Essential Tex-Mex: How to Make Cheese Enchiladas With Red Chili Gravy
Intrigued after recently reading about the differences between Tex-Mex and Mexican food (which you should really check out, by the way), I was inspired to compile a short and sweet guide to essential Tex-Mex dishes, if mostly for my own good. We've already covered most of the big names—chili con carne, steak fajitas, queso dip—but I quickly realized one glaring omission: we didn't have a house recipe for cheese enchiladas with red chili gravy. While not the flashiest dish of the bunch (that honor definitely goes to fajitas), forgetting about them would be like compiling a list of essential Japanese foods and forgetting the ramen or tempura.
If you grew up thinking there was only one style of enchiladas (and not, as I later learned, dozens and dozens of fascinating variations), this is probably the one you were familiar with. Tortillas, rolled up around a cheddar-based filling, are completely enveloped by a brick-red sauce and a generous handful of melted cheese. The sauce is rustic and aromatic, with a haunting cumin aroma and a heat from the chilies that doesn't attack so much as slowly tickle the back of your tongue. When baked, the tortillas are simultaneously saturated and still crisp, allowing them to stand up to the smooth sauce and blanket of gooey cheese.
When done right, cheese enchiladas are pure comfort food. Actually, since most enchiladas qualify as comfort food, these are like lounging around in your PJs on a Saturday morning with nothing to do but watch cartoons. Good and wholesome fun. The only real problem comes if you go too far. Compared to other types of enchiladas, these are saucier, heavier, and cheesier, which means they can easily become greasy and unappetizing—now you're just a guy in his undies watching infomercials. And no one wants that.
Like toddlers, when enchiladas don't like how things are going, they tend to flop over and refuse to cooperate. In the case of enchiladas, you're left with an unsightly pile of mush, with a bitter and astringent sauce sharing space with a greasy covering of cheese. (I'm really hoping my 9-month-old daughter never learns this trick.)
All that said, go too far in the other direction, and cheese enchiladas start looking a bit boring. I had no intention of neutering such a lively dish.
Taking the Dip
The most common enchilada failure occurs with the dip. This is when the tortillas are dunked in the red chile sauce, before being rolled up with a filling. If you try to dunk a tortilla right out of the packaging, it's often too brittle to fold, cracking at the hinge. Warming the tortilla in a skillet helps with the folding, but it gets softened so much that the sauce can turn it into mush pretty much immediately.
The trick is to lightly fry the tortilla first. This both allows the tortillas to fold and lends them enough stability to stand up to the sauce.
So, frying is a must. But then I started wondering whether I needed to dip them in the sauce at all—once they're rolled up, I was going to ladle more sauce on top anyway. Wouldn't that be enough? I tried a batch where I fried all of the tortillas, but only dipped half in the sauce before rolling them up. To my surprise, the dipped tortillas actually held up a lot better than the ones that hadn't been dipped, which wound up overly mushy.
The biggest difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican enchiladas is the sauce. In Mexico, sauces for enchiladas tend to be made with whole dried or fresh chilies that are blended with tomatoes or tomatillos, and then thickened by either reducing them in a skillet or stirring in some crema at the end. The Tex-Mex version, on the other hand, often calls for red chili powder, little-to-no tomatoes, and is thickened with a roux. Part of me wanted to discard both the red chili power and the flour at the start—I've made Tex-Mex enchiladas at home a couple times, and both times I felt that the sauce was grainy and a bit flat. But could I get rid of both while still holding onto the essence of the dish?
I felt totally confident about replacing the chili powder with whole dried chilies. After all, chili powder is just a mixture of spices and dried red chilies that have been ground up by someone else. Thing is, even if you buy a fresh new jar, it's hard to know how old it is. Plus, this would allow me to toast the dried chilies enough to deepen their flavor. I chose a mix of anchos (deep and slightly fruity), New Mexico red chilies (earthy with medium heat), and a couple arbols (for some real heat). I stemmed, seeded, and trimmed them all, toasting each for a few seconds in a hot skillet. Soaked for 30 minutes in hot water, they were then ready to be blended up with cumin, dried oregano, black pepper, and salt. Instead of onion and garlic powder, I sautéed some chopped onions and minced garlic, and added them to the blender.
With the chili powder discarded, I moved on to the flour. But no matter how much I tried to get rid of it, I kept coming back to the name. After all, this is a recipe for enchiladas with red chili gravy, not a red chili sauce. And where I come from, a gravy ain't a gravy if it doesn't have some flour. That said, my first few batches didn't go well. Most recipes I consulted called for an epic amount of flour, which dulled the flavor and left the texture chalky and grainy. The answer was pretty simple: I cut the amount of flour dramatically, from 2/3 of a cup to a mere 2 tablespoons. This is just enough to help thicken the sauce and give it a silky smooth finish.
The sauce ended up reminding me of Texas chili—never a bad thing—but without the beef. Which got me wondering whether some good old-fashioned beefiness would be a good thing here. I didn't want to add a lot of meat, just enough to deepen the flavor a bit. I sautéed some ground beef until it reached a deep brown, cooked the onion and garlic in the leftover fat and browned bits, and then added the meat back to the sauce toward the very end. This added the meaty profile I wanted, without huge hunks of meat sharing the spotlight.
These have everything I want in Tex-Mex enchiladas: An alluringly rustic and earthy red chile sauce, generously ladled over crisp and pliant tortillas, with just enough cheese to make it feel like a big warm hug from your grandma.