In college I worked at a restaurant in East Lansing called El Azteco (or simply “El Az”, for those in the know). Anyone who ever went to MSU probably has fond memories of their 96-cent burrito and margarita specials, and if you’re old school you remember when it was underground in a tiny basement location. I remember going there in high school with friends, ordering “friburs” (frijole burrito) and Mountain Dew, and leaving a pile of change for the waitress (cringe!). I started working there the summer after freshman year of college. There were many ups and downs to the job, but one thing that appealed to me was the management’s sense of equity. It didn’t matter if you had 10 years experience or none as a server- everyone had to start off in the kitchen and work there for at least a few months before graduating to server (or “waitron”, as it was called). Consequently, all of the servers including myself knew exactly what was in the food and how to make it. Comes in handy for when I have a craving and don’t want to drive 80 miles! (You’d think that eating the same food 4-5 times a week for 4 years would make you sick of it, but oddly, no.)
Last week my friends Ian and Michelle welcomed their son Henry into the world. I wanted to bring them some food so that they could take a night off from cooking and hopefully relax a bit. I had eaten at El Azteco the week prior and it occured to me to make chicken enchiladas because I could make them in bulk and have enough to feed myself and Marvin as well. I spent about 5 hours in the kitchen on Sunday and made the works: chicken enchiladas with two kinds of sauce (chile verde & chile colorado), Spanish rice, refried beans and pico de gallo, all from scratch. Given how much food I ended up with, it was time well spent, I think. And when I delivered the food to Ian and Michelle, I got to peek in on an adorable sleeping brand new baby boy!
Very soon I will be posting my recipes for refried beans and Spanish rice, as well as a couple other El Az-inspired recipes that incorporate leftovers from this recipe, so please check back.
Please note: the given recipes make a LOT of enchiladas and sauce, so if you’re not feeding a crowd and don’t want to freeze stuff, I would recommend cutting everything in half. However, you can freeze the sauces and use extra leftover chicken in Chicken & Rice Soup (recipe coming soon).
Chicken Enchiladas, El Azteco Style printer-friendly version
To cook the chicken:
6 chicken leg quarters (about 5 lbs), preferably organic or Amish
2 celery stalks
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs tomato paste
1 bay leaf
about 2 liters chicken broth (see notes)
To assemble the enchiladas:
8 oz finely shredded medium or mild cheddar
16 oz shredded cheddar or muenster, or a combination
about 60 corn tortillas (I bought 2 packages of 30)
Chopped scallions for garnish
Notes: For the poaching liquid for the chicken, feel free to use low-sodium canned chicken broth, or water plus bouillon. I like this product called Better than Bouillon- they make an organic chicken bouillon that comes in a jar and has a paste-like consistency. I like it because it’s easy to add as much or as little as you need and to taste for saltiness as you go.
Directions: Roughly chop the carrots, celery and onion and smash the garlic. Put in a large stockpot with the chicken broth, bay leaf, and tomato paste (stir to dissolve) and bring to a simmer.
While the stock is simmering, rinse and pat the chicken dry and trim of all excess skin and fat. I find a kitchen scissors the best tool for this. Place the chicken quarters in the simmering stock, arranging them so that they are all covered by the liquid (if necessary, add more broth or water to cover- you want the liquid to just come to the top of the meat). Return to a simmer and poach for 25 minutes, covered. When done, remove lid and let the chicken cool in the poaching liquid while you get on with making the enchilada sauces (see recipes below).
When cool, remove the chicken from the liquid. Strain the broth and reserve for making Spanish rice or Chicken & Rice Soup. Skin and debone the chicken and chop into small pieces (you will want them pretty small so that your enchiladas aren’t too bulky). Combine in a bowl with the 8 oz. shredded cheddar. (If you are going to use any of the chicken for Chicken & Rice soup, set some aside before adding the cheese, and adjust the amount of cheese accordingly.)
To assemble the enchiladas, take about 15 tortillas at a time, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, and microwave for 3 minutes. Take them out and divide and flip them, so that the ones on the outside are now on the inside, re-wrap in the towel and nuke for another few minutes. You’re aiming for the tortillas to be completely steamed and pliable so they don’t crack when you roll them.
Take out 1 tortilla at a time, keeping the rest covered, and lay on a cutting board or your clean countertop. Place a small amount of chicken filling down the center (see photo). If you use too much filling, your enchiladas will not stay rolled. You want them about the thickness of a cigar. Take the bottom third and fold it over, scrunching the edge towards you to get a nice tight roll. (You can imagine the many references to illegal smokeables made at El Azteco when training new cooks on how to roll enchiladas :)) Roll it up away from you and place in a lasagna pan or other container, seam side down. Because the tortillas have been steamed, they should be sticky enough so that your enchilada will stay rolled. If your tortillas are not hot to the touch, you’ll have problems, so try to work quickly so they don’t get cold.
You can roll as many or as few enchiladas as you like. This recipe will make quite a lot, so you can either roll only as many as you want for a particular meal, or roll them all and refrigerate or freeze some for later (cover well so they don’t dry out). Once they’ve been refrigerated, they’ll hold their shape well enough to be put in zip-lock bags for freezing, if you don’t have Tupperware.
When you’re ready to bake the enchiladas, preheat the oven to 350. Place a cup or so of your sauce (Chile Colorado or Chile Verde, recipes to follow) in a shallow dish. You can replenish this as need be, but it’s better to do it in a separate container so as not to get stray bits of chicken and cheese in your sauce. Dip each enchilada in the sauce, making sure it is well-coated. Lupe, the general manager, would always instruct us to unroll the enchilada just a little so that the sauce could get under the “flap”. No one likes a dry enchilada! Place the enchiladas in a glass baking dish, fitting them snugly up against each other. Cover with shredded cheddar, muenster, or a mixture, and bake until the cheese is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Garnish with chopped scallions, and serve with frijoles and rice. The restaurant portion is three enchiladas, but I find I’m stuffed after eating two.
*Alternate cooking method: If you only want to cook a plate or two of these, you can do it in the microwave. I recommend a slow and low cooking, such as 8-10 minutes at 30% power. It helps if you can cover the plate during the last few minutes to trap the steam so nothing dries out.
Chile Verde Sauce, El Azteco Style (aka “CV Sauce”) printer-friendly version
1 20-oz (“family size”) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 16-oz container sour cream (I use reduced fat)- see notes
10-12 jalapeño peppers
1 tbs cumin
1/2-3/4 cup water
Notes: This will probably be the one and only time you will see me call for canned soup in a recipe, but that’s what it’s made out of! Go to Whole Foods; they probably have an organic version. I have to ‘fess up to using Campbell’s, in spite of the third ingredient being vegetable oil… Good thing I only eat this stuff once in a while anymore. According to my friend & fellow former El Az cook Dave, the actual proportions are more like 3:1 or 4:1 soup to sour cream, so feel free to cut the sour cream to a cup or less if you like.
Directions: Optional- remove the seeds and pith from the jalapeños (leave in for a truly fiery sauce). You may want to taste a tiny bite of one to see how hot they are, since it can vary greatly depending on the season and other factors, and use that to gauge how many peppers to use in your sauce. (This is supposed to be the “spicy” sauce though.) Finely chop the peppers by hand or in the food processor. If you’re sensitive, you may want to use gloves but I did not find it necessary.
Combine condensed soup and sour cream in a large bowl. Add jalapeños and cumin. Stir to combine well. The sauce may be somewhat thick, but will thin out upon being heated. That’s it!
Chile Colorado Sauce, El Azteco Style (aka “CC Sauce”) printer-friendly version
1 28-oz can tomato sauce (unflavored)
1 medium onion, diced small
1 mild dried chile, such as Anaheim
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs cumin
1 tsp sugar
salt to taste
Notes: At El Azteco, the cook in the back kitchen made the CC sauce, so I don’t know what’s *actually* in it, I’m just going by taste. It’s a fairly thin tomato-based sauce and the predominant flavor is cumin. They probably use onion powder and garlic powder, but for my homemade version I decided to use the real thing. Please use salt and sugar to taste, as different tomato purées will have different flavor profiles. You don’t want it to be sweet, you just want to add enough sugar to take any bitter edge off.
Directions: Pour boiling water over the chile and cover; let sit until fully softened. Sauté the onion in some vegetable oil until translucent, adding the garlic about halfway through. Roughly chop the chile and add to the sauce, reserving the soaking liquid. Add the cumin and a little salt and cook for a moment to release the cumin’s flavor. Add the tomato sauce and thin with the reserved chile water to reach your desired consistency. Taste for sugar and salt. Transfer to a blender or food processor and purée until smooth.