The number of ways to make enchiladas surely equals or exceeds the number of households in Mexico.
I grew up eating flour tortillas filled with shredded chicken, rolled and lined up in a 9-inch-by-13-inch glass casserole dish, smothered with canned green sauce and shredded Cheddar cheese. That’s quite a different dish than the breakfast enchiladas I devoured in Mexico City last year that were filled with chicken, folded in half, topped with Oaxaca cheese and more traditionally enchilada’ed — enveloped in the sauce instead of simply sleeping under it.
Iliana de la Vega, chef and owner of El Naranjo, says that there are more than 150 different traditional recipes, not to mention the what she refers to as the cousins, which include enfrijoladas (tortillas dipped in or covered in black bean sauce), entomatadas (tomato sauce), enmoladas (mole sauce) or the pastel azteca, a dish of layered enchiladas that looks a lot like the generic “Mexican casseroles” you might find on this side of the border.
Texas has its own enchilada tradition. Tex-Mex enchiladas start with a roux — the flour cooked in fat base that is also used in gumbo — and, instead of fresh or dried chilies, use powdered chilies.
It’s a wide world to explore, and last year, San Antonio restaurateur Cappy Lawton hired De la Vega and a few other Mexican food experts to help put together “Enchiladas: Aztec to Tex-Mex,” a wide-ranging book that covers all the bases, including how to make tortillas, rice, beans, many kinds of sauces and variations on whatever kind of enchiladas you grew up eating or like to eat today.
De la Vega taught at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio for several years and now leads culinary expeditions in Mexico. Her next trip is scheduled for March 15-21 (visit elnaranjorestaurant.com/read-me-1-1-1 for more information). She says the idea behind enchiladas dates back many centuries, but the name only came around during the 1800s.
What goes inside the tortillas, how thick to make the sauce, what kind of garnish goes on top are all up to the head cook; however, one of the universal keys for traditional enchiladas is corn tortillas. No one is stopping you from using flour tortillas, of course, but they don’t soak up the sauces in the same way corn tortillas do — and they can get gummy pretty quickly.
Even if you don’t think you like corn tortillas, try passing one quickly through hot oil and then some good enchilada sauce to see if that shifts the texture and taste in a way that might change your mind. You don’t want to fry them too long or they will become too crispy to fold. (But then you’ll have tostadas, another wonderful blank canvas to play with.)
Although vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood are the most popular fillings, De la Vega says that there are some kinds of enchiladas with no filling at all. Enchiladas can be rolled, folded or stacked, but usually three tortillas are considered a serving.
If you do want cheese on top of or inside your enchiladas, what type should you use? That depends on whether you are going to bake or broil the enchiladas after you’ve prepared them. Melting cheese, such as that Oaxaca cheese I enjoyed in Mexico City, is good for that. But it’s just as common not to cook enchiladas after they are prepared and to just use a crumbled cotija cheese, queso fresco, or Mexican crema. Sour cream would be an Americanized substitute.
To make your own sauce, you can use fresh or dried chilies, though powdered chilies from the baking aisle can also do the trick. For fresh chilies, you’ll blacken the skins over a flame or under the broiler so they can be removed easily and discarded, and then puree with other ingredients. For dried chilies, you can cut them open to shake out the seeds and then reconstitute them in water for about 15 minutes before pureeing. In “Enchiladas,” the authors suggest roasting the dried chilies on a cast iron surface first, but that’s a step that not everyone thinks is required.
America’s Test Kitchen always has useful shortcuts. For enchiladas, they suggest making a quick red chili sauce with onions, garlic, spices and tomato sauce. They poached the chicken directly in the sauce, which both enhanced the flavor of the sauce and ensured moist, flavorful meat for the enchilada filling. Instead of using tongs to dip the tortilla in hot oil, they brushed the tortillas with oil and microwaved them to make them pliable.
That method would probably make plenty of Mexican grandmothers roll their eyes, but in this story, we wanted to show the many paths that appear when you start with a few tortillas and a little sauce.
Chicken Enchilada Casserole (Pastel Azteca)
Pastel azteca, which translates as “Aztec cake,” is an enchilada casserole composed of alternating layers of corn tortillas, tomato sauce, shredded chicken, poblano chilies, cheese and Mexican crema. Slaw makes a great side dish.
2 lb. Roma tomatoes
1/2 medium white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Kosher salt, to taste
6 poblano chilies, divided
3 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, poached and shredded
12 corn tortillas
Vegetable oil as needed for softening tortillas
1 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil for greasing casserole
1 1/2 cups Mexican crema
1 1/2 firmly packed cups queso asadero or Monterey Jack, grated
Chopped tomato, for garnish
Place whole tomatoes in a saucepan, add 3/4 cup water, cover and cook over medium-low heat until the tomatoes barely burst open. Set aside to cool slightly in the cooking liquid.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to a blender along with the onion and garlic. Blend to a very smooth puree, adding tomato cooking liquid as needed to achieve a thick sauce consistency.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan, add the tomato puree and cook until it slightly darkens, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt to taste, cover and set aside.
Place whole chilies directly on a barbecue grill over hot coals or a gas burner flame. Turn the chilies to blacken them evenly. When chilies are evenly blistered and blackened, remove and place them in a paper bag. Place the paper bag inside a plastic bag, close and allow the chilies to steam for several minutes (until cool enough to handle).
When cool, remove skins, stems, veins and seeds from chilies and slice into strips or rajas. To maintain maximum flavor, chilies should not be rinsed with water.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the shredded chicken with two-thirds of the poblano strips (reserve a third for topping). Pour oil to a depth of 1/2-inch in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Heat to low frying temperature, about 300 degrees. Place each tortilla in the oil and fry for a few seconds, just long enough to soften. Drain on paper towels.
Butter or oil a shallow ovenproof casserole dish that will accommodate four tortillas in a single slightly overlapping layer. Spread a few tablespoons tomato sauce on the bottom of the casserole.
Place four softened tortillas in a single layer on top of the tomato sauce, followed by half of the poblano/chicken mixture, 1/3 of the remaining tomato sauce, 1/2 cup Mexican crema and 1/2 cup queso asadero. Layer with four more tortillas, the remaining chicken/poblano mixture, 1/3 of the tomato sauce, 1/2 cup Mexican crema, and 1/2 cup queso asadero.
Top with the last four tortillas and remaining tomato sauce, Mexican crema and queso asadero. Decorate the top with the reserved poblano strips. Bake until the cheese is melted and the pastel is heated through, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove from oven and garnish with tomato. Loosely cover with aluminum foil and let rest for a few minutes before serving. Serves 8.
— From Iliana de la Vega, chef/owner of El Naranjo and published in “Enchiladas: Aztec to Tex-Mex” by Cappy Lawton and Chris Waters Dunn (Trinity University Press, $39.95)
This America’s Test Kitchen recipe includes a few shortcuts and flavor enhancers that you could use anytime you’re making enchiladas, or poaching chicken for that matter.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped fine
3 Tbsp. chili powder
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 (8-oz.) cans tomato sauce
1 cup water
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
1/4 cup jarred jalapeños, chopped
12 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)
12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in chili powder, garlic, coriander, cumin, sugar and salt and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in chicken and coat thoroughly with spices. Stir in tomato sauce and water, bring to simmer and cook until chicken is cooked through, about 8 minutes.
Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer set over bowl, pressing on chicken mixture to extract as much sauce as possible, and reserve the sauce. Transfer chicken mixture to separate bowl, refrigerate for 20 minutes to chill, then stir in cilantro, jalapeños and 2 1/2 cups cheese.
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Spread 3/4 cup sauce over bottom of 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Brush both sides of tortillas with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Stack tortillas, wrap in damp dish towel and place on plate; microwave until warm and pliable, about 1 minute.
Working with 1 warm tortilla at a time, spread 1/3 cup chicken filling across center of tortilla. Roll tortilla tightly around filling and place seam side down in baking dish; arrange enchiladas in 2 columns across width of dish.
Pour remaining sauce over top to cover completely, and sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese down center of enchiladas. Cover dish tightly with greased aluminum foil. Bake until enchiladas are heated through and cheese is melted, 15 to 20 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.
— From “The How Can It Be Gluten-Free Cookbook Volume 2” from America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, $26.95)
Salsa Verde (Green Sauce)
Salsa verde is one of the most popular kinds of enchilada sauces. If you’re ready to skip the can, here is a basic recipe to get you started. If you add the cream or crema, you’re heading toward enchiladas suiza, a popular 1950s-era export out of Mexico City.
6 anaheim chilies
6 tomatillos, husks removed
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 small white onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup cream or Mexican crema (optional)
Salt to taste
Roast chilies on stove, blackening on all sides. Place evenly black and blistered chilies in a jar or bag, seal for 15 minutes. Remove skin, seeds and stem. In blender, combine chilies, tomatillos, garlic and onion. Blend until smooth.
Pour into saucepan and add cream if desired. Heat to warm, add salt to taste, and proceed with enchilada recipe. Makes enough sauce for 4 to 6 servings.
— Adapted from a recipe in “Mi Comida Latina” by Marcella Kriebel (Burgess Lea Press, $30)
Ceyala is a city in Guanajuato, Mexico, where this sausage-based enchilada recipe originates. Instead of filling the tortillas with the sausage and potatoes, the enchiladas are filled with raw onions mixed with fresh cheese and then garnished with sausage, potatoes, lettuce, banana peppers and radishes.
7 dried ancho chilies, seeds and stems removed
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 tsp. oregano
Salt to taste
2 Tbsp. lard, divided
1/2 lb. linguica or other pork sausage
2 lb. peeled and diced potatoes
24 corn tortillas
16 oz. fresh cheese or grated queso fresco
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 head lettuce, washed and cut into thin strips
6 pickled banana peppers, sliced
1 bunch radishes, cut into thin slices
Mexican crema, to taste
Cover the chilies in water and soak for 15 minutes. Remove the reconstituted chilies and reserve the water. Blend the ancho chilies with garlic, oregano, salt and a little water in which they were soaked, until the sauce has the right body: not too runny, but not too thick. Set aside.
In a pan, melt 1 Tbsp. lard, fry the sausage and remove from pan, reserving the remaining fat in the pan. Add the potatoes to the pan and cook over low heat until softened. Remove from pan.
Add remaining lard to pan and melt over medium heat. Dip the tortillas in the ancho chili sauce and fry quickly in the lard. Combine cheese and onions. Fill each tortilla with cheese and onion blend, and then fold or roll and place in a baking or serving dish as you repeat with remaining tortillas.
Top the enchiladas with lettuce, potatoes, fried sausage, banana peppers, radishes and cream. Serves 6.
— Agencia Reforma
Oaxaca is known for its mole, which is often used as an enchilada sauce. Here, you’ll mix some of the mole with shredded meat and save the rest for adding on top of the filled tortillas.
For the mole:
3 Tbsp. lard, divided
5 oz. mole paste
4 cups chicken stock, warmed
3 cups shredded chicken, pork or beef
12 corn tortillas
3 Tbsp. lightly toasted sesame seeds
Thinly sliced red onion, for garnish
Cream, for garnish
For the mole, heat 1 tablespoon of lard in a saucepan. Incorporate mole paste and gradually pour the hot stock, until the sauce reaches desired consistency. Reserve half of the mole sauce. To the remaining half, add the shredded meat, bring to a simmer and then remove from heat.
To assemble the enchiladas, heat the remaining lard. One by one, gently fry the tortillas and fill with shredded meat and mole sauce. Roll or fold in half and repeat with remaining tortillas. Place the enchiladas on a plate and top with several spoonfuls of the remaining sauce. Garnish with sesame seeds, onions and cream. Serves 4.
— Agencia Reforma