The whole enchilada: Thrifty variations on a Mexican classic

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen

After several years of reading cookbooks, newspaper food sections, online culinary magazines and endless food blogs, I realize that the enchilada, an iconic Mexican food, is quite often turned into a completely different dish when it leaves the country.

While the basic elements are present, the techniques frequently used north of the border turn enchiladas into a kind of casserole rather than the distinct entities presented in Mexico on everything from butcher paper to Talavera dinnerware. Mexican enchiladas differ regionally, and even from kitchen to kitchen, but they never get crowded together in a baking dish, drowned with sauce and baked into oblivion.

As I have pointed out in this column before, here in Mexico enchiladas are strictly a stovetop operation. The idea of baking them in the oven seems strange to most Mexicans, and the result bears very little resemblance to the originals. The basic Mexican cooking vessels, the comal and the cazuela (basically, a pan and a pot) have always been all that is required to make enchiladas. There is no need for the gas or electric energy required for 30-minute baking, when they can be quickly done on a burner. This method cuts down on stove-to-table time as well as on utility bills.

Enchilada literally means “enchilied,” in this case dipped in chile sauce. In its purest form, the enchilada does not even contain filling, though they are certainly filled if being served as a meal.

My favorite enchilada memories are of the ones we ate on the old trains that we rode from Cholula to Cuautla, curving around the south side of the the Popocatepetl volcano. Somewhere between Atlixco and Izúcar de Matamoros, we would experience a Pavlovian response to the aroma to which we’d become conditioned after just a trip or two.

Waiting on the platform of a small stop whose name I forget, the enchilada vendors were ready to satisfy their fans. Fresh, beautifully textured corn tortillas, dipped in a fiery red sauce and fried in that most delicious of dietary no-no’s, manteca, were simply folded over and topped with chopped onions and fresh farmer cheese. Served on coarse paper, dripping with love and lard, they competed with the scenery for our attention. I miss those enchiladas almost as much as I miss the trains.

These kinds of simple, fold-over enchiladas, called enchiladas dobladas, are served with one sauce or another all over the country, notably in Michoacan, where they are part of the regional chicken dish called pollo placero, served at night in the town squares. And then there are the enchiladas mineras, covered with cooked carrots, potatoes and shredded lettuce, culinary specialties of the colonial mining towns of the Bajio; the Zacatecan enchiladas in a creamy ancho chile sauce; and the enchiladas of Durango, in a peanut and almond sauce. In central Mexico, enchiladas suizas are a favorite, filled with chicken and bathed in a creamy green sauce.

In Puebla and other parts of Mexico where mole is prepared, mole enchiladas, called enmoladas, are a popular way of using leftover mole sauce with whatever filling is handy, be it, chicken, turkey, pork, cheese, or even scrambled eggs.

In Veracruz, as well as other regions, thrifty cooks prepare enfrijoladas, in which refried beans are diluted into a simple but tasty enchilada sauce. Just fill tortillas with grated cheese or any other handy filling to make quesadillas, then dip them into the bean sauce and garnish with onions and cheese.

And in Oaxaca, there are entomatadas, which are simply enchiladas in a basic tomato sauce spiced with dried red chiles, such as arbol, plus cinnamon, allspice and peppercorns. Some cooks add a pinch of brown sugar or piloncillo. Here again, you can vary the traditional cheese filling by using whatever leftover chicken, turkey or other filling is on hand. Enchiladas are nothing if not adaptable.

These regional specialties are not difficult to make, but even if you want to stick with your favorite sauce, try using the stovetop method to make them.

Start out with the freshest available corn tortillas. Unless you live in an area that has a nearby tortillería, and can get them hot off the tortilla press, they will first have to be softened. This is usually done by soft-frying, in a pan with a little vegetable oil. (It takes the place of lard and eliminates the cholesterol.) Place each tortilla in the hot oil, watch it puff up a bit, then turn immediately. This will only take a few seconds, since the tortilla needs to be soft and pliable, not crispy. Drain tortillas on paper towels.

Next, dip each tortilla into the heated sauce of your choice, be it leftover mole, diluted refried beans, or red enchilada sauce. (I use my fingers to hold them by the edges as I dip, since this makes it easier to pull them out of the sauce quickly.)

Place the sauce-dipped tortilla on a serving plate, fill with your filling of choice, and fold over, in half. This is the most common way of folding them, although some cooks prefer to roll them. Enchiladas dobladas, which contain no filling and are often served as a garnish, are usually folded over twice.

Spoon more sauce over the enchiladas, and garnish with crumbled white cheese, chopped onion and shredded lettuce if desired. If you prefer melted cheese rather than the traditional crumbled queso fresco, place the rolled or folded enchiladas in the pan in which the tortillas were soft-fried, grate some melting cheese over them, cover, and place over medium heat briefly.

Enchiladas are a perfect dish in tough economic times, since there are so many options for fillings and sauces. Leftover chicken, turkey or meat, mushrooms, beans and cheese are all good choices for fillings. Below are some regional variations on enchiladas, from a country where very little food is ever wasted and every peso counts.

Published or Updated on: March 17, 2009 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2009
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