The Whole Enchilada

Maybe you're looking for a last-minute Cinco de Mayo supper idea, or maybe, like me, you've always been curious about making your own enchiladas but were afraid to ask.

I had longed steered clear of the enchilada (the past participle of the Spanish word enchilar, which means to season with chiles) because I had it in my head they'd be cumbersome to prepare and disappointing compared to anything I'd encounter in a Mexican restaurant. It was a mental block that I hoped one day would melt away.

And then one day last spring, I met Chico, a Atzec fire-eating friend of a friend who was visiting from San Francisco, and lo and behold, he was fixing chicken enchiladas for supper. Would I care to join him -- and perhaps give him a hand? I thought I had died and gone to kitchen heaven.

Life is all about timing, and within the span of an hour, I learned first hand that chicken enchiladas are the furthest thing from rocket science; rather it's a sum of many parts, which require proper seasoning and assembly, but nothing tricky.

I highly recommend getting your hands on fresh tomatillos because their flavor is brighter than those from a can, but don't worry yourself silly if the fresh stuff is not in the cards. You can still pull off this dinner trick, even on a weeknight, particularly if you've got a helper nearby.

And if you're an enchilada veteran of sorts, please share your tips and tricks in the comments area. Vegetarian fillings welcomed and wanted, please.

P.S. Have you got a kitchen or food-related story to share about your mother, grandmother or maternal figures in your life? Send 'em my way at no later than Wednesday, May 7. In the subject line of your e-mail, type "MOM" and in your note, please include your age, city and state, and where you grew up, size of your family. I'll select a handful of entries for a blog-stravaganza that will be published on May 9. Oh -- and if you've got a cool pic of Mom, send that along too.

Chico's Chicken Enchiladas
2 chicken breasts and thighs, or 1 whole chicken, cut up
Soft corn tortillas (estimate 2 per person)
Vegetable oil of choice
1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked and rinsed (Alternatively, 1 13-ounce can tomatillos, drained. Sauce also available commercially in jars.)
1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped (use a serrano for less spicy results)
4 scallions, cleaned, green tops only
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lime
2/3 cup chicken stock
Salt to taste
1/2 to 1 pound Monterey Jack cheese, shredded or queso fresco or cotija, crumbled
1 cup shredded lettuce
Sour cream for garnish (optional)


Bring a deep pot of water to a boil, add 1 teaspoon of salt and chicken parts. Lower heat and cook over medium heat, until meat is cooked all the way through, about 30 minutes.

With a pair of tongs, remove chicken from pot and allow to cool. Remove skin. With a fork, pull chicken away from bone and shred into strips. Set aside.

In a saucepan, bring some water to a boil and add tomatillos. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove and drain. Place in a blender or food processor, and add the chilies, scallions, cilantro and lime juice. Pulse and begin to puree. Gradually add stock, until you have a fairly thin consistency. Add salt to taste. Pour into a small saucepan and keep on very low heat to warm.

In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil until warm but not smoking and add tortillas, one by one, cooking on each side for about 10 seconds. Remove with tongs and allow to drain on paper towels. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lay tortillas on a flat surface, one at a time. Place just enough chicken to cover center of tortilla from left to right. Add two tablespoons enchilada sauce, followed by a small amount of cheese. Beginning at end closest to you, roll tortilla and tighten slightly as you near the middle.

Place seam side down into a baking dish. When all tortillas are rolled and fit snugly into dish, pour sauce over entire surface and finish off with remaining cheese.

Place dish into oven and bake for 10 minutes. Serve piping hot.

Makes six servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 5, 2008; 10:56 AM ET Chicken/Poultry
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

If you want the salsa verde hotter, use habanero. Salsa verde is excellent on grilled cheese, by the way.

Also, buy tomatillos at a market with enough of a Hispanic clientele that they will be fresh. The ones at the Bethesda Giant look terrible! H Mart in Wheaton is a good source.

Posted by: anon | May 5, 2008 11:35 AM

Perhaps a dumb question, but at least an admittedly novice question: if you use the canned tomatillos, do you skip the step of boiling them and just move on to pureeing and seasoning?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 5, 2008 11:54 AM

I make enchiladas all the time... and they're always pretty popular.
I typically use leftover meat [black beans work great, too!] from some other meal and canned enchilada sauce. The leftover meat is fine because the enchilada sauce and salsa will probably cover up whatever spice (or day-old funkiness) on the meat. I've always thought the canned stuff tasted fine... but not I might have to try making my own.
Make these two substitutions, and you definitely have a weeknight meal!

Posted by: Andy | May 5, 2008 12:31 PM

I guess I've never considered enchiladas all that difficult, just time consuming. I hate frying the tortillas (yet another pan to wash) so I just microwave them briefly to soften. Or I'll skip rolling them up to avoid the frying. One of my favorite tricks is to build New Mexico-style stacked enchiladas on a baking sheet (tortilla, chicken, chopped onion, sauce, cheese; repeat layers; finish with tortilla, sauce and cheese) then bake. Or I just make them "lasagne" style - treat the tortillas like noodles and layer everything and bake. The first time I did that, I decided that it was too good and easy not to be a real recipe. Sure enough, my co-worker who was raised in Mexico and Texas told me that it is called chilaquiles (hope I'm spelling that right).

Posted by: Colorado cook | May 5, 2008 12:38 PM

I make enchiladas this way, but use New Mexican red chile instead of salsa verde. I also boil a whole chicken and shred it instead of using breasts. I like onions in the interior of the enchiladas too.

Posted by: MbinDC | May 5, 2008 1:39 PM

With canned tomatillos just drain them and they're ready to go, no boiling required.
I don't dip in oil--who needs the extra fat? Just warm them up, or dip in some of your sauce, but quickly so they don't get too soft.
If you have a gas stove the best thing to do is just put the tortillas directly over the burner until they soften and start to char just a little bit.

My brother in law just throws shredded chicken, olives, cheese, onions, whatever he's using, into a big bowl and mixes it up so it's ready to go into the enchiladas for rolling--much better than grabbing a bunch of different items to put into each one.

Trader Joe's has good enchilada sauce in a jar (it was gone for a while but it's back!) Many of the canned sauces contain MSG, so read the labels if you're trying to avoid that.

Posted by: AZ native | May 5, 2008 2:25 PM

I have two suggestions. Here's the first: enchiladas suizas.

4 boneless chicken breasts -- boiled and diced (or other chicken parts, whatever you like)
Green Sauce (e.g., Mrs. Renfros salsa verde)
Diced jalapenos (optional, depending on how much heat you like)
Pint of whipping cream
Flour tortillas (medium size).
2 cups (or so) of shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Boil and cut up chicken; mix with approx. 1 c. green sauce, just enough to have it mix well with the chicken, but not so much that the mixture is really green. If you get it too green...they get really hot.

Add a few diced up jalapeno slices if you want more heat.

Put whipping cream in a small bowl. Dip tortilla in whipping cream and then fill with chicken mixture. Roll up and place in glass baking pan. Repeat to use up chicken mixture.

Spread shredded cheese over the top of the enchiladas. Pour remaining whipping cream over the cheese and enchiladas.

Bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes, until cheese turns golden brown.

Posted by: THS | May 5, 2008 3:05 PM

Here's the second. Can't remember which web site I found this on, so I can't give a proper citation, but these are great. A fair amount of work. Not hard, but time-consuming. Still, a really good flavor. Also, I found that the filling was more than needed to make the number of enchiladas the recipe specifies, so either buy extra tortillas or plan on using the filling for something else. Would make a delicious filling for omelets.

Poblano-Shrimp Enchiladas

3/4 pound unpeeled, medium-size fresh shrimp
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large poblano pepper, halved and seeded
1 large onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup sour cream
8 corn tortillas
1 (10-ounce) can green enchilada sauce
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Peel shrimp, and devein, if desired. Coarsely chop shrimp, and set aside.
Brush an 11- x- 7-inch baking dish with 2 tablespoons oil. Set aside.
Saute pepper in remaining oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until skin looks blistered. Remove from skillet, and chop.
Return chopped pepper to skillet. Add onion and next 5 ingredients; saute 4 minutes. Add chopped shrimp, and saute 1 minute; remove from heat, and cool 5 minutes. Stir in sour cream.
Heat tortillas according to package directions. Spoon shrimp mixture evenly down center of each tortilla, and roll up. Arrange, seam side down, in prepared pan. Top with sauce, and sprinkle with cheese. Cover and chill up to 1 day ahead.
Bake at 350° for 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Posted by: THS | May 5, 2008 3:23 PM

You were interested in veggie fillings? Well, randomly one night in the winter I mixed canned sweet potato puree (but obviously you could cook em up yourself) and jarred mole sauce from Trader Joe's (about 1-2 tablespoonfuls, just enough to give them flavor). It was delicious! Other fillings we've done: spinach, refried beans or whole beans, and I've been daydreaming about using chopped artichoke hearts. HTH

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | May 5, 2008 8:45 PM

Enchiladas are easy. Like Colorado says, you don't even have to fry the tortillas, although I still frequently do so in just a couple drops of oil. With chicken enchiladas, it's a good idea to use chopped onion liberally and to add a package of chopped spinach. From a next day perspective, pork enchiladas are tastier. And while tomatillos are good, they're not to everyone's taste. Enchilada sauce can easily be prepared using a can of tomato sauce, finely chopped onion, chopped garlic, whatever hot pepper (I like ground ancho chili) you have sitting around, salt and pepper. If you have some cilantro, throw it in, otherwise, don't sweat it. When I'm making my taco/enchilada meat, I like to throw a partially nuked potato in there. I remember seeing that down in Oaxaca. Olives are another good addition. And you can also use the chopped spinach to make a green sauce that's particularly good on tomatillo/chicken enchiladas.

Posted by: Dave | May 7, 2008 7:15 AM

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