I lived alone for the first time in the summer of 1993, the summer when I turned 20 years-old. My cousin, Tony, who would turn 20 eight days after me – and to this day makes a phone call on my birthday to tell me I’m an old man – also lived alone that summer, just two miles away from me. We both lived in properties our parents had inherited from their aunts and uncles. Rent-free, the two of us lived it up, going out to eat almost every night.
Two to three nights a week we ended up at La Cazuela, a now defunct Mexican restaurant in Northampton, MA. At the time it occupied a building on a hill, its porch overlooking Old S Street as it curved down and away from the center of town. We spent many summer evenings sitting outside on that porch, freshly showered, enjoying clean hands, clean clothes and sore muscles after dusty, sweaty days spent landscaping.
The Tex-Mex menu, freshly prepared and well seasoned in my memory, contained the usual burritos and tacos, a crisp chimichanga with fresh seafood and enchiladas rojas, verdes and Suizas (which though given a Swiss moniker were invented in Mexico City in the 1950’s). Feeling grown up and sophisticated, dining on our own and able, for the first time in our young adult lives to pay the bill, we felt like adults. Looking back, I realize, a bit wistfully, the great ease in we enjoyed many trappings of adulthood with none of its responsibilities.
Last week in #testkitchen, my bi-weekly recipe development session, I decided to try my hand at those enchiladas. I researched traditional recipes and settled on enchiladas rojas, covered with a sauce of puréed chiles, garlic and cilantro. The recipes were deceptively simple: Lightly-fried corn tortillas dipped in sauce and rolled around tender meat, then slathered in sauce and baked. What surprised me was not the recipes but when they were eaten. Mexicans traditionally eat enchiladas for breakfast or brunch, not dinner. Like French toast, they use leftovers, in this case the tortillas, meat and beans from the previous night’s dinner. A good drenching in sauce, like the egg dip for French toast, brings new life to stale corn masa tortillas.
So where do you get creative in #testkitchen with such a traditional dish? You make it from scratch and pack in flavor every chance you get – garlic, cilantro and bay to poach the chicken and the salsa roja from scratch. Our friend, Rey Cervantes, who join us that night, said they tasted like the ones that came from his Mother’s kitchen, usually served over a plate of potatoes. His brought him back home, mine brought me to that porch in Northampton. In different ways they both tasted like youth and ease, the sweet taste of freedom.
Enchiladas Rojas con Pollo
The assembly takes a little time and goes more smoothly with an extra set of hands. Poaching the chicken, making the sauce and the refried beans goes quickly and most of the time is spent waiting for the chicken to cook and the peppers to soften.
For the Chicken:
- 2 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, about 1 1/2 lbs
- 4 sprigs cilantro
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 bay leaves
For the Sauce:
- 3 Ancho chiles*
- 6 Guajillo chiles*
- 3 Arbol chiles*
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 tbs epazote* or dried oregano
- 6 sprigs of cilantro
*These are dried Mexican chiles often found in the international aisle of your grocery store. New Mexico chiles may be substituted for the Guajillos (pronounced wah-hee-yos). The Arbols give you a little heat. If you can’t find them just add a pinch of cayenne when puréeing the sauce. Epazote is a Mexican herb that may also be labeled as Mexican oregano.
For Refried Black Beans:
- 1-2 strips of good, fatty bacon
- 2 cups black beans (if canned, drain them first)
- 1/2 cup bean cooking broth or liquid from can
- 1 tbs epazote or dried oregano
To Assemble Enchiladas:
- 12-14 6″ corn tortillas
- Olive oil for frying, about 2 cups
- 1 cup crumbled Queso Fresco or Cotija cheese*
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 radishes, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 cup chopped cilantro
*You can substitute a mild feta for these Mexican cheeses.
- Poach chicken: place chicken, cilantro, garlic and bay in a 4 quart soup pot. Cover by 1-2 inches with water and a add a healthy pinch of salt (that’s about 1/4 tsp). Bring to a boil then immediately reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes and turn off heat. Let sit, covered, in water, for 20 minutes longer. Remove from water. When cool, remove the meat from the bones and shred by hand or with a fork. Reserve.*
- Make salsa roja: In a small skillet over medium heat, quickly sear the chiles, about 1 minute per side, pressing each one down with a spatula. Transfer to a large heat-proof bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 10-15 minutes until softened.
- Remove stems and seeds and place chiles in a blender. Add garlic, epazote and cilantro and 2 cups water. Purée and season with salt and pepper. Add additional water as needed to make a thick but pourable sauce, about 1 cup more. Reserve.
- Make refried beans: Warm a skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, rendering fat. Remove bacon from skillet, reserving for another use.
- Add beans to skillet with bacon fat. Mash and stir through cooking broth or water from can to thin. Stir through epazote and season with salt and pepper.
- Mix shredded chicken with 1/2 cup sauce and stir through. Spread another 1 cup sauce over the bottom of a 9×13″ baking dish. Spread an additional 1/2 cup of sauce on a plate. Preheat oven to 400.
- Fry tortillas: Place a cooling rack over a baking sheet and line with 2 layers of paper towels. Heat oil, about 1″ deep, in a small skillet over medium high heat. The oil is hot enough to fry when a wooden utensil like a spoon or chop stick inserted in the oil sends up bubbles within 5-6 seconds. Using tongs, place a tortilla in the oil. Cook 5-10 seconds per side, you want them tender, not crisp. Drain on paper towels.
- When tortillas are cool enough to handle, dip each side in the plate of sauce. Spread 2-3 tbs refried beans in the center of the tortilla and top with about 1/4 cup of the chicken. Roll up tortillas and place seam-side down in the baking dish. (Note: if you are preparing these alone, pause after frying 3-4 tortillas and fill and roll them before frying more tortillas.)
- When all the tortillas have been filled and rolled cover with the remaining sauce and spread cheese over the top. Place on a rack on the top third of the oven and bake until beginning to brown on top, about 20-25 minutes.
- To serve, top each tortilla with onion, radish slices and cilantro.