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How to Make Enchiladas without a Recipe

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Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Make messy, saucy enchiladas from scratch, from simple ingredients, and without a recipe.

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I started making enchiladas not because I love Mexican food—and I really, really, very much love Mexican food—but because they're easy to put together, can feed a few people for a few days, and are undeniably more delicious than most of the ones you get at restaurants. I'll admit that I've been known to use a can of store-bought enchilada sauce in a pinch and I don't feel bad about it at all, but going the extra half-mile and making your own—Yes, half! It's a two-step sauce!—gives the finished dish a serious depth of flavor that you just can't buy in the international foods aisle.

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Now, there are, of course, red enchiladas and green ones, as defined by the color of their sauce, but the variations hardly stop at two. Just as with any common regional comfort food (think about mac and cheese), there are endless opinions about what process and special touches make an authentic batch: Fried tortillas? Cheese filling? An egg on top? Sauce made from strawberries? It's a messy world, people, and enchiladas, in my somewhat humble opinion, are here to be just that—saucy, bubbly, and a bit of a mess—so you can sink into a plate of them at the end of a long day with the guarantee of modest greatness.

The ingredient list for enchiladas can be a no-frills affair: corn tortillas (I like the ones you buy in a pack of 50 for 99 cents), your favorite peppers and tomatoes (or tomatillos) for the sauce, a filling or five of your choice, and cheese. Here's how to build them into something more:

1. Make your sauce. 

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In the summer, I'm partial to a green sauce, which features the perky tartness of fresh tomatillos, smoke and heat from charred peppers, and warmth from toasty spices. Start it by blackening a couple green peppers, which is the first step towards a robustly flavored dish: For a mild green sauce, select a green bell and a single poblano; for medium heat with fruity undertones, opt for two poblanos; and for a dish that's fiery throughout, add one poblano and a serrano. You can blacken these by putting them directly over a gas burner and rotating every one in a while, or just broil them in the oven until dark and papery-skinned. 

If you prefer red sauce with its smoky silkiness to a chunky, tart green sauce, swap out fresh green peppers for a few chipotles, then head to blender all the same.

More: Learn your poblano from ancho from your serrano.

Pile your pepper(s) of choice, with just the stems removed, into a blender, then add the other ingredients: Dig up a few spare aliums, like a clove of garlic and half an onion, and a handful of fresh tomatillos (6 to 8) with the papery husks removed. (For red sauce, a cup of tomato sauce and a spoonful of tomato paste can replace the tomatillos.) This is where spices come in, too, so shake in some whole cumin and coriander seeds, plus a hit of chile powder if you want a smoky taste—toasted in a dry skillet if you want deeper flavors. Just a splash of broth or water should be enough to get things moving around, and then let the blender run until it looks like a salsa smoothie and you can't take it anymore. Now's a good time to taste it (yes, duh, on a tortilla chip).

But don't get carried away and eat it all! Pour the salsa into a saucepan, and simmer it for about ten minutes, until it reduces slightly—now, now!, it's enchilada sauce. While it's simmering, prep your filling, and just set it aside to cool when it's done.

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2. Prep your filling.

With a sauce this complex, it's never a bad idea to err on the side of simplicity with the fillings. Cheese enchiladas, which are stuffed with only melty white Monterey Jack, are an indescribably happy thing to find yourself looking down at. The same goes for shredded white-meat chicken, or a stuffing of only refried or rinsed black beans—but nobody's ever called me a minimalist. I like mine stuffed with a little of all of the above, plus whatever seasonal veggies I can dig out of the crisper and brown in a hot skillet. You'll only need a half cup of stuffing for each enchilada, and any leftovers can be frozen for a later batch or eaten for breakfast alongside scrambled eggs. 

Here are some slightly less over-the-top (but no less untraditional) combinations to go along with your sauce of choice:

With green sauce:

  • chicken, zucchini, and mushrooms
  • black beans and cauliflower
  • pork, potatoes, and red onions

With red sauce:

  • fresh tomatoes and steak
  • white beans, spinach, and chicken
  • poblanos, corn, and ricotta

Since any meats need to be cooked and shredded (or chopped up to be bite size) before adding, I often make enchiladas out of whatever is left over from last night's dinner. If you're starting from scratch and don't want your enchiladas to be vegetarian, you'll need to sear a piece of flank steak, roast or poach a chicken, or slow-cook a pot of pork carnitas before commencing—but in the case of no leftovers, there's no shame (and nothing lost!) in stuffing them with just cheese, beans, and vegetables. Broil or char your vegetables (as you might have done for the peppers in your sauce) before adding for maximum oomph.

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3. Soften your tortillas. 

Because I go for those very flimsy corn tortillas that cost less than the subway ride to procure them, this step requires nothing more than just dipping the tortillas straight into the sauce to soften them up. But if your corn tortillas are thicker, or blue, you might want to fry them lightly in a neutral oil (vegetable, canola) for about 10 seconds before adding to the sauce, which keeps their sides from splitting and makes the whole dish delightfully mushier. Flour tortillas won't hold up as well in this dish, but if that's what you have on hand, don't bother frying them, which will result in crisp rather than pliable tortillas.


4. Make enchiladas.

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Put the enchilada sauce in a bowl that will fit a tortilla (you'll be dunking). Scoop about a cup of sauce into the bottom of a medium-sized baking dish and spread it around. Sink a tortilla in the sauce so that it gets coated on both sides, fill it with your choice of stuffing, and roll it up so the sides touch. It's completely fine if the tortilla barely closes around its filling or splits along the side a little—just sing a little lullaby and nestle it into the pan with the seam facing down. Repeat with the other tortillas, nestling the rolls side-by-side in the pan, then continuing down the sides of the pan in the other direction until there's a fully-stuffed pan of enchiladas. 

You'll likely have some extra sauce, so pour a few cups over top and tuck it down into any open corners. Extra sauce can be cooled and frozen or eaten with your leftover stuffings for a light breakfast or lunch.

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At this point, I like to shred an entire two cups of cheese over the top and bake the whole thing until bubbly, which seals in all the sauciness and ensures that every serving is gooey and steamy. If that seems a bit much to you, why are you making enchiladas? just leave off the cheese and bake to warm through. (If your ingredients were all warm when you prepared this, you don't even have to bake them at all!) If you are topping with cheese, choose anything white, mild, and melty so your sauce can still be the star—Monterey Jack is a safe bet, but pepper jack is even better, and provolone will do in a pinch.

5. Serve! 

Enchiladas are a big, hot mess of a meal, so scoop them out in portions and then top each with some freshness, coolness, and crunch. Fresh jalapeño rounds, tears of cilantro, chopped raw white onion, and a splash of sour cream that's been loosened up with lime juice will build layers of flavor even if you just choose one. An extremely cold beer (don't be afraid to set one in the freezer for 10 minutes) is no bad thing if you can stand to wait another second—but a glass of grapefruit juice will make you just as happy. And aren't you?

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Photos by Bobbi Lin

Tags: Cheese, Tomatillo, (Not) Recipes