Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Adventures in Mexican Food: Chilaquiles

Last night I made chilaquiles.

The first time I had chilaquiles (chee-la-KEE-lays) was during the J-Term immersion class in 2007, when I stayed overnight with a Mexican family in Cuernavaca. At breakfast my host mom put giant plates in front of us full of green salsa, white sour cream, soaked tortilla chips, and eggs, sunny-side up. The green salsa was only a little thicker than the consistency of soup, and it soaked everything. What I remember about that morning is looking at my plate, realizing it was like nothing I’d ever eaten for breakfast before and definitely in a higher quantity than what I normally eat for breakfast. But there was nothing for it: Trying to be a good guest, I cleaned my plate.

Now, more than two years later, I love chilaquiles. I order them at diner-style Mexican restaurants all the time, usually for breakfast. There’s a range of quality in them – last week I ate the best chilaquiles ever one day and the worst ever on another day. Whether they’re delicious or not-delicious normally has to do with, first, the quality of the salsa (I prefer green salsa (chilaquiles verdes), but they also come in red (chilaquiles rojos)) and, second, the crunchiness of the chips, which have to be soaked in the wet salsa, but not too much or they get soggy and gross. Sometimes there’s a fried egg amidst the chips, sometimes some shredded chicken, but not always – the primary ingredient is always the fried corn tortillas that form hearty layers, like pasta in an Italian lasagna dish. In their best form, chilaquiles will wake you right up with the lively tang and bite of Mexican salsa while filling your belly with the warmth of traditional homestyle cooking.

Rick Bayless, our Mexican food guru (see either of our two cookbooks), sometimes compares chilaquiles to a casserole dish. In his Mexican Kitchen book, he calls them “my favorite Mexican soul food – a homey pot of slightly chewy tortillas simmered up with forthright flavors.” I think that’s about right - although this guy, an Anthony Bourdain fan, calls them "Mexican nachos," which might also be a legitimate way to think about them from a Tex-Mex perspective. Anyway, last night I decided to try Rick’s recipe for chilaquiles with a guajillo chile sauce.

(Rick Bayless side note: Chris’ sister Erica and her boyfriend Fred actually saw Rick Bayless in person a few weeks ago! Seriously!!! Ok, I will let my jealousy subside now.)

Guajillo chiles are not quite green or red, but are more of a dark purplish color. I bought them dried at the local produce market, which is turning out to be an awesome place to buy dried chiles because they aren’t nearly as brittle (or expensive) as the ones sold pre-packaged at the local Wal-Mart. (So, tip #1: Find your local Mexican produce store!)

Following Rick’s instructions, I began by toasting the chiles (16 of them!) very briefly on a hot griddle, then putting them in water for a half-hour to rehydrate. This is a little trickier than Rick describes it, because I didn’t want to hydrate my chiles with either (a) the non-drinkable water from the tap or (b) the precious purified water we buy only for drinking. So I filled the pot with tap water and boiled it for awhile before soaking the chiles. But hey, at least we had water at all - a few hours after we ate, just as we were getting ready to do the dishes, our tap water dried up... again. (It came back on this morning, thank goodness.)

While the chiles rehydrated I roasted a half-dozen garlic cloves on the griddle, then set it aside to cool before peeling the dry skins off the now-soft garlic cloves. Once the chiles were hydrated, I put them in the blender with the garlic, plus some oregano, black pepper, and cumin. To make it all blend better, I added a cup of chicken broth (this is what Rick recommends, but you could probably make it with veggie broth just as well). I pressed the puree button and within seconds my motley crew of ingredients had turned into something that looked like a dark red tomato sauce.

I cooked the sauce the same way Rick had me cook the green tomatillo-serrano sauce a few weeks ago: Coat the bottom of the pot with oil, turn up the heat until it sizzles, pour in the sauce all at once and basically fry it, stirring constantly for about 5 minutes. Once the base has darkened and thickened, pour in a few cups of broth, turn down the heat, and let it simmer for about 45 minutes.

Everything was going rather well, but I knew better than to get too excited: This was exactly the moment at which I ruined the dish last time. I had followed all the right steps, and I could smell – and snuck a taste – of the sauce getting more and more delicious. I couldn’t wait to serve it to Chris. Then Rick says, “Season it with salt and sugar.” Ok. So I added a little salt, then reached for the sugar. Hmm… still tastes a little salty. So I added some more sugar. That’s odd – it’s still really salty, and I can’t taste the sugar. I added more and more spoonfuls of sugar, but to no avail. Finally it dawned on me. I looked at my spoon with horror, and tasted the little white sugar crystals I had been pouring into the sauce. But of course, it wasn’t sugar. It was salt. It had all been salt! I tried to salvage the sauce, but it was too late. After hours of work, I managed to make my culinary masterpiece… completely inedible. After that disaster I left that guajillo chilaquile recipe alone for months. Tonight, however, I was determined to redeem myself. I left the salt and the sugar on the shelf.

When we could wait no longer I put a few handfuls of fresh tortilla chips in a pan and poured a few cups of sauce all over them, stirring the chips until they were completely coated. To round out our platefuls of food, I added a side dish of the “refried” pinto beans (frijoles refritos) I’d made the night before and a dollop of lime-and-cilantro-seasoned guacamole for some brightness of flavor and aesthetics. Voila! Chilaquiles Guajillos.

And Chris’ verdict? “This is delicious. So stop taking pictures of your food and eat some of it!”

So I did. ☺

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