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Hot Enchiladas

Feta cheese on top? Flat instead of rolled? Well, why not?

April 29, 1998|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Only six days to Cinco de Mayo, but you won't want to wait that long to taste some of the greatest enchiladas we've come across.

Forget that vision of enchiladas as something you get on combination plates or in TV dinners. There's a whole world of enchilada cookery that has nothing to do with opening a can of sauce and pouring it over a tortilla stuffed with cheese.

"Enchilada" simply means a tortilla that is coated with chile, and the concept goes back to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Over the centuries, many variations have appeared--the flat enchiladas of San Luis Potosi and New Mexico, for instance, and enchiladas suizas, so named because they are creamy with dairy products.

In the United States, we have experienced the craze for crab enchiladas, introduced in San Francisco. And who hasn't eaten the homely enchilada casserole, composed of layers of tortillas, sauce and filling?

In Mexico, enchiladas might contain beans, eggs, fish, shrimp or potatoes and chorizo, not just beef, chicken or cheese. Or tortillas might simply be dipped in chile sauce and rolled without a filling, then sprinkled with crumbled cotija cheese or queso enchilado--cheese coated with chili powder. Instead of the Cheddar and Jack of American fast food operations, an enchilada might be filled with soft white queso fresco.

The most suitable enchiladas for the coming holiday might be mole enchiladas: Cinco de Mayo commemorates a battle at Puebla, the city that gave birth to Mexico's famous chocolate-flavored mole.

If making this notoriously complex sauce intimidates you, don't hesitate to try Ofelia Alksne's version. Instead of working with the usual bushels of ingredients that produce vats of sauce, you will make just enough for eight enchiladas. That's certainly a manageable quantity. And most of the ingredients are in supermarkets, although you might have to seek out one with a large Latino clientele for mulato and slim black pasilla negro chiles.

Alksne, owner of Casa Blanca restaurant in La Mesa, is from Torreon in the state of Coahuila. She has reworked her grandmother's recipe to produce these enchiladas, adding modern concepts like reducing fat. Instead of frying tortillas in lots of oil to soften them for rolling, she microwaves them briefly, then fries them in only a little oil.

She has different ideas for toppings too. Although she'll use Jack cheese and sour cream, she might as an alternative crumble feta cheese over the enchiladas and add a spoonful of yogurt. And she might sprinkle them with finely chopped Italian parsley instead of cilantro.

You don't have to fry the tortillas for El Portal's spinach enchiladas at all. Just heat them quickly on a griddle, says Abel Ramirez, owner of the Pasadena Mexican restaurant. The recipe evolved when Ramirez decided to put flat New Mexico-style enchiladas on the menu.

The filling includes baby shrimp as well as spinach, but the topping is traditional: tomatillo sauce, Cheddar and Jack cheeses, avocado and sour cream. Pico de gallo salsa, a fresh chopped mixture of tomatoes, onions, serrano chiles, cilantro and garlic, is sauteed as part of the filling. Make extra and serve it with chips and margaritas if you are having a Cinco de Mayo party.

For enchiladas with red chile sauce, we turned to Steven Ravago of San Diego, head chef at Sweet Lew's Barbeque in La Jolla and, on the side, an ardent explorer of Mexican cuisine.

Ravago believes in innovation and using whatever is on hand. "Like most of my Mexican cooking, my enchiladas are quite spontaneous," he says. "Leftovers quickly become an enchilada stuffing. Leftover chicken, beef, turkey or even vegetables all work well.

"Likewise, my red enchilada sauces are subject to the chiles I have on hand. I blend anchos or guajillos and pasillas de Oaxaca or other chiles that I bring back from my trips to Mexico to create unique sauces. Sometimes the results can be quite fiery."

Ravago is equally inventive in choosing cheeses for the filling. And he often adds caramelized onions to either meat or cheese enchiladas. "The onions have a nice texture and taste that complement the corn tortilla," he says.

Good as the red sauce is, Ravago says his signature enchilada sauce is a green tomatillo mixture. A key step is roasting tomatillos, fresh chiles, onion and garlic for 45 minutes before grinding them. "I feel that slow roasting helps to re-create the original flavors, the way enchiladas might have tasted [long ago]," he says. "The fun thing about enchiladas is that they are a free-form thing. They become whatever you want them to be."

STEVEN'S GREEN ENCHILADA SAUCE

Steven Ravago likes this sauce best with chicken or turkey enchiladas.

2 pounds tomatillos, husked and rinsed

2 large white onions, coarsely chopped

5 cloves garlic

5 or 6 jalapeno or serrano chiles, stemmed

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons corn oil or lard, melted

3/4 cup chopped cilantro

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