In the Mexican state of Michoacan, as dusk settles and fades to evening, street vendors begin to materialize around the plazas to vend their specialties. From the haunting atole de grano, to the meaty aroma of fresh tacos, to mounds of bread, candies and other sweet treats the portales and sidewalks become a delectable al fresco cafeteria. Most food sold street-side is fast, portable, not terribly complex and easy to eat. There is one notable exception, Enchiladas Placeras.
Enchiladas Placeras are hearty, substantial and hardly portable, although most vendors will happily send you on your way with a "to-go" box overflowing with the goods. Wander past the vendors until you find one that appeals to your sense of smell, appearance and sanitation. Slide onto the bench of an oilcloth covered picnic table and place your order. In 5 minutes or less a platter will plunk down in front of you heaped with 12 (or more) enchiladas, diced carrots and potatoes, cabbage, cheese, salsa, jalapeños and chicken if you want it. One platter, like the one below, will generously serve 2 people with an average appetite.
The only problem with Enchiladas Placeras is that once you've watched them being prepared, eating them often becomes mind over matter. Oh, it's not an issue of poor food handling or questionable sanitation practice. No, it's more that you'll probably hear your arteries plotting their revenge against all the fat and carbs.
Each vendor has a large comal with a shallow well in the center, called a memelera. That shallow well is filled with hot fat. Could be manteca (lard), could be oil, could be a combination of the two. The comal is set over large propane fired burners capable of producing extremely high temperatures. The good news is that food cooked at high heat will generally not absorb an excess of oil. The bad news is, it's still oil, it's still frying. When an order is received precooked chicken goes into the oil to be reheated and to crisp up the skin. Few, if any, bacteria will survive the hot oil treatment. Once done, the chicken is hauled up onto the sides of the comal to stay warm, and a massive quantity of par-cooked, cubed carrots and potatoes that have been holding in a light vinegar broth take their turn in the oil bath. While the vegetables are sizzling the cook fans out a handful of corn tortillas to separate and dips them in a light guajillo or guajillo/ancho based enchilada sauce. The carrots and potatoes join the chicken resting on the side of the comal and the the dipped tortillas go into the hot oil. About the time they're being flipped over, an oval, lettuce lined platter is handed to the cook who deftly fills each tortilla with a cheese and onion mixture, folds and shingles them out over the lettuce base. The vegetables go onto the platter followed by cabbage, more cheese, salsa perón, jalapeños and the chicken. Your arteries may have a hard time forgiving you, but your taste buds will be deliriously happy. In the now immortal words of Alton Brown, Enchiladas Placeras are just Good Eats.
I had a taste for enchiladas last weekend. I toyed with the idea of making Enchiladas Placeras, but my health conscious sensibilities got in the way and I could find no way to justify the carb and fat hit. While most canned enchilada sauces are actually quite serviceable, I really wanted to make my own, and had a dim memory of having made a truly wonderful enchilada sauce using a Diana Kennedy recipe and dried chiles. Funny thing about the memory, sometimes what it remembers best is fiction. A search of every Diana Kennedy cookbook that I own - which is all of them except the last one - turned up not one single enchilada sauce made with dried chiles, or at least not like my memory thought it remembered. So, having a hankering for enchiladas I settled on making Enchiladas Sencillas, or Simple Enchiladas.
I collected the ingredients to begin making the sauce. A pound of tomatoes, a couple of serrano chiles and a large clove of garlic, pretty simple.
I was working out of Ms. Kennedy's second book - The Art of Mexican Cooking - which was published about 20 years ago before the explosion of interest in Mexican cooking and interest in using more traditional cooking techniques. The recipe called for broiling the tomatoes and chiles. Today I think recipes would advise to toast or char them, but broiling works. The garlic is not supposed to be broiled, but I happen to like the mellow sweetness that roasted garlic imparts so I threw it in along with the tomatoes and chiles. Here they are ready to go under, about 2" under, the broiler.
And here they are after roasting. Big difference. I think I actually let these go a little too long, but I got a good char on them and that added to the overall flavor profile. Next the entire mixture goes into a blender after it's had a chance to cool off a little. The mixture needs to be a very smooth, very homogeneous and should yield about 2 cups of puree. Make sure to add all the tomato juices that accumulate in the bottom of the roasting pan, they are rich and sweet and will boost the flavor tremendously.
This may be an old relic of a blender but it still works well. The only problem I had was that there wasn't 2 cups of puree, more like a cup and a quarter. No problem. I added enough chicken stock to bring the mixture up to the required 2 cups, and you really do need about that volume. 2 tablespoons of oil were heated in a sauce pan and the puree added and cooked for about 5 minutes to thicken and marry the flavors. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I think I actually reduced the sauce a bit too much, but here's what it looked like at the end of 5 minutes
This is the point at which salt is added. If there is one thing I've learned about chiles it's that they LOVE salt, especially dried chiles. Once again our American health programming gets in the way and we tend to under salt dishes using chiles. But if enough salt is added, the chile flavor will bloom and become , big, round and soft in the mouth creating a luscious and luxurious explosion of flavor.
It's easy to experiment around with this at home. Simply take a bunch of dried chiles, like anchos or guajillos, though chile de arbol really works the best if you can stand the heat. Stem the chiles, and seed if you want. Toast them - a large wok as hot as you can get it works very well - soak them and then blend them with some toasted/charred onion, a little roasted garlic and a little vinegar and water to loosen the blender blades. Taste it. I promise you it will taste pretty vile. Then add what you think is the right amount of salt, blend and taste again. It will be better, and if it's really bitter add a bit of sugar to take off that edge. Once you've gotten any bitter edge off, begin adding more salt, perhaps in 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon increments. Keep blending and tasting. At some point the flavor will bloom and it will be very apparent to you. There's a magical point at which the chile, the salt and the other ingredients all merge into one glorious riot of flavor. You can use the sauce you've created as a table sauce, adjust the seasonings for a different flavor profile or simply dump it if you don't like it. But I digress...........
Back to Enchiladas Sencillas. After cooking and salting the sauce I let it cool to just above room temperature because I was going to add sour cream and too much heat would have curdled the sauce. 1/2 cup of sour cream later the sauce was muy suave y rico, rich and suave.
In Mexico enchiladas aren't usually baked, they're merely rolled or folded and then served. But the recipe called for baking them after rolling so I set the oven for 350* , poured some oil into a wide skillet to heat, sprayed a baking pan with pan release and set up my assembly station. Much like Chinese stir-fry, when making enchiladas it's much easier to have everything ready to roll when the frying stage begins.
The objective in frying the tortilla is to soften it so that it can be rolled. In San Diego I generally like the locally made Gilberto's brand of corn tortillas because they are softer and more pliable than most of the other commercial brands. Unfortunately, I don't live close to many Latin markets and the produce store from which I usually get them was closed. So I ended up with Mission brand corn tortillas with no trans-fats. They weren't bad, but they weren't really that close to a Mexican tortilla, more like a semi-cardboard Frisbee. So into the oil went the tortillas
Then drained and blotted with extra paper towels. The fried tortillas will stay soft long enough to cook all 12 for which the recipe called. I am not ambidextrous so I couldn't fry, dip, roll and take photos all at the same time. And this process is very tactile; between the oil, the tortilla, the sauce and the fillings, the fingers get ooey and gooey. And frankly, I didn't want to mess up my camera. It was about half way through this assembly process that I realized my sauce was a little too thick. I did add more chicken stock and probably could have added more. I also realized that it had been a long time since I had last rolled enchiladas and my technique was pretty rusty. But luckily, it's not unlike riding a bike or a horse, it' all comes back to you. After rolling 3 or 4 it got easier and I got faster. The remaining enchilada sauce, or which there really wasn't much was poured over the ones in the pan. Enchiladas in Mexico are not saucy, goopy things, nor were the ones I made, but I do think the last bit of sauce would have been better if it had been thinner.
15 minutes in the oven to heat through and this is what they looked like.
About that yellow cheese. The recipe called for 1 cup of Chihuahua cheese and cheddar was the recommended substitution. Finding Chihuahua in San Diego isn't that difficult, but it's not readily available in my neighborhood so I used 4 oz (1 cup) of finely shredded the Kraft Mexican 4-cheese blend. The enchiladas were stuffed with shredded chicken and minced red onion. Diana Kennedy suggests using scrambled eggs (7 of them) as an alternative and I bet that would be good.
So, this was the dinner last night that managed to curb my craving for enchiladas
Not exactly Enchiladas Placeras, but mighty tasty just the same.............in spite of the yellow cheese!!