Rolled, folded, flat, or stacked . . . enchiladas reign as one of the border area’s most beloved foods. Created most often with corn tortillas drenched in zesty chile with molten cheese, and maybe an additional protein fix, what’s not to adore? The dish co-mingles key Indigenous ingredients, corn and chile, dating back to pre-Columbian times, with the dairy and meats brought by the Spaniards to this vast region.
Sauce: It’s the chile
Like many foods of this area, the enchilada was born in Mexico. Let’s consider the dish’s starting point to be chile, since the name derives from it. An enchilada is typically surrounded with chile, most likely dunked in a piquant sauce and often covered in it too. I’ve seen Mexican enchiladas where the chile was mixed into the corn masa, or dough, before forming it into tortillas. The type of chile flavoring the dish can vary, though it’s often ancho or New Mexican. The amount of the pungent pod can fluctuate from a hint to a substantial hit.
Mexican sauces often include some tangy tomatillo in a green form but might be nearly black from a mole sauce with a hint of chocolate along with various charred chiles. In Tex-Mex cooking, it’s a “chili gravy” made with ancho chile and cumin, or the commercial “chili” powder combo of those prominent ingredients. Of course, throughout New Mexico, we just might have the world’s best sauces for enchiladas, the classic red and green made from our state’s signature pods.
Tortillas: Corn or Flour?
Just as integral as chile to the dish is the tortilla. I’ve had a style of enchilada common to the old California rancho days that combines flour tortillas with red chile, cheese, and black olives.
However, the vast majority of enchiladas are created with corn tortillas. They are made from a corn flour that has undergone a transformation through a process called nixtamalization. It involves cooking corn kernels in a solution of the mineral lime, which makes the nutrients in the corn more accessible. After nixtamalization, the whole kernels are what we know as posole. When dried and ground, the corn becomes masa harina, different in character from plain old cornmeal. When reconstituted with water, the masa forms the dough used to create tortillas, usually with the help of a tortilla press. Once baked on a comal, or griddle, the tortillas are ready to be made into enchiladas, another dish, or simply devoured.
In Northern New Mexico, where blue corn was grown historically by Native Americans, blue corn tortillas continue to be common. Enchiladas often come flat and stacked here, partially because the coarser textured blue tortillas are a bit more challenging to roll. Enchiladas made with yellow or white corn tortillas are often rolled into fat little cigars, especially in restaurants where they’re part of a combo plate.
The Secret to Enchiladas That Don’t Fall Apart
Don’t skip the step of dipping your tortillas in hot oil before you roll them. This makes them more pliable and keeps them from tearing. If you’re making rolled enchiladas with flour tortillas and they’re ripping, you can warm a stack in the microwave for about 30 seconds.
Popular Enchilada Fillings
In Mexico, enchiladas have almost unlimited kinds of fillings. I’ve had them stuffed with sweet potatoes, wild mushrooms, and nopales (prickly pear cactus pads), along with the more common chicken or beef. Both meats are most often shredded. Shrimp and crab are among other occasional — and very tasty — fillings. Enchiladas can be filled vegetarian- or vegan-style with beans, or other vegetable mixtures.
One of the stand-out versions I remember was in a now-defunct café way out west in Ramah. The tortillas were stuffed with strips of red and yellow bell peppers with poblano chile. Those were topped with a cilantro cream sauce, which was unusual but inspired.
There’s often cheese in an enchilada filling, usually a version that melts well such as a mild Cheddar blended with Monterey Jack. While the cheese can be mixed with other ingredients, often here in the Land of Enchantment, “the cheese stands alone.” I love that simple ooey-gooey fabulousness.
Here’s a version of Northern New Mexico’s classic cheese enchilada based on the recipe in my book, Tasting New Mexico. Use any favorite red chile.
Stacked Blue Corn and Red Chile Enchiladas
Multiply the recipe by the number of people you plan to serve. If you lack an easy source for blue corn tortillas, make the enchiladas with any corn tortillas. Add a fried egg to the stack if you like — another very New Mexican touch.
Makes 1 serving
Vegetable oil for pan-frying
3 blue corn tortillas
2 teaspoons minced onion
¾ cup red chile sauce
4 ounces (about 1 cup) mild cheddar cheese, grated
Heat the broiler. If it has more than one setting, use the lowest.
Heat ½ to 1 inch of oil in a small skillet until the oil ripples. With tongs, dunk a tortilla in the oil long enough for it to go limp, a matter of seconds. Don’t let the tortilla turn crisp. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and drain them.
On a heat-proof plate, layer the first tortilla with half of the onion and one-third of the chile sauce and cheese. Repeat for the second layer. Top with the third tortilla, then add the remaining chile sauce and sprinkle the rest of the cheese over all.
Broil the enchilada until the cheese melts. Serve piping hot.
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.