The Whole Enchilada

I’ve had a long relationship with the enchilada. It wasn’t something I ate growing up, and I kind of (God forgive me) always associated them with the proverbial “po’ white trash.” Actually, that’s how I felt about tacos, too. My mom would occasionally make fajitas, but that involved hearty slabs of good steak and fresh vegetables. It felt nicer.

There was a girl I went to school with in elementary school–we’ll call her “T”. She was pale and exceedingly hefty, with stringy blonde hair and a love for “accidentally” dropping maxi pads out of her backpack at recess in front of the boys. I’m pretty sure she was trying to send the message of “look, I’m a real woman. I have a period. I probably wear a bra.” Really, though? 5th grade boys aren’t likely to become super sexually stimulated by the idea of a period. Most of them (all of them?) would run screaming, terrified at the idea of a cootchie stigmata. Once they established that the maxi pad was not, in fact, a high-tech whoopie cushion, they’d be out of there so fast that all you’d see on the playground was a tumbleweed and some of those eerily swaying, empty swings.

Anyway, I was not a 5th grade boy, and was thereby highly amused by this behavior. I also used to steal condoms from my friend Christy’s house, fill them with lotion, and leave them behind the outfield so the teachers would see them and freak out. So I was friends with T, and used to have sleepovers at her house in the country. She had an older sister who listened to graphic rap music and let us watch the scene in basic instinct where Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs like a skeezy hooker. Her parents not only smoked cigarettes, but smoked them IN THE HOUSE. And her hoarse, coarse mother would make us some of the trashiest food I’ve ever seen. Tacos made with bloody mary mix instead of tomato sauce and seasoning. Enchiladas that were just corn tortillas rolled around off-brand cheddar cheese and covered in CANNED enchilada sauce. Hamburger Helper. It was awful. I was spoiled.

I used to pack crackers and sandwiches in my overnight bag, then sit in her bathtub and eat them when everyone was asleep or smoking cigarettes with the windows closed or looking at Sharon Stone’s bajango or whatever it was that they did after dinner. That way I wouldn’t have to eat their scary, backwoods “tex-mex” food. Her parents were usually too hopped up on Zima to notice that I was just pushing the taco meat around on my plate, looking for cigarette butts that may have fallen into the food. I was a child of the Married with Children era.

Now, bring us back to today. I’ve had some excellent Mexican food. There are two great things about San Antonio, or at least about living here for two years. The first is that I have access to some of the most excellent, authentic Mexican ingredients I’ve ever seen. The other is that there are fewer wasps. Both the black and yellow striped kind and the white, anglo-saxon protestant kind.

So I’m trying to do as much experimentation with authentic Mexican food as a possibly can, and I’m fawning all over Rick Bayless’ books for learning. I’ve made some delicious tacos, and last night I made some killer enchiladas. All without the benefit of canned sauce or bloody mary mix!

In his books, Bayless discusses the origin of the enchilada, which is basically supposed to be a corn tortilla, dipped in chile puree, and then skillet fried and folded over on itself. Enchilada literally means “in chiles.” Or something close to that. I’m partial to filling my enchiladas, though, and I still have boatloads of delicious heritage turkey meat to plow through, so I made the traditional chile sauce, then assembled them slightly differently with a turkey and onion filling. Topped them off with Oaxacan cheese (which is very similar to mozzarella), and ate them with some lettuce dressed in salt and vinegar. You really do have to try this (especially you, Tina, who still has chiles sitting around the house). Do it with leftover chicken if you want, or even just black beans for you vegetarians.

Turkey Enchiladas
Served 2 of us, but could have stretched to 3. Just double or triple as needed.

10 corn tortillas
5 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T vegetable or grapeseed oil
10 oz leftover turkey or chicken meat (or canned black beans, drained)
1/4 C finely diced onion
1 C shredded Oaxacan cheese, or mozzarella if that’s easier for you
2 C finely shredded lettuce
1 T apple cider vinegar
salt to taste


-Tear your chiles into flattish pieces (about halves)

-In a hot skillet, blister the inside of each chile until it lightens in color and becomes very aromatic, but not burnt. This takes about 15 seconds

-When the chiles are all blistered, cover them with just enough very hot water to keep them all submerged. Put a plate on them to keep them under water for 20 minutes.

-When the chiles have rehydrated for 20 minutes, put them into a blender or food processor with 1 C of the soaking water and two cloves of minced garlic. Puree them all together, then strain through a medium mesh strainer to get out all the chunks of chile that aren’t small enough.

-The consistency of the paste should be like tomato sauce. Taste it, and it will taste really harsh on the tongue. Add enough salt, tasting frequently, that it starts to have a slightly salty edge as well. Don’t worry, it mellows as it cooks.

-In a food processor, mince your turkey or chicken until it looks like canned tuna consistency. Add the onion and a touch of salt. It can be cold.

-Set up an assembly line of: chile sauce in a pie plate, tortillas, a pan over medium high heat with 1 t oil in it, a cookie sheet, a bowl of your meat mixture, and a casserole dish for baking the finished enchiladas. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

-Assemble the enchiladas by dipping both sides in the chile sauce, placing it in the pan and cooking each side about 20 seconds, carefully placing the hot tortilla on the baking sheet, rolling the tortilla with some meat filling, and putting it (seam side down) in the casserole dish. All of your enchiladas should fit in a nice little row.

-Top with shredded cheese and place in the oven to warm through. When the cheese is melted and the filling registers 130 on a thermometer (stuck into the center of an enchilada), remove from the oven and set aside for a moment.

-In a large bowl, toss shredded lettuce with cider vinegar and salt to taste. Serve the salad alongside the enchiladas, and top with sour cream if you desire.

Just stunning, visually, even if my photography skills are lacking in pretty much every category.

And the first bite is still almost shocking. The authentic chile flavor is not one that many of us have had. Dried chiles have their own scent, their own flavor, and their own bite that differs so vastly from their fresh cousins. As the chile sauce bakes, it does mellow out a bit, but is still assertive and pleasing and so very…Mexican. It tastes like food would taste in Mexico, only not in the resort we stayed at while we were in Cancun. That food tasted more like vodka.

So give these a try, and really take the time to enjoy them, rather than just pushing them around on your plate looking for cigarette butts. And maybe enjoy a Negro Modelo with them, instead of a Zima.

I miss Zima.

4 thoughts on “The Whole Enchilada”

  1. When in Colorado, I, too, only ever ate fajitas.

    Since moving down here, I have taken to Chicken Tortilla Soup, enchiladas, and tamales. Of course the first enchiladas I had were made by our secretary who was born and raised in Mexico, and the tamales were from a little Mexican woman who made them with her daughters once a month. Unfortunately, our secretary has since moved to a different group, and the tamale lady passed away…sigh…guess that means I need to make my own now. I do have the enchilada recipe though, but it requires work–like roasting the peppers before pureeing them, and also dipping the corn tortillas in said puree to imbue them with the flavor of roasted peppers.

  2. Bloody mary mix, really? Really? That makes me feel kinda gross inside. And very sad.

    I love enchiladas. Now I understand why they're never as good when I make them at home. No tortilla dippage. I have to try that now.

  3. Let's talk about the chilis. I am hoarding and coveting those chilis. I check on them every day or two, just to make sure that they're still there, because god only knows when I'll be able to get my hands on any more. Last week Mike "accidentally" went to move them. That's an accident which will not happen again.

    That said, I have trust in you. If you say that these enchiladas are worth deactivating the force-field around the cupboard and breaking the hermetic seal on the bags, well, I'll try.

    (and then I'll cry a little about my depleted stock)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *