Confession No. 17 — My enchiladas aren’t really Mexican. They’re better.

One more thing … My Tex-Mex enchiladas aren’t my own concoction. The recipe wasn’t handed down to me from ancestors, or shared with me by the owner of my favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant. These flute-shaped little tastes of Heaven were the creation of an Austin music producer.

And despite that Joe Gracey’s addictive version of gooey rolled spicy goodness was born right here in the Lone Star State, the dish actually has roots on more than one continent. I had the opportunity in 2007 to interview some enchilada experts for a newspaper article I was writing on the subject. Following are some historical culinary morsels with which you can impress all of your friends.

Corn tortillas — These are the only true ‘Mexican’ component of enchiladas, according to Chef William Phillips, a professor at New York’s Culinary Institute of America. Corn, after all, was originally cultivated in the Mexico region by the Olmec and Mayans. Phillips says the Mayans used the tortillas as eating utensils, mainly to pick up tomatoes and peppers.

Chile (sauce) — Spanish explorers recorded Mayans slow cooking venison in pits, according to Phillips. “They would also add tomatoes and chiles, which is the beginning of barbecue sauce,” he told me. Yep. It appears more than one of my favorite sauces was born out of the same ancient dish. Any self-respecting modern connoisseur of Tex-Mex, by the way, would never use tomatoes in an enchilada sauce.

Meat — We already know that natives of the Southwest started the whole meat-filled enchilada craze with carne de venado. Spanish settlers in the region helped to foster the dish by adding pork from the herds they brought with them from Europe, according to Jane Butel, who has written 18 cookbooks, including six best sellers. (Confidential to my wife/personal travel agent: Butel also operates a Southwestern cooking school in New Mexico.) We can thank France for helping to invent chicken enchiladas during its rule in Mexico between 1861 and 1867. The original beef enchiladas also have European roots, considering that some settlers to North and Central America brought their cattle with them.

Cheese — Phillips points out that Mexico did not have cheese until German Mennonites arrived in the 19th century. Furthermore, the French introduced Swiss Cheese to the dish during their reign. (More on that in a moment.) So, where did the ever popular yellow cheese come from? Butel credits Taco Bell with introducing it to our Tex-Mex palates. Seriously.

More on the French — We know they introduced chicken and Swiss Cheese. Add to the Swiss Cheese some flour and milk, and you have a Mornay sauce. Top the rolled chicken and chiles with Mornay, and you have Suizas, which translates to ‘Swiss.’ Yep, the sour cream chicken enchiladas recipe posted within these virtual pages is no more Tex-Mex than Cincinnati Chili.

Back to Austin
Gracey’s enchiladas don’t come with a centuries-old culinary history. He says he “tinkered” with ingredients until he arrived at a version somewhat reminiscent of the stuff he enjoyed at El Chico as a child — minus tomatoes (in the sauce) or an abundance of cumin. Though he calls them “truck stop enchiladas,” I’m not alone in finding Gracey’s version to be the best ever. His recipe found its way to the Texas Governor’s Mansion, White House and to the pages of Saveur, the best food magazine in the world.

Post-Script — Gracey, within a couple of months of this article’s publishing, left the building – this place we call earth, as his 2011 obituary said. He was a grown-up in the music industry from an early age and accomplished much in the world of food late in life. In addition to several articles in Saveur, he and his wife conducted cooking classes. My class came in the form of a magazine article and a subsequent interview between a journalist and a musician who happened to be really good in the kitchen. Still, it has been my most important cooking lesson to date.

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Joe Gracey’s Tex-Mex Enchiladas

If you are displaced, these enchiladas will bring you back to Texas. Careful though. They're habit-forming.

Homesick? These enchiladas will bring you back to Texas. Careful though. They’re habit-forming.

5.0 from 3 reviews
Joe Gracey’s Tex-Mex Enchiladas
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: Main Dish
Cuisine: Tex-Mex
Serves: 12 Enchiladas
Ingredients
  • 1 ½ Cups — broth or water**
  • 3 — Large dried chile anchos
  • 1 — Medium yellow onion; chopped & sautéed in 1 tablespoon oil until soft & translucent (save a raw handful for the topping)
  • 2 Cloves — garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon — cumin (ground)
  • 1 Tablespoon — dried oregano
  • Freshly ground pepper & sea salt
  • 2 Tablespoons — unbleached white flour
  • Corn oil
  • The Filling: ¾ lb. of grated white cheese (Monterey Jack, Cheddar, or Queso Blanco), 3 cups shredded chicken meat, shredded pork, scrambled eggs, etc.
  • The topping: ¼ lb. grated white cheese; Handful of raw, finely chopped onion
Instructions
  1. Simmer broth or water in a saucepan. Tear the tops of the chiles off and take out as many of the seeds as possible. Rinse the dust off the chilies and add to the simmering liquid. After 10 minutes, the peppers should be rehydrated and soft. With a slotted spoon, remove the peppers to a blender and add only enough of the pepper liquid to cover them. Add the sautéed onions and the garlic. Starting on low-speed, blend to a purée.
  2. In a 12 inch skillet, saute flour in 2 tablespoons of oil until the flour has just begun to turn golden brown. Pour the pepper purée into the skillet. Use the remaining liquid to rinse out the blender, then put liquid into the skillet. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer for at least 30 minutes, allowing the flavors to marry. Keep the sauce warm. If it gets too thick, add more broth or water.
  3. Heat ¼ inch of oil in a skillet until almost smoking. Using tongs, dip a tortilla into the hot oil for 5 seconds, turn it over for 5 more, lift it and let the oil drip back into the pan. Dip the tortilla into the warm sauce until covered, then remove to a greased baking dish. Put two tablespoons of filling*** on the tortilla, roll it up, and place it seam side down in the dish. Repeat. Pour the remaining sauce over the enchiladas, top with grated cheese and finely chopped raw onion, and heat in a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the top is melted and the dish is bubbling. Serve immediately with pinto beans and rice. Makes 12 enchiladas, or six servings.
Notes
**I prefer to use vegetable stock, but have used chicken and beef stock with excellent results.
***Gracey told me that if he's making meat-filled enchiladas, he likes to add the shredded or chopped meat to the sauce before filling and rolling the tortillas.

 

Comments

  1. I know from personal tastings that these are the absolute, bar none best enchiladas that ever were. I even made them myself once – the process was intimidating for me – a non-cook – but I did it and it was worth the effort and the mess I made. I highly recommend this version of enchiladas – give them a try – you won’t be sorry. SIDE NOTE TO AJ: Doc has attended Jane Butel’s school in New Mexico; learned to make the best tortillas ever, as well as some other goodies. Maybe your wife will pick up on your hint.

  2. Thanks Adam…sounds great ! I will be trying them very soon and will report back to you.

    Thanks,.

    B

  3. Sounds delicioso, Adam. As my family is big on the Mex and the Tex, you can be sure Soccer Mom will be duplicating this recipe in short order.

  4. That does sound really good! I’m not a big enchilada person, but I have a feeling thats cause they are never made properly. Well, a couple friends make “enchiladas” with flour tortillas and more sour cream than one should eat in a sitting, which are quite tasty. If they are really an enchilada is questionable 🙂

    • Sarah – Enchilada literally means “in chile”; or “enveloped” in a chile sauce, so I’m not sure whether your friends’ versions are technically true enchiladas. By the same token, neither are the sour cream enchiladas I posted a few blog entries ago. So why do we still refer to them as enchiladas? Who knows? I still haven’t figured out why cheese-filled, chili con queso covered enchiladas are commonly referred to as “cheese tacos,” but I digress. As for flour tortillas … I, as a general rule, use them for quesadillas or as an appetizer (using a technique I learned in a Central Market cooking class a few years ago). Filling, rolling and covering flour tortillas with sauce, however, is a no-no in my kitchen. But I have been known to be a little weird. Thanks for being one of my loyal readers, and for pulling for the Texas Rangers (or at least the American League.)

    • If you do not like Enchiladas to begin with, I’m SURE that’s why these do not sound good to you. I love any kind of mexican fare.., and this sounds GREAT to me. I have a wonderful recipe for chicken enchiladas already, so I think I will make these tonight with ground beef. YUM!!!

  5. Can’t beat a solid Tex-Mex dish. There’s something fantastic about various elements of different cultures coming together on one delicious plate. These look so comforting and fantastic! Can’t wait to give the recipe a go.

  6. I am going to defiitely try these! Anything mexican is worth trying!

  7. Love mexican food. Cant wait to try.

  8. “Butel credits Taco Bell with introducing it to our Tex-Mex palates.” ~ Say it ain’t so! haha
    I love your writing and EVERY recipe you share makes me wish computer screens were edible. I will definitely try these enchiladas.

  9. YUM!!! Enchiladas are a go to meal after work, usually on payday. (The other is Dolmades) My new meal to try besides your offering today is chilaquiles. I watched a program about a place at the LA farmers market where the chips were covered in a mole sauce.
    I wanted to by a ticket and fly down there immediately.
    Love this stuff, just love it.
    Don’tcha just love food! Bring it on.

    • adamjholland says:

      Thanks, Jill. I’ve captured so many photos of this dish and none do it justice. Gracey knew how to make the sauce and these are the best enchiladas of all time. As for chilaquiles, that’s some extreme Mexican comfort food. And if someone’s covering them with mole, please buy two tickets because I’m right there with you!

  10. Kathryn Rocheleau says:

    I have a hankering for some good ol’ Tex-Mex enchiladas and knew I could count on you to lead the way! Will be making this for dinner tonight. Isn’t it nice to know your archives are put to use now and again? 😀

    • adamjholland says:

      I hope you and your crowd enjoyed them. I love this recipe.

      • Kathryn Rocheleau says:

        My “crowd” is now just me and my hubby now that our daughter has flown the coop for college. However, a hit with the crowd! I’ll be posting the recipe on my blog today. Thank you!

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