Wednesday, March 24, 2010

vegan enchilada bowl

an intuitive kitchen experience

It started with a packet of red chile powder from New Mexico.  My mother-in-law had sent it to me after her most recent visit; it is what she uses in her kitchen, and we couldn't find it anywhere in town.  I first used it in a tomato-based sauce to go with a quick, Americanized-Mexican dinner.  Honestly, I wasn't impressed; I've never been to the Southwest, never had their regional cuisine... I didn't see why their chiles were such a big deal.

Come to think of it, I'd never been a big enchilada fan, anyway.  Any of the sauces that appeared on someone else's entrée at a local Mexican resto did not impress me upon sampling.  (I always sample.  Ask my friends.)  Pretty flavorless and boring, as I recall.

Then, a few weeks ago,  a co-worker mentioned that authentic enchilada sauce is roux-, not tomato-based.  Interesting.

Fast forward to this week, when I off-handedly simmered a batch of pinto beans and one of brown rice.  I didn't have a plan, just wanted something filling to be available in the fridge.  I put in the minimal flavorings: garlic, onion, salt and pepper, cumin.  I figured it would make a serviceable dinner with red onion, jalapeño, chopped tomato, and corn tortillas.  Wrong.  Too dry, in texture and flavor.  The beans' pot likker did not cut it, and a healthy dose of Trader Joe's Salsa Autentica didn't even do the trick.  Charles subtly abandoned his plate, replying politely, "Oh, I had a big snack," when pressed about his light appetite.

I packed the leftovers, fresh garnish and all, into the fridge, where they would have remained if not for the tickling memory of the red chile powder.  Might as well give it a try!  Just now, I made a quarter-cup of light roux in a saucepot, and whisked in a few tablespoons of red chile powder and some salt.  Added water, plus a few tablespoons of salsa and a shake of a few handy spices.

All of this time, I never heard a peep from the little kitchen angel who prompts me to consult the Web before following my recipe hunches, especially when they involve unfamiliar ingredients or techniques.  But really, great traditional foods like enchiladas were not invented by a team of recipe developers... they evolved in communities of people who cooked out of necessity.  "Hey, you know those chiles we eat with everything?  Well, I ground some up and put it in my gravy.  You should try it!"

I reheated the forlorn beans and rice and topped them with enchilada sauce.  The combination tasted much better, but lacked richness.  Not more oil... avocado!  Its cool creaminess would be the perfect foil to the earthy heat of the sauce.  All we needed now was a little sweet and sour: I added a spritz of lime juice and soft corn tortillas and served it up.  Within a few minutes, Charles requested seconds.   Triumph!

So, to sum it up, here's my recipe for enchilada sauce: canola oil, wheat flour, New Mexican red chile powder, water, Salsa Autentica, cumin, salt, pepper, lime juice.  Next time, I plan to add sautéed onions and garlic to the sauce, and black olives to the garnish. Really, the directions for this recipe are simply to go into your kitchen and to use an unfamiliar ingredient or technique.  Don't look up a recipe, just add a few things that might taste good and keep it simple.  You'll end up with something different than your usual fare, plus a great feeling of satisfaction.  And the results will probably taste delicious over rice and beans.

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