About two-thirds of the way through eating these enchiladas it occurred to me that they were actually quite healthy and practically vegan. Niether of those two things, as is typical, were anywhere near my intent when I set out to make dinner. I just wanted to eat some delicious enchiladas and present a simple recipe that highlighted the foundations of making a good, basic red sauce. But the accidental health and almost vegan aspects of the dish do speak to an often overlooked part of Mexican cooking, which is, it's actually a very healthy, mostly plant based cuisine. The meaty, drowned in melted cheese and sour cream kind of Mexican food most Americans are acquainted with is—although totally delicious—a very northern interpretation of an extremely narrow cross-section of the otherwise vast culinary landscape that makes up the diverse and often healthy world of eating in Mexico. Think about it, the sauces and condiments that top nearly all of the dishes in Mexico are made from fruits and vegetables. And dominantly so. Moles, salsas, and guacamoles are the hollandaise, beurre blanc, and béchamels of Mexico, but unlike their rich, creamy French counterparts, they rely on brightly flavored plants. In Mexico, if you want to add more sauce to your dish, you're likely just making it healthier. That's pretty incredible. Especially for how delicious it is.
Sure, you normally have the option to put those sauces on various meats, especially pork, but I don't think the ubiquity of meat in American taquerias accurately represents everyday Mexican dining. Meat is, after all, expensive. And Mexico, tragically, is a country with a long-struggling economy. Carnitas at every meal simply can't be a reality for most families. Rather, beans, rice, and the garden are the workhorses of the Mexican kitchen. And as is the case in the world's best cuisines, ingenuity trumps access, and flavor prevails in spite of limited finances. Cheap cuts of meat and lard are used when available, but vegetables are often the highlight. As they should be. Because vegetables are damn tasty.
Below is an accidentally healthy enchilada recipe. Corn tortillas are filled with summer squash, zucchini, onion, and rainbow chard. All topped with a complexly flavored, but easily executed and, again, shockingly vegan, guajillo sauce that can be made from pantry staples, and should be a go-to on nights when you don't want to go to the store.
Oh, and I just realized it's gluten free too. Huh.
Guajillo Enchilada Sauce
- 1 white onion. Half sliced in thick rings. The other half sliced as thin as you can.
- 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- Roughly 500g/4 roma tomatoes (or one 14oz can of fire roasted tomatoes)
- 10 dried guajillo chiles
- 4 dried arbol chiles (less or more to taste, these are here for heat)
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 3 cloves
- 1/4 tsp pepper corns
- Small chunk of canella cinnamon that when ground equals about 1/2 tsp
- About 2T apple cider vinegar
- Salt to taste
For the filling:
- 16 leaves swiss chard, stalks removed and either discarded, sliced thin to saute in this dish, or saved and pickled
- 500 grams summer squash and zucchini (about 4 small guys)
- 0-2 serrano peppers, halved lengthwise and sliced thin with seeds
- 1 white onion, sliced lengthwise (a bit thicker than this video)
- 3T crema (or creme fraiche, or sour cream)
- 1/4 cup diced cilantro
- 12 corn tortillas
- Cotija cheese (optional)
First thing you want to do is burn the tomatoes and onions. The nicer word for burn here would be char, but same thing. This is standard operating procedure for about 80% of the salsas I make. Burning your food is, unsurprisingly, really easy to do and adds a lot of depth, a delicious bitter sweetness. Just place them on some foil (for easy cleanup later) on a baking sheet, and slide that right under your broiler. Flip the onions and tomatoes after the first side gets a good char. About that same time the garlic should be soft. If it is, remove it, peel it, throw it in a blender. The onions should be the next to go. Leave the tomatoes in until they're nice and burnt on the outside and soft on the inside. This is especially true of green tomatillos which are extremely tart until cooked through, at which point their flavor softens and sweetens. We're not working with tomatillos right now I know, but still.
My broiler is the worst, and so eventually I transferred the foil to a skillet over high heat. That works too. Or you could grill it. Did I eventually use a blow torch to finish charring? I did. This works great for burning but not so great for cooking. So if your broiler sucks like mine does, you can roast and then torch. The point being, everything needs to be both burnt and cooked through.
Place your burnt veggies in a blender. Set aside.
Next up are the chiles. Guajillos are one of the most commonly used dried chiles in Mexican cooking, especially when that cooking is taking place in the States, and so I figured they'd be as good of a place to start as any. They're the dried form of a chile called mirasol, and, as far as dried chiles are concerned, their flavor is bright and fruity with low heat.
Because of the low heat I threw in 4 of the very spicy arbol chiles. They're the thin, brighter red chiles in the above picture and are just totally fantastic. They have a little less heat than habaneros, and a smokier flavor where the habanero is fruity.
When buying chiles make sure that they're still pliable. Yes they're dried, but you want fresh dried, not stale dried, so avoid buying anything brittle. Guajillas and arbols are extremely easy to find, your neighborhood chain supermarket should have them, but your best bet for better quality chiles is going to be a busy Mexican market in your town. Because they go through much more product, you're likely to get much better, fresher chiles.
Also, you should just get in the habit of going to Mexican markets, because, I mean, look at this place where I bought the guajillos!
Important questions to ask about your local supermarket:
- How many pinatas are hanging above the fruit?
- What about super festive Mexican music being played at volumes that border on dance party?
- How many limes can you buy for a dollar?
- What if you need five pounds of cactus?
- Can you buy beef tongue?
- Or chicken with the feet still on?
- Is there are super nice lady selling delicious corn or tamales outside the front door?
If you answered, less than ten, no just old Vince Gill at like level one out of what sounds like a tin can, barely two, S.O.L., people eat that?, why?, and no—well then you, my friend, are shopping at the wrong market.
¡Get your shit together and go shop at some tiendas Mexicanos!
Now that we've that behind us, maybe I should probably talk about how to cook chiles? Sure.
Cooking dried chiles is a simple two step process: 1) toast 2) soak. Cut a slit in the side of the guajillo and get all the seeds and veins out. Then heat a skillet over medium and one at a time place the guajillo on the pan, holding it down with a spatula for like 3 seconds. It'll lighten in color and sort of blister. Flip it, repeat. That's it. Don't bother cutting open the arbol. Just pop the stem off and toast them whole. You can also toast chiles in hot oil. A lot of the flavor of chiles is fat soluble so you end up with a chile oil that can be used later in the recipe. Either way, you don't want to skip this step. The high heat from the pan is much hotter than the sauce will later reach at a boil, and that heat is needed to basically unlock a lot of flavor in the chile. How do I know that? I don't. I'm just guessing. But I'm a pretty good guesser so let's just roll with that. But do be careful not to burn it, which will cause it to be bitter. I've done this. It was bad. Learn from my mistakes here.
Also, that time in '99 when I was like, All of my hair should be spikes!! That was another mistake.
Next up, soak your chiles in boiling hot water for 20 minutes or so. Put something heavy on top of them so they don't float. When they're soft put them in the blender. Taste the soaking water. Is it bitter? No. Does it just kinda taste like chiles? Yes. Perfect. Save that.
I read one time on the Food Lab part of the website, Seriouseats.com, where the author, Kenji López-Alt, mentioned that even the freshest dried chiles in America are still lacking in flavor compared to what is available in Mexico. Missing was a depth, a sort of raisiny sweetness. And then he was like, So why not just add raisins? And I was like, That. Is. Brilliant. Raisins are a staple of more complex molés, and I've used them in those sauces, but it never occurred to me to add them to a basic enchilada sauce. But damn, it makes sense, and it makes a good sauce. Also, the sweetness of the raisin will help if a few of your toasted chiles brought a little bitterness with it. Sauté a quarter cup of raisins until plump, like a minute, and then dump them in the blender.
Next up are the spices. This is where a cooked salsa makes the turn toward enchilada sauce. The latter is generally deeper, more savory tasting. Cumin is pretty classic here but actually not the most classic. From all the enchilada recipes I've read, the most common ingredient is, get this, cloves. Also, allspice berries. Clove and allspice aren't necessarily the first thing one thinks of when one thinks of Mexican food, buy they're everywhere. And for good reason. Both hit low notes that complicated sauces need, especially when you factor in just how bright tasting a lot of the other ingredients are. More so than cumin, add cloves (which you should buy whole and then grind either in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle) and your sauce will almost immediately take on that classic, enchilada flavor. Not that cloves need to be there, they are by no means required, but I do think it's important to see the role they play in developing flavor. I say, make this sauce like how I suggest here, and then the next time around add allspice. Then ditch both and role with cumin, maybe adding Mexican oregano (very different from European oregano) and marjoram. You can start with the same guajillos and tomatoes and have myriad different sauces simply by changing the teaspoon or so of each spice you add. Once you start changing the chile blends you'll never be bored of enchiladas.
A spice that I added here (but is by no means necessary) is the canela cinnamon pictured above. Yes, it's cinnamon, but it's a world away from the stuff you have in your cupboard now. It's softer tasting and extremely floral. It makes amazing horchata. Here I think it plays up the sweeter elements of the sauce without actually adding sweetness. Simply grind a small piece as best you can (in a motar and pestle this gets annoying), and add it to the blender. What doesn't get ground up will be strained out later.
Guess where you can buy canela? Yep, at the Mexican market!
Ok, so to recap, here's what you should have in your blender right now: burnt onions and tomatoes, roasted peeled garlic, toasted and soaked chiles, sautéed raisins, and freshly ground spices. Blend all of that up on high speed for a few minutes. The tomatoes should have liquid enough to get everything moving in the blender, but if for some reason that's not the case, add just enough reserved chile water to get everything going. Then run it through a medium mesh strainer and into a bowl, using a ladle or rubber spatula to press all the liquid through.
The next step is to sear the sauce. Heat a pan over high heat until it's hot then add a either a canola or grapeseed oil, reserved chile oil (if you toasted your chiles in oil), or lard if you want to keep it real. I went with regular old oil this time. Now, dump your sauce from the bowl into this hot oil. It's going to splatter. A lot. This is generally when I remember that I'm wearing a white t-shirt. But don't leave the kitchen and change. Stick around and stir your bubbling sauce for a few minutes (you can knock the heat down to medium after the initial sear, just make sure it's still bubbling). This process reduces and caramelizes your sauce. Both of those things aid in concentrating and developing flavor.
Cook this for about five minutes, stirring regularly, until it's thickened and darkened in color.
The next step is basically the last. Add about 2 cups of liquid. On this occasion I went with the reserved chile water. It's quite common to see recipes asking for chicken stock here, and I often add just that, but I've recently been on this kick where I omit the chicken stock from vegetable based dishes (polenta is another good example) in order to get a cleaner flavor. One isn't better than the other, but I do think it's important to understand when you actually want to add chicken as a specific flavor, rather than just adding it as a default (what I, and I think a lot of even pro cooks, tend to do). I actually really loved the chile water here, both as a flavor and how simple it makes the dish, and I'll likely use that as my go-to in the future (unless I have stock sitting around). If your chile water was bitter you can just add plain water, or really any liquid that you think would add something interesting. The point is to first concentrate your flavors by searing, then open it up with liquid, then bring that all back together again with a shorter reduction. Reduce your sauce over medium low heat until it's the thickness of, well, enchilada sauce. If you get really impatient you can sprinkle some masa harina (tortilla flour) into the whole thing to thicken it up. But don't get impatient unless you really have to.
Lastly, add a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to balance the dish with acidity and season with salt.
And that's it. That's enchilada sauce. Or actually, that's one singular enchilada sauce. Welcome to the tip of the iceberg!
But now that you have enchilada sauce, you might was well make some enchiladas. Here's a variation I went with.
Having just returned from the farmer's market with a big, beautiful bunch of rainbow chard and some summer squash and zucchini, I figured those would be a great summer enchilada filling. When buying zucchini and the like, a good thing to keep in mind is that the big ones, although impressive to look at, actually have a less concentrated flavor. I made this mistake last year when a chef I was working for sent me to the farmers market. So don't pull a me circa 2012 and buy huge zucchini. The little guys taste better.
In a skillet over high heat sauté the onion until translucent (about 3 minutes) then add the squash and zucchini. Cook that until browned and softened, about 5 minutes. Add a small pinch of salt with each additional vegetable to ensure everything is seasoned well. Next add the huge pile of de-stemmed and roughly chopped chard leaves. The stems are edible and you can slice them thin, blanch them in boiling salted water, and add to this dish. I didn't. But you can. Salt the pile of chard to pull the moisture out and cover with a lid to expedite its cooking. After a minute the chard should be a little more wilted down and you'll be able to stir it in with the other veggies without half of it ending up on your floor. Cook the chard for a few more minutes until it has lost its moisture and is soft but still has a little bite. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the cilantro. Add the crema and a small splash of water (just enough to help the crema form a sauce) and stir to evenly coat the veggies.
Next take the corn tortillas (I actually had, for the first time in years, store-bought tortillas in my fridge), and quickly sauté them in oil until they're pliable. Stack on paper towels to keep warm and drain. Then, one at a time, dip the tortilla in the sauce, place it on a plate or cutting board, line the center with the filling, and roll it all up.
If everything is still hot I really don't see any need to bake these. If you want to bake them, by all means do it. Transfer to a conveniently named baking dish, cover with the remaining sauce, and just go to town for like ten minutes in a 400 degree oven.
I simply rolled up three, covered them all with more sauce, garnished with thin sliced onions (rinsed briefly under cold water to remove the harsh bite), some cotija cheese, and a few leaves of cilantro.
These were damned tasty.
Right about here is when I realized I was actually eating health food. I was ok with that.
Make some enchiladas for yourself, take a picture, and send it to me with a brief explanation of any changes or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll post it here for everyone to see.