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Flash in the Pan

Red chicken enchiladas from scratch

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Enchilar, in Spanish, means "to add chile pepper to." The past-participle form, enchilada, means "with chile"— or "chileed," if you will.

The American Southwest produces the nation's largest chile crop, as well as some of the most chileed food on the planet. In my adopted home of New Mexico, chile is somewhat analogous to the curries of other regions, functioning as sauce, marinade, soup, something to eat with carbs like rice, and any other part of the meal. If chile is the curry of the Southwest, tortillas are the rice-equivalent, and enchiladas, literally, are chileed tortillas. They are usually prepared with beans, cheese or meat, and are a fundamental expression of New Mexican food.

Green chiles are picked early, roasted while still green and fleshy, and frozen or canned. Red chiles are left on the vine until they ripen to red and leathery, and dried. These two sibling seed pods, separated during infancy, produce a dramatic range of flavors and textures in the foods they inhabit. Green is a juicy, pungent sort of heat, while red is an earthier sweet heat. I prefer my chicken enchiladas red.

When making red sauce, consider that significantly increasing your output only minimally increases your preparation time, so it pays to make extra. Red can last a month in the fridge, from where it will find its way into numerous dishes—eggs, sandwiches, salad dressings, etc.—as a dip or sauce.

Red also stands ready as marinade. Simply mix it with meat, and the marinating begins. From carne adovada (red pork) to chicken enchiladas, marinating meat in red before cooking produces consistently spectacular results.

A dish can only be as good as its raw ingredients, and in the case of chicken enchiladas the quality of chile, chicken and tortillas matter the most.

Using whole chile pods, rather than pre-ground powder, will produce much better results. In most areas you can find a plastic bag of whole pods in the "international" aisle of the supermarket. And if, in your travels, you see local red chile pods for sale, bring some home. They'll last months unassisted.

The first step in preparing my red chicken enchiladas is to procure and bake a chicken. You want a high-quality bird, with the kind of texture in its flesh that comes from scratching for bugs and avoiding the rooster. If you live near a market that sells good-quality rotisserie chicken, consider bringing one home and proceed to the next step.

Put said chicken in pan, breast-side-up. Rub with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and, if you want, stuff the cavity with large chunks of carrot, onion and celery. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour and a half, until the drumstick falls off when you shake it.

The second step: Pull apart your cooked chicken and toss all the bones and skin into simmering water. Keep simmering until it's time to use the broth.

The third step: To make enough red to marinate one medium-sized chicken, you need 10 good-sized chile pods (or a half-cup of chile powder). Rip the stems off each chile, revealing the seed-filled inner cavity. The heat resides in the seeds and inner membranes. Your tolerance/preference for heat, in conjunction with the heat in the chile variety you're using, dictates the extent to which you clean your chiles. I can handle my share of heat, but I still clean hot chiles pretty well, because that makes it easier to eat more of the finished product.

Hand-crush your cleaned chiles into a bowl. If the skins are more leathery than crumbly, use scissors to snip them into smallish pieces. Pour 4 cups of chicken broth over your chile chunks (or powder). Let soak for an hour.

With a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind 1 teaspoon each of coriander and cumin seeds, then grind in 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds and 1 teaspoon of oregano (or use pre-ground spices for a tolerable but inferior product).

Mix 2 tablespoons of flour or pancake mix into the spice powder and pour it onto a dry pan, pre-heated to med/high. Toast, stirring constantly, until it starts to brown. Reduce heat to med/low, clear an opening in the center of the browned spices, and add 2 tablespoons of oil and a half bulb's worth of chopped garlic cloves.

As soon as the garlic becomes fragrant, mix it into the toasted powder. Stir this toasted mix into your soaking chile. Process in a blender, adding extra broth to keep it thin enough to vortex, but not much thinner.

Pull apart your roasted chicken into strips and chunks—mostly small, but also leave some medium-sized chunks. Marinate the chicken in the red for at least 20 minutes, but preferably overnight.

You are now ready to proceed with the final step at a moment's notice: assembling and baking the tray of enchiladas.

Line the bottom of a baking pan with at least one layer of corn tortillas, folding them around corners and up the sides of the pan. Fill the pan with alternating layers of red chile chicken mixture and more tortillas, adding chunks of cheese amid the layers and on top at your discretion. I like asiago cheese, which steers the flavor toward a chicken parmesan-like feeling. For a more traditional cheese, go with bright orange cheddar. In the end you'll want at least three layers of tortilla in the tray, each with a layer of red chicken on top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20–30 minutes, until the top starts to get crispy but not dark in color or dried out. Remove from heat.

Now that your red chileed tortillas with chicken are ready to enjoy, be warned: You might not stop eating until the whole enchilada is gone.

Ask Ari: Pepper problems

Q: Dear Ari,

Our peppers are still reddening on the plants, but with frost coming I've got some picking and preserving ahead. We still have several jars of pickled peppers on the shelf from last year, gathering dust, and I've had mixed luck with drying peppers in the past.

We had good luck one year making chipotles by smoking jalapeno and Rio Grande chiles. Another time we tried blending garlic and jalapenos and freezing them in ice cube trays. Not a lot of flavor, and the ice cube trays were never the same.

Now I'm thinking of filling jars with jalapenos and oil. I like cooking with the hot oil that results, and the peppers taste less vinegary when preserved in oil. I'm also considering attempting to replicate the chile paste I find in the Asian section of the grocery store. It seems like its primarily chile, garlic and preservative.

Our pepper varieties are Thai Hot, Rio Grande Hot, Bulgarian Carrot, Espanola Improved, Anaheim and Poblano.

What do you think of these ideas, and do you have any suggestions for preserving peppers beyond pickling them?

—Pickled Out

A: Dude, what's wrong with your pickled peppers? Having a few jars left over from last year should not be a problem, and shouldn't even happen, unless your pickles suck, or you're just not a pickled pepper person.

Assuming you're not a pickle person, you're excused, and your ideas sound great—especially the pepper paste and pepper oil, not to mention the proven chipotle option.

I think the Thai Hot and Bulgarian Carrot are best for paste, but careful with those Bulgarians. They're hot.

Preserving with oil can produce spectacularly delicious results. But because oil-preservation carries a botulism risk, I'm not going to go there.

As for your Rio Grandes, Poblanos, Espanolas and Anaheims: These peppers are for roasting, either in the broiler or on the grill, until the skins blister. Then freeze them—and remember to leave several bags in my freezer.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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