What smell reminds you of your mom? I have memories of spicy perfumes that linger in rooms long after mom has left for work. My love of floral scents comes from memories of her rose garden. The scent of sweet roses would drift into my childhood bedroom on a breezy, spring morning. Lastly, the smell of corn tortillas frying in oil is one of the few food memories associated with mom. Mexican dishes, especially tacos and enchiladas, are one of my comfort cuisines. When my mother moved with my father to the east coast to raise a family, they would discover Mexican food was only served at a fast food restaurant chain. Although, my father did most of the cooking in our house, he stepped away from his kitchen for mom to make her famous enchiladas. Back then; her version was stuffed with ground beef, cheddar cheese, onions, canned black olives and sour cream. The enchilada sauce would start with an envelope package of a Mexican spice mix.
If you’re familiar with My Life Runs On Food, the recipes posted are mostly from scratch. I’m familiar with both the artificial flavoring of fast food and the slow cook from scratch methods of cooking. Most people grew up with fast food, in which we now know about their unhealthy side effects. My love of cooking inspires a curiosity about authentic ingredients to avoid using artificial flavorings, pre-made spice mixes and bottled sauces. Making the Spicy Enchiladas with Corn and Amaranth Greens is a recreation of Mom’s version. They’re closer to being authentically Mexican, too. The process of making enchiladas from scratch, especially making the sauce, is a labor of love.
…the smell of corn tortillas frying in oil is one of the few food memories associated with mom. …
Choosing the ingredients for remaking Mom’s enchiladas was educational. Most of the ingredients come from the farmer’s market and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. I regret that the tortillas are not from scratch, but they come from a vendor at the farmer’s market selling fresh corn tortillas made in the mornings. There were only three ingredients listed on the package sans chemical preservatives. A few booths away, a vender was selling heirloom tomatoes, in which a large, German Striped tomato was chosen. A couple cups of tiny mushrooms were also purchased from another vendor. The carrots, green peppers, a few ears of corn, and a little Scotch bonnet (or Jamaica) chili are from the CSA. The biggest cost was the aged Manchego cheese for an organic food store. It was $19.00 a pound, for half a pound was purchased. Mom’s version is baked with sour cream, but for authenticity purposes, try using Queso blanco. The sharpness of Manchego cheese is a personal preference.
Once at home, I started the process of making the spicy red sauce. Gone are the packages of Mexican spice mix. Instead, boiling water was poured over hot chilies to rehydrate them to life. Meanwhile, a fragrant spice mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, onions, garlic, chili powder, toasted sesame seeds, Spanish smoked sweet paprika, salt and fresh black pepper was made. Once the hot peppers were ready, the seeds and ribs were removed. Then they were diced and scrapped into the skillet. The heirloom tomato was lightly blanched to remove the skin. Then it was chopped to pieces and tossed into the spicy vegetables. Once the vegetables had cooled, it was pureed until smooth and added to strained tomatoes. The enchilada sauce simmered for 30 minutes to one hour. Occasionally, the water from the rehydrated chilies was added to the sauce when it was too thick. The smell was comfortably aromatic. Similar to the enchilada sauce mom would make.
As the sauce is simmering, the corn and amaranth filling was made. It also had Manchego cheese, mushrooms, green bell peppers, onions and garlic. I’ve never heard of amaranth greens, until the CSA included it in my share. The color of the leaves is similar to the Japanese maple tree. Like corn, the Aztecs ate amaranth greens, too. Choosing to use these greens in a Mexican dish is logical, and if they’re too bitter, the sweet corn will be a nice contrast.
Sautéing the filling only takes a few minutes. Afterwards, the process of frying the corn tortillas was started. When I first came to New York, a Mexican cashier and I engaged in a conversation about food. He said in a thick Spanish accent, “Americans don’t know how to cook Mexican food.” I started telling him about how Mom fried tortillas. He quickly nodded and said, “Okay, you’re an exception…” There are recipes that demonstrate healthier alternatives to frying tortillas without the oil, but mom’s way is a familiar process. I remember her standing over the stove in a pink nightgown, asking each of us whether we wanted hard or soft taco shells. When I placed the fresh tortillas from the farmer’s market in the hot skillet, it instantly puffed up. I was ecstatic. Corn tortillas made with many preservatives don’t puff nicely, nor would frying them a few seconds more or less make a difference in their crispiness. Just like Mom, each corn tortilla was fried for a few seconds, and they were placed on a paper towel lined cookie sheet. Enchiladas are fried to become just soft and pliable, for they’ll become crisp in the oven.
After all the elements of the enchiladas are prepared, assembling the dish is effortless. It’s a quick process of tightly rolling the soft corn tortilla shell around the filling and packing them tightly in a casserole dish. The Chili Sauce is spooned on top. Then the enchiladas are placed in an oven to bake. During the last few minutes of the baking time, a generous handful of grated Manchego cheese is placed over the enchiladas.
As the enchiladas are prepared a quick salsa or a salad is made. This time zucchini, green onions, cilantro, salt, fresh black pepper, white balsamic vinegar and olive oil were quickly tossed together. In addition, there was left over toasted, spicy pumpkin seeds from an overnight road trip that was placed on the table. They’re provide a crunchy garnish to the enchiladas.
Removing the enchiladas from the oven, the smell brought back comfortable memories of Mom serving us dinner. This version of enchiladas took half a day to make. Like myself, Mom works nine to five, Monday thru Friday. For her to make time to cook us dinner was always a thrilling event. We would sometimes help her prep the ingredients. Her version was also time-consuming, but it was a family affair. Recreating Mom’s enchiladas is a continuing labor of love.
Saucy Enchiladas with Amaranth Greens and Corn
Spicy Red Enchilada Sauce
2 to 3 dried ancho chilies, quantity based on preference for spicy food
2 to 3 dried chipotle chilies, quantity based on preference for spicy food
1 medium onion; finely diced
3 garlic cloves; minced
1 green bell pepper; diced
(optional) 1 Jamaican hot pepper; diced
1/2 tsp. Spanish smoked sweet paprika
1 tsp. cumin
1 huge heirloom tomato (one pound); blanch to remove skin and roughly chop or 1 lb. canned whole tomatoes
1 to 2 tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
26 oz. canned strained/puree tomatoes
Sea salt and fresh black pepper; to taste
1 cup fresh oregano and/or cilantro; minced
1. Place dried chilies in a bowl. Cover with boiling water. Place plate on top to make sure chilies stay submerged in the water. Rehydrate for 30 minutes to an hour. Reserve the chili water. Discard the stem and seeds.
2. Place chili and heirloom/canned whole tomatoes in a food processor. Pure until smooth. Set aside.
3. In a black skillet, heat olive oil over medium to high heat. When the oil is warm, add the onions. Frequently stir until the onions are translucent. Stir in the garlic for 30 seconds. Add the green bell and Jamaican hot chili peppers. Stir frequently until they start to soften. If the skillet is too dry, add a little of the chili water. Season with paprika, cumin, salt and pepper.
4. Add the chili-tomato mix, red wine, tomato paste, puree tomatoes, cilantro and oregano to the onions and spices. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Cover and let mixture slowly simmer for at least an hour.
5. Meanwhile, as the sauce is simmering, make the filling.
Amaranth Greens and Corn Filling
1 medium red onion
1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 green pepper
2 cups of fresh corn
1-1/2 cup mushrooms
Red balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 cups pre-cooked shredded chicken
1 tsp. ground chili
1/4 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika
1/4 tsp. cumin
2 handfuls of amaranth greens (if unavailable, use spinach greens)
1. Sauté red onions over medium-high heat until translucent. Stir in garlic for 30 seconds. Add green pepper.
2. When the pepper starts to soften, add the corn, chicken, and mushrooms. Add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and season with chili powder, paprika, and cumin. Cook for about 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the amaranth greens and cook until greens are wilted.
4. Place filling aside.
A package of tortilla shells
A few tablespoons of cold-pressed peanut or sunflower oil
1. Heat oil in a black skillet until hot.
2. Place tortilla shell in the oil. After a couple seconds, flip it over.
3. Place on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet. Repeat with the other shells until they’re done, or there’s enough to fill a casserole dish.
4. Place aside.
Assembling the Saucy Enchiladas with Amaranth Greens and Corn
Amaranth Greens and Corn Filling
Lightly fried corn tortilla shells
2 to 3 cups grated sharp Manchego cheese (or use Ibores, a goat’s milk cheese, raw milk, aged 60 days or more)
1. Pre-heat oven to 400°F.
2. Oil a 9 x 13 x 2 baking dish (or use two 8 x 8 x 2 casserole dishes, place one in the freezer for the future). Place one to two cups of enchilada sauce on the bottom.
3. Take one tortilla shell and place 2 to 3 spoonfuls in the center. Sprinkle a little cheese on top. Add fresh black pepper. Roll the shell into a cylindrical roll. Place the enchilada, bottom side down in the casserole dish. Repeat with the other tortilla shells, until all the ingredients are used. Pack the enchilada shells in tightly.
4. Spoon the rest of the enchilada sauce on top. If you have left over sauce, place in the freezer (Use it for an egg dish).
5. Place the enchilada casserole dish in the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven, and sprinkle more cheese on top. Return the dish back to the oven for another three to five minutes, or until the cheese melts.
6. Let cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle a little cilantro and fresh black pepper on top before serving. Serve with a salad or a salsa as a garnish.