During my teenage years, which I spent wandering the Tex-Mex desert of suburban Atlanta, I would make frequent visits to a strip-center “Mexican” restaurant, looking for some semblance of my native Texas in the form of cheese enchiladas. The kitchen would invariably deliver a scalding plate upon which a pool of rather bland sauce cradled a row of tough, burnt-edged tortillas whose stuffing of processed white cheese somehow remained in refrigerated shreds. I ate every last bite.
We Texans love our enchiladas and will go to great lengths to get them. And though the varieties are endless, we particularly love the hearty simplicity of a basic cheese enchilada. Folks will argue over which cheese is best (usually cheddar or the über-melty processed stuff), so much so that they tend to forget the real focus: the chiles. Enchilar, after all, means “to season with chile.” How the tortilla gets “chile-fied” is also a matter of personal preference, whether you favor the piquant, rusty-red Mex-Mex puree of reconstituted peppers like anchos and guajillos or so-called chile (chili?) gravy, an entirely American concoction that combines a roux with a passel of dry seasonings, mainly chile powder and cumin. Both styles are wonderful, but to me the latter—that brown-and-yellow plate of fragrant corn tortillas rolled around gooey melted cheese, lavished with an earthy, spicy sauce, and sprinkled with toothsome diced onion—is manna from heaven.
Enchilada Gravy Sauce
Makes about 3 quarts
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup chile powder, preferably Gehbardt or homemade
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 quarts chicken stock
Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour is lightly browned (be careful not to let the flour burn). Add the dry seasonings and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes.
Gradually add the stock, whisking until smooth. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. You can add more liquid if the sauce is too thick.
You’ll need some vegetable oil, a stack of fresh corn tortillas, a mountain of shredded colby (longhorn) cheese, and a pile of finely diced white onion.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat about half an inch of oil in a heavy skillet (the oil is ready when it gently bubbles around the submerged tortilla). Pass each tortilla through the oil, flipping once, to soften, just a few seconds. Place tortillas on a paper towel–lined baking sheet.
Spoon a little sauce into the bottom of an oven-proof dish. Top each tortilla with a row of cheese and onion, roll up, and place seam side down in the dish. Ladle more sauce on top of the enchiladas, then sprinkle with more cheese and onion. Bake uncovered for 20 minutes or so, until the cheese is bubbly.
Enchilada Gravy Sauce adapted from Los Barrios Family Cookbook, by Diana Barrios Treviño. Reprinted by arrangement with Villard Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2002 by Diana Barrios Treviño. All rights reserved.