No one needs an excuse to enjoy red chile enchiladas. But if you do, Sunday is Cinco de Mayo and, coincidentally, National Enchilada Day. What better way to celebrate Mexico’s victory over France in the 1862 Battle of Puebla than by enjoying some enchiladas?
With their molten melding of chile, cheese and corn tortillas, enchiladas are a soulfully satisfying meal. It’s such a simple dish to prepare. But presentation has two two distinct methods. In Mexico, where the dish originated and has been made for centuries, the corn tortillas are rolled to encase the filling. In New Mexico, the tortillas are generally stacked, making the dish more substantial, and topped with a fried egg.
We asked award-winning New Mexico cookbook author Cheryl Jamison why her region’s enchiladas are layered.
“It’s easier,” she said, “and you don’t have to worry about the tortillas cracking when you’re rolling them.”
Stacking also saves space. Rolled enchiladas require using an oblong baking dish, but enchiladas can be stacked in a smaller round pan or bowl.
Either way, the key to a successful plate of enchiladas is the red chile.
“It’s all about the chile,” said Marina La Riva, executive chef and owner of La Rosa Southwestern Dining in Palmer Lake and a native of Albuquerque, N.M.
She makes red chile from New Mexico dried pods, soaking the pods in very hot water until they are soft.
“You can boil them,” she said. “I place them in a blender with about three cloves of garlic, a quarter of an onion, and a touch of oregano (not too much) and salt. Add water and blend until the mixture is smooth. You can put this in a ricer to remove the seeds and any ‘skin’ for a smoother sauce. At home I don’t bother with this.”
But some cooks do remove the seeds and membranes, because that’s the source of the chile’s heat. If you use your hands to do this, wear gloves or be sure not to touch your eyes or face.
To assemble stacked enchiladas, La Riva briefly dips corn tortillas into hot oil, then blots the excess. This keeps the tortilla soft.
“You may then dip the tortillas in the red chile,” she said. Better yet, she said, put chile on a platter, top it with a tortilla and spread chile on it, too, before adding the chopped onion and cheese. “And repeat for layers. Finish on top with onions and cheese. And, of course, for the New Mexico enchilada, top with a fried egg.”
Over-easy eggs are a great flavor balancer. The creamy yolk blends with the red chile to soften the taste and cool the heat.
For creative takes on rolled Tex-Mex enchiladas, we turned to Joshua Davis, executive chef at Sonterra Innovative Southwestern Grill and Salsa Brava Fresh Mexican Grill. At both eateries, he offers several types of enchilada fillings beyond cheese and onion. They include red chile spinach and mushroom, adobo chicken, steak and avocado, hickory-smoked pork and, our favorite, blue corn shrimp and lobster.
But it’s Davis’ sauces that cement the “innovative” in Sonterra’s name. His award-winning red chile sauce has received top honors in the Gazette Best of the Springs in years past, and he also serves up green chile, cilantro cream and fire-roasted green chile sauces on his rolled enchiladas.
Now it’s up to you to decide how you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. You can take this little primer into the kitchen and experiment with enchilada fillings and sauces, or you can just make reservations at La Rosa or Salsa Brava and let them do the cooking.