‘The mac and cheese of Mexico’

by

After a week of cold cuts and fast food, we devoured some home cooking: Martha Rosa Pacheco’s chicken soup and April Thompson’s enchiladas, which she calls “the mac and cheese of Mexico.”

One of our editors, Diego, wanted to take a pan back to New York, but since airport security seemed an obstacle, April gave us her recipe, instead.

She said she learned to make them at the elbow of her grandmother, Sofia Castillo. Sometimes, for breakfast, Nana would give April a fried egg on top of her enchiladas. April savors the memory: “You cut into it, and the yolk drips into it.”

When she was just 3 or 4, after the breakfast things were put away, April and Nana would begin to prepare the main meal of the day. April would stand on a chair at the kitchen counter, and Nana taught her by example: “Hand me this, give me that.”

When April got older, Nana would ask her to prepare the chile sauce or the enchiladas, while she made the chicken or the beef.

The enchiladas start with the chile sauce. “We make a ginormous pot once or twice a year and freeze it,” she said. “Then we can take out what we need.”

The enchiladas can be dressed up with cooked chicken or carne seco, eggplant and peppers, or just about anything else. Or they can be served as a side dish with steak and papas or chicken.

“Meals were a big ado,” April said. Family members would drop by, and the tray of enchiladas would grow so there was enough for all. Finally, around 2 p.m., when everything was ready, Nana would announce: “Ven a comer!”

April’s Chile Sauce

4 big bags of large dried red chiles, stems removed, or some big strings of chile (“But make sure they are not shellacked!”)
1 t. vegetable oil
1 t. salt, or to taste
1 T. cumin, or to taste
1 – 2 T. cilantro, fresh or dried, to taste
2 T. oregano
1 large onion, chopped
Several cloves of garlic, minced
To add later: canned El Pato tomato sauce

Fill a large pot with the chiles, crowding in as many as you can fit. Cover with water and boil for 10 minutes or so, until the chiles are soft. Drain and put them in a blender until they are the consistency of very thick applesauce. Strain the chiles into a bowl, keeping the seeds and any larger chunks, and blend again.
Add the spices, salt, onion and garlic and blend again.
For those who want a less spicy sauce, remove as many seeds as possible before blending.
Freeze in 6-cup portions.
To use, thaw and warm, mixing in an 8-oz. can of El Pato Mexican tomato sauce

April’s Enchiladas de Queso

6 cups of chile sauce, with the tomato sauce included.
A dozen or more corn tortillas
2 16-oz. bags of Fiesta Mexican cheese mix
1 round of queso fresco, about a pound
2 – 3 bunches of green onions, chopped

Heat oven to 250 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the cheese mix with crumbled queso fresco.
Heat the chile sauce in a wide pan on the stove. Heat the tortillas on a tortilla stone or in the microwave, wrapped in a towel, for 20 seconds or so.
Dip each tortilla quickly in the sauce and turn over. In a baking pan, fold a sprinkling of cheese into each tortilla and turn over, so the folded part is facing down. Repeat until you have a full layer. Sprinkle the layer with some cheese mix and some chile sauce.
For a larger crowd, build another layer. “Whatever runs out first, the sauce, the cheese, the tortillas – that’s when I’m done,” April said.
Top with cheese, chile sauce and onions and heat in a low oven, around 10 to 15 minutes, so the tortillas are warm and the cheese just melted, but not long enough for the edges to get crisp or brown.

— Nancy Sharkey

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