I’m going to cut to the chase here and let you know that my favorite part about this post is that I’ve managed to incorporate both a CVTC joke* AND a Seinfeld reference** into the three-word title. Impressive, eh? Of course, this dish is full of spices, and tortillas, and tomatoes, and, lest we forget one of my favorite food groups, melted cheese, so I think it was going to work out either way. Suffice to say this is a darn good dish and I recommend you make it.
I didn’t really consider attacking Mexican food in my kitchen until the summer after college graduation. I could go on about not having the right spices, how it seems really messy, or the abundance presence of Mexican restaurants in Evanston, but to be quite honest, it’s because you don’t get free chips if you’re cooking at home. Just saying. Anyway, at this point it was mid July, we were still mourning the loss of Tacos del Lago, and Las Palmas just wasn’t cutting it. Also I was in this phase, officially known as Eat the Continents, where we were trying to eat at as many different ethnic restaurants as possible (ideally one per continent), which I was then matching by trying to cook these things at home. Notice I went with enchiladas, and not Ethiopian sponge bread. Anyway, I whipped up a dish of Americanized chicken and broccoli enchiladas (who needs authenticity when you have whole wheat tortillas and a deep love for caramelized onions?) and I was on my way down the Mexican cooking path (el sendero de la cucina mejicana?). Since then, I’ve updated and modified this recipe many times. I’ve tweaked the sauce, played around with the fillings, even the specific sharpness of cheddar that I use to top the whole dish. And my biggest discovery is this: it’s really hard to roll enchiladas. Why? you ask. Well, let me tell you. The key to having your tortillas soak up the sauce and provide a perfect home for your filling of choice is to heat up the tortillas AND dip them straight into the enchilada sauce (also hot) before filling and rolling them shut. I have burned many a finger in the name of enchiladas. And so, after various experiments and singed fingertips, I thought back to that camp menu board from oh so many years ago, those two simple words that made the Great Triumvirate explode with laughter at the idea, that meal that would ultimately give us a heretofore unknown respect for the gods of the camp kitchen. Yes, I thought of Mexican Lasagna. And then I wondered if I should call it Enchilada Pie instead. Really, either one works.
Mexican Lasagna is a beautiful thing. It has the flavors, the taste, the aroma, and the melted cheesiness of true enchiladas, but it can be assembled in a faster and first aid-free manner. It is authentic Mexican cooking for the thin-skinned, small-kitchened Manhattanite. It is, in a word, delicious. The particular version shown above is from last June and happened to be a vegetable version, but that was really more for the “how the other half lives” phase I was going through at the time, coupled with the fact that I really wanted to make this and didn’t have any more substantial proteins in the house at the time, than any kind of recipe integrity. The keys here are the sauce and the assembly, the actual filling is up to you (provided it involves caramelized onions).
The sauce begins with a healthy coating of canola oil on the bottom of the skillet – not too much, just enough to give it a nice glaze all around (probably slightly under 1/4 cup). Bring this up to just shy of smoking over medium heat. At this point, you’ll toast the spices – add in about a tablespoon each of cumin, flour and chili powder, stirring constantly until brown. Lower the heat to medium-low and add in 24oz of pureed tomatoes. At this point, you can just kinda let it simmer while you’re getting everything else ready, as making the filling will take you at least the ten required minutes to get this sauce up to snuff, and probably longer (and the longer the sauce simmers, the better!)
With the sauce a-cookin’, it’s time to turn your attention the onions. You could even do these first, it really doesn’t matter. I just take a yellow onion or two (depending on what else is going into the meal), thinly slice, and toss in a skillet with a bit of butter and olive oil and let it cook until it looks delicious.
And from there, the rest is yours to decide. I’ve filled this with everything from chicken (sauteed in spices right then, or carved from a previously roasted chicken), hearts of palm, broccoli, corn, or whatever else happened to be frozen in my freezer or canned in my cabinet (once again, I never said this was authentic, just tasty). It’s a great catch-all dish – a way to throw some pantry staples together in an interesting way as long as you have tortillas and tomatoes, and I always do. Once the onions are caramelizing, add your other ingredients of choice to the skillet, and don’t forget a generous handful of sharp cheddar.
Once everything is prepared, it’s time to assemble – and preheat your oven to 350. A 9×12 baking dish works well, or you could even use a pie dish if that’s your style. Either way, start by ladling some of that spicy simmerin’ enchilada sauce onto the bottom, topping with a layer of overlapping tortillas (zap them for 30 sec on the microwave for optimum absorption, or heat in a skillet on the one remaining burner on your stove. i hate recommending microwaves, but sometimes it’s just the best option). Top the tortillas with more sauce, then the first layer of filling, followed by sauce, tortilla, sauce, filling, etc, ending with tortillas and sauce, as they make the best base for the final handful of cheddar to top it all off. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes (you want the cheese to be browning and bubbling, but burnt is not quite ideal).
Serve topped with sour cream, or just as is. Also stores well and makes an excellent lunch at work the next day.
*CVTC = Carmel Valley Tennis Camp. The head cook at my camp was this 30 year old Siberian lawyer named Olga who would spend three months every summer whipping up grilled cheese and chicken and biscuits for a bunch of tennis campers in California. Her specialties included fried ice cream, Fahitas with an H, and, obviously, my personal favorite, Mexican Lasagna.
**And, just because…