Despite my allegiance to the State of Florida, I grew up in South Texas where Mexican food is an obsession. The restaurants served food that I could never duplicate, but the real treats came from the kitchens of my many Latino friends. We had it so well that if my friend Dmitri and I got hungry, all we had to do was climb a fence at his apartment and we stood at the ordering window of an authentic taco stand.
Though we have some great Mexican food at a restaurant in Cadiz, I miss the taco stands and my friends’ mothers who would spend all day cooking treats for the Corpus Christi crew. I decided to take a shot at enchiladas that night for a taste of my youth.
The enchiladas began with about a pound-and-a-half of boneless chicken breasts. Place them in a large skillet with the bottom coated in hot olive oil. Chicken needs plenty of spice to be authentically flavored in enchiladas. To add warmth, dust the tops of the meat with two teaspoons of commercial chili powder, a teaspoon of cumin, and the same amount of cayenne pepper. Mexican food has a reputation for heat, but I think it’s more about flavor. A bit more taste comes from two heaping teaspoons of minced garlic, and one teaspoon each of cilantro and oregano.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. That’s not a lot of heat for Mexican food, but we are far from finished. As the chicken begins to sizzle, flip it over and add six seeded and sliced green chilies-jalapenos are perfect- and one chopped red onion to the pot. Cover the skillet tightly and turn the chicken every five minutes. When cooked all the way through, add a quarter-cup of sherry to the chicken and cover it again. The wine will keep the chicken from drying out, and create plenty of steam for the chicken to cook in. We want to keep it cooking until the meat shreds with a fork. When the chicken reaches that point, take it, with the onions and chilies and set them aside for now.
Enchiladas need a sauce to be authentic. Many commercial sauces taste good enough, but again, I prefer making my own. The base comes from two cups of chicken broth and a like amount of tomato sauce. Many recipes call for beef broth, though I used chicken to better match the flavor of the chicken in the enchiladas. Bring the sauce base to a simmer while stirring and add one quarter of a red onion and three more seeded and sliced chilies to it. For a little more warmth, add a tablespoon of chili powder, a half-teaspoon of cumin and a quarter-teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Herbs for this sauce are simple- a teaspoon of cilantro and a half-teaspoon of oregano. Simmer the pot for 45 minutes until the onions and jalapenos are tender. A pinch of ground cinnamon gives the sauce a bit of a surprise taste. Add salt and pepper as needed. It’s a good idea to keep the sauce simmering while the chicken cooks to save a little time.
When the sauce is ready, it’s time to assemble the enchiladas. Like lasagna, the main part of work on enchiladas is assembly. Shred the chicken completely and add a half-cup of cheddar cheese or a blend of cheddar and Monterrey jack. For a slightly creamy filling, I added a couple of tablespoons of sauce and a heaping tablespoon of sour cream. Blend everything well. Open a package of small corn tortillas and dip them individually into the sauce. When coated on both sides, place two tablespoons of the chicken filling into each tortilla and roll them loosely, placing them onto a flat baking sheet, seam down. Repeat until the filling is gone. Cover the filled and rolled tortillas with the rest of the sauce and plenty of grated cheese, about a cup and a half. Bake them for a half hour at 350 degrees until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly.
Hawkins said, “This recipe makes a lot of enchiladas.” It certainly made plenty for all of us, with leftovers galore. This is a great recipe for larger parties and families. He said that restaurants probably like enchiladas because plenty can be made in advance.
Mexican rice makes the perfect accompaniment to enchiladas, and again, I made mine from scratch. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a saucepan and sauté a quarter of a chopped red onion and a teaspoon of minced garlic until the onions are tender. When ready to go, bring two cups of chicken broth to a vigorous boil and add a cup of brown rice. Again, the trick is to season side dishes to resemble the entrée, so add two teaspoons of chili powder and one large, diced tomato to the pot. To keep the harmonizing between dishes, I added two sliced and seeded chilies, a half-teaspoon of cilantro and a like amount of cayenne pepper. Return the rice to boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover, simmering for 45 minutes.
The final side dish I got lazy on. Truthfully, it was a blend of laziness and being out of room (and clean pots) on the stove. I opened a can of refried beans and heated them, doctoring them with a half-teaspoon of garlic, a teaspoon of red pepper flakes and a half-teaspoon of cilantro. Serve the beans when they are hot, and cover them with some cheese.
When all was said and done, Hawkins, Sanci and I sat down to a fantastic meal. Since Sanci missed it on TV last year, she and Hawkins spent the weekend catching up on last year’s season of “Lost.” It remains one of my favorite shows, and I anxiously await the start of the new season on January 31. I try to keep politics out of my cooking column, but I hope producers and writers will play nicely and put an end to the strike. “Lost’s” season is already shortened to 16 episodes, and the strike could half that number. I need more. With the best show around on DVD and what Hawkins called “a delicious and authentic tasting Mexican meal,” a good time was had by all. Good eating.