I had my first authentic enchiladas when Jerri and I were living in Charlottesville, Virginia. My friend Vince, a graduate student from Texas trapped far from home for the holidays, offered to cook Jerri and me a traditional Mexican Christmas dinner–a fiesta. Since Jerri and I were also far from our families that first Christmas, we welcomed his offer.
Vince had never cooked a dinner so he consulted an expert. He wrote his grandmother who sent him detailed instructions on how to make mole and refried beans. She told him how to pick out and cook a turkey, and she included detailed instructions on how to make enchiladas after shaping and baking the tortillas.
The recipes were in Spanish, which Vince translated as he read them to us. The instructions were like those from many experienced cooks who had learned how to do things from their mothers. For example, one instruction for the mole said, “Don’t heat too hot,” which Jerri said meant not to boil it. She was already an experienced cook.
The biggest problem was the ingredients. Vince’s grandmother had warned him that he was not to buy gringo chili powder. It was adulterated with stuff that would spoil the recipes. Her mole needed powdered chili peppers. Period. Chocolate had to be real Mexican chocolate, not the kinds you bought in American supermarkets. She told him he could use cheddar cheese if he had to, but queso blanco would be better.
We bought the turkey, cheddar cheese and dry pinto beans at the Safeway store in Charlottesville, then drove to Richmond, Virginia where we had located a Mexican market. Besides the chili powder and chocolate, they had locally made tortillas which made life a lot simpler. The meat market in Charlottesville had wonderful bacon that we needed for the grease to make the refried beans.
A couple of weeks before the big day I offered to roast the turkey and was prepared to buy a roaster. Instead, Vince told me that we needed to boil the bird, so we bought a stew pot. Boiled turkey for Christmas dinner was new to me, but Vince said it was what his family always had for their special fiestas. “It’s wonderful,” he said, “and you will like it.” He was right.
Jerri remembers that it was a complicated affair. The day before our fiesta, Vince began cooking, carefully following his grandmother’s recipes. We cut the turkey into pieces, boiled it until it was tender and took the meat off the bones in large pieces. While the turkey was cooking, Vince was making the mole and I was assigned the job of cooking pinto beans. Jerri made a pumpkin pie.
On Christmas Day, Vince put it all together. We had cheese and bean enchiladas, turkey mole with rice and refried beans, beer, coffee and pumpkin pie. The food was delicious, making it was fun and we three celebrated the holiday in a way that I will never forget.
As I learned from Vince, enchiladas are simply corn tortillas rolled around various kinds of fillings. In other words, enchiladas (and burritos) are Mexican versions of the sandwich. The ones Vince made were filled with mashed beans, onions and cheese. His sauce was, as I recall, mainly chili powder, salt, a cup of tomato sauce and water simmered together for a few minutes. It was pretty spicy.
Jerri and I have been making and enjoying enchiladas since that Christmas fiesta. Here is a simple recipe for one kind. It may not be an authentic Mexican recipe, but the enchiladas taste good, and it’s easy to make them. If you make the sauce ahead of time, you can put a tasty main dish on the table in half an hour or so.
For the enchiladas:
3/4 lb. hamburger
1 medium onion
1/2 cup sour cream
2 T parsley, chopped
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
10 corn tortillas
1 cup cheddar or jack cheese
For the sauce:
2 cups tomato sauce
3/4 cup water
1 jalapeño pepper
1/3 green bell pepper
1 T chili powder
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
First start the sauce by putting the tomato sauce, water and spices into a saucepan over medium heat. Wash and cut the stem from the jalapeño pepper and then cut it into fourths lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds and white membrane and chop the pepper fine. Do the same for the bell pepper. Stir the chopped peppers into the sauce and simmer while you make the enchiladas.
Preheat the oven to 350º.
Brown the hamburger in a skillet over medium heat. While the meat is browning, chop the onion and parsley medium fine. Drain the hamburger and add the onion to the meat, cooking it for two or three minutes over low heat. Stir in the sour cream, parsley, salt and pepper and turn off the heat.
Lightly grease a baking pan and warm the tortillas. The easiest way to warm them is to put four or five tortillas between damp paper towels and heat them for a few seconds in your microwave oven until they are warm and flexible.
Put about three tablespoons of meat mixture in a row on each tortilla. Roll and place the tortillas seam side down in the baking pan. Top them with the sauce. Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes. Top with the cheese and bake three or four minutes more until the cheese is melted.
These enchiladas are good by themselves or you can serve them with refried beans and a green salad.
NOTES: You can substitute ground turkey or chicken breast sliced into thin strips
for the hamburger. You can make two or three times as much sauce with almost no extra work and store the extra in a covered container for a week or so in the refrigerator. If you prefer spicier enchiladas, use more jalapeños or add some cayenne pepper to the sauce.