Winter is the season for red chile enchilada sauce.
You can almost smell the piñon and juniper smoke drifting from the leaky wood stove, as you explore the profound depths of a good red chile sauce made from scratch. The sauce is good on potatoes, squash, and other wintry foods, keeping you warm inside and out, from your spicy mouth to your sweating skin, and for better or worse, everything in between.
You can find the ingredients nearly everywhere, from the bulk section of Whole Foods to the “ethnic foods” aisle of a small-town supermarket, with little more than salsa, soy sauce, and ramen.
We aren’t going to call it “chili,” by the way. The Mexican word for the plant from Mexico is “chile.” Enchilada, meanwhile, is the past participle of enchilar, a Spanish verb that literally means “to put chile on something.” In the popular dish enchiladas, named after that verb, the “something” to which chile is applied is corn tortillas.
The world’s first enchiladas were little more than tortillas dipped in chile sauce. Generations of Mexican chefs took this initial breakthrough in countless directions. Chips and salsa is one derivative, although some might argue the chips are actually entomatadas, aka treated with tomato. (Not to be confused with enfrijoladas, treated with beans.)
I once fed cayenne powder to my chickens to make their yolks extra-red. Although they didn’t taste spicy—the capsaicin doesn’t make it to the eggs, even though the beta-carotene does—those yolks, grammatically speaking, were enchilados.
In Spanish language slang, enchilada can mean red-faced and triggered, like a charging bear sprayed with mace. Meanwhile, researchers have determined that capsaicin does indeed trigger a rush of endorphins. The endorphins can dull pain, too, including, fortuitously, the pain of hot chiles.
Star of the Sauce
I’ve got some red chiles drying in my living room, strung up in ristras, New Mexico-style. The peppers are Italian long hots, thin and crinkled. Eating them is sometimes described as like playing Russian roulette, because you never know when one will be searing. Mine are consistently sweet at the tips. You take a bite, feel the pungent power, and brace to be slapped, but get kissed instead by that bright red sweetness. Encouraged, you keep eating—until you get slapped for real as you approach the seeds.
It’s a great pepper for red chile sauce, but any whole pod will work, preferably not too hot. When you eat as much chile as I do, you have to pace yourself. If you can’t get whole pods, you can substitute ground chile; depending on its quality and freshness, that can turn out fine.
At some point, folks like me might as well concede that we aren’t actually applying chile to this or that substrate, because chile is the substrate. And all the other stuff, like tortillas, chicken, cheese, et al., are just different ways to season and decorate the chile. But until then, we’ll keep calling it red chile sauce.
Red Chile Treatment
While most New Mexican red chile recipes are thickened with a little flour, I prefer corn masa, the same stuff tortillas and tamales are made of. Masa is a flour made from corn treated with calcium hydroxide. This ancient process (it used to employ wood ash) is called nixtamalization, and it gives the cornmeal a creamier texture.
I gently fry the masa in butter into a kind of roux. This masa-based roux is easier to manage than a flour-based one, and has this fun, smooth foaming action that will eventually develop a nutty brown color and flavor, but isn’t eager to burn. (To stay with this French sauce-y theme, you could stir in some cream at the very end.)
Just a few spoonfuls of masa add a distinct dissolved-tortilla flavor that’s so noticeable I often skip making the “whole enchilada,” if you will, and simply apply this thick chile sauce to my choice of protein. I’ll garnish with onions, cilantro, and avocado and call it good.
- 1 quart chicken stock (1 or more tablespoons Better than Bouillon paste in a quart of water, or equivalent)
- 1 ounce dried red chile pod, clean and devoid of seeds and stems
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 2 tablespoons masa
- 1 pound onions, minced
- 1 cup water
- Optional: cooked chicken meat, corn tortillas, grated jack or similar cheese, and fresh onions for the entire enchilada
Heat the stock to a simmer. Add the cleaned chile and simmer 10 minutes. Then turn off the heat and let sit for an hour.
When it’s cool, add to a blender with the oregano and garlic, and blend until smooth. It will coalesce into a magical, near translucent state of chile gel, and some cooks will call it good right there.
Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Add the masa and fully stir it into the oil and butter. When it starts to brown, add the onions and water. Cook until the onions are translucent, stirring as necessary to prevent sticking, about 10 minutes. Then add the chile blend and heat to a simmer. Keep it there 5 to 10 minutes, stirring often. Don’t overcook. You want to keep that bright red hue.
To make enchiladas, stack or roll your tortillas (heat them first in a foil-wrapped stack if rolling). Heat the chicken in the chile sauce for a few minutes before building the enchiladas. Bake until the cheese melts, and serve garnished with raw onion.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.