The Whole Enchilada: How to Master the Mexican Favorite

May 5, 2009

ROLLED, SAUCED AND oozing with melted cheese, enchiladas could be called the Mexican equivalent of an American burger or an Italian lasagna: a familiar dish that nearly everyone likes to eat.

“Enchiladas are a great party dish because they’re both recognizable and comforting,” says Richard Sandoval, executive chef at Virginia’s La Sandia (Tysons Corner Center; 703-893-2222). “You can stuff them with anything: seafood, beef, shredded duck confit.” That versatility — and the fact that you can prep them in advance — makes them ideal for a big fiesta.

“Enchilada” means “in-chilied” in Spanish. That means the cylindrical, tortilla-wrapped wonders get doused with some kind of chili sauce, be it ancho-rich red gravy, green tomatillo sauce or a smoky mole. “You’re only as good as your sauce,” says Lourdes Castro, author of “Simply Mexican” ($25, Ten Speed Press). She likes taking the time to whip up a homemade one; other experts say store-bought versions from Latin markets or Trader Joe’s work if time is short.

Fillings “can be anything you’d put in tacos,” says D.C. cooking teacher Patricia Jinich, who runs classes at the Mexican Cultural Institute. “Eggs, shredded pork, picadillo [spiced ground beef]. Just keep in mind which sauce you are using. Lighter fillings like chicken are good with strong sauces like mole; heavy fillings are best with simpler sauces like tomatillo.”

Corn tortillas give enchiladas their toothsome lusciousness. But they’ve got to be softened — either by steam, a dunk in sauce or a dip in some hot oil. “I fry them gently after heating just enough oil to kiss the pan,” says Daisy Martinez, star of the Food Network’s “Viva Daisy,” which debuts this summer.

Cheese, de rigeuer in Tex-Mex enchiladas — and a nice garnish on traditional Mexican ones — also adds to the alchemy. Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack is standard, “but if you go to a Latin market, you’ll get more unusual ones that are saltier and tangier than American ones,” Jinich says. Think Parmesan-ish queso anejo or feta-like queso fresco; both should be crumbled on enchiladas just before serving.

Once ingredients are prepped, it’s time to start filling and rolling. “It’s best to be organized and have a sort of an assembly line,” says Castro. That means tortillas go into the oil before being stuffed with about 1/4 cup of filling. Roll it and place it seam-side down on a plate (if the recipe doesn’t require time in the oven) or baking dish.

“Enchiladas are hard to mess up,” Martinez says. “Even if they don’t look pretty, you can put them in a baking dish, and if all the ingredients are good, they’ll still taste
delicious.”

» Recipe File: Make chicken enchiladas with tomatillo sauce yourself.

Photo courtesy Lucy Schaeffer

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Christopher Porter · May 5, 2009