Blue Skies, Green Sauce

Well, dear readers, while Janetta stalwartly kept you entertained this summer, plying you with recipes for delectable food and thoughts about life, I found myself struggling mightily to wrestle the school year to the ground. It. Would. Not. Die.

Not that I don't love my job; I do. But the moment of feeling free and clear, ready to recharge, just took longer to arrive than I would have liked. But arrive it did: I can now report, most happily, that—just as I am readying myself for the upcoming school year—I am grabbing some moments to revel in these last, beautiful days of summer. I am done with exams, grading, meetings, reports, and much of the other business involved in finishing up yet another school year, and poised to start all over again. But for a few days now—at long last—I feel free to turn my thoughts from blue books to blue skies.

I look forward to sharing what I cooked and ate and thought about this summer. I have a backlog of recipes and food-related thoughts and adventures to write about—among them, a recent spate of meals chez moi consisting of various mezze perfect for warm summer and early autumn days. But for now I will (finally!) deliver the recipe for the enchiladas mentioned by Janetta a few posts ago. I made them for our school’s Diversity Potluck last spring, and, dare I say, they came out pretty tasty—in the words of my Nana, muy sabrosas.

A note about the recipes I am giving you…. My mother is Mexican, and she makes a mean enchilada. I could give you her recipe. But as I prepared to make my batch for the potluck lunch, I realized that her recipe is not written down, and I would have to calculate quantities for the recipe when I wrote it up… so for a baseline set of measurements I consulted my favorite Mexican cookbooks, a few each by Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless. And then I trolled through a number of other, more general cookbooks. In the end, perhaps oddly, I decided to use the distinctly not-Mexican Mark Bittman’s recipes for both green sauce and enchiladas; his recipes are a bit more streamlined than the others, but much the same… and they yield a dish of authentic, well-rounded deliciousness.

Enchiladas verdes, green enchiladas, are the best kind of “peasant” food—simple ingredients that blend satisfyingly into a whole greater than its parts. I encourage you to seek out the best ingredients you can when you assemble these. You don’t need to make your own corn tortillas (I didn’t), but buy good ones that aren’t over-processed, but rather look golden and grainy. I actually like the ones you can buy at Trader Joe’s, and the organic ones at Whole Foods. And, if you are looking for one-stop shopping, Whole Foods will also yield up the other important bits: queso fresco and queso cotija, a salty artisanal Mexican cheese, as well as the requisite tomatillos, peppers, cilantro, and so on.

I love salsa verde. So much that is so, well, green goes into it. Just looking at the pile of ingredients makes me happy. And cooking with tomatillos (sometimes called tomates verdes, or green tomatoes) always proves interesting. Their papery hulls are fun to peel off (especially for the likes of Sam), the oddly sticky quality of their skin fascinates me, and they pack a nutritional wallop: low in calories, they contain a large amount of potassium and good bits of vitamin C, folic acid, and vitamin A. And their tangy, lemony flavor complements chiles (moderating their bite) and more. (Interestingly, they contain a substance much like pectin, which thickens sauces or salsas as they cool.)

Other things to do with tomatillos? You can add them raw to cold soups or stir-fry them in a little bit of oil or broth with some onions, garlic, salt, and pepper. And a simple yet delicious way to eat them is as part of a salsa crude, or raw salsa, to eat with chips or on the side of any number of meals: mix together chopped tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, and cilantro, then season to taste with lime juice and salt.

Bueno. Without further ado, the recipes. Buen provecho!

Salsa Verde
(Cooked Tomatillo Salsa)
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

Bittman suggests that for milder sauce, you substitute poblanos for the hot chile. For “in-your-face heat,” leave the seeds in the jalapeños or add even more, to taste.
I heartily endorse Bittman’s suggestion to add salsa verde to scrambled eggs; very tasty.

20 to 24 tomatillos, husked and rinsed
6 T neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn
4 large onions, diced
10-14 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium poblano or other mild fresh green chiles, roasted and cleaned (See note below. And do know that even though the roasting and cleaning do add some time and labor, they are well worth it—you’ll relish the added layer of taste you get from the roasting.)
2 or 3 serrano or other hot fresh green chiles, roasted and cleaned if desired; otherwise, just chopped
2 t dried oregano, preferably Mexican
2 c vegetable stock or water
1-2 c chopped cilantro
½ c freshly squeezed lime juice
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Put the tomatillos on a baking sheet and roast until the skins are lightly browned and blistered, about 20 min. Remove the tomatillos; when they’re cool enough to handle, chop them finely, along with the chiles, saving their juices.
2. While the tomatillos are roasting, put the olive oil in a large deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and lightly browned, about 10 min. Add the tomatillos, chiles, oregano, stock, and a large pinch of salt and pepper; stir and bring to a low simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is slightly thickened, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Stir in the cilantro and lime juice and taste and adjust the seasoning. Purée salsa in the pan using an immersion blender, or cool and purée in a blender or food processor.

The quantities listed here constitute a double recipe of the salsa, yielding about 4 cups—plenty for the enchiladas, with a little left over for your scrambled eggs in the morning.

Enchiladas Verdes
(Cheese Enchiladas with Green Sauce)
Makes about 8 servings.

Neutral oil, such as grapeseed or corn, for frying
24 small corn tortillas, plus more if any break
5 c shredded Montery Jack or cotija cheese, or a combination
½ c crumbled queso fresco for garnish
½ c chopped red onion or scallion for garnish (I like to use both, just for the color of it)
½ c chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Lime wedges for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spoon a thin layer of the salsa verde into the bottom of a 9- x 12-inch baking dish. Put about ½ inch of the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot but not smoking, cook the tortillas, one at a tine, until softened and pliable, about 10-15 seconds. Add more oil to the pan as needed. Drain on paper towels.
2. Sprinkle about 2 T of the Monterey Jack (or cotija) in the center of each tortilla, roll tightly, and put the enchiladas in the prepared dish, seam side down. The rolls should be packed in snugly against one another. Cover the top with some more salsa and bake for 25 minutes or until the enchiladas are warmed through and the cheese has melted. When the enchiladas come out of the oven, sprinkle them with the queso fresco, onion and/or scallions, and cilantro. Serve with lime wedges on the side and pass extra salsa on the side. For a fuller plate, you could serve the enchiladas with a side of black or pinto beans, and a small chopped salad of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and radishes, with an olive oil/lime dressing.

Note on roasting peppers: Bittman describes two methods. I generally broil the peppers. But you can also skewer them on a long fork and roast them over a gas burner—very attentively, as they can easily burn.

To roast or broil: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F or the broiler and put the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. Put the peppers in a foil-lined roasting pan. Roast or broil, turning the peppers as each side browns, until they have darkened and collapsed, 15 or 20 min in the broiler, up to an hour in the oven.
To grill: Heat a charcoal or gas grill until hot and put the rack about 4 in from the heat source. When the fire is hot, put the peppers directly over the heat. Grill, turning as each side blackens, until they collapse, about 15 min.

When the peppers are done, wrap them in foil (if you roasted them in the oven, you can use the same foil that lined the pan) and cool until you can handle them, then remove the skin, seeds, and stems—doing so is a little easier under running water. Don’t worry if the peppers fall apart.

I wish everyone a safe Labor Day weekend, and a lovely last taste of summer!