Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Evolution of an Enchilada


I grew up on enchiladas. My mom made them on a regular basis. I learned how to make them at a young age. They were a staple in our household.

With our family's Mexican heritage, you would think this would be just one of many dishes passed down through the generations. Surprise - this is the only Mexican food my mom ever made. It was the only dish she remembers learning from her own mother, who was descended from the original Spanish inhabitants of California.

I'm not sure if the dish she taught me was exactly what was passed down to her. The version I learned at mom's kitchen counter was very Americanized. Ground beef, corn tortillas, enchilada sauce, cheddar cheese, and olives. In spite of that, a hit with our family. I made it for my kids quite often when they were younger. However, it's been a while.

As with most recipes I enjoy, I'm always trying to improve it. Years ago, I began swapping out chicken for the beef. When Mexican cheeses became more available, I swapped that in. I began adding green chilies to the filling for more flavor. I was beginning to make it mine.

Last week as I was making a menu plan and a shopping list, I realized Cinco de Mayo was coming up. Instead of my usual Mexican dishes (chili verde, carne asada tacos, posole, albondigas, or tortilla soup) on a whim I decided to revisit enchiladas again. It may have come back into my mind because of a treasure I snagged on my last visit to Whole Foods - Hatch brand enchilada sauce! I knew that had to be delicious.

However, on the advice of my gastroenterologist I am trying to reduce or eliminate dairy in my diet. I decided to make the chicken filling very flavorable and not have cheese inside the enchiladas, only on top. I had some leftover chicken breast from a rotisserie chicken, so I bought two large packages of thighs. I brined and grilled them - tons of flavor right off the bat! Jim helped me shred it, which was quite a chore. This could also be made with a rotisserie chicken, a whole roasted chicken, or the already cooked and cut up chicken you can buy in the package. For the amount of chicken you need, roasting or grilling your own is the way to go.

These were so delicious, we nibbled quite a bit as we shredded!

I sauteed a whole diced onion with four cloves of minced garlic and added it to the meat, along with finely minced cilantro and four cans of diced green chilies. This is what I ended up with:

OK, I know this is a lot of chicken. Way too much for two trays of enchiladas. My motto is, better too much than not enough. The extra is in the freezer for a crockpot chicken dish I make sometimes for Bible study group. There was probably way less left over than you would think - I really overstuff the tortillas, which is the way to go. I like a high ratio of stuffing.

The time consuming part, other than shredding the chicken, is assembling the enchiladas. It's also very, very messy. Don't wear nice clothing - enchilada sauce stains!

I heated my comal over high heat and enlisted my youngest to cook the tortillas. I've found this is a crucial step. My mom never did this - instead, she heated some of the enchilada sauce in a small pan, dipped the tortillas, and rolled. I don't know if she had some particularly fresh or special tortillas, but they never cracked or fell apart. If I try this with tortillas I can buy locally, disaster. The only way around this is to cook them first, then dip them in the sauce. They don't rip or disintegrate at all.

I dip the tortillas in a small pan of sauce, lay them in the dish, fill them with a generous portion of meat and two black olives, and roll them. Make sure the seam ends up down. Don't worry if filling spills out the sides. I push mine up against each other, making room for lots of enchiladas in one pan. The one at the end of the row is hardest, but you'll get it with practice. Corn tortillas are small, so I fill up the rest of the dish with enchiladas rolled the other direction. I usually end up with about 15 rolls in one casserole dish.

As a side note, I know some people use flour tortillas. I have used them in the past as well. I highly prefer the flavor and texture of corn tortillas. Flour tortillas are kind of bland and fall apart more easily when dipped in the sauce.

Next, I take the remaining sauce (one 14 ounce can) and drizzle it over the top of the dish of enchiladas, spreading it out evenly, especially around the edges. I then top with more olives and shredded Mexican cheese. Trays can be frozen or refrigerated and cooked later. Bake (thawed) at 350F for about 20-25 minutes.

Now, recipe - hmmm, that is a hard one. How do I give an exact recipe for something I've always just cooked by look and feel? For the two trays I made this time, I used one package of 30 corn tortillas, two 14 ounce cans of enchilada sauce, two cans of medium pitted black olives, four 4 ounce cans of diced green chilies, one onion, four cloves garlic, one tablespoon canola oil to sautee the onion and garlic, and one two pound package of shredded Mexican cheese blend. For the chicken, it's harder to say - about 6 ounces of rotisserie chicken breast, and two family size packages of chicken thighs, which I brined.

I think this recipe can be perfected even further. I'm thinking my next goal will be to learn to make my own enchilada sauce from scratch - won't that be fun!

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