Monday, January 30, 2006

Red Chile Enchiladas

The word "enchilada" derives from the Spanish verb "enchilar", which means "to cover with chiles." Nonetheless, there are numerous variations and sauces---some nearly chile free---that are covered by the term enchilada. This post is about a getting close to the definition of enchiladas: corn tortillas covered in a sauce based on dried red chiles.

Chiles and corn are indigenous to the Americas, and tortillas were a daily staple of the Aztecs and Mayans, so it is possible that something like the enchilada has been around for millenia. Not every dried chile is suitable for enchilada sauce. For example, a sauce made from the finger-sized chile de arbol or japone chile would be incindiary and not very flavorful. Instead, the chiles that are used are mostly about flavor. They are relatively large, and include the ancho (1,000 Scoville units), guajillo (5,000 Scoville units), and New Mexico (1,000 Scoville units). For reference, the habanero has a heat rating of 300,000 Scoville units! (See the note at the end of my Winter Salsa post for comments about Scoville units)

Although the final product looks simple, its creation requires a several step process. The basic steps are to rehydrate the chiles in hot water, blend the chiles and other ingredients, dip the tortillas, and sear the tortillas. The result is richly flavored, with the earthy tortilla contrasting with the bright, fruity and slightly hot chile sauce. Side dishes add to the variety.

I like to serve these enchiladas with roasted vegetables like squash and potatoes that are cooked with the chile sauce at the last minute; black beans; and a tangy salad of cabbage, carrot, onion, and cilantro dressed with lime juice, white vinegar and a neutral-flavored oil. And don't forget a margarita: tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and orange liqueur shaken with ice and strained into a ice-cube filled glass with a salt encrusted rim. I typically use 2 parts tequila, 1 part lime juice, and 1 part orange liqueur. My favorite tequila is Sauza Tres Generaciones Plata, but Sauza Blanco is good too (and 1/3 the price).

Enough with the prelude, it's time to enchilar! I decided not to post a complete recipe, but instead I'm posting a photo overview and commentary on making this wonderful dish. For recipes and additional instructions, I recommend the books of Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless, and Susanna Trilling, and the Epicurious web site.

Ingredients for the sauce

The sauce consists of dried red chiles, garlic, spices (cumin, oregano, cloves and black pepper), and water (or your favorite stock). There are seemingly myriad dried red chiles available at the Mexican market, and several of them can be used in this dish. My favorites are ancho, pasilla, New Mexico, and guajillo (photos at Cook's Thesaurus). The labeling of dried chiles can be inconsistent sometimes, with the same chile having a different name at each shop (ancho and pasilla especially). Diana Kennedy recommends bringing a photographic guide book to the shop. My own personal preference is not to worry about it too much.

Toasting the chiles (l), pan-roasting the garlic (r)
After removing the seeds and stems from the chiles, I tore them in halves or quarters with the goal of making them into flat sections to ease the process of toasting each side in a dry skillet for about ten seconds per side (photo above). After a chile piece was toasted, I put it into a bowl that could hold a few liters of water. While toasting the chiles, have your stove fan running and try not to breathe any smoke, as it will make your nose burn for a while. (I have never tried making enchiladas without toasting the chiles, but I should try a comparison someday. My nose would probably thank me.)

I pan roasted the garlic cloves in their skins in a dry pan over medium heat, turning them now and then. They roasted for about 10 minutes. It is OK (even preferable) for the skins to blacken a bit. The photo above also (vaguely) shows the process in action. After the garlic cloves were roasted, I put them on a plate to cool, then removed the papery husks.

Rehydrating the chiles
After the chiles were toasted, I covered them with hot water and let them soak for about 30 minutes. Then I used a pair of tongs to put the chile pieces into a blender. The roasted garlic, oregano, cumin, cloves and black pepper also went into the blender jar. Then I blended the mixture until it was very smooth, adding some water now and then to keep the mixture blending.

Straining the puree
Chile skin can be a bit tough and some seeds sometimes make it through the pureeing process, so I pushed the sauce through a medium-mesh strainer. Next, I added enough water to make it the consistency of tomato sauce.

Finally, it is time to coat and cook the enchiladas. I have not quite figured out the best way to do the chile coating. Most cookbooks that I have read recommend the "dip and fry" method. The other method that I have tried is "cook and dip." First I'll explain dip and fry in detail, then summarize the cook and dip method.

Dip and fry
In this method, the sauce is cooked after it has coated the tortilla. The sauce is prepared as described above, then each tortilla is dipped in sauce (first photo below) and fried in a skillet (second photo below) for about 30 seconds per side, then folded into quarters and placed in a baking dish. I also like to put a piece of melting cheese on the tortilla before I fold it. Ideally, the enchiladas are served immediately, but they can also be kept warm in the oven for a few minutes until it is time to eat.

The advantage of this method is that it gives the sauce a beautiful flavor and makes the tortilla soft and pliable. The disadvantage is that the meeting of hot oil and a water-based sauce can lead to incredible splattering. Also, the tortilla can soak up the oil and thus require many additions of oil to the skillet, which becomes progressively more covered with crispy chile sauce. But a non-stick skillet seems to reduce the disadvantages. Or, in other words, if I had recorded my utterings during the tortilla frying illustrated below, they would not have been raving curses, but something like "I'm amazed that this is working so well."

Dipping a tortilla

Frying and folding tortillas

Cook and dip
In this method, the sauce is cooked before it has coated the tortilla, and the tortilla is pre-treated in the oven to make it pliable. I prepare the sauce through the straining step as described above, then cook it before dipping the chiles by heating oil in a sauce pan, pouring in the sauce, then reducing it over medium heat with frequent stirring until it is reasonably thick, then adding water or broth to bring it back to the proper consistency. I brush the tortillas with a little fit of oil, and place them in stacks of three or four on a cookie sheet, then put them in a 300 F oven for about 15 minutes. To finish the dish, I dip each tortilla in the sauce, fold it in quarters, and place on a baking sheet.

1 comment:

b'gina said...

I'm new to your blog, but so glad I found it. This post explains and shows so many techniques that I have been guessing at. What a great find! I'll have no excuse for not getting more authentic in my cooking now.