spices and dried herbs. Dried Mexican chiles offer a peppery punch, while dried oregano and cumin lend earthy undertones. A mix of chili powder, black pepper, and smoked paprika give it extra spice and smoky dimension. I like to “bloom” the spices first (aka lightly fry them in oil), to deepen, and therefore maximize, their flavor potential.
Not only is walnut chorizo a more nutrient-dense alternative to the classic cured meat, it’s also super versatile. Beyond layering it in Mexican Casserole, you can also use it in tacos, tostadas, and breakfast burritos, or spoon it over nachos. The pinto beans offer dietary fiber and plant-based protein to make it a hearty and satiating alternative to ground meat. This recipe is streamlined enough for weeknight dinners, and a great way to get kids involved! As far as toppings, I love a mix of cooling herbs, creamy avocado, and briny bits of olives. You could also garnish with sliced green onion, fresh or pickled jalapeno, and/or halved cherry tomatoes.
If you give this recipe a try, be sure to tag #dishingouthealth so I can see your beautiful creations!
More Healthy Mexican-Inspired Dinners:
- **Walnut Chorizo**
- 2 (15.5-oz.) cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 1½ cups chopped walnuts
- 1 Tbsp. chili powder
- 4 to 6 dried Mexican chiles (such as Ancho chiles), seeded and crushed
- 2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- ¾ tsp. black pepper
- ¾ tsp. kosher salt
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1½ Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- **Mexican Lasagna**
- 1 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt
- 2 Tbsp. taco seasoning
- 12 flour tortillas, halved
- 3½ cups homemade or store-bought salsa
- 1 (8-oz.) block Monterey Jack cheese, grated
- ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves for garnish
- Optional toppings: sliced black olives, avocado, thinly sliced green onion and/or radish
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Prepare Walnut Chorizo: Place beans in a large bowl and use a potato masher or fork to lightly mash (leave some whole for added texture). Stir in walnuts.
- In a small bowl, combine chili powder, Mexican chiles, paprika, cumin, oregano, black pepper, and salt; mix well.
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium. Once hot, add spice mixture and cook 1 minute, until fragrant. Add bean mixture and vinegar; stir well to coat. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mixture is golden brown and resembles ground chorizo. Set aside.
- Prepare Mexican Casserole: Combine yogurt and taco seasoning in a small bowl; mix well.
- Spread ½ cup of the salsa in the bottom of a 13x9" or 11x7" baking dish coated with cooking spray. Arrange 8 tortilla halves in the bottom (4 lengthwise and 4 crosswise as shown in the photo collage above). Spread half of the yogurt mixture over tortillas and top with 1¾ cups walnut chorizo. Spoon 1 cup salsa overtop, followed by one third of the grated cheese. Repeat exact process with another layer of tortillas, yogurt, chorizo, salsa, and cheese.
- Arrange remaining 8 tortilla halves overtop, followed by 1 cup salsa, and remaining one third of cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and golden. Top with cilantro and additional garnishes of choice.