When I was growing up in lawn-quilted northeast Portland, Oregon, in the 1980s, going out for Mexican food usually meant a trip outside our middle class neighborhood of two-story bungalows to the more commercial highways on the outskirts of town.
The restaurants were usually drab on the outside but erupted with color, music, and light inside. Back in those days it seems, hosts dressed like mariachi musicians, and waitresses donned fluffy red, white, and green skirts. Piñatas, donkey-shaped and papered pink, clung to the ceilings, and the music was so twangy and ranchero, it made you want to sway more than dance. We settled into the spacious vinyl booths and watched as the adults ordered salt-rimmed margaritas served in glasses the size of cereal bowls. Waitresses carrying plates, still scorching from the salamanders, dropped them on our table like hot bricks, each full of refried beans and cheese that melted like molten lava to the furthest edges of the plate. "Don't touch!" they always warned but didn’t need to. We knew the drill.
My brother and I in the early days, and later my step-sister, all within a year apart and each just as goofy as the other, sporting pimples and acid-washed jean jackets with our collars flipped up, set aside our petty squabbles and united, without disagreement, from the first crunch of the piping hot basket of fried tortilla chips, dipped in cool, spicy salsa (that always looked like gazpacho) to the last forkful of beans with cheese strung between the plate and our teeth. The towel-sized flour tortillas, enveloping the lard-laden beans, were as soft and chewy as dinner rolls hot from the oven on Thanksgiving day.
It didn't matter if we ordered a chimichanga, burrito, or an enchilada, what came out always looked like a hot heap of deliciousness. I remained faithful to enchiladas. Dependable and filling, the tortilla, meat, and cheese drenched in a thick, piquant sauce always kept me wanting more no matter how tight my teenage pants got.
This recipe for enchilada suizas, inspired by a dish served at El Coyote in Los Angeles (and shared in Saveur), is as rich and delicious as those I ate growing up. My version employs a slightly hotter pepper (serrano) and a sweeter onion (shallot), and uses a pressure cooker to prepare a whole chicken and render freshly made chicken stock, adding flavor and freshness to the dish. For the home cook who intends to reheat leftovers, cooking the chicken fresh and using the meat right away (rather than buying or adding pre-cooked meat) keeps the chicken enchiladas moist, tender, and fresh for longer.
1 whole, 3-pound chicken
1-1/4 cups of chicken stock from the cooked chicken
1-3/4 lb. tomatillos, husks removed and washed thoroughly
8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 serrano peppers, stemmed and seeded
5 medium-sized shallots, split in two if they contain cloves, skins on
2 cups roughly chopped cilantro, plus sprigs for garnish
1 cup sour cream
Juice from 1 lime juice
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. canola or olive oil
1 onion, diced
10 (10-inch) white flour tortillas
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack
Place the chicken in the pressure cooker with two cups of water and a bay leaf (if you have an extra carrot and onion, quarter those and add them for extra flavor). Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high.
Meanwhile, position an oven rack in the middle of the oven and turn the broiler on high. Place the tomatillos, garlic, serranos, and shallots on a broiler pan and broil until blackened on top, about 8 - 10 minutes. Let cool slightly, then peel the garlic and shallots (I also peel off the blackened parts of the tomatillo). Transfer the vegetables to a blender. Add one cup of the chicken stock (from the pressure cooker), chopped cilantro, one-third of the sour cream, the lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper; purée until smooth. Transfer enchilada sauce to a bowl; set aside.
Once the chicken is done, release the pressure. Remove the bird from the pot (reserving the stock), place it on a large cutting board. Using heat-proof kitchen gloves, remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the diced onion until soft, 4–5 minutes. Stir in about two cups of the tomatillo sauce, the shredded chicken, and the remaining one-fourth cup chicken stock (if needed) so the filling is moist but not soupy.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour 1 cup enchilada sauce in the bottom of a 9" x 13" baking dish. Roll each tortilla first in the sauce and then stuff it with the chicken filling, dividing the chicken evenly among tortillas. Roll the tortillas tightly around the chicken filling and arrange the tortilla rolls seam-side down in the baking dish. Pour the remaining sauce over rolls, and cover evenly with Monterey Jack cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly, 18–20 minutes. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and the remaining sour cream.