Three years ago my wife and I made one of our regular pilgrimages to Mexico and discovered chilaquiles. The vacation soon turned into a daily quest for breakfast so that we could eat more of our new favorite Mexican food.
If you have never heard of chilaquiles, it is what Mexicans do with their leftover tortillas. Since tortillas are a factor at virtually every meal in Mexico, leftovers are not uncommon. You cut the tortillas into pieces, fry them (traditionally in lard), then smoother them in a piquant red or green sauce with some white onion, then garnish this mash with fresh cheese (queso fresco), sour cream (crema) and cilantro. Some people like eggs with their chilaquiles, others prefer chorizo sausage. The be-all and end-all of chilaquiles is the melding of the sauce with the cheese and the crema, the texture of the onion complimenting just a bit of chew from the fried tortillas as they begin to soak up the sauce. This makes recycling old tortillas seem like a genius idea.
Throughout Mexico you will see chilaquiles on the brunch menus at big hotels, as well as in the food stalls or "fondas" in the local markets. Like hashed browned potatoes, there are terrific versions of chilaquiles and others that find any number of ways to fail. Some bad chilaquiles are made with the kind of tortilla chips out of bag that you would normally use to dip into salsa. Another version I don't care for cooks the tortillas in the sauce until they become a porridge. This year we experimented, making some chilaquiles with packaged tostados from the grocery store. They were not nearly as good as the ones we make with tortillas we fry ourselves.
A good batch of chilaquiles has just enough chew to make the teeth moan with pleasure. So simple, so good. We had to have more when we got home from Mexico, so we started an annual (sometimes) chilaquiles brunch with our friends Keith and Janice. Like us, they are wild for traditional ethnic foods and there are few places they haven't traveled. Keith makes the green sauce for the brunch, while Janice prepares her famous frijoles, or well-fried beans. I handle the red sauce, the chorizo and the condiments.
This year we were 16 people at the brunch. It all happens very quickly. You spread some oil in the bottom of a frying pan, saute the onions briefly, then pour in some sauce and mix it up with the fried tortillas. Just as the chips begin to wilt you dump the mix onto a buffet platter and invite guests to start making their own plates. Meanwhile, Keith and I were poaching eggs and serving those as well.
This is comfort food no one can resist. The only thing we plan to do differently next year is poach the eggs ahead and simply reheat them. That will eliminate some of the stress.
Here are the basic procedures to feed 16 persons:
To fry the tortillas, figure three tortillas per person and purchase the appropriate bag of 5-inch corn tortillas at the grocery. Slice the tortillas into 1 1/2-inch pieces (use a serrated bread knife to slice a stack of tortillas into four sections, then rotate the stack 90 degress and slice into threes). If using lard, cover the bottom of a heavy frying pan with 1/2 inch of melted lard, then fry the tortillas in batches till golden. Drain on paper towels. If your friends are vegetaran, use vegetable oil. You can also fry the tortillas in your deep fat fryer.
For the red sauce:
4 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1 white onion, peeled and diced small
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and roughly chopped
1 28-ounce can plus 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 chipotle chilies in adobo
1 cup chicken stock or broth
2 teaspoons dried epazote (or substitute 2 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
Heat 2 tablespoons lard or oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Saute onion and garlic until onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and cook about 1 hour. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf. In batches, mix sauce in blender until smooth. Rinse out cook pot.
Return pot to stove and heat remaining 2 tablespoons lard or oil. Pour sauce into oil and stir to blend. Cook until sauce has reduced slightly and is thick like a pasta sauce. (Cooking sauces in oil is traditional in Mexico.) Set sauce aside until ready to use. Can be made several days in advance.
For the green sauce:
2 1/2 pounds fresh tomatillos, husks removed, cleaned
4 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1 medium white onion, peeled and diced small
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 Serrano chilies, seeds removed, chopped fine
½ cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons dried epazote (or substitute 2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferably Mexican)
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Arrange tomatillos on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Place in oven and roast 45 minutes, or until tomatillos are soft.
Meanwhile, in a sauté pan over medium-low heat, sweat the onion, garlic and Serrano chilies in 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Spoon into a food processor with cooked tomatillos, and cilantro. Pulse to a coarse puree.
Over moderately high heat, heat remaining 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil in a heavy skillet. Pour in pureed sauce. Add epazote. Cook vigorously until thick, about 5 minutes. Season with salt as needed. Remove from heat and reserve.
To serve the chilaquiles, have plates and condiments ready. In addition to the queso, crema, cilantro, chorizo, refritos and eggs, you can also display chopped lettuce, diced tomato, avocado--whatever you like.
You will also need one or two white onions, thinly sliced, to finish the cooking.
Coat a pan with lard or vegetable oil and, over moderatly high heat, toss in a fistful of white onion slices and cook just a minute or two. Then add about two cups of sauce and continue cooking until it begins to bubble. Add enough tortilla chips and mix well. There should be just enough chips, and just enough sauce, so that the mixture is wet, but the chips are not swimming in sauce.
When the chips begin to soften, quickly transfer them to a platter so that guests can dig in and add condiments as they choose. Great with Mexican beer or Bloody Marys--or try making Bloody Maria's, substituting Tequila for vodka and spicing it with cumin.