Anyone who grew up in a house where someone cooked regularly knows what it meant to discover the way their mom makes a beloved dish isn't at all what you're served when a neighbor kid invited you over for the same meal.
For me, one of those memorable moments happened when I moved to Fresno from Oklahoma for a summer internship in college. I'd befriended a crazy but fun page designer who sat next to me. She was about 10 years older and had just moved from the East Coast for the job. Both of us looking for friends in the office, we often ate lunch together in the company cafeteria. One day she brought leftover tuna casserole, and I mentioned that the homey casserole was one of my favorite comfort foods. She said the next time she made it that she'd bring me some for lunch.
I was excited at the thought, well, at least of the memory of my mom's dish. While the leftovers my friend brought me weren't horrible, it just wasn't what I was used to. I smelled the cream-of-something-soup and was immediately disappointed that it hadn't occurred to me that someone would make the dish without a homemade white sauce.
I made a dish tonight that I now know as chilaquiles. I was introduced to it after Karly and Jose brought us a huge and delicious pan of it after Jasper was born. After searching online for a recipe, I realized that there are probably no two people who make this dish the same way. It's even gone chic with a deconstructed blue-corn version created by Bobby Flay.
Chilaquiles is a common Mexican dish often served for breakfast. It's basically a leftover scramble or casserole. The common ingredient in all of the recipes I came across is tortillas. Some called for tortilla chips and others for stale corn tortillas. After that, the recipes start looking as varied as the versions of tuna casserole. Some call for eggs, others for chicken; some produce a nacho-like dish and others a scramble. The heart of the dish is that the tortillas soak up a sauce and become soft chunks.
I attempted to replicate the dish I was served. In my mind, the dish Karly and Jose brought will always be what I call chilaquiles. It uses beans for the protein, but, of course, feel free to add or substitute as you like.
This is the type of dish that is produced by home cooks in every culture around the world. Cooks take an inventory of what they've got on hand an improvise. Eventually, that dish turns into Mom's go-to meal, often making them the comfort foods that remind us of childhood. It's resourceful and practical, and it's something we've forgotten. Many of us go to the grocery store to buy a list of ingredients to make one meal. Of course there are times when that's needed, but if we could take a lesson from the great pantry cooks, we'd learn to waste less, spend less and create some heavenly dishes.
1 pound dried pinto beans
1 medium onion, diced
1 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 8-ounce can of tomato paste
1 10-ounce can of red enchilada sauce
1 4-ounce can of green chiles
12 corn tortillas
3/4 cup sour cream
Cheese for topping (cheddar or jack)
Seasoning to taste (salt, pepper, chili powder)
Corn or other oil for frying
Cook the dried beans in generously salted water until tender. Drain cooking liquid from beans, reserving for later use. If tortillas are not stale, place on sheet pans in a single layer in a 300 degree oven until beginning to crisp. They will need to be turned over once. This process should take about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let tortillas cool -- they should harden once cooled. In a heavy-bottomed skillet add enough corn oil to fill the pan about 1/2 inch deep. Heat oil until it bubbles rapidly when a small piece of tortilla is added. Fry the tortillas about 30 to 45 seconds per side. They should become slightly golden on the edges. Place fried tortillas on paper towels to drain and sprinkle with salt. In another pot, saute onion just until it begins to soften. Add canned ingredients and about 2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid from beans. Let ingredients come together and slightly thicken over a low heat for about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Remove from heat. Add beans and sour cream; stir until combined. In a 13-by-9-inch casserole, use six tortillas to cover pan. Top with half of the bean mixture. Repeat the process, layer the remaining six tortillas and then the remainder of the bean mixture. Place in a 350-degree oven for 25 minutes or until heated through. Remove from oven and top with shredded cheese. Melt cheese under the broiler and serve warm.
Note: Canned beans could be substituted for the dried beans, adding both the beans and liquid to the mixture.