Thursday, April 24, 2003

On Making Enchiladas - regardless of recipe

A few times a year, I make enchiladas, Tex Mex style (cheese inside, topped with red sauce, onions and more cheese), for about 10 people, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I don’t really recommend making them yourself, as the whole process is quite time consuming, but if you live somewhere you can’t get decent Tex Mex or you really enjoy cooking, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Tex Mex enchiladas are almost always made with corn tortillas, and the quality of the tortilla makes a big difference. As far as I can tell, the brand doesn’t matter much, but freshness does. Ever had sort of rubbery or tough enchiladas? Chances are good the tortillas were old. Do not despair though; you can avoid old tortillas easily by using a trick I learned from the tortilla salesman. First, go to the tortilla shelf and grab a package from the front and one from the back, making sure both are from the same vendor. Now, take each package in both hands and gently bend it back and forth, as though you were trying to make a wave run through the stack from side to side (not top to bottom). Feel a difference? The old package should feel stiffer. Nine times out of ten, the old stock is rotated to the front as new deliveries are made, and the fresh ones are put in back. Take the time to find the softest, most pliable package; it’s worth the effort. Also, if you have really fresh ones, you should be able to taste the corn (just a tiny bit sweet) in the final product.

I’ve used a number of cheeses, including fresh mozzarella and a number of Mexican varieties, and I don’t think the variety matters too much. Even supermarket brands are ok if you shred them yourself. However, it is nice to get a bit of a mix; I prefer mostly cheddar with some monterrey jack and mozzarella thrown in. Since grating a lot of cheese is a pain, I sometimes buy it preshredded (if Seliot isn’t around to help), but you have to be careful here. Once cheese is grated, the taste goes downhill fast - so avoid something that was processed weeks ago by joyless gnomes who seem to think of cheese as a consumer product, not a delicious foodstuff. In other words, just say no to Kraft.

Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong here. Ancho and California peppers work well, but the long red ones from New Mexico seem to have the most heat and best flavor. If you can stand the fire, I recommend about half New Mexico and half something else. Some people toast/roast them before processing, but I’ve given that up. When you process the chiles into a paste, be sure to grind them finely. If you don’t, you and your guests will be picking bright red bits of seemingly indestructible chile pepper from your teeth for a day or so. The first time you see a little red sliver you’ll suspect your mouth is bleeding -- probably not, you just didn’t run the blender long enough. Feel free to add chili powder to spice up your sauce, but do not use it as the foundation.

Now this is where you’ll make or break your enchilada experience. Even though tortillas and cheese are important, the sauce is where the rubber hits the road. The single most critical thing about the sauce is you use high quality stock. If you’re seriously considering canned stock from the supermarket, go ahead. Then, when you discover that your enchilada sauce tastes like salty, slightly spiced, and highly processed bits of red rubber playground balls, you can pour it out and start anew. My stock hierarchy goes something like this:

Homemade > Premium/gourmet > Stock in a box > Low sodium > bouillon > generic

If you can’t get stock in box, don’t bother making your own sauce. Trust me on this.

And now please, enjoy your enchiladas.

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