Monday, June 05, 2006

Enchiladas, at Long Last

Happy Cinco de Junio! I'm really sorry it's been so long getting the enchiladas recipe and instructions up. Beautiful weather, a strong urge to do some gardening, and antsy children don't add up to a lot of time for blogging! But you aren't here to read my excuses, so off we go to the enchilada extravaganza. Authentic Mexican ingredients often used in enchiladas

Enchiladas are deceptive devils....it looks so simple to make a filling, wrap a tortilla around it, slather sauce on it, and bake it for a delicious dinner. There are lots of places a cook can go wrong, and end up with something less than yummy, or downright awful. Using authentic Mexican ingredients is important for a good result, and so is procedure. I've tried to anticipate common mistakes in my recipe and tutorial....which means this is long, but it should be helpful. I'm not sure that they're absolutely gluten free, but my daughter has never had any problems eating them, so I think they are, or at the least they're safe for all but the most-sensitive people.

Measures are almost totally absent in this recipe - a lot of it depends upon what ingredients you use and how generous or thrifty you want to be with the fillings. But if you really want an estimate of serving size, as part of a meal an average adult will probably eat 3-6 enchiladas as part of a meal. In Mexico they're usually served with rice and a salad. If you have questions let me know!

Enchiladas

Ingredients:

1 pound ground beef
1 chopped onion
1-2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
other seasonings to taste

1 roasted chicken
seasoning to taste

1 wedge cotija or queso fresco cheese, crumbled
1 small tin chipotle peppers OR
black olive and green olives, chopped

salsa verde or salsa roja, or both
crema
chopped fresh cilantro
additional garnishes as you prefer

For Beef Filling:
Brown ground beef. If necessary, drain some fat, then add chopped onion and saute until almost soft. Add garlic to taste and continue to saute until onion is soft, but take care not to burn garlic. Add other seasonings and water if necessary to make a thick sauce. Cover and simmer until beef is tender, or just until flavors are blended. (I like soft beef, so I prepare it ahead and let it simmer at least an hour.) The seasonings I like to use are all from Penzeys: regular taco seasoning, adobo seasoning, or southwest seasoning. Usually I add some Mexican oregano too, especially when I use the taco seasoning, and salt and pepper. Ground beef isn't too common in Mexico, but Americans are used to it and it works well in enchiladas and tacos. If you want something more authentic, buy the thin slices of beef steak any supermarket that has a Hispanic clientele will offer, sear it, then simmer it in the seasoning of your choice, and slice thinly to fill the tortillas. Or use shredded beef, chicken, or pork, seasoned as desired.

For Chicken Filling:
You can prepare your own chicken from scratch, but it's easier and just as good to buy a good roasted chicken that isn't already slathered in flavorings. Let it cool a bit so it's easy to handle, and just remove the skin and pull off the meat in a rough shred. Put the meat and any liquid or gelatinous stuff in a skillet and heat over low heat. When warm, add seasonings. My family's favorites are the adobo seasoning or southwest seasoning mentioned above, and a bit of water or tequila and lime juice. Cover and heat on low, stirring occasionally, until seasoning has been absorbed by the chicken meat.

For Cheese Filling:
Cotija cheese is a harder cheese, that can be somewhat to rather salty. Queso fresco simply means "fresh cheese," which in Mexico generally refers to a white, fairly soft cheese. Neither of these cheeses melt under heat, and unlike many American cheeses, when they're warm they don't exude oil. Instead they just get warm, and sometimes squeaky under the tooth. My children really like that, and cotija seems to be more squeaky, so that's what I use most, but either kind is delicious. Mexican cheeses are very diverse and I didn't find one I didn't like while there, but most aren't available outside the town where they're made, much less imported here. For more information on good Mexican cheeses that you're likely to find in a good supermarket or specialty store, see Kate's Global Kitchen for an overview.

For the enchiladas pictured here, I chopped some canned green olives, and black olives, and stirred them into the roughly crumbled cotija cheese. But my favorite cheese enchiladas are made by draining the juice from a can of chipotle chilies and stirring it into the cheese. If your kids don't mind spicy food or children aren't a factor, chop some or all of the chilies and add into the cheese for richer, spicier cheese enchiladas. Once I sauteed some mushrooms in garlic and added them to the cheese, and got raves from our teenagers....but hubby doesn't care much for mushrooms so I haven't done that again. That version and my olive version aren't strictly authentic, but they both work very well with the enchilada sauces and my family loves them, and that's what's most important to me. Experiment and find something that you and your family likes.

Preparing the tortillas:
This is probably the most crucial step in making good enchiladas. It's easy, but it requires undivided attention. If you can, get freshly made tortillas rather than mass produced and shipped ones. The flavor will almost always be better, and they'll be easier to handle. Top and bottom tortillas have it rough


Speaking of "easier to handle," you'll probably notice a difference between the top and bottom tortillas and the ones in the middle. End tortillas suffer a variety of indignities, from drying out because they aren't surrounded by tortillas to the condensation that often occurs when freshly made tortillas are packaged in plastic before they cool. Even so, they're useful as testers, so don't toss them out.

Middle tortillaHeat some peanut or corn oil in a small skillet - just large enough to hold a tortilla. (This is a great way to condition your small cast iron skillet.)If you're doing a lot of tortillas, it's faster if you start with a lot of oil. That way you don't need to add more and wait for it to come up to temperature. If you're only making a few enchiladas - a dozen or less - just enough oil to cover the tortillas should be enough. Heat it to about 300°F. Anything higher than 325°F and the tortillas will cook too fast for you to keep up with them.

Sacrificial test tortilla The idea isn't to fry the tortillas, but really just to get some oil into them so that they won't disintegrate under the salsa and heat of the oven. Use the end tortillas as testers to make sure the temperature is right, and your timing good. It takes just a few seconds in the hot oil for a tortilla to be cooked for use in enchiladas - too long and they become inflexible and prone to cracking or breaking when folded over the filling. A good visual indicator is when the tortilla starts to float - it's time to flip it and cook the other side for just a couple of seconds. My guess is 5-10 seconds on the first side, and 3-7 seconds on the second side. The picture below shows a tortilla ready to be turned. If you cook a few tortillas too long, don't trash them. You can fry them longer and make tortilla chips out of them - but that's a different post for another time. A properly cooked tortilla for enchiladas will not absorb sauce, but won't be stiff. Frying tortillas

I always drain the tortillas after frying them on a double layer of paper towels spread over my wood cutting board. This step helps reduce the fat we eat, and also helps condition my cutting board. Once cool, stack the fried tortillas and if necessary, cover with a paper towel so they don't get too dry and stiff. I haven't found a way to prepare the tortillas more than an hour or two in advance; they seem to dry out or stiffen up if they sit much longer than that. For more pictures of frying tortillas and making enchiladas, please visit my photo album. Properly cooked tortilla

Enchilada assembly:
First, turn your oven to 350°F to preheat it while you assemble the enchiladas. To do this, set up a mise en place of tortillas, fillings, and lightly greased rectangular casserole dishes. My standard size ones hold about 15 enchiladas at most, so if you're feeding a crowd you'll need more than one casserole dish. What I often do is make a full-size dish of spicier ones for hubby, me, and the teenagers, and a second, 8 x 8 size dish of milder ones for the younger children.

Wrapping enchiladas To fill tortillas for enchiladas, use a teaspoon and put at most, one or two teaspoons of filling in each tortilla. There needs to be enough tortilla left to wrap around the filling. Once the filling is distributed in the tortilla, fold the sides around the line of filling, and place it seam down in the greased casserole dish. I can usually fit 12-15 enchiladas into a full size casserole dish, pushing them snugly against each other. Notice that I'm not squeamish about piling them up along the sides too. It's an American habit of serving enchiladas as intact rounds. In most homes where I ate enchiladas they don't do this; they usually just sliced wherever they wanted to get a good sized portion. Restaurants that have a tourist clientele are the exception to that experience. My kids prefer to serve themselves in whole enchilada units too, but that's still easy to do. Prepared enchiladas awaiting a sauce

Once all the enchiladas are filled and placed into a baking dish, it's time to cover them. My family prefers salsa verde, or green sauce composed mostly of tomatillos, but the salsa roja, or red sauce, is good too. (I've made salsa verde at home, and it's even better than storebought salsas. I need to find out a procedure to can it safely though. Once I do that I'll share that recipe.) I like to make sure all the exposed tortilla on the top of the pan is at least lightly covered with salsa, so that it doesn't dry out and get tough. Too much salsa will make the enchiladas soggy though, so use a light hand when spooning it. My kids don't like spicier salsas, so their pan of enchiladas has mild salsa; the grownup versions use medium-heat canned salsas. I remember El Pato ("the duck") brand salsa from Mexico....here, I mostly use La Costeña, and if I can't find that, Old El Paso is everywhere and acceptable.

Baked enchiladasThe enchiladas should bake for 10-15 minutes, or just until hot. If they bake too long, too much of the salsa dries and the bottoms of the tortillas begin to toughen, which makes them difficult to cut. That can happen if you stack pans of enchiladas in the oven too, so if you need bake two dishes at once, try to stagger them on the oven racks, and rotate them during heating to help ensure even heat exposure.

Enchiladas with crema I don't remember being served a lot of "salad stuff" on top of my Mexican enchiladas, again except in tourist places. Usually they offered crema as a topping. Crema is a wonderful Mexican "table cream," kind of like a cross between sour cream and yogurt. It's thick and mildly tangy, but not nearly as tangy as either of them. Crema agria is much more like American sour cream, and isn't what I had most places I stayed. Especially if you've made spicy enchiladas, the crema helps moderate the heat, along with any crumbled cheese you might wish to adorn your enchiladas with. Queso fresco is commonly used for this. We like to sprinkle them with freshly chopped cilantro too. The night I made these, hubby had picked up a bunch of ripe avocadoes, so we had fresh guacamole to enjoy with them. If you like ribboned lettuce and chopped tomatoes, go ahead and use them. There are lots of enchilada fillings, and many variations even within a specific type. I've heard of tuna enchiladas (often spiced with lime and maybe tequila too) that sound wonderful, but I didn't have any of them...same with enchiladas that relied on mole, a chocolate and chili based sauce. I just wasn't in the regions that feature those cuisines. Just like American cuisine, though, if you use common sense for flavor combinations that are from the same or a similar region, you'll most likely end up with delectable and fairly authentic Mexican enchiladas. Don't be afraid to try them, now that you know the basic procedure, and take notes so that you remember what you like best!

Comments:
Yay! What a well thought-out and helpful tutorial! I've been wanting to try enchiladas for quite some time, but haven't gotten around to it yet - you lay it out so nicely it seems doable. I really love queso fresco (and crema!) on anything - it's so tasty. Glad to hear that life, although busy, is treating you right!
 
Thanks Michelle! I was afraid that it would be too general to be much good. But there might be more ways to make enchiladas than there are for American chili, and some things that to an American cook might seem like a good idea, like using cochinita pibil meat as a filling, just aren't done. At least I never saw pibil enchiladas, and I spent a lot of time in southern Mexico.

Now to follow up on salsa recipes, and making tortilla chips ... it just never ends! :-)
 
Hi Kitchen Queen, thanks for stopping by...i wanted to let you know the lentils i used were a mixture of red lentils and 'mountain' lentils. Im not sure if that's what they are called in English, but thats the English translation of the name on the packet :)
Those enchiladas look delicious, ive always wondered about them...now i see they are easy enough i have no excuse not to make them!!
Happy cooking!
 
I take that back, the dont look easy and we definitely dont have some of those ingredients like the kind of cheese :)
 
Catesa, they're pretty easy, but they're time consuming. I always make huge batches, but you can do just six or twelve, and it won't be hard at all!

I'm not sure what kinds of cheese to recommend for you, but something that's nonmelting would be best. Or skip the cheese and try a different kind, the cheese isn't necessary.

I'll be making some lentil chili for our dinner tonight. Thanks for the inspiration!
 
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