I’ve mentioned before that this is a year of change for my wife and I. One of those changes is my wife’s graduation from medical school. We’ve had a somewhat infrequent tradition with some of her friends from school where we’d have them over and I’d go to town fussing over a nice meal. Before everyone heads in different directions to the next step of their careers (side note: we’ll be headed to the Raleigh/Durham region of North Carolina and I’m looking for new opportunities), we thought it would be nice to have one more of these nice meals so everyone could enjoy good food, good company, and just spend some time relaxing and catching up in ways that just aren’t so possible in the day-to-day hustle and bustle.
So for this meal, given my newish interest in Mexican food, I decided to center this dinner around a Mexican theme where the focus would be some really nicely done enchiladas. Now I didn’t want to make something akin to the fast food style junky tacos we’re all used to and I especially didn’t want to make glorified burritos drowning in some boring red sauce and a fistful of cheese. So what does a gringo like myself do when he wants direction in authenticity? Go to another gringo (the great Rick Bayless) for inspiration, of course, lol!
So what did I learn? Well first off, many enchiladas don’t use any cheese at all. They’re easy really: a simply prepared protein, often wrapped in corn/masa (rather than flour) tortillas, and then doused very liberally with the true star of the show: an incredibly flavored sauce. There are countless variations to this simple idea. For instance, do you feel like fish, chicken, beef, lamb, mushrooms, beans, etc? Will you make the masa from scratch? Will you dip them in the sauce before briefly frying, use them as is, or will you briefly steam them? And then how about the sauce? Lots of decisions and lots of fun things to play with.
I ultimately decided to prepare two different kinds of enchiladas, telling myself that it was in the name of a fancier meal when in reality, I just couldn’t make up my mind. Not that anyone was complaining. 😉 The first kind: chicken. I poached a whole chicken and shredded the meat. This was then paired with a spicy, tangy verde sauce, made very much in the style of salsa verde, relying on the incredible flavor of roasted tomatillos for the backbone of the sauce with heat from jalapeños and a bit of extra tang (and some creamy relief) in the form of a bit of sour cream mixed in.
The second kind: beef. If I had the time, I would have considered smoking a brisket, but instead, I opted to braise it. But what to braise it in? I chose a much more complex sauce for this variety: a mole. Remember how I mentioned countless options earlier? Mole adds countless more. This is a sauce that demands a bit of time in the kitchen, but the end result is so worth it. It calls for just about everything short of the kitchen sink, and you wouldn’t know it from looking at it (oh, a dark red sauce), but the flavors are really something beyond words: a balance of spicy, sweet, fruity, dark, earthiness–its just something you need to taste. So with this incredible sauce, I braised the beef, shredded it, and tada, two enchiladas ready to go.
But before we dive into the enchilada recipes in full, I thought I’d give you a quick tour of everything else I had on the table to make this meal.
I started the meal off with a salad that’s simple to make, healthy to eat, and most importantly: refreshing. I simply chopped up some romaine, diced a few plum tomatoes, thinly sliced a few radishes, chopped some olives, and tossed this well. Then, I peeled, pitted, and cut bite-sized slivers of avocado, tossing in a bowl of lime juice (to prevent the avocado from browning before anyone actually ate it) before adding to the salad. Since I didn’t want to bother with any sort of dressing, I simply sprinkled on some of the leftover lime juice and crumbled on some cotija cheese (a Mexican cheese somewhat similar to feta in taste and texture).
One of my main side dishes: pinto beans. On many past occasions, I was convinced canned beans were good enough. These were my wake up call. I followed Bayless’ recipe for “drunken pinto beans”–it was incredibly simple to make, required no overnight soaking, and demanded very little of my time at the stove top (but a few hours to simmer). They were richly flavored with bacon, shallots, cilantro, and spiked towards the end with just enough tequila so that you know its in there. They look deceptively simple and humble, but they have a rich flavor that just explodes in your mouth. When I started cooking, I thought I was making way too much. After dinner, I wished I had made much more.
My next side dish: I cut up some plantains and fried them in a healthy bit of butter until they were nicely caramelized on both sides, at which point, I dusted them with some salt. Due to great planning, the only photo of those is in the background of all the other photos (woops!). Aside from being delicious, I love these because they take roughly 10 minutes time to make and are a great balance of salty and sweet (without being a dessert item).
And since I love cotija, I crumbled up a good amount and set extra out in a bowl in case my guests wanted some for their salad, enchiladas, plantains, or just for the heck of it. Like butter, cheese goes with everything. 😉
Oh, and if you’re a regular reader, you probably know by now that I don’t think a meal is complete without dessert. So what was for dessert? Well, this one didn’t quite fully fit the Mexican theme, but I meant well: banoffeee. This pie is actually British in origin, but I thought the pairing of dulce de leche and bananas were a nod in the right direction. Plus, you give a pregnant wife what she wants. 😉
So with all the supporting characters out of the way, back to the star of the show: the enchiladas. I’ve included the full recipe for each below.
- A lot of corn tortillas (I lost count–somewhere over 30. And have extra in case they break!)
- Beef Enchiladas
- ~3 lb Beef Brisket
- Red Mole Sauce
- 8 garlic cloves
- 6 dried ancho chilis
- 1 dried pasilla chili
- 2 dried guajillo chilis
- 1.5 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- pinch ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 6 cups chicken broth
- vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup whole almonds
- 2 shallots
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 3 plum tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup (~1.5 oz) chocolate
- ~2 slices firm white bread (I used the end of a baguette)
- Chicken Enchiladas
- Chicken and Stock
- 1 whole chicken (~4 lbs)
- 2 shallots
- 1 carrot
- 3 stalks celery
- 2 tsp salt
- enough water to cover
- Verde (Tomatillo) Sauce
- ~1.25 lb tomatillos
- 3 jalapeños
- 2 shallots
- 4-6 garlic cloves
- 1/4-1/2 cup cilantro
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 3 Tbsp sour cream
- Chicken and Stock
For either form of enchilada, the final steps are the same: steam the tortillas (I used a 1/2 cup of water with the tortillas perched above it on a raised basket in my rice cooker) to soften them up. Alternatively, you can coat them with sauce and then briefly fry them in a pan (and for a great lower-fat trick to pulling off this maneuver, check out step 4). Once the tortilla is workable, lay down a bit of meat, roll somewhat tightly leaving the ends open, plate, and cover with a very generous ladling of sauce. After all, this dish is very much about the sauce!
Beef Enchiladas with Red Mole Sauce
Begin by making the red mole sauce as this can be something of a long process. Stem and seed the dried chilis and gather the garlic cloves, but do not remove the paper from the garlic. In a dry pan over medium-high heat, toast the garlic for 15 minutes. Don’t worry if it blackens in spots on the paper, just toss it about periodically. Once time is up, squeeze the garlic flesh out of the paper and set it aside. Cooking the garlic in this fashion is very similar to oil and oven roasting garlic, but a whole lot quicker.
Toast the whole chilis in the same pan, pressing down on both sides for roughly 10 seconds each time. Transfer them to a bowl of warm water, reconstituting them for 30 minutes. Each of these different kinds of chilis adds a bit to the flavor profile of the sauce–the ancho brings a raisiny kind of fruitiness, the pasilla a bit more earthiness, and the guajillos a bit of heat and pungency. Squeeze and stir them on occasion while they soak to ensure even soaking. Once time is up, drain off the soaking water as that is a bit more bitter than we’d care for in this particular sauce.
In a food processor, combine the oregano, black pepper, cumin, cloves, garlic, reconstituted chilis, and 2/3 cup of the chicken broth. Puree and strain this chili paste into a bowl. Set it aside.
With the chili paste done, onto the next major component of the sauce. Begin this by putting the tomatoes under the broiler for 6 minutes, roll them over, and give them another 6 minutes. The skin should blister and easily peel off. Set these aside in the food processor.
Now, in a pan, heat up some oil and fry the almonds for roughly 3 minutes, followed by the raisins (until they puff up). Remove them and toss them into the food processor. Then, fry the minced shallots in the oil until nicely browned in color (figure roughly 10 minutes).
Finally, add the cinnamon, chocolate, bread, and 1 cup of broth into the food processor. Puree this strange sounding mix.
At this point, warm up your pan again and lightly oil it (if necessary). Once nice and hot, add the chili paste into the pot and stir this constantly for about 5 minutes. It should thicken a bit and get darker. Now, add the almond/bread/tomato mixture into the pot and continue to stir for a few minutes until a bit thicker again. Finally, work in the remaining broth, partially cover the pot, and simmer (with an occasional stir) for about 45 minutes on medium-low. Adjust the seasoning to taste with both salt and sugar. The goal is to end somewhere slightly sweet.
Note, you can stop here if you’re so inclined and throw the sauce in the fridge (or freezer) and finish this up whenever is convenient for you.
Finally, with the mole sauce ready, onto the beef! Imagine, all that work, and all we have by now is a sauce! Fortunately, the beef is incredibly simple. Season with salt and pepper, brown on all sides for roughly 2 minutes, deglaze the pan with about a 1/2 cup of sauce and a 1/2 cup of water, raise to a boil, cover, and transfer to a 350°F oven for 3 hours. Flip the meat once, and if things are looking at all dry in there, add a bit more sauce and water to the pot.
The meat should be fork tender once time is up. Then, cut it against the grain in a few places before you shred the meat with two forks. Once its time for you to actually serve, simply throw the shredded beef with 1 cup of sauce in a pot, toss well, and heat until warm.
Finally, you can lay the beef out in the tortillas and assemble as described earlier. Serve the remaining sauce warm in a bowl where everyone can get at it.
Chicken Enchiladas with Verde Sauce
These are a bit easier and faster to make compared to the beef enchiladas with the mole sauce, but still very punchy flavor-wise. First, get the chicken going. Cooking it is simple: poach the bird just as if you were making chicken pot pie. Simply chop up the vegetables, throw them in a pot with the chicken (gizzards removed), and salt, and boil this for roughly 45 minutes.
Once time is up, remove the bird and once cool enough to handle, peel off the skin and throw it back in the pot (which you should leave simmering). Shred the meat, and throw the bones right back into the pot (you might as well get some free chicken stock for your troubles, right? Let that simmer for another hour or two before you strain off all the solids and reduce the liquid until concentrated to your liking). Shred the chicken meat and set it aside.
While the chicken is cooking, you can prepare the verde sauce. This is a quick endeavor. Begin by husking the tomatillos and scrubbing under water to try to get off some of that stickiness. Then, cut them in half and lay them cut side down in a pan. Stick under the broiler for about 7 minutes and watch them collapse into a delicious, juicy mess.
As the tomatillos cook, finely mince the shallot, garlic, and peppers. Sauté both the shallot and pepper for 5-7 minutes before adding the garlic for a minute further.
Finally, with time up, add the tomatillos and the sautéed veggies into the food processor along with the cilantro and a bit of salt. Puree this.
In a lightly oiled hot pan, add this mixture and reduce for 5 minutes before mixing in the chicken broth. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes.
Note, you can stop here if you’re so inclined and throw the sauce in the fridge and finish this up whenever is convenient for you.
With both the sauce and the chicken complete, toss the shredded chicken in a pot along with 1 cup of the sauce and rewarm everything. While that heats up, back to your remaining sauce. Warm it up a bit and mix in the sour cream (and remove from heat so the sour cream doesn’t separate). The sour cream gives the sauce a great complexion and flavor while mellowing out the heat a bit in case any of your company is a bit sensitive to spice.
Finally, lay the chicken out in the tortillas and serve the remaining sauce warm in a bowl where everyone can get at it.