It’s always a sobering moment to realize that a relatively significant period of time has passed, but there are always interesting ways to measure it. For some it’s coffee spoons, for others birthdays, and for others still it’s some other milestone or series of milestones.
It occurred to me on President’s Day as we were making dinner that for us, measurement could be in enchiladas.
You see, when I first moved to New Haven five years ago, Michael and I got into a routine where he’d walk over to my apartment a few times a week and he’d make dinner for us. I had a long trek up I-95 from Westport that was often made longer by traffic, and coming home to delicious smells quickly became the highlight of my day. There would be a few times when I’d make it home before dinner was completely finished and I could help out, and one of the first times I can remember getting into the kitchen with him was to make enchiladas. He whipped together his own enchilada sauce and cook some chicken thighs, I grated cheese and then snuck bites of cheese, and we assembled them in the casserole, poured the mess of sauce and cheddar over them and thew them in the oven to get piping hot and delicious.
It was, of course, completely inauthentic in preparation but it was delicious all the same, and over the years I always held a fondness for that dish but we stopped making it regularly because it’s not terribly healthy and I think Michael got bored with it. We only had a fraction of the cookbooks then that we do now–most of them Italian in theme–so our knowledge of homemade Mexican food was scant at best.That naturally changed over the years between visits to Mezcal (an awesome hole in the wall in New Haven that serves affordable and delicious food), acquisition of various cookbooks and recipes, and more access to authentic ingredients, especially after moving to New York. Michael is now quite the Mexican cuisine enthusiast: one of his favorite ways to roast a chicken is to rub it all over with chipotle puree and wrap the finished contents into a flour tortilla with some avocado. As good as it is, I have to admit to getting a little bored with it–especially on weekends when we have the time and inclination to experiment.
Enter Diana Kennedy.
A few weeks ago I read a tweet from José Andrés in which he expressed disbelief at how the subject of a recent Washington Post profile was treated; he regarded her as culinary royalty and was shocked to see anyone write about her in such a disrespectful way. Intrigued, I quickly read the story and shared in his irritation because the author completely missed the point about this fascinating, tough-as-nails woman.
I immediately fell for her frankness and grit and so I went onto the internet to find a cookbook that would introduce me to her cooking and the recipes that are hinted at in the article, and lo and behold a paperback copy of The Essential Cuisines of Mexico quickly found a spot on our bookshelf. This is a compilation of her first three cookbooks and is so rich in recipes that it’s an excellent starting point for anyone interested in exploring the more complex recipes from Mexico. You learn not only where in Mexico the recipe originated, but who worked with Kennedy to make it accessible for a cookbook.
Cut to that Monday morning: when I suggested enchiladas to Michael, he said he’d consider them only if I found an interesting recipe. After narrowing my choices down to three, he took one look at the Fresnillo recipe and deemed it sufficiently intriguing, and an hour later I found myself spending close to $20 on dried chiles at Westside.
The salsa de muchos chiles was precisely that: a very heated mixture of guajillo, chipotle, cascabel and arból (the recipe also call for morita but we couldn’t find those), blended with broiled tomatoes, cold water, garlic, salt and topped with cilantro. It’s a far cry from the pico de gallo that we make during the summer months but..it works. It’s surprisingly edible on a chip if you’re feeling adventurous, but it worked even better when M used it to make spicy ground turkey tacos the next day. Not all of the chiles are packed with heat–the guajillos and cascabels are relatively mild, but you can practically smell the spice from the chipotle and the arból, so you can adjust to taste.
As for the enchiladas, well they were show-stopping, if messy as anything to make because you dip the tortillas into a paste-like sauce that needs to be spread around with your fingers in order to coat them evenly. Instead of these going into the oven, you arrange the stuffed tortillas on a serving platter, add some water to the remaining sauce in the pan, bring to a boil and drench them to help melt the cheese and warm the onions. Then radishes, crispy chorizo bits and some chopped cilantro then form a crunchy, colorful topping. We added a little more substance to the filling by adding some leftover chicken from the night before, and all together the results was highly satisfying.
Of all of the dishes to hold as a benchmark enchiladas may seem like an odd choice on the surface, but upon further reflection it really shows us how far we’ve come as food enthusiasts and cooks.
In the meantime, give this salsa a try: it’s perfect for warming up an unseasonably cold night as we head into spring.
Salsa de Muchos Chiles
adapted from The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy with our commentary
Note: if you don’t have all of these chiles, Kennedy advises to use what you have but avoid ancho and mulato chiles.
- 2 cascabel chiles
- 2 morita chiles
- 2 chiles de arból (seriously, these make it hot. Proceed with caution).
- 1 guajillo chile
- 1 chipotle chile (all chiles wiped clean)
- 10 oz tomatoes, or about 2 medium on-the-vine tomatoes
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 TB roughly chopped cilantro
- Kosher salt
First, broil the tomatoes: set the oven to broil, and line a pan with foil. Place the tomatoes onto a pan and broil for about 5-10 minutes or until the skins are slightly blackened. Remove from oven, let cool slightly and then place into the carafe of a blender with the water, garlic, and some salt to taste. You can always add a little more salt once all of the ingredients come together.
Meanwhile, take a frying pan and gently toast all of the chiles together for a few minutes until they are fragrant but not burning. Let cool slighlty and crumble into the carafe of a blender, seeds and all (just not the stems). Blend until a chunky salsa appears–the chile skins will still be visible, and you don’t want it to be a fine puree or anything. Stir in the cilantro and serve immediately.