When I was in college, I used to make dinners for my friends and classmates. A taste of home cooking was a welcome relief from dorm food. I grew up cooking for a large family and when I went away to college I missed making those big dinners. Being in the kitchen, working on multiple recipes always made me happy. Having friends over gave me an excuse to make some of my favorites. We often had huge pasta dinners, barbecues, or parties to celebrate our football team’s victories (those didn’t happen often enough, LOL). And occasionally I would do dinners dedicated to specific cuisines, like this Mexican celebration.
One Christmas, a friend gave me The California Heritage Cookbook, filled with recipes that celebrate the early California settlers. California has a fascinating gastronomic history, due in large part to the influences of the many people who migrated here, many of whom arrived during the Gold Rush. Settlers who came from Spain, Mexico, Italy, China, France and Germany, as well as other parts of the United States all contributed to create what is known today as “California Cuisine.” This book is a lesson in the history of both the state and its foods.
When I was growing up enchiladas were always filled with ground beef and coated with a mild, tomato-based sauce. They were good and filling. By the time I reached college age I was branching out from the standard type of recipe I had grown up with. Experimenting with new herbs and seasonings was a thrill. When I read the recipes for Mexican-style foods I had no idea what cumin tasted like, but I was willing to try it. As soon as I tasted it, I recognized the flavor but had never known what it was called. That is the beauty of trying new recipes – they expand your horizons. You never know when you might fall in love with something you’ve never had before and discover a new personal favorite.
One night when I had some friends coming over for dinner, I decided to make the Enchiladas Rancheras in the California Heritage Cookbook, a dish I had had many times in restaurants. It was the first time I had made an enchilada sauce from scratch and it was fascinating to see all the ingredients that it required. Most of the dishes I had made up to that point had no more than about 5 ingredients. My guests were astonished at the flavors and so was I. The different ingredients complement, overlay, and intensify each other, creating an incredibly complex sauce. It is far superior to anything store-bought and is well worth the extra effort.
These enchiladas are filled with a seasoned cheese mixture, which is delicious, but if you prefer you can stuff them with another filling instead. Beef, chicken, seafood, pork or grilled vegetables would work well too. You can use a portion of these other meals and use them as fillings for these enchiladas:
I like to serve these enchiladas with the Chile Rice Casserole instead of traditional Mexican Rice. It is a lush, rich side dish that doesn’t need to be limited to just Mexican dinners. Feel free to change the seasonings, leave out the chiles, and add chopped fresh herbs that you enjoy, such as cilantro, thyme, or tarragon. This is a great recipe for potlucks and progressive dinners.
To round out your meal, you might want to add Pico de Gallo (fresh tomato salsa) or any other salsa you like for added heat, homemade guacamole lends a cooling bite, starting with a bowl of black bean soup is always warming and filling, and adding a tossed green salad gives you a nice crunch and healthy vegetables. And don’t forget the margaritas for sparkling dinner conversation!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
I have found some of my most favorite recipes in my collection of Junior League cookbooks. Ever since the Junior League of Augusta published its very first cookbook in 1940, Junior League members have built collections of recipes and written books to raise money for charitable community programs. Today there are more than 200 League cookbooks in print. Their cookbooks are a wonderful way to learn about the variety of food styles of the United States.
Kitchen Skill: Working with Chipotles
Chipotles are smoked jalapeno peppers, usually sold either dried or in a piquant sauce called Adobo. If you are working with dried peppers, you will need to reconstitute them in boiling water. They are much easier to work with after soaking, so don’t bother trying to remove the stems or seeds beforehand. Once they are softened, cut them into pieces, discard the stem and if you want less heat, remove the seeds. I often puree them with the soaking liquid so there are no large bites of peppers in my recipes.
For ease of use, buy ground chipotle powder, one of my favorite seasonings. Chipotles add spiciness as well as a wonderful smoky flavor to any number of dishes. Try using it in any recipe where you want a little heat and smoke.
Cheesy Enchiladas Rancheras
Jane Evans Bonacci © 1988
Inspired by The California Heritage Cookbook, The Junior League of Pasadena
Yield: 6 servings (2 enchiladas per serving)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
1-1/2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 fresh poblano or pasilla pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp ancho chili powder or regular chile powder
1 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 tsp garlic powder
2-1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian)
2 cups peeled and chopped fresh tomatoes, or 2 (14 oz) cans diced tomatoes, drained
1/4 lb cheddar cheese, finely grated
16 oz Monterey Jack cheese, finely grated
3 scallions, including some of the green tops, finely chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
12 (6 to 8 inch) corn tortillas
Ranchera Sauce (from above)
1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese, or more as desired (see note)
Garnishes: sour cream, guacamole, sliced scallions, and sliced black olives, or any combination
To make the Sauce: In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat. Cook the onion, celery, and green pepper until the vegetables are soft and the onion is transparent, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Combine the flour, oregano, cayenne, cumin, salt, pepper, and garlic powder in a medium-sized mixing bowl. If using additional seasonings, add them here. Slowly add the water, whisking until smooth. Pour the flour mixture into the sautéed vegetables and stir in the chicken stock and tomatoes, Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until mixture boils and thickens. Reduce heat and simmer approximately 1 hour.
To make the Filling: While the sauce is simmering, place the 1/4 lb cheddar, 1 lb Monterey Jack cheese, chopped scallions, and the butter in a bowl or food processor and beat or process until well blended.
Divide mixture into 4 equal portions and form each portion into 3 individual sticks the length of a tortilla, making 12 cheese sticks in all. Set aside.
To assemble the Enchiladas: Butter a 9×13-inch baking pan. Preheat oven to 450°F.
Place tortillas in a clean tea towel and fold it over to completely encase the tortillas. Microwave for 30 to 45 seconds or until hot and pliable. Place a cheese stick on each tortilla and roll it up. Place the rolled tortillas, seam side down, in prepared baking dish. Cover the tortillas with the Ranchera Sauce and sprinkle with the 1 cup of Jack cheese. Note: You can use more cheese here if you like, especially if you are using a different filling, such as beef, chicken, or vegetables.
Bake in preheated oven until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted, about 15 minutes. You can also carefully heat them under the broiler, until cheese is melted and lightly browned.
Serve enchiladas on warm plates and pass the garnishes for your guests to choose from.
Make Ahead: The sauce and filling can be made a few days ahead. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to assemble and bake the enchiladas.
Chile Rice Casserole
Jane Evans Bonacci © 1988
Modified from The California Heritage Cookbook by The Junior League of Pasadena
Yield: 8 servings
2-1/2 cups water, vegetable stock, or chicken stock
1 cup raw white rice
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tbsp chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water, or more as needed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3/4 lb Monterey Jack cheese, grated
7 oz can diced mild green chilies, or to taste
1 canned chipotle en adobo, seeded and very finely minced, optional
3 green onions, tough tops removed, sliced thinly
3 tbsp butter
3/4 cup freshly grated
Parmesan cheese (more if desired)
In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the water or stock to a boil. Add the rice and salt, cover pan and simmer over low heat until the liquid is absorbed, approximately 20 to 25 minutes, or according to package directions. Remove from the heat and place rice in a large bowl or spread out on a baking sheet. Let it cool, stirring occasionally.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish; set aside.
Mix the cooled rice with the sour cream, chicken stock and additional salt and pepper as desired. Stir in the Jack cheese, chiles, chipotle, half of the onions, the butter and about half of the Parmesan. Stir until completely incorporated. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add more stock or water if needed.
Spread rice in prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle top with remaining Parmesan cheese. Bake, uncovered, in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with green onions; serve hot.
NOTE: The rice can be made a day in advance and brought to room temperature before continuing with the casserole.
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