Monday, February 11, 2008

Chilaquiles Smackdown II

The French have their pain perdu, stale bread turned into something fabulous for breakfast. In Mexico, the same concept is applied to leftover tortillas. Fry the tortillas, toss them with a smokey red sauce, dress with fresh cheese and sour cream and you have a delicious muddle called chilaquiles.

A few years ago a Mexico vacation turned into a quest for the perfect chilaquiles. This was something we could easily eat every day--and we did. The best versions are usually found at the simple food stalls or fondas in the local market. But chilaquiles are so beloved by Mexicans, they are also prominently displayed on the weekend brunch buffets at the big resort hotels.

This is the third year we've invited friends for our own version of a chilaquiles smackdown. It looks to be an annual event, our chilaquiles brunch, and it just gets bigger every year. Our friends Keith and Janice co-host, which means Keith makes a batch of green tomatillo-based sauce for the chilaquiles as well as a huge fruit display groaning with papaya, pineapple, bananas. My wife assembled a salad of watercress, jicama and blood oranges, and a bar featuring her home-brewed agua fresca from hibiscus blossoms.

The day before the event we were busy frying more than 100 tortillas. I made the red sauce--a bit hotter than usual with smoked chipotle chilies--as well as a toasted pumpkin seed dip that was almost over-the-top piquante with habanero peppers. Janice brought her famous guacamole. We had chips. We had taquilla. We had beer. There was, in other words, no excuse for not having a blast in the Mexican manner.

One last item--poached eggs.

Eggs are traditional with chilaquiles. Fried, scrambled, poached--any which way will do. We had served egges poached a la minute in the past. But for 40 people? There was no question the eggs had to be done ahead. You may be surprised to learn that poached eggs can be made ahead. We make them freehand in a big pot of simmering water, lowering the finished eggs into an ice bath. They will hold at least a day or two in the fridge.

So there we were with three dozen poached eggs floating around in two food service aluminums filled with water. It occured to me shortly before the guests arrived that while poaching the eggs and dropping them into the water was no great challenge, warming them up again and getting them out of the water might be.

Someone had the idea of transfering the eggs to a more decorative pot. But after draining the eggs, it quickly became apparent that they did not want to move at all without breaking. They just mounded up into an incredibly tenuous pile in the aluminum. I refilled the containers with hot water, thinking this would at least warm the eggs a bit. Serving them would just have to be less than glamorous. But the eggs barely reached a tepid state before a crowd began to form in front of the buffet.

My wife had the good sense to make a platter of scrambled eggs as well.

Oh well, call it a learning experience. Next time we'll remember to give the eggs enough time out of the fridge to come up to room temperature, and maybe heat them in the oven.

If you have any thoughts at all about making chilaquiles yourself, be sure to fry your own tortillas. This is not something you want to make with chips out of a bag. I calculate three traditional corn tortillas per person. They can be cut into square pieces (imagine a tortilla cut twice on each axis, checkerboard style) or into strips. Leave them out on a baking sheet overnight to dry, or put them in a 200-degree oven for an hour.

The tortilla pieces can be fried in oil--about 1/2-inch deep--in a skillet, or in a deep fryer, which is what we did.

My basic red sauce, enough for about 10 people, is as follows:

3 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil
1/2 white onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 small chipotle chilies in adobo, seeds removed, chopped fine
1/2 cup chicken stock or broth
2 teaspoons dried epazote (or substitute 1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican)
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
salt to taste

In a saucepan over medium-low heat, sweat the onion and garlic in 1 tablespoon lard until onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except salt and bring almost to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently 1 hour. Remove from heat.

Remove bay leaf. Process sauce in a blender until smooth. Over moderately high heat, heat 2 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil in a heavy skillet. Pour in sauce. Cook vigorously until thick, about 5 minutes. Season with salt as needed. Remove from heat and reserve.

Mexico has a tradition of finishing sauces by frying them in oil. You might wonder why, but this does bind the sauce nicely and results in a more rustic texture and flavor.

To serve the chilaquiles, have the sauce nearby. Ladle a cup or two into a hot skillet, then add just enough fried tortillas so that they are all coated in the sauce. Stir and cook just a minute: the chips will begin to soften. Turn them out into a serving bowl, throw in a handful of grated queso fresco and dress with crema. Some cilantro leaves make the best garnish.

Some people like chorizo sausage with their chilaquiles. But really, what this meal is all about is the wonderful muddle of chips, sauce, cheese and cream. This is peasant food elevated to the sublime.

Note: Queso fresco--or fresh cheese--and crema--a runny style of sour cream--are readily available at Latin markets.


Classic cook said...

This sounds great (and neat blog, too!). Could you say more about "finishing sauces by frying them in oil." For some reason that confuses and intrigues me at the same time. Thanks!

Ed Bruske said...

The Mexicans have a wide range of sauces--uncooked and cooked. Sometimes they've been liquifide into something that resembles what we call a "sauce," and sometimes they are fresher and chunkier, or what we usually call "salsa." Some of the cooked sauces are finished by frying in a skillet. I checked all of my Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy references and could not find an explanation for this. One the sauce has been assembled and in some cases strained to remove pieces of skin and seeds from chilies, it is poured into a pan with hot lard or vegetable oil, hot enough that the sauce sizzles. It should then settle into a slow boil and is cooked for about five minutes, stirring frequently, until it has thickened and often changed slighty in color. The frying helps pull the sauce together, deepen the flavor and give a more unctuous mouthfeel.

Classic cook said...

Thanks for the explanation, I may try it.