23 July 2010

In defense of ugly food

I've been having a real love affair with ugly food these days. I love pretty food: a perfect plum; caramel colored, herby roasted chicken; slender, dainty grilled asparagus. However, I seem to find the most comfort in the ugly foods: panzanella, although sinfully delicious, is a real mess to look at, and curried potatoes and bell peppers are shy in front of the camera. Last night, I made what might be the ugliest dish that I love, but I decided to share it anyway.

I first tasted chilaquiles not long after moving to L.A., when a coworker brought them to a potluck. They are classic Mexican comfort food, more often found in mamá's kitchen than in a restaurant - and they are the perfect way to use up those stale corn tortillas that I always have in the back of the fridge.

This dish is almost an enchilada hash: tortillas are cut into wedges or strips and fried until golden, then mixed with a salsa or mole until tender. Some families use storebought tortilla chips instead of frying them at home, but I like the control I have over salt levels. It is often served with scrambled eggs, and almost always with refried beans. I like some thinly sliced cabbage for crunch, as well.

Feel free to adjust amounts to your taste: if you want it less spicy, use a milder chile or more tomatoes; if you prefer green salsas, replace the dried chiles with roasted jalapeños or serranos and the tomatoes with tomatillos (just remove the husks and boil them until just cooked through, 5-7 minutes).
guajillo chiles

I prefer my chilaquiles with cotija or a similar Mexican cheese, but Monterey Jack or Pepper Jack work just fine when you don't want to go to the store before dinner. My cousin puts olives in hers, and the first time I tried it I was hooked. I love all olives, from a briny Niçoise to a spicy marinated green olive, but I have always had a weakness for the big, mild, California olives of my youth. A note, though: buy whole large olives and slice them yourself; it takes but a minute, and the flavor will be much better.

Also, it gives you lots of chances to snack on them while you slice ...
you can even put them on your fingers first if you want.


Serve these with scrambled eggs and frijoles for a savory, filling brunch or lunch. Accompany with guacamole, crema mexicana*, salsa, and thinly sliced cabbage.

12 corn tortillas, preferably stale, cut into 1 inch strips or large wedges
mild oil for frying

6-8 dried guajillo chiles
2 large roma tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 sprig fresh or 1 pinch dried oregano
additional fresh hot chiles, if desired
Tomato salsa or additional tomatoes, if desired

2 T oil
1/2 large onion, sliced
1 C large black olives, sliced
1 C Monterey Jack or Pepperjack cheese, shredded
1 C cotija or other aged Mexican cheese, crumbled

If you are deep frying, heat the oil to about 350; if not, pour oil about 1/4 inch deep in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and heat on medium-high heat. Fry the tortillas in batches until golden brown (4-6 minutes per batch). Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Meanwhile, toast the chiles on a grill or dry pan until fragrant and beginning to blacken, 3-5 minutes. Put them in a small saucepan with water to cover and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the tomatoes, and cover for 15 minutes. Remove the chiles and tomatoes from the saucepan, reserving the cooking liquid.

Peel the tomatoes and seed the chiles and place in a blender or food processor; add the garlic, oregano, and a little splash of the chile cooking water. Pulse until well blended (be careful if everything is still hot!). Taste and adjust as needed; add additional hot chiles, tomato salsa, or additional peeled tomatoes and pulse until well blended. For this batch, I added 2 Thai bird chiles and a few tablespoons of tomato salsa. Set aside.

Add the 2 tablespoons oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and heat on medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring regularly, until onions are translucent but not brown, about 6 minutes. Pour in the chile mixture and stir quickly, then add about two thirds of the tortilla strips. Gently turn the tortillas until wilted and coated with salsa. Add remaining tortillas and repeat.

Cook, adding water or reserved cooking liquid by quarter cups and stirring gently, until the tortillas are heated and no longer crunchy and the sauce is very thick, 5-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and gently stir in olives, cheese, and salt to taste.

Sprinkle with chopped cilantro before serving.

*If you can't find crema mexicana, fake it by stirring sour cream with water until it's still thick but pours easily.

Serves 4 (as a main dish) to 8

1 comment :

  1. Your chilaquiles look beautiful. I was going to post about chilaquiles (which I tried for the first time only a few years ago, in New Mexico) sometime last month, but my picture was so disgusting looking I couldn't do it. I thought nobody would believe it tasted so good. Olives, though. I have never heard of putting olives in, but YES!

    I have just syruped a bunch of cherries, and I purchased ten dollars' worth of white chocolate (which is not as much white chocolate as one might think), and my pal and I are going to make your ice cream mañana.