A few weeks ago, a group of friends and I found ourselves starving in Brooklyn. We searched the nearest Mexican restaurant on Google Maps, and within ten minutes we were at Los Marineros Restaurant on 128 Wyckoff Ave. in Bushwick. While I ordered chicken nachos, which I would ordinarily never get, my friend Erin was smart enough to order the cheese enchiladas. (“Enchilada” is the past participle of “enchilar”, which means to season with chile. “Enchilada” also has its origins in the Nahuatl word, “chillapitzalli”, “hilli” referring to chile and “tlapitzalli”, which means flute.)
Enchiladas can come in a variety of sauces, from green or red to mole, a traditional, chocolate-based sauce originating from Puebla.
Erin let me have several bites (which I’m eternally grateful for) and I found that these enchiladas were pretty good. But red enchiladas aren’t really my favorite; I dream about my mom’s green enchiladas. Usually, the entire pan will be gone the same day she makes them. If we’re lucky, there will be enough left for breakfast the following morning.
Enchiladas are such a commonplace occurrence at my house that I had never really paid attention to my mom’s technique or even the exact recipe she uses. I only knew that when she doesn’t have time to make her own tomatillo sauce, my mom uses El Pato or Las Palmas green enchilada sauce. A canned enchilada sauce doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing as a freshly made one, but after my mom works her magic, it’s difficult to tell the difference.
This past Christmas, I volunteered to bring enchiladas to a holiday party. Knowing that most of my friends’ experiences with enchiladas ranged from very limited to none, I vowed to make my salsa verde from scratch. Frantically calling my mom while I was at the grocery store and convincing myself at almost every step of the way that I had ruined the salsa felt like a rite of passage.
Salsa verde (can be used for enchiladas and as a condiment on pretty much anything else)
about 15-20 tomatillos
5 cloves of garlic
2 serrano chiles (I ended up using half of one for fear of killing my friends)
1 white onion (quartered)
2 fistfuls of cilantro, chopped (This is the most precise recipe you’ve ever read, I know)
salt to taste
2 tbsp cooking oil (I used vegetable oil)
The preparation is pretty straightforward; add everything except the salt and cilantro to the pot, add water until it just covers the ingredients and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes.
Put the contents of the pot into a blender, along with the cilantro. I only have a single-serving blender and a hand blender, so I blended everything in the pot with a hand blender.
Add the cooking oil to the pot and let it heat up. Then add the salsa and cook it on low heat for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
I kept tasting the sauce throughout the cooking, and I think I actually left it on longer than an hour because I like the way it tasted the longer it cooked. I finished it off by stirring in a few pinches of salt.
I prepped and cooked the salsa the day before I assembled the enchiladas, and not to brag, but when I tried it the next day it was definitely a top five proudest moment of my life.
Salsa verde is made from tomatillos, small, green tomatoes covered in a papery husk that originated in Mexico. The tomatillo was domesticated in pre-Columbian times, and was important to Aztec and Mayan cultures. “Tomatillo” comes from the Nahuatl “tomatl.” It is written that these cultures even preferred tomatillos over the tomato in their cuisine. (Small 118)
Tomatillo growth today is concentrated in the Mexican states of Morelos and Hidalgo, as well as the highlands of Guatemala. It has since been distributed throughout the southwestern and midwestern United States and around the world; it was exported to India in the 1950s and cultivated in Rajasthan, and is also grown in Queensland, Australia and South Africa. It even became a staple crop in Kenya throughout the late 1960s.
Tomatillos are mainly used to make salsa verde, a staple salsa in Mexico made of tomatillos and chiles that is used for a variety of dishes. (Morton 434-437) The flavor of tomatillos is brighter and more acidic than tomatoes, and they also tend to be less watery.
Green Enchiladas (college style; to feed about 15 people)
1 rotisserie chicken
2 packages of corn tortillas (try not to judge me too harshly for not making my own)
1 2 lb package of Supremo Queso Chihuahua (I couldn’t find that here, so I ended up buying a giant bag of Tropical “Queso para Pupusas” shredded cheese. I was nervous about this, but I found that pretty much any salty white cheese that melts well works in enchiladas.)
Pot of salsa verde
2 aluminum pans
Shred the chicken and place it into a bowl. Lightly fry the tortillas in hot oil (only until softened,) spoon salsa verde on top, and assemble the enchiladas by placing cheese and shredded chicken in the center of the tortilla and rolling it. Do this until the pan is covered in 2 layers of enchiladas. Add one cup of salsa verde on top, and cover with shredded cheese. Repeat until both pans are full. Place in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Make Crema Mexicana (recipe here) or do what I did and buy Tropical Crema Mexicana, because sometimes life is overwhelming and you foolishly volunteered to bring homemade enchiladas to a party. Bring alongside the enchiladas and let people choose if they want to add spoonfuls of crema to their enchiladas.
Chop up about 10 sprigs of cilantro and sprinkle on top of your enchiladas. If you care about those poor souls who think cilantro tastes like soap, offer it on the side as well.
Cheese in Mexico
Before the Spanish conquest, dairy was not consumed in pre-Columbian Mexico. This was largely due to the fact that cows and goats were introduced by the Spanish. Before their arrival, Indigenous cuisines were largely based on “fruit and vegetables, fish and fowl, and occasional wild game.” (Graber)
While many Mexicans cannot digest dairy because of their Indigenous (or in my family’s case, Indigenous and Chinese) roots, cheesemaking in Mexico has since become uniquely Mexican, with distinct varieties becoming part of traditional cuisine. I love cheese, and it does play a big role in the kind of Mexican food I was raised on, although I can’t eat it often or in large quantities or I will suffer.
Where I’m from, there’s a fairly large selection of Mexican cheeses in all the grocery stores, from queso fresco to Oaxaca to Chihuahua cheese. Each has a unique appearance, texture, and taste, and therefore a role in different dishes.
Queso blanco, which is soft and mild in flavor, is commonly used for enchiladas in Mexico; queso Chihuahua—which I mentioned earlier—is sharper and saltier than queso blanco and melts beautifully, although at my house we like to use it in quesadillas and enchiladas alike.
Queso fresco (a harder cheese similar to feta) is perfect for crumbling over enchiladas, while requesón (similar to ricotta) is also a common choice for use in enchiladas.
I’m sure it’s my Texan sensibilities showing, but when it comes to enchiladas, I prefer a sharper cheese that melts really nicely. Enchiladas that are more southern Mexican in style, like the ones served at Los Marineros, are delicious, but the dish mainly made me yearn for the green enchiladas of home.
“Decolonization across the Food Chain.” University of Arkansas Press, 2017, pp. 5–26. Decolonial Perspectives. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018.
Graber, Karen Hursh. “A Guide to Mexican Cheese: Los Quesos Mexicanos.” A Guide to Mexican Cheese: Los Quesos Mexicanos : Mexico Cuisine, Mexconnect, 1 Oct. 2000.
“Lessons from the South Central Farm.” University of Arkansas Press, 2017, pp. 27–40. Decolonial Perspectives. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018.
Morton, Julia F., and Richard E. Younger. Exotic Plants. Golden Press, 1978.
Ojanguren, Silvia. “El Buen Queso Mexicano.” Zócalo, 21 Sept. 2009.
Small, Ernest. Top 100 Exotic Food Plants. CRC Press, 2011.