I am addicted to the rice bowls at Chipotle: I choose this slightly healthier option rather than a bigger-than-my-head calorie-bomb burrito loaded to the gills with meat, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. On the other hand, I am also a fan of eating out as little as possible—not only to save money, but also to maintain a healthy diet. Therefore, I made it my mission to make similar—but even healthier—bowls at home. Enchilada bowls with sweet potato noodles are my latest iteration of that quest.
Substituting sweet potato for rice in these enchilada bowls adds a whole new layer of healthfulness. Why?
Enchilada bowls: rice or sweet potato noodles? A biochemistry lesson
I tend to lapse into science nerdiness upon occasion—thanks in advance, dear reader, for putting up with me.
Simple vs. complex carbohydrates
Sure, sweet potatoes are loaded with carbs just like rice—but they’re complex carbohydrates rather than the simple processed, refined carbohydrates we find in white rice. A “complex carbohydrate” is made up of a longer chain of sugar molecules (e.g., polysaccharides), which takes more time to be broken down by your body than is the case with simple carbs (e.g., mono– and disaccharides). As a result, your body gains a more sustained supply of energy from breaking down complex carbs as opposed to the blood sugar spike that is typical of simple carbs. For this reason, sweet potatoes are better for people following a diabetic diet than white rice.
We all know that humans need oxygen to survive, right? Unfortunately, oxygen can also do damage to the human body—from the tissue level right down to cells and DNA. Normal metabolism—breaking down nutrients, making new molecules, and lots of other cool stuff our body does every day—also creates nasty little molecules known as reactive oxygen species (ROS: these little beasties are also formed from environmental inputs like cigarette smoke, some chemicals, pollution, etc.). To be very simplistic, ROS are like teeny-tiny marauders, rampaging around your body and wreaking havoc—known as oxidative damage—on tissues, cells, and DNA. These marauders can actually alter DNA, potentially shutting off protective mechanisms and turning on genes associated with diseases like cancer.
And doesn’t it just figure: this kind of damage doesn’t just go away—it accumulates as we grow older.
If ROS are the body’s marauders, antioxidants are its “peacekeepers.” Antioxidants essentially go around disarming the nasty ROS, slowing down and even preventing cellular damage. Although the body naturally makes some antioxidants on its own, there are others—B-carotene and vitamins C and E, for example—that can only be acquired through your diet. So it makes tons of sense to choose foods that contain a lot of antioxidants. For example, cranberries are superheroes in this category.
Long story short (too late!): sweet potatoes beat out white rice in both the complex carbohydrate and antioxidant departments, so they’re a win-win. Thus, sweet potato noodles.
Making enchilada bowls
Most store-bought enchilada sauces I’ve ever tried are completely vile. It’s very easy to make enchilada sauce at home using dried guajillo chiles, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, though I recommend setting aside a weekend morning or afternoon to do it. I keep portions of the sauce in the freezer to pull out for easy meals. This “saucy two-step” enchilada sauce was the subject of a recent post, but you can also make a quick-and-dirty enchilada sauce using tomato sauce, chili powder, onion powder, and some cumin (I’ll post that recipe soon!).
Meat…or no meat
These enchilada bowls are fantastic for dinner on busy weeknights. You can use whatever meat you happen to have kicking around in your fridge: for example, leftover rotisserie chicken is perfect. My hubster smokes lots of pork butts during the summer, so we usually have a bunch of smoked pulled pork in the freezer—it’s divine in enchilada bowls. OR, you can simply stick to the black beans and leave the meat out altogether. (For reasons that I don’t fully understand, black beans and sweet potato are a match made in heaven.)
Just about every aspect of this meal can be done in advance: spiralizing the sweet potatoes (keep them in a zip-top bag), cooking the meat, making the sauce, grating the cheese, and prepping any toppings you want. Then, at dinner time, it’s a simple matter of giving the noodles a quick sauté in a non-stick skillet, heating the meat and beans, and setting out all the components buffet-style for a fun DIY enchilada bowl bar. I love toppings like thinly sliced jalapeños, chopped onions, cilantro, and tomatoes. I also set out some Mexican crema (or sour cream), hot sauce (since the enchilada itself isn’t especially hot), and cotija cheese.
There’s a fantastic riot of flavor going on in these bowls: the sweetness of the potatoes is the perfect foil to the smokiness and richness of the enchilada sauce, beans, and pork, while the cotija cheese and crema lend a sharp, creamy counterpoint. This meal became a quick favorite in my family, and I hope it will in yours as well!
- 2 cups cooked chicken or pork
- 1 can black beans
- 3 large sweet potatoes, peeled & spiralized
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 cup red enchilada sauce, divided
- 1 tsp. cumin
- ½ tsp. salt, divided
- ⅛ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 1 small sweet yellow onion, chopped
- ½ cup cilantro, chopped
- 2 jalapeños, thinly sliced (seed them first if you like milder peppers)
- Mexican crema (or sour cream)
- cotija cheese, grated
- Warm the black beans over low heat in a saucepan. Season with cumin and ¼ tsp. of salt (or to taste). Reheat the chicken or pork.
- Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high and add olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the sweet potato noodles; use tongs to toss and coat with the olive oil. Continue to toss the noodles for 5-6 minutes, or until they reach the consistency you like (I prefer a tiny bit of crunch). Season with ¼ tsp. of salt; toss well and remove from heat.
- Mix the chicken or pork with ¾ cup of the red enchilada sauce.
- To assemble the bowls, layer noodles on the bottom (about ¾ cup); add ¼ cup of black beans, and ½ cup of chicken or pork. Sprinkle with cotija cheese and drizzle with the crema and a tbsp. or two of enchilada sauce. Add your favorite toppings and enjoy!
Prep the sweet potato noodles the night before or the morning of; store in the fridge in a zip-top bag.
You can also prep all of the toppings in advance and keep them in the fridge.
A delicious, smoky sauce made with dried guajillo chiles, charred tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Great for a weekend cooking project, then store it in the freezer for busy weeknights.