Meat-and-potatoes traditionalists often look askance at the Mexican way of doing things. Jalapenos are hot enough, without the backdrop of Washington summers. Some will say that the sweat caused by consuming hot chilies cools us. Others know it's the ice-cold beer that invariably follows.
The gringo brave enough to offer such fiery fare as enchiladas in a green sauce will be smart enough to accompany it with something more than a cold drink (the liquid, after all, only slides over the oil-based fire the peppers leave in their wake). A cool, mild guacamole or a heaping portion of refried beans topped with sour cream refreshes the less-than-macho palate.
If the melting pot of American tastes allows the cook to turn down the heat of a Mexican meal, it also makes room for produce from a garden that flourishes with such north-of-the-border mainstays as green beans, carrots and zucchini. A quickly prepared marinade for the vegetables is welcome relief to those who have spent better time assembling the enchiladas.
The enchiladas require a young cheese, such as colby or monterey jack, that gets chewy and stringy (like pizza cheese) as it melts. Older, more costly cheese should be saved for sauces and casseroles where its superior melting abilities allow it to be uniformly incorporated.
This dish also calls for a green sauce made with tomatillos--small, hard green tomatoes that aren't edible unless they are cooked. Once difficult to find, tomatillos are showing up in many supermarket produce sections these days. (Buy canned, however, if you can't find fresh.) They are covered with a papery skin, which must be removed before proceeding with the recipe. This no-fuss green sauce is a series of simple steps: washing, cooking and whirring in a blender. It's an amazingly simple topping that will have you scratching your head with wonder that it really works.
The sauce recipe requires fresh coriander leaves (also called cilantro or Chinese parsley) which shouldn't be difficult to find, if not at the supermarket, then at Mexican, Caribbean or Chinese specialty shops. Coriander leaves have a very distinctive flavor not duplicated by dried coriander or anything else for that matter. If you think the sauce tastes bland without them (it shouldn't), substitute a favorite Mexican seasoning such as cumin, garlic or mild green chilies.
You might want to fry any leftover corn tortillas and use them as chips to nibble before dinner. (Tortillas can be found in or near the dairy case of most supermarkets.) Just cut the rounds into pie-shaped triangles and fry them in about an inch of oil heated in a large skillet. Drain them on paper towels, salt (if desired) and serve in a napkin-lined basket. These "chips" are chewier and more satisfying than the ones purchased at the store.
If the enchiladas threaten to unroll or break as you place them in the casserole, be gentle but firm. Any ends that come untucked should be retucked. Once they are doused with sauce and baked, the breaks disappear.
Serve the enchiladas with vegetables that have been slightly blanched and given plenty of time to marinate. Refried beans extend the Mexican theme, especially when cooked with mild green chilies and served with plenty of sour cream. Ice cream and fresh fruit (peaches and blueberries go well together) round out this meal. ENCHILADAS WITH GREEN SAUCE (6 servings) 3 pounds tomatillos 5 medium jalapeno peppers (canned or fresh), seeded and minced 6 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/4 cups chopped green onions (any unwilted green ends included), or substitute regular onions, minced 16 to 18 corn tortillas 1 1/4 pounds colby or monterey jack cheese, grated
Peel the papery skins off the tomatillos and discard. Wash the tomatillos and drop them into boiling water. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until they are just soft. Drain and pure'e them in a blender or food processor with jalapeno peppers, coriander, salt and 1/4 cup chopped onions. (If using a blender to puree, cut the tomatillos into chunks.) Simmer the sauce in a wide-topped saucepan or skillet for about half an hour.
Remove the sauce from the heat and spread a few tablespoons in the bottom of one or two well-greased casseroles. Put a tortilla on top of the sauce. Allow it to sit (in order to soften it) about 30 seconds. Take it off and place another one on top of the sauce. Place some cheese across the widest part of the sauce-covered side of the first tortilla, sprinkle with onions and roll it up. Place it seam-side down into prepared casserole (this recipe may take two casseroles). Take the second tortilla off the sauce and replace it with a third. Repeat filling process with the second tortilla, and keep going with remaining tortillas until all the cheese has been used.
Cover the enchiladas with remaining green sauce and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove and serve with marinated vegetable salad and refried beans. Adapted from Anna Thomas' "Vegetarian Epicure." REFRIED BEANS (6 servings) 12 ounces dried pinto beans 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 to 3 ounces chopped mild green chilies 1 medium onion, chopped 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste Sour cream for serving
Rinse beans thoroughly in a colander and pick over for any small stones. Combine pinto beans with 4 to 5 cups of water in a crockery slow cooker or heavy saucepan and cook until the beans are soft (this will take all day on the high setting of a slow cooker or 2 hours simmering on the stove, stirring occasionally). Add water as required.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet. Add chopped chilies and onion and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until onion has softened. Stir in salt. Add beans, about a cup at a time (with cooking liquid) and mash with an old-fashioned potato masher or the back of a large spoon. Mash to desired consistency (some people would rather puree their beans, others like chunks). Keep adding beans, mashing and stirring, until the whole batch is done. If the mixture is too thick for your taste, add water. If it is too thin, stir over medium heat until moisture evaporates.
The beans are better if refrigerated and reheated. Serve generously garnished with sour cream. MARINATED VEGETABLES
Garden vegetables (green beans, zucchini and carrots, for example) should be blanched in boiling water until tender crisp (about 4 minutes for beans, less for zucchini, more for carrots) and tossed with a oil-and-vinegar dressing seasoned to taste. The vegetables can also be tossed with store-bought marinated mushrooms or artichoke hearts, in which case extra dressing isn't needed. Feel free to adjust the salad, using what's plentiful in your garden or beautiful at the farmer's market or supermarket--blanch and add fresh broccoli or cauliflower, peel and chunk tomatoes or add sauteed eggplant.