Wednesday, February 20, 2008

February 20: Chicken Enchiladas With Tomatillo Sauce

I love great Mexican food. I even love sort of mediocre Mexican food, when it's pulled off. What I don't love: Taco Bell, Chi Chi's, or any of those other sorry fake Americanized Mexican restaurants with fishbowl-sized ultra-sugary margaritas (I was actually offered a pineapple-banana margarita recently, and I think I may have laughed right in the waiter's face) or bowls of melted Velveeta and Old El Paso salsa mixed together.

Enchiladas are the ultimate in horribly abused food. I've seen awful things done to what should be great Mexican street food, or at worst, sort of a comforting, Tex-Mex version of lasagna or manicotti. I love a simple cheese and onion enchilada with red chili sauce, or if I'm feeding some non-meat-eating friend, a spinach-and-mushroom enchilada sauced with a simple cheese sauce made from just a little butter, flour, milk, and Monterey Jack.

This is a great recipe, modified from America's Test Kitchen. If you haven't tried making your own enchilada sauce, do it. This is a simple dish that really benefits from fresh flavors and great-tasting ingredients, and the difference between this and a canned enchilada sauce is big. You won't be interested in boring restaurant versions of this dish ever again.

Simplify: use leftover chicken, either from a grocery store rotisserie or one you cook yourself. You'll want about a pound of chicken total. I like to double this recipe and have the leftovers for dinner the next night. Occasionally I made Mexican rice for a side; more often, I just make a big, crunchy salad with salsa vinaigrette.

This makes 10 enchiladas, and this is not a dish that freezes well without modification. If you're interested in freezing it, email me and I can send you some suggestions.

Chicken Enchiladas With Tomatillo Sauce

2 teaspoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
3/4 pound small tomatillos , husks and stems removed, each tomatillo quartered (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 large jalapeƱo chiles , seeded and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt

2 teaspoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
16 ounces cooked chicken, cubed or cut into thin strips
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (2 cups)

Tortillas and Toppings
10 corn tortillas (six-inch)
Vegetable cooking spray
3 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (3/4 cup)
3/4 cup sour cream
1 avocado , diced medium
5 leaves romaine lettuce , washed, dried, and shredded
2 limes , quartered
1. FOR THE SAUCE: Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomatillos, jalapeƱos, sugar and salt; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1/3 cup of water and bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until tomatillos are softened, about 8 minutes. Transfer mixture to blender and puree until smooth, about 30 seconds; set aside. Rinse out saucepan.

2. FOR THE FILLING: Heat oil in saucepan over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring ocassionally, until beginning to soften and brown, about 3 minutes, then reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until browned, about 3 minutes longer. Add cumin and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chicken and cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is heated through, about 2 minutes. Transfer chicken mixture to large plate; freeze for 10 minutes to cool, then combine with cilantro and cheese in medium bowl and set aside.

3. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 300 degrees.

Smear entire bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking dish with 3/4 cup sauce. Place tortillas on two baking sheets. Spray both sides lightly with cooking spray. Bake until tortillas are soft and pliable, about 4 minutes. Place warm tortillas on counter-top. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. Place 1/3 cup filling down center of each tortilla. Roll each tortilla tightly by hand and place in baking dish, side by side, seam-side down. Pour remaining chili sauce over top of enchiladas. Use back of spoon to spread sauce so it coats top of each tortilla. Sprinkle 1/4 cup grated cheese down center of enchiladas.

Bake enchiladas on lower-middle rack until heated through and cheese is melted, 20 to 25 minutes. Uncover and serve immediately, passing sour cream, avocado, lettuce, and lime wedges separately.

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