Enchiladas, Blow by Blow
If you aren’t one of those who likes to click on provided links, I suggest you make an exception in the case of this post. I’ve loaded it chock full of my own photographs taken, to chronicle the creation of this meal. Particularly if you’re not hugely confident on your own in the kitchen, you’ll get to see evidence of how a meal develops in the hands of an intermediate-level home cook, and hopefully realize that you too can do the exact same thing.
My mission for this post is to chronicle the assembly of a meal, which took a total of about four hours. I made it my goal to describe what I did and how I did it, and the results. Some of it turned out great, but not everything turned out exactly like I thought it would. But in all cases, I’m going to be candid with you Readers about what actually happened in my kitchen and the results. Mostly, they were good.
One of our best friends is from South Africa, and her mom came to visit. She made a point of requesting a meal cooked at home, by me. I figured that there’s probably a lot of access to Indian and European and likely Chinese style foods where she comes from, so I’d give her a taste of the New World. When I mentioned that thought, The Wife said “Enchiladas!” and her face brightened in that way I can’t resist, so enchiladas became the object of the exercise.
Now, I’ve never made enchiladas before. So of course, this means making them from scratch, or as close to scratch as possible. The thing I like best about enchiladas is the rich, savory ranchera sauce, and the gooey, melty cheese. So it was off to the internet to learn what I could, and then off to the store to get the ingredients I didn’t already have on hand, and then off to the kitchen to put them all together. My goal was a flavorful, linger-on-the-palate sauce all over enchiladas filled with spicy steak and sinfully oozing cheese, to be served with Spanish rice and either black or refried beans. I’d also need a cocktail and a dessert, and maybe an appetizer.
First, You Take The Meat
I began the day before, by dressing a tri-tip steak for preparation in the sous vide. The steak was a tri-tip roast purchased at Costco, about two pounds of the loin. The dressing for the steak consisted of canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, a bit of red wine, some crushed garlic, salt, pepper, and about half a diced onion. This all went into a blender and produced a piquant, thick, red-orange liquid. I smeared this all over the roast, bagged the roast, and froze it. After it all froze in place, I set my sous vide for 122 degrees Fahrenheit and placed the sealed roast inside of it. There it sat and cooked for fourteen hours.
Trader Joe’s To The Rescue!
The morning of the dinner party, I awoke slightly off my game. We’d had other friends over for a dinner the night before and we’d had a little bit more to drink than I’d thought to. So about all I had on hand to prepare my enchiladas were the spices and oils already available, the steak in the sous vide, and a big hunk of Oaxaca cheese from Costco. Oaxaca cheese has a tangy, salty flavor, and a golden-like-butter color which is very inviting — but more importantly it melts like nothing else I’ve worked with anywhere else, and I swear by it for quesedillas and melted sandwiches.
But in the house I had nothing to make for an appetizer or dessert, almost no vegetables, and not even any tortillas. So it was off to Trader Joe’s. There, I found black bean-flavored tortilla chips, pineapple salsa, and canned refried black beans. So now I wouldn’t have to choose between refried beans and black beans — you can refry black beans!
It’s All About The Sauce
To begin my ranchera sauce, I started with six big tomatoes, a
purple red onion, garlic, brown chipotle powder, salt, pepper, and Mexican oregano. First I halved and then coarsely diced the onion. To do this, first peel the hard, dry outer covering from the onion. Then slice it in half, from stem to root. Imagine that the onion is a globe, and the stem and the root hairs are the north and south pole. You’re slicing to separate the eastern from the western hemispheres. Lay out the halves flat-side down, then make first longitudinal and then latitudinal cuts, about a quarter inch apart. You’ll know if you’re doing it right because you won’t get a lot of the acid release that stings the eyes.
After that, I peeled and coarsely chopped the garlic. To peel garlic, separate the individual cloves out of the bulb, and crush each under the flat blade of a large chef’s knife. The juicy yellow bulb inside will pop right out. Then chop as you did the onion. If you want, after you’ve got a nice dice, you can crush the diced garlic by hand again under your knife, and this makes it into garlic paste, but I didn’t go that far since I knew a food processor was in my future to do the rest of that work for me.
Finally, I diced the tomatoes, taking care to preserve the liquid. Then I heated about three tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large skillet, and added first the onions, garlic, and tomatoes until they began to sweat, and then the herbs and spices, and then mixed them all together with a can of diced chiles. (Trader Joe’s did not have any pasilla chiles, which is what I would have preferred here; a hot jalapeño or habañero would have been too much for my guest from abroad.) The idea here is to get the flavors to marry a bit. However, it didn’t work out quite like I wanted — the liquid from the tomatoes cooled the oil too quickly, so the next time I do this I’m going to put in just the onions and garlic first, then the tomatoes into the now-seasoned oil, and then the spices.
After about ten minutes, the tomato water was boiling and I stirred it a few times, and it smelled great. Then I pressed a ladle into the mixture and extracted about two cups of the water, along with a few bits of tomato. This I reserved in the refrigerator for later.
The remainder, in two batches, was placed in the food processor and blended until smooth. The yield from six tomatoes and half an onion was about six cups of a thick, rust-colored sauce. It, too, went in the refrigerator, as I had other things to do between now and the rest of the preparation.
A Rare Letdown
I brag about my sous vide incessantly to anyone who will listen to me talk about preparing food. It’s very rare when I do not get perfectly-cooked, super-tender meat. What I needed for this purpose was shredded beef to put in the enchiladas. But when I took my tri-tip out of the 122 degree water bath, I got a disappointment. Yes, it was exactly the temperature of rare beef, and it had been in there more than long enough that I felt comfortable serving it from a food safety perspective. And the meat felt tender and soft through the bag. So I removed it and preserved the liquid, in the event I needed it later. (I was glad I did.)
To shred beef (or any other meat), all you normally have to do is dig a fork in about an eighth of an inch, and it along the grain of the meat, repeating until the cut of meat is reduced to the shredded strings you’re looking for. That ought to turn in to nice small shreds of the beef to put in the enchiladas later. But on this day, the meat did not shred under the power of my fork nearly as well as I wanted it to. I think the reason for this was the cut of beef I chose. Tri-tip makes for a wonderful steak to each in slices, but there is a fair amount of connective tissue in there, and that seemed to get in the way of getting a good shred out of the roast.
So I cubed the beef instead, as small as I could get the cubes without endangering my fingers. The meat was quite tender, and the juice from the cooking bag came in handy later, so I’ve no regrets about using the sous vide. Meat and liquid were reserved (in separate containers) in the refrigerator.
Dinner parties at Casa Likko are usually pretty boozy, and I’d already got an idea of how I wanted to liquor up my guests — more about that in the next section. So I wanted something cold and refreshing and virgin to come at the end of the meal. My wife does not like flan, more’s the pity, so I did not plan ahead to make a flan or a dulce de leche for dessert. Instead, I created something on my own.
TJ’s had sold me a very aromatic, very ripe pineapple. I broke it down into four fillets, and did a rough dice on those. They went into my high-speed dual-bladed blender along with some fresh mint that I chiffonaded (that’s fancy French-cooking talk for “cut into thin strips”) and were quickly liquefied along with some ice. This mixture was poured into a glass serving bowl. Working quickly, I quartered six strawberries and used them to decorate the melting mix. This was stored in the freezer until time for dessert service.
You Put The Lime In The Coconut, And You Drink It All Up
At this point, I realized that the last thing I wanted to be doing while guests were over was squeezing limes to make the daiquiris. So I prepared the limes beforehand. Into a one-liter glass carafe went the squeezed juice of four dozen halved limes, along with a generous pour of agave nectar.
This, too, was reserved in the refrigerator for later use — it was mixed half and half with coconut-flavored rum and then blended in the high-speed mixer with ice.
Colorado y Negra
At this point, I had about an hour until guests were due to arrive. Time to start the rice, and might as well get the beans on too since those will hold at temperature for a long time. Most rice cooks at a 3:1 by volume ratio of liquids to dry rice. But horrors abound — I had no chicken stock on hand! So I put four cups of plain water and a bit less than a tablespoon of a commercial condensed chicken stock product in a large sauté pan. When that came to a boil, I added the two cups of reserved herbed tomato water and a schmear of bacon fat. (Our Mexican friends call it “manteca” and it makes everything taste great!) After the fat melted, I added two cups of jasmine rice. The cover goes on, the heat goes down to low, and the timer goes to forty minutes. When done, the rice was pleasingly pink, flavorful, and moist.
Beans were uncanned and spread into a small saucepot. When they heated up, a handful of shredded Oaxaca cheese decorated them. I’m afraid that refried beans do not photograph very well — the product looks, well, less than appetizing, although it tastes just fine.
So now I had a bowl of good tortilla chips and salsa as my salty-and-spicy starter (the better to encourage the drinking of alcohol), my rice and beans to serve alongside my main dish, my cocktail, and my dessert out of the way. Time to return to the main event.
Enchilada Assembly Line
I began by heating the oven up to 475 degrees. I then lined two cookie sheets with aluminum foil and set a half dozen corn tortillas on each, brushing the tortillas with a little bit of vegetable oil. The tortillas went in the oven for about five minutes, enough to soften the corn enough that I would be able to bend the tortillas without breaking them. While the first batch was baking up, I lined two roasting pans with aluminum foil in the hopes that they would stay somewhat clean, and spread a layer of the ranchera sauce on the bottom of the first pan. Out of the refrigerator came the storage bowls of cubed meat and shredded cheese, and the assembly line was ready to go. First up were the vegetarian (not vegan) cheese enchiladas.
That was when the migraine manifested. My precursor is a blind spot, slowly expanding from the focus of my vision out to my periphery. With less than forty-five minutes before guests were ready to arrive for a dinner I’d spent hours preparing, I simply did not have time for it nor the ability to retire and wait for it to go away, a prospect that can take as long as a day when the attack is bad. So I was working partly blind for the next half hour or so. I took a bunch of aspirin and drank a bunch of iced tea in a gamble that thinned blood and caffeine would chase away the principal event and I could be sociable later, and pressed on, hoping for the best. But it didn’t help that by this time of day I was getting direct sunlight in my eyes from my west-facing windows, before the sun went below my back yard’s fence, and I’m sure that not having eaten since grabbing a quick and unfulfilling lunch at the local Scottish establishment on my way back from the store many hours previously.
A warm tortilla was placed directly on the sauced roasting pan, with a generous handful of cheese, about three tablespoons, run along its middle. The two bald ends of the tortilla were folded over the cheese, and the whole flipped over so the fold side was down and kept in place by the weight of the enchilada. If all worked out, the sauce on the bottom would absorb into the tortilla and seal up the fold. This process was repeated twelve times, and then more ranchera sauce was drizzled and spread on top, and a handful of remaining diced onions and then some extra cheese distributed atop that.
Meanwhile, another round of tortillas was oiled and set to soften, and when they came out, I reduced the heat in the oven to 350. I noticed that I had gone through two-third of my ranchera sauce making the cheese enchiladas and I was not happy with the coverage — some corners of the tortillas were going to come out crispy rather than soft. So I was glad I’d reserved the peppery, beefy sous vide liquid, because I added that to the sauce for the steak enchiladas and got enough sauce out of the whole to be able to finish my assignment. So again, the tortillas went directly on the sauce base, but this time they got about half and half of meat and cheese before folding, flipping, and smothering.
Immediately I set to work putting the last of the mixing bowls and other preparation implements in the dishwasher and the counter wiped down. I pressed the “start” button on the dishwasher right when, “ding-dong!” The guests had arrived.
About twenty minutes later, the enchiladas were ready for removal and service, as were the rice and beans. A daiquiri on top of the aspirin and caffeine made me at least numb enough to the ache in my scalp, and the sun setting below the horizon reduced the amount of direct sunlight my eyes had to deal with, so I was able to carry on for more than the requisite four hours of dinner party needed to adequately entertain.
One of my guests, after all, had come from about as close to literally the other side of the world as is possible — and she had requested my cooking. I was not going to let her down. And I didn’t — she said afterwards that she’d never had such food and found it utterly delicious. Her daughter, who has lived here for many years, and her American husband and my American wife, also all pronounced the enchiladas delicious and us guys went back for seconds.
Six tomatoes did not yield nearly enough ranchera sauce. I will double my tomato count the next time. Because I simply did not have enough sauce to drench my tortillas before wrapping the enchilada filling, I had the edges of my baked enchiladas come out crispy instead of tender, the way I wanted.
I did not get the smooth texture in my sauce as I get in a Mexican restaurant, and my sauce was more orange than I was used to. Maybe I need to add some tomato paste to it in order to get a stronger flavor and redder color. The flavor I did obtain was tangy and piquant without being overwhelmingly hot — generosity with the onion helped, and picking milder chile peppers for flavoring kept me from scaring a guest unused to very spicy food off my table.
Tri-tip does not shred well after sous vide cooking. Next time I will use a different cut of beef to prepare my shredded steak. I suspect a skirt steak will yield better results.
Corn tortillas, I later learned, will soften enough to be pliable without breaking after about twenty seconds in a microwave oven. I’m not sure if that would be more or less convenient than the oil bake technique I used, and I worry that this would dry them out although immersion in the ranchera sauce would obviously combat that.
While normally I sneer at flavored liquors, with a migraine attacking at a decidedly inconvenient time, a generous pour of coconut-flavored rum really took the edge off my headache:
Note: enchiladas from scratch were significantly less work than lasagna.