Comfort food. What is it?
Here’s my story: I’m coming home from school–a little bedraggled, uniform awry, hair a mess–and there’s Aurora with features that could have come from an Aztec stone carving, standing impassively at the stove in her checked purple and white apron, as she stirs a pot of frijoles borrachas, or chops tomatoes and chiles for pico de gallo. I go straight from the kitchen door to the stove, swerving only for a spoon, to taste food so deliciously familiar that one mouthful obliterates the day’s snubs and flubs.
Aurora smiles, just a little.
For most of us, comfort food means tastes, aromas, maybe even textures that transport us to a warm, safe, happy place. I was lucky to have Aurora, and she had her mother, Maria Ynez Ramirez. Maria Ynez was a laundress by profession. By instinct, she was a cook who could replicate a dish simply by tasting it once. As Aurora tells it, her garden in Ranchito Providencia was rich with herbs like romero (rosemary), tomillo (thyme), and hierba buena (mint). There were vegetables–elote (corn), calabaza (squash), jitomate (tomato), frijoles (beans)–and a wealth of chiles—piquin, cascabel, jalapeno, serrano, pasilla. Goats, chickens, turkeys and pigs were tethered or corralled nearby.
At Christmas, Maria Ynez would cook for more than 60 people from their rancho: a whole roasted pig, stacks of paper-thin, crisply fried bunuelos, scores of tamales, vats of atole. For fiestas, there was turkey mole. or chivo vaporera, a year-old kid steamed over pot of simmering water and served in its own broth. She had a battery of enormous earthenware cazulelas or pots, and everything was cooked in an outdoor oven or on a fogon, a rustic grill positioned over an open fire.
A few years ago Aurora and I started to write down a few of her mother’s recipes. I love the way Orejones de Calabaza (“Big Ears” of Squash) begins: “When the weather turns cold and the last crop of calabaza india has been picked, cut the calabazas into thin slices and dry them on the spines of the nopal cactus for five days….” Calabaza india is a round native squash that can be white, black, grey or cream-colored; when picked young, it is tender; when old it is as hard as a coconut. It was dried on thorns since the air could circulate and dry the slices more quickly. It’s this sort of detail that convinces me that Maria Ynez was an unsung national treasure.
For me comfort food begins with the earthy aromas of sizzling cumin and garlic, two spices Aurora uses abundantly in her Enchiladas de Pollo en Salsa de Tomatillo: Chicken Enchiladas in Tomatillo Sauce. A whole chicken is roasted with cumin and garlic, then shredded and rolled into corn tortillas which have been dipped in tart tomatillo sauce simmered with cilantro and hot serrano chiles. The enchiladas are covered with mild cheese—Aurora always uses a mixture of Monterrey Jack and Muenster—and baked until the cheese bubbles and turns golden.
You must use corn tortillas for this recipe. I wouldn’t dream of trying it with flour tortillas: it seems to me that they would make the dish much too starchy. Corn tortillas absorb just the right amount of tomatillo sauce, becoming supple and tender enough to wrap around the chicken, and their slightly earthy taste mingles perfectly with the flavors of the cumin and cheese. If you live in a city where tortillas are freshly made, you are ten steps ahead. Otherwise, root around in the refrigerated case at your supermarket: usually you can find two or three packages of corn tortillas tucked behind the mountains of flour tortillas.
As for the tomatillos, you can probably find them in the produce section of your supermarket. These bright green fruits encased in papery husks are an ancient food that can be traced to Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Like ordinary tomatoes, they are members of the nightshade family: the names for both derive from the Nahuatl tomatl which, according to www.hortpurdue.edu, referred generically to “globose fruits or berries which have many seeds, watery flesh and which are sometimes enclosed in a membrane.” Tomatillos have a very tart, fresh taste that creates a wonderful interplay of flavors with the succulent chicken, rich cheese and spicy chiles.
I love to make this dish when it is gloomy and cold outside. It will take the better part of a day, though most of the hands-on time occurs during the assembly process. Your kitchen will likely be a mess, counters splotched with sauce and oil, onion crunched underfoot, but the whole house will be warm and fragrant with enticing aromas. Besides, you can only get comfortable when there’s a little messiness around.
Aurora’s Chicken Enchiladas in Tomatillo Sauce
To serve four
Ingredients for the sauce:
3 pounds tomatillos
12 cloves garlic
4 teaspoons cumin seed
3 serrano peppers, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons water
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Ingredients for the chicken:
1 4-pound roasting chicken
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon cumin seed
Salt to taste
Additional garlic and cumin to taste
Ingredients for enchiladas:
18 corn tortillas, 6 inches in diameter
4 cups tomatillo sauce (see below)
4 cups shredded chicken (see below)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
1-1/2 cups shredded Muenster cheese
1. For the tomatillo sauce: Remove the papery husks from the tomatillos, wash them well and cut them half. Put them in a pot with the garlic, cumin, serrano peppers and 2 tablespoons of water. (The tomatillos exude a lot of liquid, so this is just to get them started.) Cook, covered, over a medium flame for 30 minutes, or until the tomatillos are very soft.
2. Put the tomatillo mixture and all its liquid in a blender or food processor and whirr for 10 to 15 seconds. Do not over-process. Return the sauce to the pot, add the onion and cilantro, and cook, covered, for 15 minutes longer. Add salt to taste and set aside. (The sauce can be made a couple of days ahead and refrigerated until needed.)
3. For the chicken: Set the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the chicken and pat it dry, inside and out. Rub it all over with canola oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix the garlic and cumin and rub it over the chicken and in the cavity. Put it in a roasting pan and roast for one hour and 15-20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove and set aside to cool. Reserve the pan juices.
4. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard. Strip off the meat and shred it with your fingers into bite-size pieces. You should have about 4 cups of meat. Moisten the chicken with a spoonful or two of the reserved juices and mix it with additional cumin and garlic, as desired. Add salt to taste.
5. For the enchiladas, set up an assembly line as follows: On the left front burner of your stove, place a small cast iron frying pan or skillet filled with 1/4-inch canola oil over a medium-low flame. Next to it place the tomatillo sauce in a shallow saucepan over a low flame. Next to that arrange in succession a large plate, a bowl with the shredded chicken, a bowl of the chopped onion and a 9- X 13-inch baking dish.
6. To assemble the enchiladas, use a spatula to place a tortilla in the hot oil for 4 to 5 seconds. (Tongs will probably tear a hole in the tortilla.) Let it puff slightly, then turn and cook it for another 4 to 5 seconds. With the spatula, immediately transfer the tortilla to the pan with the tomatillo salsa and press it down briefy so that it can absorb a little sauce. Remove the tortilla to the plate and lay it out flat.
7. On the tortilla, place some chicken and sprinkle it with chopped onion. Roll the tortilla up into a cylinder and place it in the baking dish. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. You should be able to squeeze 18 enchiladas into the baking dish—12 of them vertically and 6 horizontally. Spread the remaining tomatillo sauce and any leftover onion over the top of the enchiladas and sprinkle with the mixed cheeses.
8. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and has started to brown. Remove from the oven and serve immediately, accompanied by a simple green salad and cold beer.