Austin360Cooks: Migas are great, but they aren’t chilaquiles


Comfort foods speak a universal language. They remind us of home when we are far away, bring us solace when we are sad and help us feel a little better when we are sick.

Depending on where you’re from, your comfort foods may be chicken noodle soup, a slice of pizza, a Midwestern hotdish, Frito pie or a steaming bowl of pho. Having grown up in Mexico City, I have a whole set of dishes that bring me comfort when I need it, but my all-purpose go-to favorite is definitely chilaquiles.

New Texans might get chilaquiles and migas confused, but they are as different from each other as a hamburger is from a meatloaf. Though the breakfast staple dishes share common ingredients, they are distinct and reflect many years of culinary history in both Texas and Mexico.

Migas consist of scrambled eggs cooked with chopped onion, tomato and fresh chili jalapeño or serrano, with a handful of fried tortilla pieces and shredded cheese tossed in at the end. Although widely popular in restaurant menus throughout the state, the roots of this humble dish are no doubt in the kitchens of Mexican-American families.

In Mexico we call this dish huevos a la mexicana con tortilla and don’t add cheese. Where I come from, migas is a soup made from stale bolillo slices soaked in chicken broth seasoned with garlic, chorizo and epazote, similar to Spain’s garlic soup.

Chilaquiles, on the other hand, are purely Mexican. (Don’t forget: Texas was once part of the Republic of Mexico, so this dish has been enjoyed here for generations, too.)

The dish — crispy-fried pieces of corn tortilla simmered in a brothy, tomato- or tomatillo-based sauce seasoned with onion, garlic, epazote and different chilies depending on the region — has long been a warming, nourishing staple, ubiquitous in cafeteria and neighborhood fondas (neighborhood restaurants that serve simple home-style dishes) for breakfast or supper. They are usually garnished with crumbled cheese, fresh onion slices and Mexican crema. They can be upgraded to a fuller meal with the addition of a fried egg, shredded poached chicken or a thin skirt steak. Some cooks like to use melting cheese such as queso Chihuahua and broil until bubbly.

Chilaquiles are the ultimate in frugal, home-cooked meals, a simple dish that takes 15 minutes to whip up from ingredients already in the fridge or the pantry. But for me, chilaquiles represent something more, and I’m reminded of that each time I travel home to take care of my mother, who taught me how to make them in the first place.

I grew up in a lower-middle-class family, and both my parents worked. My dad was the sales manager at his cousin’s tile factory, while my mom, despite having a degree in pharmacochemistry, ended up with a variety of odd jobs.

When my dad lost his job to a general strike at the factory, we had to tighten our belts to make ends meet. These were hard times, to say the least. However, my mom did her best to shield me and my brother from the reality of our situation, and this especially came through at the table. She was a fabulous, resourceful cook who could make dinner out of anything and would waste absolutely nothing.

She would mix leftover rice with a beaten egg and shredded cheese and fry patties that would float in a simple tomato broth. Milk went sour? No problem, we’ll make chipotle boursin! And stale tortillas were carefully cut, sun-dried and stored. Perhaps this came from her French grandmother, but she would use pinking shears to cut them into fancy triangles for chilaquiles and strips for tortilla soup.

None of these frugal resources went past me, especially because when mamá was away for work, I had to cook for my brother and father, starting at around 11 years old. This scenario was obviously not unique to my family, and thousands had it much worse, but these simple dishes speak to me in the language of the heart. The memories of making chilaquiles for my family as a young woman tug at my heart as I make them again for my mom, who still needs my help in the kitchen, perhaps more than ever.

I found a kindred spirit in fellow Mexico City expat Marisela Godinez. The chef/owner of El Mesón shares a similar experience, with fond memories of her late mom fixing the dish especially for her. “I prefer them very crispy; the rest of my family liked them soggier, so my mom would take my portion out of the pan first and cook the rest a little longer for everyone else,” she tells me.

At her South Lamar restaurant, she serves the traditional green and red versions for breakfast on Saturdays, and she makes a special recipe for the popular Sunday brunch buffet. “My mom made chilaquiles rojos with a chili guajillo sauce instead of tomato-based,” says the chef. Guajillo is a dry chili with a mild, fruity, earthy taste that lends the dish an extra rustic quality.

A few years ago, after a night of revelry, my brother took me to brunch at a spot near our family’s apartment, aptly called Chilakillers. The funky hole in the wall calls itself a “loungeria,” a play on words that combines lounge and lonchería — Mexican for neighborhood diner.

Amid kitschy decor blending iconic Mexican imagery with American pop culture, diners enjoy creative takes that elevate chilaquiles to the sublime. In addition to the traditional red and green, Chilakillers boasts mole, black bean, avocado and extra spicy versions with a variety of meat and veggie toppings.

Out-of-the-box weekend specials may include spicy mango sauce with smoked pork chop, chili poblano sauce and beef milanesa or three-cheese sauce with a picadillo and queso fresco-stuffed chili relleno. Add an ice-cold michelada and you can feel your soul return to its body.

Chilaquiles Verdes

1 1/2 pounds tomatillos, husked and washed

3 chilies serranos (or more if you like things spicy)

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 large stems of fresh epazote

1/4 cup vegetable oil

10 stale corn tortillas, cut into eighths

1/2 small white onion, thinly sliced

Crema Mexicana or creme fraiche

Crumbled queso fresco or cotija

Place tomatillos and chilies in a small saucepan, add enough water to cover and bring to a boil.

Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes or until the tomatillos are soft. Strain into a blender, add garlic and puree. Add the epazote and blend.

Heat the oil in a medium pan and fry the tortilla triangles a few at a time until golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Pour the salsa into the pan and cook for about 10 minutes. Add about a cup of water, season with salt and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the tortilla chips, stirring them until completely coated with the sauce. If you want them crispy, serve immediately topped with the crema, some of the cheese and sliced onions. If you prefer them soggier, turn the fire off, cover and let them soak in the sauce for 5 minutes before serving. Optional: Top with shredded poached chicken breast, a fried egg or a thin steak. Serves 4.

— Claudia Alarcón

Marisela’s Chilaquiles en Guajillo

16 chilies guajillos

5 dried chilies de árbol

3 large tomatillos, husked and washed

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 medium white onion, cut into slices

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/8 cup oil

10 stale corn tortillas, cut into eighths

1/4 medium white onion, thinly sliced

Crema Mexicana or creme fraiche

Crumbled queso fresco or cotija

Rinse the chilies and dry them well. Split the guajillos in half lengthwise and take out seeds. Toast all chilies lightly on a comal or frying pan, then place in a bowl and cover with warm water. Let them soak for a few minutes. Meanwhile, in the same comal or pan, roast the tomatillos, garlic and half of the onion, turning frequently until they start to char and soften. Add the vegetables and chilies to the blender with the soaking water and puree. Add seasonings and blend well.

Heat the oil in a medium pan over medium-high heat and fry the tortilla triangles a few at a time until golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Pour the salsa into the pan and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the tortilla chips, stirring them until completely coated with the sauce. If you want them crispy, serve immediately topped with the crema, some of the cheese and remaining thinly sliced onions. If you prefer them soggier, turn the fire off, cover and let them soak in the sauce for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

— Marisela Godinez



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