Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chiles Relleños, Enchiladas, Homemade Tortilla Chips

OK, it's day two and I'm already going to be contradicting myself and making embarrassing revelations. Tonight's dinner was not quick, and not entirely from scratch. However, it's what I made, so here we go.

We love Mexican food. There are lots of opinions out there about what's authentic. I've read many recipes and eaten in many Mexican restaurants. I also have the tastes of my family to satisfy, so there are some compromises. To me, authentic means home-style and packed with flavor, and this meal is a pretty good example of my take on it.

Full disclosure: I spent 2 hours making dinner tonight...more than most people would ever commit. Self-contradiction #1...so much for quick meals. However, much can be done ahead of time, or you can save this meal for a Saturday night when cooking and enjoying a beer or margarita is all part of the fun.

Chiles Relleños
Scallion & Cheese Enchiladas
Homemade Tortilla Chips
(Serving 2 adults, 1 child)

Chiles Relleños
2 fresh poblano chilies (one per person)
5-6 ripe roma tomatoes
1 T light olive oil
1 shallot, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp tomato paste (I use Amore brand, in a tube, so I can use a little whenever I want)
1 tsp good quality chili powder (I make my own - see below)
1/2 tsp ground cumin seed (see tips below)
freshly ground pepper
~1/4 c. grated Monterey Jack (I buy shredded)

Step 1 - roast, peel and seed the poblanos. Poblanos are a medium-sized and medium-heat green chili, ideal for this dish because of their rich flavor and meaty texture. Most grocery stores now carry them year-round. Their heat can vary quite a bit by source and season, so be careful - you may find yourself with super-hots from time to time. Roasting them gives them a smoky depth that is fantastic. Rub the chilies all over with a little oil, and place them over a grill, the flame of a gas burner, or under a broiler. Char and blacken them evenly all over. On my gas grill, this takes about 15 minutes, rotating somewhat frequently to ensure evenness. They should be quite black all over, or the skin will be difficult to peel. If the chilies split open a bit, don't worry about it. When they're done, immediately place them in a bowl and cover with foil or a lid and let them steam for 10-15 minutes. Remove them from the bowl to a cutting board, chop off the very top, and carefully, trying not to tear the flesh, peel off the blackened skin. It'll be a little sticky, but most of it should be flaky, detached, and come off in small sheets. Then, carefully - with a small spoon or your fingers, remove as many of the seeds as you can, again, taking care not to tear the chilies. Set aside. (Can be overnight.)

Step 2 - peel, seed and dice the tomoatoes. I do this step concurrently with step 1. Together, they take about 30-40 minutes. Heat about 1 qt. of water to a boil in a 3 qt. saucepan. Add the tomatoes, and swirl them around with a spoon for 15-45 seconds. The skins will split slightly when they are becoming loosened. Locally-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes will be ready faster. Immediately drain them and cover them with cold water to stop them from cooking. Remove them to a cutting board, cut them in quarters, and slip off the skins. If they are stubborn, use a small paring knife to loosen the skin, and peel it back away from the tomato, leaving as much flesh as possible. With a small knife or the handle of a teaspoon, scrape out all the seeds. Chop the peeled, seeded tomatoes into small dice. Set aside. (Can be overnight.)

Step 3 - cook the sauce. Heat the light olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, add the shallot and garlic, and cook for 30-45 seconds until sizzling, but not browned. Add the diced tomatoes and heat through. Add the tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, a generous amount of fresh ground pepper, a pinch of salt, and about 2-3 T of water. Stir together, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered. The tomatoes should start to dissolve, and the mixture will be chunky, not a smooth sauce. Taste for flavor balance. You will likely need to add more salt - you don't want this sauce to be aggressively salty, but it should have a hint of saltiness. Also, typically fresh tomotoes in a sauce like this will want some sugar to balance their acid. You don't want it to taste sweet. Add 1/2 tsp or so of sugar, stir, and taste. You should notice a bit more depth and balance in the flavor, less acidic bite. If you think it needs more, add a bit more. Cook for about 10 more minutes and check the balance of flavors again. Set aside.

[Tip: Make your own ground seasonings for this dish! I make my own chili powder, and I'll NEVER go back - it's soooooo much better. And, it's very easy. Buy dried ancho chilies at the store, heat the oven to 250, put the chilies on a baking sheet, and roast until their color deepens and your house smells like chocolate is baking. Remove from oven, cool, crack in half and shake out the seeds (it's OK if a few remain), then break into pieces and grind in your coffee grinder to medium-fine powder. Store in a small tupperware or gladware container; stays delicious for months.

Do the same with cumin: buy whole seeds, place 2-3 T in a small frying pan and roast over medium-low heat, shaking the pan frequently. When the seeds start to smoke and smell roasty and wonderful, remove them from the heat, cool, and grind in your coffee grinder. You won't believe how they're transformed, and they keep for months.]

Preheat the oven to 400. Scoop a couple spoonfuls of the sauce into the bottom of a small glass pan - I use a glass loaf pan for 2 chilies. Fill each chili with a small handful of the grated cheese. If the chili is torn, fold it shut where it's torn and put that on the bottom. Place each in the pan, and cover with the remaining sauce. Bake until the cheese is melted and everything is bubbly, about 15-20 minutes.

Scallion & Cheese Enchiladas
8 fresh corn tortillas (I use La Banderita brand...the key is to use FRESH, and CORN, not flour)
~1.25 c. + 1/2 c. grated Monterey Jack cheese
2 bunches of scallions, sliced very thinly - all of the white and about 3-4" of the green
1 can of Old El Paso Enchilada Sauce (hot or mild, depending on your taste)

OK, true confession, I use canned enchilada sauce. Sure, I've made it from scratch, but this stuff tastes pretty darned good, and it's a heck of a lot easier, so I wimp out. You could add meat to these enchiladas if you like - shredded chicken or pork would be best. If you do, mix them with a little of the enchilada sauce or a bit of the Chiles Relleños sauce. I also use pre-made tortillas. If you find a good product, they're as good or better than you can make yourself...and making tortillas is a lot of work.

Enchiladas are super-easy, but there's an initial step I've learned by trial and error. A lot of recipes talk about frying the tortillas before making the enchiladas - lots of work and they get greasy. I've found better results with this: heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat, then, one at a time, place each tortilla in the skillet, heat it until just barely beginning to brown - about 30 seconds. Flip and cook the other side. Stack on a plate. They will steam one another in the stack, which is key to the process. When all 8 are done, flip the stack over so the top tortilla can get steamed on the bottom.

Preheat oven to 400. Pour a little enchilada sauce on the bottom of a glass casserole to cover. Mix the 1.25 c. cheese and scallions together. Working with your stack of tortillas one at a time, spread a small handful of filling across the tortilla, roll it up, and lay in the pan with the seam down. Pour the remaining enchilada sauce all over the enchiladas in the pan, top with the 1/2 c. cheese and a little extra chopped scallion, if you like. Bake until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbly, about 15-20 minutes. (I bake them with the Chiles Relleños.)

Homemade Corn Tortilla Chips
12-16 fresh corn tortillas (again, La Banderita brand, or homemade, or another favorite brand)
1 qt. canola oil
popcorn salt

Self-contradiction #2 - I said yesterday that I use Kosher salt for pretty much everything. But for freshly-deep-fried chips or French Fries, I use popcorn salt, which is ground super-fine. I find it nearly disappears on the surface of the chips, and yields a delicious saltiness.

I deep-fry in a wok. It has several advantages: high, wide sides mean less splatter; woks conduct heat well; they have large capacity; I avoid getting oil sludge on my good pots and pans; and it adds depth to the "seasoning" on the surface of my wok.

Stack the tortillas, and, making three cuts, cut into six equal-sized wedges. Heat the oil over medium-high heat. I don't mess with thermometers, but you want about 350. Cover a sheet pan with a double-layer of paper towels, and get out a large bowl. Use kitchen tongs for the deep-frying. Tongs are the most under-utilized tool in most home kitchens.

Working one stack at a time, drop the cut tortillas into the hot oil and, using the tongs, swirl them around to spread them out and ensure they are covered. After they start to firm up, turn them. Continue frying and turning fairly frequently until they are beginning to turn golden brown. At this point, they'll darken quick, so you have to be focused and move fast. Using the tongs, grab a few chips at a time and lift them out of the oil, drain them briefly, and lay them on the paper towels. Spread them out so they can drain, and while they're still very hot, sprinkle with a little of the popcorn salt. While they're cooling, start the next batch. Once they've drained and cooled a bit, dump them into the large bowl to make room on the paper towel for the next batch. Repeat until all tortillas have been fried.

I LOVE these homemade chips...and my family gobbles them up.

As I said, this is NOT a quick meal, but the flavors are rich and wonderful and worth the time. If you do the peeling and seeding of the chilies and tomatoes ahead of time, the rest can be done in about 45 minutes to an hour. I find I have about the perfect amount of time to fry the chips while the enchiladas and chiles are baking.

Tonight's key techniques were: (1) peeling and seeding chilies by roasting them. This technique works with any chili - red bell peppers are fabulous this way. (2) peeling and seeding tomatoes. The French term for peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes is concassé, and it is called for in many dishes. It is considered more refined than simply diced tomatoes because removing the skin and seeds produces a more pure texture and flavor. (3) seasoning by adding both sugar and salt - we did this with the Chiles Relleños sauce. Seasoning means balancing salt, sweet, acid, bitter, heat, and even earthiness. Tonight we added the elements of sweet and acid.

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