Cheese Enchiladas

Cheese Enchiladas
Photograph by Jody Horton

The Dish

They are, simply put, an addiction. First, there’s the frequency with which we consume them, which, if we’re honest, is at least weekly. Then there’s their powerful nostalgia—of long Saturdays cooking with your welita, of Sunday lunches out with family, of Christmas Eve dinners. And finally there’s their curative power, which salves everything from the head-splitting hangover to the paralyzing homesickness that strikes when we leave the state. Ah, enchiladas. Verdes, rojas, suizas, banderas, con mole, rolled, folded, stacked and topped with a fried egg—they are too varied to count. But as anyone who grew up here knows, the truly habit-forming kind, the ones you have to have after a soul-sucking week, are the classic Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas with chile gravy and onions. The gooey yellow, the dusky red, the flecks of white. The spicy tang of beef and chiles that pricks but doesn’t burn your tongue. The scent of cumin that hangs over every forkful. They say our palates memorize flavors. If that’s the case, every Texan has enchiladas learned by heart.

How to Make It

If you grew up making enchiladas at home, you know what an elaborate ritual they can be: dipping the corn tortillas in oil, stirring the gravy so there’s no flour lumps, rolling up the tortillas, playing Lotería with your cousins afterward. If you didn’t, they’re probably a ritual of another sort, like, say, the first meal you seek out after a return flight to Texas. For Sylvia Cásares, who grew up in Brownsville, it’s a little of both: While she ate enchiladas made from scratch by her grandmother, it was also a family tradition to go out for an enchilada lunch every Sunday. Now that she runs two locations of her eponymous Houston restaurant, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, and teaches popular cooking classes, the dish is practically her livelihood. Her menu and lessons emphasize flavor and good old-fashioned technique, like using fresh guajillo and árbol chiles. “The word ‘enchilada’ comes from enchilar, meaning ‘to cover in chiles,’ ” Cásares says. “So you can’t just use chile powder in everything.” (She does, however, eschew the traditional lard in favor of vegetable oil.) To make her Tex-Mex enchiladas, dip corn tortillas in chile sauce, pass them through hot oil, roll them around ample quantities of grated yellow cheese, then top them with chile gravy and bake until bubbling. Her signature gravy is a proprietary, eight-hour-long recipe, but luckily for us, Cásares adapted it into a thirty-minute home version. For a requisite side dish, she also shares one of her family’s best-kept secrets: the recipe for her grandmother’s rice. — KR

Cheese Enchiladas
from Sylvia Cásares

Prepare the Chile Gravy
1 1/2 cups white onion, roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves
1/4 pound lean ground beef
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup flour
2 cups beef broth (fresh, canned, or boxed)
3 tablespoons chile powder (such as McCormick or bulk red chile powder)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine onion and garlic in a blender and purée on high for about one minute or until smooth. Add purée, ground beef, and 1/2 cup water to a small saucepan and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes (skim froth from surface).

In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium heat until hot. Lower heat, add flour, and stir continuously until the roux turns a light golden brown.

Heat beef broth and 2 cups water over low heat in a small saucepan or in a microwave oven. Combine all spices and add to flour mixture along with broth and ground beef and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes or until mixture is the consistency of gravy. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before using. Makes about 5 cups.

Prepare the Tortillas Dipped in Guajillo-Árbol Chile Sauce
7 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed
2 árbol or ancho chiles, stems removed
12 corn tortillas

Put chiles and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 15 minutes, adding water if needed. Let cool 15 minutes. Purée the chiles and water in a blender or food processor on high speed until liquefied. Pass the purée through a strainer to remove any skins.

When almost ready to assemble the enchiladas, dip tortillas in the guajillo-árbol chile sauce one at a time and put on a plate. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes.

Assemble the Enchiladas
1 cup vegetable oil
Chile Gravy
Tortillas Dipped in Guajillo-Árbol Chile Sauce
5 cups grated cheddar or American cheese (reserve 1 cup for garnish)
1 cup white onion, diced (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Place one tortilla at a time in the hot oil and quickly turn with tongs or a nonstick spatula. Total time in oil should be about 5 seconds. Stack on a plate and use immediately in next step.

Distribute a row of about 1/3 cup (about 2 ounces) of cheese down the middle of each tortilla. Roll up and place side by side in a 9-by-11-inch baking pan. Pour the chile gravy over the enchiladas and garnish with reserved grated cheese and diced onion. Bake until sauce bubbles and cheese is melted, 10 to 20 minutes; do not allow to brown. Makes 12 enchiladas (serves 4 to 6).

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