Enchiladas are more complex than you might think. Just ask Sylvia Casares, a Houston chef who has spent her life perfecting them at her aptly named restaurant, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. Her 2016 book, The Enchilada Queen Cookbook: Enchiladas, Fajitas, Tamales, and More Classic Recipes From Texas-Mexico Border Kitchens (St. Martin’s Griffin), explains her enchilada process over the course of three painstaking chapters—demonstrating an attention to detail more common in technique-driven barbecue books than Tex-Mex books.
Casares, who wrote the book with noted food journalist Dotty Griffith, starts with the basic elements, making her own tortillas, stocks, seasonings, and brines. Once you’ve mastered these, it’s time to move on to “the heart and soul of Rio Grande Cuisine”: sauces, from classic chili gravy to mole to suiza to a delicate cream sauce laced with Gulf blue crab. And, finally, she shares her full enchilada assembly method in a chapter titled “Enchilada Queen Wisdom.”
The key to her technique is using quality ingredients and packing in flavor at every step. For example, for certain styles of enchilada, Casares recommends dipping your tortillas in a separate chile sauce to flavor the tortillas before they are stuffed, rolled, and sauced. “The way I make enchiladas isn’t the fastest or easiest,” she writes, “but it is the best!”
Casares’s restaurant serves more than just enchiladas, and The Enchilada Queen Cookbook is rounded out with recipes for all the classic Tex-Mex favorites, from migas to fajitas. There’s a whole chapter on tamales, another on grilling, and another on how Casares cooks at home. Her arroz con pollo, for example, is a family skillet dinner, frontera style. Writes Casares, who grew up in Brownsville: “Chicken with rice is a major comfort food for me and many others who grew up along the border. My grandmother and mother made it for me and my brother. This dish was one of the first things I learned to cook.” (Craving enchiladas? Find her recipe for cheese enchiladas here.)
Rio Grande Valley Arroz con Pollo
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 12 pieces chicken (legs, thighs, wings, breast quarters), or 18 drumettes, or 2 cups shredded cooked chicken
- 1½ cups coarsely chopped tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic
- 1⅓ cups long-grain with rice (don't use short-grained or parboiled)
- ¼ cup chopped white onion
- 3 tablespoons tomato sauce
- 2 teaspoons Tex-Mex Holy Trinity (see below)
- 1 teaspoon salt
The Tex-Mex Holy Trinity (small batch, makes 4 teaspoons)
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1½ teaspoons whole black peppercorns
- If you’re using chicken pieces or the drumettes: in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil until it shimmers. Add the chicken. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally, to brown all sides. Remove the chicken and its juices to a shallow pan and keep warm. Omit this step if using shredded cooked chicken.
- In a blender jar or work bowl of a food processor, combine the tomatoes, garlic, and ¼ cup water. Process for 20 seconds, or until smooth. Set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat (use the same pan you used to cook the chicken, if applicable), combine the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the rice. Cook, stirring every minute, until the rice turns a light golden yellow, about 5 minutes.
- To the rice in the skillet, carefully stir in the processed tomato mixture, the onion, 2½ cups water, the tomato sauce, Holy Trinity, and salt. Stir well to combine.
- If using bone-in chicken, crowd the pieces in a single layer over the rice, otherwise skip to the next step.
- Return the skillet to high heat. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
- Set aside off the heat, covered, for 5 minutes to finish cooking.
- If using shredded chicken, stir the chicken into the rice to heat through just before serving.
For the Tex-Mex Holy Trinity
- Combine the garlic, cumin, peppercorns, and 1 tablespoon water in a molcajete, mortar and pestle, or spice or coffee grinder. Process until the garlic is a smooth paste and the spices are finely ground. Transfer to a small container with a lid, and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.