Thursday, November 5, 2009

Chile for Chili On an Enchilada For a Chilly Night

I have a different perspective on Mexican food than most I know.  Part of it comes from where I grew up.

In the Southwest, Mexican food, or food of that nature, is dominated by one ingredient:  Green Chile.  And this is not the same sort of pepper you find around here in the Pacific Northwest that purports itself to be Green Chile.  These impostors are called Anaheims which are grown, as you might guess, in California.  This pepper of several varieties comes from fields of my home state, in the desert where the hot dry climate coupled with the short but deep rainy season couple to form a delicious fruit of great flavor and heat.

Whether fresh roasted or dried, this pepper finds its way into all manner of cooking and cuisine, and even in some of the Southwestern decorating motif.  Most non-local tourists enjoy seeing and obtaining long strings of bright red bundles of chiles.  These are called ristras which is the preferred method of drying the green chile.  While beautiful, they also are a practical means of storage though the winter.  Much like a string of garlic, you can continue to remove what you need as you need it.

And boy, is it a big part of the culture!  There are rarely a restaurant, even non-Mexican, where you can't get Green Chile even in processed packets like a condiment for your burger or your breakfast.  Nothing quite like a Green Chile burger or scrambled eggs with a small pile of Green Chile atop it.

So when I think of Mexican food and I am meaning back home, what it really means is Mexican food with the Southwest influence which I prefer to call New Mexican food. 

I have recipes for various different things using both fresh roasted and dried powdered form and I may cover them all over time, but one of my favorites is making red chili enchiladas. This is based from how my mom made them, and they are always my favorite.

The sauce is really just an elaborate gravy mixed with red chile powder.  Very simple, and very tasty.  What you add to it in terms of protein is up to you, though an important thing to remember is that there is some need of fat to make the rue either from cooking the meat itself, or added in the form of butter or oil. Ground beef or turkey is a favorite, and you can also make it with pre-cooked chicken.  The following "recipe" is a little loose because you can do a lot of variations based on the same concept.  And this combination is good for two hearty portions.  Adjust as you will.

First you start by cooking your meat in a deep sided skillet  Brown your ground meat or prepare your chicken.  Reserve any rendered fat.  Remove the meat and set aside.

Next, add about a quarter cup of all purpose flour sprinkled over the hot fat in the pan, still on medium high heat, and scrape and stir until the flour absorbs the fat.  Add extra oil or fats if needed to form a thin paste.  You should see it spread out a little on the pan rather than stick together in dry lumps.  Continue to stir until the rue browns.  How much is kinda up to you, but the darker the rue, the more flavor it takes on, and the less like cereal your sauce will taste.  I like my rue at a nice rust hue.

Once the rue takes on the right color, add in 3 cups of water or stock, and whisk vigorously to break up any lumps that may form.

To this, add about a tablespoon of dried New Mexican red chile powder (you can often find this in the grocery store in the ethnic food aisle with other Mexican spices, or sometimes you'll find whole dried pods that you can pulverize in a mortar and pestle or a food processor.)  Also a teaspoon or so of garlic powder, and an equal amount of onion powder.  You can also of course mince and saute fresh as you are cooking your meat and add it all back in later.  I also add about a teaspoon of salt.

Continue to stir and bring to a light boil to get the flour firming up the sauce.  Then lower the heat to a good simmer, and add the meat back in.

Then let it simmer.. and simmer... and simmer.  Stir regularly to keep it from sticking on the bottom.  The sauce should tighten up and it should start sticking to the back of a spoon.  At this point, if you decide you like it thinner, you can proceed as is or even add a little hot water to thin it further, or if you are looking for something thicker, you can blend in a teaspoon or two of corn starch with half a cup of water and stir that in thoroughly and let it simmer a bit longer.  However, keep in mind that as the sauce cools, it will continue to thicken a bit.

To serve, I like to go with the traditional Southwestern style of enchilada which is open-faced and stacked.

Prepare 3-4 corn tortillas for each person.  You can steam them, or I like to fry them lightly to get them to soften up.

Lay down a single tortilla, top with meat-chili sauce, sprinkle other toppings such as fresh minced onions, shredded cheese, and then layer with the next tortilla.  Continue, and then top the whole pile with even more cheese.

It's a gooey knife and fork affair, but it's worth every morsel. 

You can of course top it with anything else you'd like such as sour cream, or even maybe some fresh cilantro.  And you can experiment with other spices in the sauce such as cumin or even oregano.  But as with most things, I find that keeping things simple makes for better and easier meals.

And for the record, chile is a pepper used to make chili sauce.


  1. I can vouch for this recipe...It's a great meal on a cold night or with good friends and loved ones.

    Makes me miss home ;D

  2. Yum. I grew up with the rolled sort of enchilada or enchilada casserole, but I love stacked enchiladas. Yum.

    You know what I miss? Used to be that when you went to a restaurant in Bakersfield and they started you with chips, you got one bowl of guacamole and one of chile sauce. I loved the chile sauce. But now it's all about salsa cruda or pico de gallo.