February 24, 2014
I have a fierce love of Mexican cuisine, from light Vera Cruzana seafood to cheesy Tex-Mex, from intense Oaxacan moles to Mexico City street food that booms in your mouth as loudly as the city booms in your ears.
Many years ago, when I first got serious about cooking, I bought my first serious—and still most worn—cookbook by Mexican food expert, Diana Kennedy. I took a class on Mexican cooking at a culinary school in New York City where I learned how to patiently mash and layer flavors in my new molcajete, a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle carved out of stone. I showed off by throwing dinner parties where I served 15 people regional Mexican feasts, every bit, down to the chips, made by scratch. I explored my love of Mexican food and honed my skills as a cook at the same time, with a voracious appetite that never felt sated, in the best way.
Then I had kids.
I haven’t made a mole by hand in 10 or 12 years. And, other than a quick pico de gallo or guac, I thoughtfully prepare a regional salsa about once a year, usually for a dinner party or Cinco de Mayo. And that’s about all the action my molcajete sees. Ever. It may not be about cooking for you, but you know the story.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t eat Mexican at home. Not all Mexican food is hard earned. Rather, much of it, like this red enchilada sauce can come together easily, even from scratch.
Homemade tortillas are a great example: with just two ingredients and 10 minutes, you can make scratch wraps that will take your tacos from good to spectacular. Other dishes, like carnitas, take time, but require very little hands-on work. That said, there’s no denying that some authentic Mexican food—simple, yet complex recipes with deeply layered flavors—takes an amount of time and care that I just don’t have to give anymore. And if I don’t, many of you certainly don’t.
Suddenly, I can imagine the allure of the Mexican food aisle of the supermarket, shelves lined with shortcuts promising great taste with the quick tip of a jar. But there’s a better way.
When you opt, voluntarily or reluctantly like me, to skip an hour-long appointment with a molcajete to hand craft a perfectly seasoned sauce, you’re giving up complexity of flavor, but you can still get a delicious, fresh, healthy result using quicker cooking methods. When you opt for a store-bought shortcut, on the other hand, you lose complexity and a delicious, fresh, healthy result.
Making good, if not perfectly authentic, Mexican food from scratch doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, it’s especially easy (and satisfying!) if you make it ahead of time and have it ready to go during the week. Tamales freeze well, posole is better a few days after it’s been cooked, a big batch of Sunday-cooked black beans can shape three weekday meals without anyone feeling cheated, and this enchilada sauce can be made ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days or in the freezer for up to three months.
This may not be the immaculately fine tuned sauce that Diana Kennedy would churn out after a day of cooking in her Mexican kitchen, but it’s quick and delicious, perfect for weekday black bean and cheese enchiladas. It also serves as your very own homemade shortcut. I use spoonfuls from the fridge to flavor quick-cook rice and beans or jazz up sautéed vegetables for an easy quesadilla dinner.
There’s always a middle ground. It took me years to find mine but, now that I have, I can satisfy my hunger for real Mexican food while also honoring my real life as a busy working mom and home cook. And one day, when the jokers get a little older, I’ll dust off my molcajete and get back to it.
Red Enchilada Sauce
(Can be shared with kids 6+ mos)
Makes 2 cups of sauce
2 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil
1/2 a yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (you can use your favorite gluten-free blend)
2 teaspoons chopped chipotles in adobo (about 1 pepper; add more if you prefer spicy)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon favorite ground chile powder (I use pasilla chile powder)
3/4 cup canned chopped tomatoes
1 1 /4 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1. Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, about 4 minutes.
2. Add flour, chipotles, cumin, oregano, and chile powder. Stir until a fragrant paste forms, about a minute.
3. Add tomatoes and broth. Bring just to a boil and then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes to bring the flavors together. Remove sauce from the heat and carefully puree in a blender or using an immersion blender until smooth.
4. Return the smooth sauce to the heat and simmer for another 5-10 minutes to achieve desired consistency. Use right away or allow to cool completely before packing in an airtight container for storage in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
*Note: This is a great sauce to spice up even baby’s food! Use a little to taste in homemade rice cereal, black beans, or baby’s favorite vegetable puree to the perfect flavor boost to excite baby’s palate.