Enchiladas hold a place in the Mexican culinary psyche similar to the place of hot dogs, hamburgers, and Philly cheesesteaks hold in ours, but to a greater depth. They belong to the oldest and most popular family of Mexican dishes, antojitos mexicanos—literally “Mexican style whims”—a group that includes other corn- and tortilla-based foods such as tacos, tamales, quesadillas, and gorditas. The word enchilada comes from the Spanish verb enchilar, which is defined as “to season with chile.” But what’s missing from that definition is any hint of the culinary magic that has made this dish, from its simplest to its most exotic forms, an overwhelming favorite on both sides of the border.
You probably know enchiladas as they’re served in Mexican-American restaurants, either alone or as the star of a combination plate. There the enchilada is most often a corn tortilla wrapped around a filling of cheese, shredded meat or poultry, covered with a flour-thickened chile sauce, topped with lots of cheese, onion, and sometimes sour cream, and then baked until the cheese topping is molten.
In Mexico, enchiladas are rarely served this way, in part because many homes still do not have ovens, and because queso amarillo, or yellow cheese, remains pretty much confined to Mexican-American cooking. Most often the tortilla is dipped in sauce first, then fried in a little oil and wrapped around a cheese, meat, or poultry filling and served directly with a topping of cheese or cooked vegetables. No blanket of thick sauce and cheese, and no baking required.
My enchilada recipes represent the best of both worlds. I like to fry and coat the tortillas with sauce first in the Mexican style, but I also top them with extra sauce and cheese and then bake them to get that soft, melting quality that Americans are used to.
The sauce makes the enchilada
To the uninitiated, a recipe for a Mexican sauce might appear to be an unusual collection of seemingly incompatible ingredients. But through skillful technique, these ingredients combine to take on an entirely new identity that is nothing short of sublime. So crucial is the sauce that, in Mexico, it often defines the enchilada. For instance, enchiladas made with red chile sauce are referred to as enchiladas rojas (red enchiladas), and those made with tomatillo and green chile sauce are called enchiladas verdes (green enchiladas).
Toasting or broiling the sauce ingredients is crucial to building complexity of flavor, so it’s important not to fast-forward through this step. Make sure these ingredients are well toasted before you go any further. Don’t mistake well toasted for burnt, however. Once you’ve properly toasted and broiled all the ingredients, you’ll purée them into a paste that you’ll fry briefly before adding a healthy dose of water or broth. The last step is a good simmer to thicken the sauce and complete the marriage of flavors.
Enchilada fillings can be just about anything edible. Most common today, in both Mexico and the United States, is a filling of grated cheese, followed by cooked and shredded meat or poultry, and sometimes seafood, especially shrimp and crab, or a spoonful of a stew or mole. There are lots of ways to make fillings of shredded meat and poultry, but the easiest is to cut the meat into bite-size pieces, simmer it in water or broth until tender, and then shred it, either by hand or with the plastic blade of a food processor.
Cheese is the most popular enchilada topping. Many of the Mexican cheeses used for enchiladas, including Oaxaca, Chihuahua, panela, fresco, and añejo or enchilado (a type of añejo coated in chile powder), are now available in North America at Mexican and Latin American markets. I usually reserve Oaxaca and Chihuahua for fillings because they melt very well, but the rest make great toppings, providing additional flavors and textures. In Mexico, cooked diced carrots, potatoes, and chorizo sausage are also typical toppings, as are a dollop of crema (a thick Mexican cream similar to the French crème fraîche) and a sprinkling of minced onion.
Frying tortillas makes them easy to roll
Corn tortillas for enchiladas are “softened” in hot oil, either before or after being coated with sauce. A little oil is heated over medium heat, and then each tortilla is fried briefly on both sides. The result is a pliable, sog-proof tortilla. Tortillas that are slightly on the stale side are best suited for this treatment because they absorb less oil and won’t spatter as much while cooking, but fresh ones work fine, too. Softening the tortillas after they’ve been coated with sauce first—an approach usually reserved for red chile sauces—cooks the sauce right into the tortillas, making them muy rico (very rich).
Drink choices: Try lager-style beers or a fruity, off-dry wine like Chenin Blanc
It’s no accident that Mexican lager-style beers are the beverage of choice with spicy Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. The malty sweetness in many of these brews not only quenches the thirst, but it also helps to take the edge off the chiles’ heat. My favorites include the light, crisp Carta Blanca, the amber Pilsner-styled Bohemia, and the richer, darker Negro Modelo. If you can’t find these or other Mexican beers, try a-good-quality American ale like Samuel Adams.
You needn’t limit your choices to beer, though, when it comes to finding the right partner for enchiladas. An off-dry to slightly sweet white or even a blush wine can be just as enticing and delicious. Just don’t be misled by the “spicy wines with spicy food” myth. So-called spicy wines like Alsace Gewürztraminer actually tend to be too high in alcohol to work well with spicy foods, the combination of alcohol and heat resulting in a pronouncedly bitter aftertaste. Instead, try a fruity Chenin Blanc by Hogue Cellars ($7), Latah Creek in Washington State ($10), Dry Creek Vineyards ($8), or Pine Ridge ($12) in the Napa Valley. White Zinfandels will work well with these recipes, too: De Loach and Rosenblum (both $10) are good candidates.