Can breakfast be beautiful?
Not just to look at—the shimmer of a golden French omelet topped with chive blossoms comes to mind—but also to smell and certainly to taste.
Two breakfast memories: In a London hotel room, the sumptuous flavor of fragile strawberries sprinkled with droplets of heavy cream. And in Milan, the soul-rousing aroma of a just pulled cortado, dark espresso lightened by a little frothed milk, sipped standing up.
Each in its own way could be described as “beautiful.”
The best breakfasts awaken all the senses: sight, smell, taste, touch (or “mouthfeel”), even hearing. (When you bite into properly made cinnamon toast, for instance, there’s a deliciously audible crunch of sugared crust.) If breakfast also calls forth a fragment of memory, a forgotten taste or experience, that’s the ultimate.
For me, it’s the first time I ate chilaquiles.
Flashback: I’m in Mexico, sitting at a wooden table, homespun napkin in my lap, eating a plate of fried tortilla strips bathed in a bright, burnished sauce of chiles, tomatoes and onions. It’s a simple dish, but the combined flavors of fresh corn tortillas sizzled in oil, chiles that are fruity-tasting but not too picante, and soft white cheese seem like heaven on a plate.
Of course it doesn’t hurt at all that I’m eating in a patio bathed in early morning sunlight, saucer-sized crimson hibiscus blooming nearby, a cage of turquoise-breasted parakeets twittering contentedly.
I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and in that moment, I was consumed by joy.
I hadn’t thought about chilaquiles for ages until B and I recently went for Saturday lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Here’s how they were described on the menu: Chilaquiles tapatios made with grilled chicken, chile guajillo salsa and farmers cheese. (“Tapatios” means “Guadalajara-style”—and if you’re a purist like me, you’ll skip the chicken.)
Tonali is not the sort of place you go to for a raucous fiesta atmosphere or killer Margaritas. For one thing, it’s quiet, very quiet. The dining room is spare, tables are spread wide apart, voices are low. Paintings by the chef and his friends are the only real decoration, if you don’t count the bright red walls and gaily woven place mats. On one side you can see the open kitchen where chef Andres Macias and his wife Juana are preparing what you’re going to eat.
You also don’t go to Tonali for burritos or nachos or any of the Cal-Tex-Mex dishes that have come to define “Mexican food” in America. Instead you go there to devour gloriously authentic food of the sort that real people eat in homes and pueblos across central Mexico.
Old-style dishes are filtered through the sensibilities of an artist and chef who knows his way around French cuisine and is also committed to locally grown food. But even if the chiles rellenos are stuffed with new crop potatoes and farmer’s cheese instead of the traditional picadillo, there is no compromise on flavor.
Incidentally, in the pre-conquest Nahuatl language, tonali means awakening of the soul. It’s the moment in which, when asleep, we first open our eyes to the rays of the early morning sun. A perfect name for a restaurant which brings age-old ingredients and traditional cooking methods into the 21st century kitchen.
Andres likes to call this “cooking from the heart,” which is another way of saying that the way he cooks owes much to his mother, Amparo Loza Ramos. On childhood visits to Tenamaxtlan, the small Jalisco pueblo where she grew up, he reveled in homegrown food and a rustic style of cooking. “Carnitas were cooked in lard in a big covered cauldron over a wood fire for five or six hours until the meat was falling apart,” he recalls. “Everyone made everything from scratch: grinding corn to make tortillas, rendering fat for lard, pickling pigs feet to go with enchiladas.”
These days, even though they come out of an oven, carnitas (literally “little meats””) are one of the most sublime dishes on Tonali’s menu. Locally raised pork is slowly cooked in pure lard at a low temperature until it is as rich and tender as duck confit. Mounded on a plate, it arrives at your table accompanied by tart green tomatillo salsa, succulent frijoles, and nopalitos, tangy slivers of cactus cooked with cilantro and garlic. The method may not be traditional yet the taste is authentic.
But let’s get to the chilaquiles. Andres describes them as an ancient dish, likely of Mayan origin. “In the beginning chilaquiles were probably made from masa [corn flour dough] ground from wild corn that was blended with chiles,” then flattened and cooked on an pottery comal or griddle. “Today’s version is a Mexican interpretation of Mayan culture.”
At Tonali, the process begins with the tortillas which Juana makes everyday. Fresh from the tortilla press, they are so thin and fragile that they might easily fall to pieces in less skillful hands. After briefly cooking them on a hot cast iron comal, letting them char a bit to bring out the toasted flavor of the corn, they are laid out overnight to dry. Only then, when the tortillas are a day old, can you even think about cutting them into strips and frying them.
Then there’s the salsa. Each batch is made from a very specific blend of dried chiles: five guajillo peppers, one chile negro (a dried black pasilla pepper) and two dried chipotles, plus eight tomatillos, a small onion and two cloves of garlic. Each type of pepper contributes to the overall flavor: the guajillos are fruity and earthy-tasting, the chile negro adds depth and the chipotles provide a bit of smoke and fire.
All these chiles are probably available at a local Hispanic market, or if not, they can easily be found on-line. Except for one little problem: all chiles are not created equal, as I discovered the first time I made this recipe with the guajillos in my pantry. Even though they were supple and fresh, the flavor of the sauce was off.
“We only use guajillos grown in Mexico,” admitted Andre when I took him a sample of the sauce gone wrong. “You can’t duplicate the flavor with chiles grown anywhere else.” Alas, my chiles came from an open supermarket bin with no indication at all of their source. For the best flavor, ask your purveyor where the chiles were grown.
As you are probably beginning to surmise, it is wise to begin a few days before you actually want to serve this “simple” dish. Buy the best handmade tortillas you can find (maybe from a restaurant) and let them dry out overnight, before cutting them into strips and frying them. They’ll keep in an airtight container for a couple of days. The cooked salsa can be made in less than an hour, but the flavor deepens and improves if it’s also made a few days ahead. While you’re at it, you might like to take 5 or 6 minutes to pickle a red onion for garnish and and another few minutes to mix up a batch of ground chiles and spices for seasoning.
Then it’s a snap to make the chilaquiles for breakfast. Or maybe you’d just like to visit Tonali for Saturday lunch. It’s at 3642 Shannon Road, Durham, NC 27707. Telephone: 919-489-8000.
In the meantime, here’s the recipe:
A good game plan for making chilaquiles is to start a day or two ahead by making the sauce and frying the tortilla strips. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator and the fried tortilla strips can be stored in an air tight container. The pickled onions are delicious and take only a few minutes to boil with vinegar and sugar; they too can be stored in the refrigerator. Andre’s spice mix is optional, but it keeps indefinitely and can be used to season lots of other dishes.
This recipe makes chilaquiles for 2 people.
For the guajillo sauce:
5 dried Mexican guajillo chiles
1 dried chile negro
2 dried chipotle chiles
8 large tomatillos, husks removed and cut in half
2 quarts water
1 small onion, peeled and cut into 4 or 5 pieces
2 large garlic cloves, lightly crushed
1 large pinch oregano
1 or more teaspoons salt
1. Combine the dried chiles, tomatillos and water in a large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat.
2. While the water is heating, lightly char the onion and garlic cloves on a cast iron comal, if you have one, or in a dry cast iron frying pan. Add to the pot.
3. When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat slightly and boil for 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft and cooked through. Remove from the heat.
4. To cool the mixture rapidly, plunge the pot into a sink filled with ice. Let it cool until it is no longer steaming and the contents are merely warm to the touch. (Alternatively, simply let the mixture cool off-heat until it reaches room temperature.)
5. Using a ladle, scoop only the vegetables and chiles into the container of a blender. Add two cups of the cooking liquid and reserve the rest. Add salt and oregano. Blend until the mixture is relatively smooth but still has a little texture. It should be quite liquid and pour easily from a spoon. Thin with a little of the reserved cooking liquid if necessary.
6. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The sauce should be fairly salty so don’t be afraid to add more. (The tortillas will absorb the flavors of the sauce, including the salt.)
7. The sauce will keep 4 to 5 days in the refrigerator. Be sure to reserve the cooking liquid in a jar as you may need it when making the chilaquiles.
8. Note that the recipe makes 6 cups of sauce, far more than you will need for two people. You can use it in many other ways, including as a sauce for enchiladas, for grilled chicken, beef or pork, or with eggs. Or just make more chilaquiles!
For the fried tortillas:
6 five-inch white corn tortillas (3 per person), freshly made, preferably by hand
2-3 cups vegetable oil—canola, safflower or peanut
1.Assuming the tortillas are freshly made, lay them out on the kitchen counter overnight covered by a clean towel. The next day, when they are firmer and slightly stale, cut each tortilla into 5 strips about one inch wide. Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a wide saucepan over a medium high flame. When the temperature reaches 360 degrees on a frying thermometer, test by frying a single tortilla strip. It should sizzle on contact, becoming crisp and lightly brown in one minute or less. (If you don’t have a thermometer, try this hack with a wooden spoon.)
3. Adjust the heat if necessary. Do not let it rise above 360-370 degrees. If the oil is too hot, the tortillas will darken too quickly and they will taste bitter.
4. Add 8 to 10 tortilla strips to the hot oil and fry for one minute or less. Remove them immediately and let them drain on several layers of paper towels. The strips should be crisp, crunchy and very lightly browned.
5. Continue frying the strips in batches until you have used them all. Let them cool completely, then seal in an airtight container. They will stay crisp for 2-3 days.
For the chile-spice blend:
This is a Mexican version of a Cajun blend used at Four Square Restaurant in Durham, NC. Instead of using cayenne, Andres toasts leftover dried chile skins, membranes and seeds, and grinds them to a fine powder. I substituted a blend of pure ground ancho and New Mexican chile powders (not the so-called “chili powder” that includes cumin and other spices). It’s optional, but if you want to use it with the chilaquiles, do make it ahead. It will keep indefinitely in an air tight jar
Ingredients (by weight):
4 ounces pure ground chile (i.e. ancho powder)
1 ounce paprika
¼ ounce garlic powder
¼ ounce onion powder
½ ounce freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Pour into a glass jar with a tight seal. Keeps indefinitely.
This is a delicious garnish that you can make in 5 or 6 minutes. Store in the refrigerator.
1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 ounces white vinegar
2 ounces water
½ teaspoon salt
2 ounces sugar (by weight)
1. Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Let it boil for 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Remove from the heat and cool the mixture to room temperature. Store the onion and any remaining liquid in a container to use as need. Will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.
For the Chilaquiles:
This is the part of the recipe that you will use when you want to make the finished dish.
2-1/2 ounces mixed vegetables: small-diced carrots, green peas, corn kernels (can be frozen)
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil (canola or safflower)
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
½ clove garlic
½ fresh green poblano chile, seeds and membranes removed, sliced into thin strips
5 to 6 ounces chicken broth or stock
Pinch of the chile-spice blend (optional; see recipe above)
4 ounces guajillo sauce (see recipe above)
Fried tortilla strips (see recipe above)
1 teaspoon fresh cilantro, chopped
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ cup shredded queso blanco or mozzarella
Fresh cilantro leaves
Fresh diced tomatoes or fresh tomato salsa
Crumbled queso blanco or grated mozzarella
1. Bring a small pot of water to boil and quickly blanch the mixed vegetables for 30 seconds. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and set aside. Reserve 2 tablespoons of mixed vegetables for garnish.
2. In a large frying pan over medium heat, quickly saute the onion and poblano chile strips until softened slightly. Add the ½ garlic clove and saute for 30 seconds.
3. Turn the heat to high, add the chicken broth, and cook until all but one tablespoon has evaporated.
4. Turn the heat to medium low and add the mixed vegetables. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add a pinch of the chile-spice blend if desired.
5. Add the guajillo sauce and the fried tortilla strips to the pan. Toss to combine with the other ingredients. Add the cilantro and oregano. Cook gently, turning frequently, until the tortillas have softened and absorbed most of the sauce—if the mixture becomes too dry, add more of the reserved cooking liquid and/or a few spoonfuls of sauce.
6. To finish, sprinkle the chilaquiles with the shredded cheese and place in a 450 degree oven for 2 to 3 minutes, just until it begins to melt.
7. To serve, divide the chilaquiles between two plates. It is traditional to turn the chilaquiles with a spoon and mound them so that the cheese is “hidden” inside. Sprinkle the reserved mixed vegetables over the chilaquiles and top with your choice of garnishes—the more the better.
8. If desired, fry two eggs in a little oil to your taste and serve alongside the chilaquiles. Bring everything to the table along with a bowl of the guajillo sauce. Buen provecho!