Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, arguably the Tex-Mex Capital of the World, I have been eating enchiladas since before I could say the word. Every Friday night, my parents would load us in the car and drive a few blocks up Presa Street to a wonderful little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called The Cactus, just across the tracks, where we would listen to the trains go by and get our weekly enchilada fix. Those enchiladas were made with red corn tortillas, swimming in a delicious chili gravy and filled with (and covered with) yellow cheese and chopped onions. The Cactus also had puffy tacos, before puffy tacos were cool, and the most wonderful rice and beans. That restaurant was heaven.
I make cheese enchiladas frequently. I usually use chili powder to make the gravy, but this time I wanted to try making it with dried chiles. We have a wealth of dried chiles available here, each with its own flavor profile and heat index. The ones I chose to use this time were guajillos, which are mild, and I added a few chipotles because I had them on hand. I liked the result, and I will make it again with different chiles. However, I’m not going to lie–it was time-intensive and used a lot of dishes, so I will probably fall back on the chili powder method most of the time, just for ease. But I’m glad I tried it.
To start, I used about 10 dried peppers in all, mostly guajillos but with a couple of chipotles mixed in. I boiled a big pot of water, and threw in the stemmed and seeded peppers. I boiled them for about 20 minutes, until they were soft. I put the softened peppers and a couple of cloves of garlic into the blender, added some water to cover the peppers, and pureed it. If you’re not sure about the amount of water, just add enough at first to facilitate the blending process, then thin as needed. I think I added about 2 cups. This puree then needs to be strained to remove the skins and seeds that might be left.
This is how it looks after straining. Use this puree to flavor your enchilada gravy.
For the gravy to sauce about 2 dozen enchiladas, make a roux of 4 tablespoons oil and 4 tablespoons flour. After the roux has colored slightly, add the chile puree and about another cup or so of beef broth (or water or vegetable broth if you want to make it vegetarian), stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Add salt to taste, along with some cumin if desired. Lots of people use Mexican oregano in their enchilada gravy, but I’ve never been a fan.
I’m not going to discuss the whole enchilada-rolling thing here, because it’s pretty easy and self-explanatory. There are schools of thought on the dipping thing–lots of people like to soften their tortillas in the sauce, but I prefer a quick dip in some very hot oil. It may add a few calories, but let’s face it–if you are worried about the calories, enchiladas are a very, very bad idea anyway. I will say one word about the cheese, though. Several years ago when pre-grated cheese began to be available in bags, I was all for the ease and everything. But I noticed that when you use it, it really doesn’t melt all that well, and I started to look into the thing and I found out that your grated cheese doesn’t clump together in those bags because they coat it with something to keep it from clumping, and what do you know, that also makes it not melt all that well. So…you really should shred your own cheese. It’s not that difficult.
Here are my enchiladas, filled with cheese, covered with gravy and more cheese, ready to go into the oven. I also added a little ground beef to the gravy. Bake them at 350°F for only about 20 minutes–long enough to melt the cheese and make the gravy bubble.
See how that cheese got all yummy and melty? Pre-shredded cheese will never look like that.
I always wait until the enchiladas are in the oven and then I start my Mexican rice. It will take about 25 minutes start to finish, and that works out just about perfect.
I originally learned to make Mexican rice from my mother. We used canned tomatoes, and I made it that way for years. A friend who makes the best Mexican rice ever told me that she uses tomato sauce instead of tomatoes, so I started doing it that way, but the basic method is the same. The key, according to my friend Diana, is browning the rice.
Put two cups of raw white rice into a little hot oil in a frying pan, and brown it, at least as brown as this. Sometimes I let it get a little browner, but it goes very fast at the end and I didn’t think I could take a picture and still make sure it didn’t burn. But browning it at least this much is vital. Remove it from the heat. In a mortar and pestle or a molcajete, grind together a couple or three cloves of garlic, about a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds, and a handful of salt.
Make a nice paste of it. Add that to the rice in the skillet, and then add water, mixed with tomato sauce, to make about 3 cups. I usually use about half a 4 ounce can of tomato sauce, but you can adjust that according to how you like it. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil, make sure it’s all stirred up well, and then lower the heat to a mere simmer, cover it tightly, and leave it alone for 20 minutes. Do not stir it again. Trust me, it will be sticky if you do. After 20 minutes, your enchiladas should be just out of the oven, and you will open up the lid on that rice and it will be perfect and it will smell like heaven in your kitchen. See? Each grain is perfect, and it’s not at all sticky. Heaven on a plate. I can almost hear the train going by outside.