Saturday, March 1, 2008
Chicken Enchiladas Verdes
My mind continually wanders back to the mountains that surround Tucson, AZ where I spent about seven years working for various conservation organizations, including Native Seeds/SEARCH and Conservation International. From the center of the city, the mountains seem drab and uninviting; jagged, beige slopes appear to have muscled up from the earth, only to stop half way upon meeting the parched air and relentless sun. But upon closer inspection, they are full of life--green acacia and mesquite trees line the valleys, providing shade for myriad wildlife; bursts of poppies and penstemon provide welcome color after the refreshing winter rains.
Some traces of my life in Tucson, AZ and the southwest are superficial: If you look close enough, or lately not even that close, you will see the sunbaked lines that are etched on my face. Other aspects of my life there have remained embedded deeply in my core, not immediately visible to the outsider--I possess almost a vital need for mountain solitude, I speak conversational Spanish, and I have become a professional African dance instructor (a long story for another blog entry). One of the biggest influences the southwest had on me is the cuisine, the best of which melds both native foods and Latin American flavors. I have yet to meet a person who can travel to the southwest and Mexico and not be deeply transformed by the flavors of the local food--from the smoky flavor of fire roasted chiles, to the flaky, thin tortillas of southern Arizona and Sonora, to the green chili of New Mexico. The variety of native foods in southern Arizona alone is incredible and adds distinctive flavors and textures to the dishes-- including the small but flavorful tepary beans, grown originally by the Tohono O'odham tribe, the blueberry sized chiltepins--among the hottest peppers on earth--which grow wild just south of Tucson, and the fig-like saguaro fruit which fall from the tops of the cacti late in the summer. (read more about the wild chiltepin here.)
The food, like the landscape, can seem basic at first--what can you make with corn, chiles, cactus fruit and beans? (Okay, you foodies are saying "a lot!", but many people wouldn't go beyond the basic tostada). Just as the intermittent rains bring an assortment of plants out of hiding, creating life in the desert, the bursts of flavor provided by new and old world herbs and spices, combined with the distinct flavors of native southwest ingredients, bring the cuisine of the southwest to life.
Here is my favorite rendition of the staple Mexican dish, enchiladas.
Chicken Enchiladas Verde
2 tbsp canola oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1.5 pounds boneless chicken thigh
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2- 1 tsp oregano
2 small cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/2 cup plus 1/4 chicken stock
two 12 oz cans green enchilada sauce (I use Preferida brand)
1 small can diced green chiles
2-4 tbsp salsa verde (to taste)-I used Frontera brand)
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup frozen chopped spinach
2 cups grated cheese (try monterey jack, gruyere, meunster, colby or queso fresco)
12 corn tortillas (Whole Foods brand 365 organic corn tortillas hold up best)
1. Preheat oven to 350.
Put chicken thighs in large sauce pan with water to cover and boil for about 30 minutes until chicken is cooked through. Take out chicken thighs to cool. Reserve water.
2. In skillet, heat about 2 tbsp canola oil and sautee shallots over medium heat until they begin to soften, about 2-3 minutes. Shred chicken meat and add to skillet. Add in cumin, coriander, oregano and sautee for about 3 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken stock (water reserved from cooking thighs works great!), cilantro, mushrooms, green chiles and about 1/4 cup of enchilada sauce, salsa verde and garlic. Cover and let simmer for about 20 minutes, then remove cover and simmer for another 20 minutes or so until most of the moisture has cooked off, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Heat 1 tbsp canola oil in a clean cast iron skillet. Heat each tortilla on skillet, then fill with about 1/4 cup filling, 2 tbsp spinach and a bit of grated cheese. Place in a casserole dish making one layer of enchiladas. When the casserole dish is filled, pour remaining green enchilada sauce, mixed with about 1/4 cup chicken stock over enchiladas and top with grated cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, then uncover and bake another 15 minutes until cheese is slightly golden and bubbly.