Some people, when they go to Italian restaurants, always order spaghetti carbonara. Some, when they go to Chinese restaurants, inevitably get chicken with black bean sauce.
When I go to a Mexican restaurant, you can be sure I’ll order enchiladas. Always enchiladas.
Enchiladas, to me, encapsulate the best qualities of Mexican cooking. They can be made satisfactorily with an assortment of meats or cheeses; the fillings can be spiced or left plain; and they can be topped with a diversity of sauces — sometimes, colorfully, at the same time.
These days, enchiladas can be easy to make. Just buy a package of corn tortillas, wrap them around some precooked chicken or shredded cheese (a little more work is needed for beef or pork), splash a can of enchilada sauce on top and bake until done.
That’s not how I make mine. And when you get down to it, that’s not how your favorite Mexican restaurant makes theirs.
Homemade enchiladas taste better than that. You can make your own tortillas, you can make your own meat and you can especially make your own sauce, and the result will be far superior to anything involving a can. I didn’t make my own tortillas this time — they’re easy, but sometimes you just don’t feel like making tortillas — and they were still amazing.
I started with enchiladas suizas, which is what I inevitably order if it is on the menu. Enchiladas Suizas are chicken enchiladas with a green sauce — a salsa verde — that derives a delightful mild tang from its main ingredient, tomatillos.
They were invented in Mexico City. The name, Swiss enchiladas, comes from the fact that the other main ingredients are cream and cheese.
I cooked my chicken very simply, with just salt and pepper; you could also use rotisserie chicken or other prepackaged chicken. All the chicken needs to do is complement the sauce.
Admittedly, the sauce takes a little time and effort to make; the best foods often do. But I would say results are unquestionably worth it.
I made my standard, go-to green sauce. First, you simmer together tomatillos and a couple of aromatics (onion, garlic), and a serrano pepper or two or three, depending on your enjoyment of heat. No pepper at all is fine, too, if you like it extra mild.
After you blend these ingredients together with their simmering liquid and some sprigs of cilantro, there is still another step to go: You fry the mixture in oil. It isn’t as weird or as fattening as it sounds; simmering the sauce with a little hot oil adds an almost magical level of depth to the flavor.
Baked all together with corn tortillas, queso fresco (a mild Mexican cheese) and crema, these enchiladas were bright and fresh and stunningly delicious.
But the beef enchiladas with a red sauce, to my surprise, were every bit as good, and maybe better.
I began by cooking ground beef with a familiar combination of spices — chili powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder and oregano. In effect, I began with the same seasoned beef I would use in a taco.
Then I made a red enchilada sauce, which was so flavorful that I found myself eating it by the spoonful as I was cooking it. The secret is to keep the tomato a minor component; it should act as a complement to the chili spice and the chile peppers.
It’s a fair amount of work. You begin by rehydrating dried chiles, which are blended until smooth. Then you make a roux, add the blended chile liquid and simmer it together with a smear of tomato paste and a handful of helpful spices.
It is a bold sauce, complexly layered, and it goes almost bizarrely well with the spiced beef, corn tortilla and a healthy sprinkling of cheddar cheese. It is also excellent with chicken, pork and cheese enchiladas.
I am not kidding. I am not exaggerating. These are as good as any enchiladas you can get at a restaurant.
Trust me on this. I’ve had a lot of enchiladas.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 pound tomatillos
1 medium white onion, quartered
1 to 3 serrano peppers, seeds removed for less heat, if desired
4 garlic cloves
12 sprigs of cilantro
5 tablespoons oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt
12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
1 1/4 pounds cooked chicken, shredded
3/4 cup crema or 1/2 cup sour cream mixed with 1/4 cup milk
4 ounces shredded queso fresco or mozzarella cheese
Pull the husks from the tomatillos and rinse to remove sticky residue. Place tomatillos, onion, peppers and garlic in a large pot and just cover with water. Bring to a boil, lower the temperature and simmer for 10 minutes.
Transfer the cooked ingredients to a blender, along with the cilantro and 2 cups of the cooking liquid. Blend until smooth, about 30 seconds. If too thick, add more cooking liquid until desired texture.
Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the pot on high heat. When it’s hot, pour the blended salsa into the pot. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the salt and adjust seasoning if necessary. Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Pour 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil into a skillet and heat over medium-high heat until hot. Place 1 tortilla in the oil and cook 10 seconds, until tortilla starts to bubble. Flip and cook other side 10 seconds (this step makes the tortillas pliable and will keep the sauce from soaking through). Remove with tongs, shaking excess oil back into pan, and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining tortillas, adding more oil when necessary.
Spread 1/2 cup of the sauce around the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Stir 1/4 cup of the sauce into the chicken. Place a few tablespoons of this mixture down the middle of a tortilla, roll the tortilla and place seam-side down into the baking dish.
Repeat with the remaining tortillas. Pour the remaining sauce evenly over the enchiladas. Spread crema or thinned sour cream over the top and scatter shredded cheese over that. Bake 15 minutes.
BEEF ENCHILADAS WITH RED SAUCE
Yield: 4 servings
For the sauce
4 (dried) ancho chiles
3 cups chicken stock or water, divided
2 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon oregano
Pinch granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
For the filling
1 pound ground beef
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/4 teaspoons chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch dried oregano
2 tablespoons oil, divided
8 (6-inch) corn tortillas
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Note: The sauce, which can also be used for chicken, pork or cheese enchiladas, can be made up to three days before using. The beef can be made up to one day before using. The sauce freezes well.
Make the sauce: Remove the stems and seeds from the ancho chiles. Place chiles in a small pot with 2 cups of the chicken stock or water. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and let sit 15 minutes. Place the chiles and their liquid in a blender and blend until smooth.
Add oil to the pot over medium-high heat. When hot, add flour; stirring constantly, cook 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup of the remaining stock or water, stirring until smooth. Add the blended chile mixture, tomato paste, onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, paprika, oregano, sugar, salt and pepper. Cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce should be a little thinner than ketchup; if too thick, add remaining 1/2 cup of stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings, including sugar if more than a little bitter. Refrigerate or set aside.
Make the filling: Heat ground beef in a large skillet over medium-high heat, using a wooden spoon to break it up as it cooks. Sprinkle with liberal amounts of salt and pepper, and add chili powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder and oregano. Cook, stirring frequently, until thoroughly browned.
Remove from heat and stir in 3/4 cup of the sauce. Refrigerate up to 1 day if not using immediately.
Assemble the enchiladas: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put 1 tablespoon of the oil into a skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, place 1 tortilla in the oil and cook until tortilla starts to bubble, about 10 seconds. Flip and cook on other side for 10 seconds (this step makes the tortillas pliable and will keep the sauce from soaking through). Remove with tongs, shaking excess oil back into pan, and drain on paper towels.
Repeat with remaining tortillas, adding remaining oil to skillet when necessary.
Spread 1/2 cup of sauce on bottom of 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
Place 1 1/2 tablespoons of the cheese down the center of 1 of the tortillas, and 1/3 cup of beef on top of that. Roll tortilla into a cylinder and place seam-side down into baking pan. Repeat with remaining tortillas.
Pour remaining sauce over enchiladas; you may not want to use all of the sauce. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling.