The holy enchilada

by Ari LeVaux

"Enchilar” in Spanish means “to add chile pepper to.” The past-participle form, enchilada, means “with chile” – or “chileed,” if you will.

In New Mexico and southern Colorado, chile is somewhat analogous to the curries of other regions, functioning as sauce, marinade, soup, something to eat with carbs like rice, and any other part of the meal. If chile is the curry of the Southwest, tortillas are the rice-equivalent, and enchiladas, literally, are chileed tortillas. I prefer my chicken enchiladas red.

When making red sauce, consider that significantly increasing your output only minimally increases your preparation time, so it pays to make extra. Red can last a month in the fridge and will find its way into numerous dishes, from eggs to sandwiches to salad dressings. You can dunk chocolate in it, mix it with chopped tomatoes and onions for instant salsa, smother your breakfast burrito in it, dip your chip in it, or just sip it through a straw.

A dish can only be as good as its raw ingredients, and in the case of chicken enchiladas the quality of chile, chicken and tortillas matter the most.

Using whole chile pods, rather than pre-ground powder, will produce much better results. In most towns you can find a plastic bag of whole pods in the “international” aisle of the supermarket. And if, in your travels, you see local red chile pods for sale, bring some home.

They’ll last months unassisted.

Step A in preparing my red chicken enchiladas is to procure and bake a chicken. You want a high-quality bird, with the kind of texture in its flesh that comes from scratching for bugs and avoiding the rooster. Put said chicken in pan, breast-side-up. Rub with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and, if you want, stuff the cavity with large chunks of carrot, onion and celery. Bake at 350 for about an hour and a half, until the drumstick falls off when you shake it.

Step B: Pull apart your cooked chicken and toss all the bones and skin into simmering water. Keep simmering until it’s time to use the broth.

Step C: To make enough red to marinate one medium-sized chicken, you need 10 good-sized chile pods (or half a cup of chile powder). Rip the stems off each chile, revealing the seed-filled inner cavity. The heat resides in the seeds and inner membranes. Your tolerance/preference for heat, in conjunction with the heat in the chile variety you’re using, dictates the extent to which you clean your chiles. I can handle my share of heat, but I still clean hot chiles pretty well, because that makes it easier to eat more of the finished product.

Hand-crush your cleaned chiles into a bowl. If the skins are more leathery than crumbly, use scissors to snip them into smallish pieces. Pour four cups of chicken broth over your chile chunks (or powder). Let soak for an hour.

With a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind one teaspoon each of coriander and cumin seeds, then grind in two tablespoons pumpkin seeds and a teaspoon of oregano (or use pre-ground spices for a tolerable but inferior product).

Mix two tablespoons of flour or pancake mix into the spice powder and pour it onto a dry pan, pre-heated to med/high. Toast, stirring constantly, until it starts to brown. Reduce heat to med/low, clear an opening in the center of the browned spices, and add two tablespoons of oil and a half bulb’s worth of chopped garlic cloves.

As soon as the garlic becomes fragrant, mix it into the toasted powder. Stir this toasted mix into your soaking chile. Process in a blender, adding extra broth to keep it thin enough to vortex, but not much thinner.

Pull apart your roasted chicken into strips and chunks – mostly small, but also leave some medium-sized chunks. Marinate the chicken in the red for at least 20 minutes, but preferably overnight.

You are now ready to proceed with the final step at a moment’s notice: assembling and baking the tray of enchiladas.

Line the bottom of a baking pan with at least one layer of corn tortillas, folding them around corners and up the sides of the pan. Fill the pan with alternating layers of red chile chicken mixture and more tortillas, adding chunks of cheese amid the layers and on top at your discretion. I like asiago cheese, which steers the flavor toward a chicken parmesan-like feeling. For a more traditional cheese, go with bright orange cheddar. In the end, you’ll want at least three layers of tortilla in the tray, each with a layer of red chicken on top.

Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes, until the top starts to get crispy but not darken in color or dry out. Remove from heat.

Now that your red chileed tortillas with chicken are ready to enjoy, be warned: you might not stop eating until the whole enchilada is gone. •



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