Sunday, January 11, 2009

Luscious Economical Mexican Casserole: Chicken Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles [chee la KEE lace] intrigued me as I read about them as a student preparing for an on-the-cheap summer working as a volunteer in Mexico. As luck would have it, I got a small scholarship to go to Colombia instead. Seven or eight years passed before I finally got to taste what remained in my memory. By then, I could afford a little more luxury in my diet on the road. But chilaquiles, a down-home dish made essentially of leftovers and not usually served in restaurants, and which I had to talk the cook at a small cantina into making for me, met my expectations. I'm describing it here because, in this imposed era of financial austerity, the dish, or at least a simplified version, makes a delicious meal at low cost.

This is a breakfast or lunch dish in Mexico, rather than dinner (though I find it delicious for dinner, if garnished up a bit). It is credited as a cure for hangovers. In the original version, stale corn tortillas are quartered and fried in oil -- lard in the old days -- then simmered or baked with left-over salsa of almost any kind (green is good), and bits of cooked meat or fish, if available, are added. Finally some cheese is melted on. Chilaquiles are typically served with refried beans, and for breakfast sometimes a fried egg. The tortillas take on a meaty quality.

As you'll see, I've taken some liberties for the sake of convenience and availability of ingredients. I've also reformatted the dish as a dinner casserole, which I think it warrants. American households are not likely to have stale corn tortillas lying around, plus the frying (yes, I've done it the "real" way) is incredibly tedious, and stale tortillas really soak up the grease. I use commercially available tortilla chips. Moreover we don't typically have a pot or molcajete of yesterday's homemade salsa lying around, either. So, using a food processor or blender, I make a fresh "salsa" to season everything with. Finally, this is the place for rotisserie chicken (which the Mexicans cook too). I make a broth from the skin and bones both for moistening the casserole and other uses, like soup or Mexican rice.

Uncharacteristically, I am not offering wine suggestions, since those would depend on whether this is a lunch or evening meal as well as on what is served with the dish. The Mexican beverage is typically beer, anyway. My favorite garnishes are fresh cilantro, quartered limes for squeezing on, and slightly diluted sour cream to serve as the Mexican "crema." The recipe serves six generously, with leftovers.

Chilaquiles Casserole with Chicken

1 roasted rotisserie chicken
1 small onion, peeled
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded
1 green bell pepper, seeded
1 large bunch cilantro
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes (unseasoned)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound bag corn tortilla chips (unflavored)
8 ounces Mexican melting cheese, Jack, or mild Cheddar, grated
Limes for garnish
1 cup sour cream plus 2 tablespoons milk or water, for accompaniment

Remove skin from chicken and put it in pot. Cut meat into long thin strips and set aside. Add bones, wing tips, etc., to the pot, along with 8 cups water, and simmer 30 minutes. Skim off grease. Strain broth through sieve.

In food processor, place the onion, cut in chunks, jalapeño, bell pepper, and stems of all the cilantro and 3/4 of the leaves (reserve remainder for garnish). Pulse, scrape down, and puree the mixture. Add tomatoes and juices plus salt, and pulse to chop tomato finely.

Place tortilla chips in 9 by 13-inch casserole dish. Sprinkle lightly with salt if chips are already salted, more heavily if chips are unsalted. Spread chicken evenly over chips, then 3/4 of the cheese. Mix gently with your fingers to distribute the ingredients.

Mix pureed ingredients with 2 cups strained broth (refrigerate or freeze remaining broth for other use). Spoon the mixture evenly over chips and chicken. With spoon, gently push contents of casserole around to mix slightly. Top with remaining cheese.

Set oven for 375 degrees. Let casserole sit to soak up juices while oven is heating.

Bake about 45 minutes, until cheese is well melted and the edges of the casserole bubble. During the last 10 minutes, place a sheet of waxed paper loosely over the casserole. Remove from oven, and keep waxed paper on casserole to keep it moist.

Serve accompanied with quartered limes for squeezing on, a bowl of sour cream thinned with the milk or water, and a dish with reserved cilantro sprigs.

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