Red chile enchiladas filled with cheese have always been a major part of my diet. For special occasions (and sometimes just because), my dad, who grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico, serves up flat, stacked enchiladas made with dried or fresh red chiles from Chimayo, a town about thirty minutes north of Santa Fe known for producing super flavorful peppers.

When I moved to New York City, in 2006, my brother Jake, who was also my roommate at the time, helped me get through my first Thanksgiving away from home by making our own version of Dad’s enchiladas. We stuffed tortillas with cheese and covered them in spicy red sauce, and our tiny Brooklyn apartment became the place for anyone we knew with no place to go. 

We gathered that way for the ten years I lived in New York, and when I moved to Austin, in 2016, I insisted on bringing the Brooklyn Thanksgiving tradition to our Texas family table. I am heading to Tucson, Arizona, to spend the holiday with my husband’s family this year, so I’ll miss our Tex-Mex feast, but I have another excuse to make killer enchiladas: leftover barbecue and a fridge full of odds and ends that need to be eaten before we skip town. I have about half a pound of smoked turkey from a recent photo shoot at the Salt Lick, a cup or so of roasted butternut squash, and a few handfuls of fresh spinach that has started to lose its luster. 

Since this batch of enchiladas is more about cleaning out my fridge than celebrating, I am foregoing a completely homemade sauce and opting for ease (look away, Dad). I’m doctoring jarred red enchilada sauce by blending some leftover roasted garlic and red peppers, a heaping spoonful of Kashmiri chili powder from India (you could also use any type of red chile flakes), a quick shake of onion powder, and a pinch of salt.

I am aiming to create as few dirty dishes as possible, so instead of baking stacked enchiladas in individual containers in the oven, I’m making rolled and stuffed enchiladas. I’ll freeze one casserole dish to eat the day after we get back, and before we leave, we’ll have fresh enchiladas topped with very soft avocado, plain Greek yogurt, cilantro, and pomegranate seeds—all designed to take the edge off the heat while using more things in our fridge. 

This “recipe” for smoked turkey enchiladas with squash and spinach is far from traditional, but I can promise it will be delicious if you stick to a few rules. Frying the corn tortillas before rolling is nonnegotiable; this helps keep them from getting soggy when you bake them in sauce. Another must-do is adding a generous amount of melty cheese on top. I prefer cheddar, Monterey Jack, or colby, but softer cheeses such as goat, feta, or cream cheese are also great. If you’re using up your Thanksgiving leftovers, the sky’s the limit here—just make sure what you put inside the tortillas is well mixed and fork-tender. 

Smoked Turkey Enchiladas Thanksgiving Leftovers
It’s important to fry the tortillas before filling them to keep them from getting soggy. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
Smoked Turkey Enchiladas Thanksgiving Leftovers
Using plenty of shredded cheese is key in these enchiladas. Photograph by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Once you have searched your fridge for inspiration, think about how to make it easily spoonable into hot, fried tortillas. Leftover barbecue works well because it will never be as juicy on its own as it was when it was fresh from the fire, but tucking it into an enchilada melds the flavors of smoke and salt, giving the meat a chance to be as succulent as the first time around.

So, if you have meat, shred or chop it. If you have cooked root vegetables or squash, make sure they’re almost mashable. If your spinach is soft and old (perfect for this), it may not need to be chopped or cooked, but heartier greens like kale or chard, and even perky new spinach, should be cooked tender or chopped very small. Once you have optimized your fillings, mix everything together with about a cup of shredded cheese until your mixture is completely homogenous, with a little of this and a little of that in every bite. 

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F, then set up a large plate lined with paper towels to drain oil from the fried tortillas. In a skillet, heat vegetable oil until it bubbles when the edge of the tortilla touches the oil. Cook corn tortillas on each side until you see a little color and big bubbles start to form in the middle, or about 10 to 15 seconds per side. 

Coat a casserole dish with a ladleful of enchilada sauce. One at a time, put a fried tortilla on the prepared casserole dish and add a few spoonfuls of filling before rolling tightly and placing in a row, seam side down. Once all of your enchiladas are rolled, cover them with more sauce and shredded cheese. Bake until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. 

I don’t list proper quantities here, which means there is no way for me to tell you how many tortillas or how much sauce and cheese to use, so there is a chance you’ll run out of one ingredient before the others. If you run out of sauce, make quesadillas with the rest of your filling, cheese, and tortillas. If you run out of filling, make plain cheese enchiladas. If you run out of cheese, you can eat the filling by itself (it will be very good!) or make taquitos by frying the tortillas stuffed with filling in your hot oil. And if you run out of oil, I concede that you can actually make the enchiladas without it; just plan for them to be more of a shapeless casserole that you scoop out with a spoon.

All of that is to say, anything you make should be appreciated for what it is: a home-cooked meal made with ingredients you enjoy. It  may not be perfect, but it will fill you up—and likely teach you how you can do it better next time. 

Stuffing leftover barbecue inside other food is a perfectly delicious way to save it from being boring, dry, or thrown in the trash. Smothering any leftovers in sauce and cheese is foolproof. Enchiladas achieve both!