Sure, you could celebrate Cinco de Mayo—the Mexican-American commemoration of Mexico’s victory over France in one, non-decisive battle in 1862—by buying some tortilla chips and jarred salsa, cracking open a Tecate, and donning a sombrero. But please don’t. First of all, the sombrero is culturally reductive and connotatively racist. Secondly, your taste buds will be happier if you treat them to a Paloma instead of a cheap lager. And finally, store-bought salsa tends to be bland and watery. Cinco de Mayo falls on a Sunday this year, so why not take advantage of your weekend leisure time to whip up a Mexican-American dish that tastes good and impresses people? Why not make enchiladas?
The ratio of people who have made enchiladas at home to those who have only eaten them in restaurants is surely small. (Roughly equivalent, I suspect, to the ratio of people who saw Elliott Smith in concert to those who saw him at the 1998 Oscars.) Like lasagna, enchiladas require cooking multiple elements separately, combining them fastidiously, and then cooking them again. The potential for wasted energy is significant enough that you want to choose your approach carefully. To that end, I recommend that you make enchiladas with mole sauce—also known, succinctly and delightfully, as enmoladas—to maximize the return on your efforts.
Mole sauce, like ATM machine or PIN number, is pleonastic: The root of mole, the Nahuat molli, simply means sauce. (Think also of guacamole, from ahuacamolli, ahuacatl meaning avocado.) Being a generic term, mole in Mexico refers to a several diverse sauces made from various kinds of chilies. But since Cinco de Mayo is largely an American distortion of a Mexican occasion, we will focus our efforts on an American distortion of mole: a mélange of Oaxacan traditions, featuring tomatoes, spices, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate.
There are other good reasons to make the kind of mole sauce you might find in Tex-Mex restaurants instead of an authentic mole negro or mole colorado. For one thing, this kind contains ingredients that are easy to find at most grocery stores. (Pasilla and guajillo chilies, traditional in Oaxacan moles, require a trip to a specialty retailer; ancho chilies, otherwise known as dried poblanos, are more accessible for most.) And, more importantly, it tastes superb: simultaneously smoky, spicy, sweet, and savory. I could (and do) eat mole sauce with a spoon. I’ve never yet met a salsa roja or verde that makes me want to do that.
Though the ingredients list below is lengthy, the process for making mole sauce is relatively simple. You must soak your anchos before puréeing them and simmering them with the other ingredients; they will lose many of their seeds in the soaking process, but that’s OK. (If you want a less spicy sauce, take care to remove all of their seeds and inner veins while you’re removing the stems.) This is one of the few occasions when your immersion blender should remain on the shelf; a proper, upright blender is not only easier to use logistically but also results in a smoother, creamier sauce (and thoroughly pulverizes all those tiny anise and sesame seeds).
Assembling enchiladas is not difficult, but it does require one possibly unfamiliar step: Flash-frying corn tortillas just enough to soften them and coat them with enough oil to protect them from the mush-ifying power of the sauce. You cannot skip this step: Un-fried corn tortillas are not nearly pliable enough to wrap around filling. And speaking of that filling: As a vegetarian, I opt for the obvious and easy—cheese—but chicken makes perfect sense for omnivores. Just substitute about 2 cups of shredded, cooked chicken for the Monterey jack in this recipe.
Enchiladas con Mole
Yield: 16 enchiladas (4 to 5 servings)
Time: About 2½ hours, partially unattended
4 large ancho chilies
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons grapeseed or peanut oil, or lard, plus more for greasing the pan
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons sliced almonds
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons raisins
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon anise seeds
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
16 corn tortillas
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped
8 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated (about 2 cups)
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)
1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Put the chilies in a medium bowl and add enough of the boiling water to cover them by 1 inch. Soak the chilies until soft, about 30 minutes. Remove their stems, transfer them to a blender or food processor, add 1 cup of their soaking liquid, and process until smooth.
2. Meanwhile, put 3 tablespoons of the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the onions and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the almonds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, and sesame seeds and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the anise seeds, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, oregano, thyme, and bay leaf and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, puréed chilies, and 1 cup water. Cover partially, bring the mixture to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the chocolate. Cool slightly, then transfer the sauce to the blender or food processor and process until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning. (At this point, you can store the mole sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days.)
3. Put the remaining 1 cup oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add one of the tortillas to the pan; it should sizzle immediately. Cook for a few seconds, then turn and cook on the other side just until it begins to puff up, another few seconds. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
4. Heat the oven to 375°F and grease a 9- by 13-inch pan. Put about 2 tablespoons of the cheese in the lower third of one of the tortillas, and then roll it up tightly. Transfer the tortilla, seam down, to the greased pan. Repeat with the remaining filling and tortillas. (It’s OK to nestle the tortillas snugly.) Pour the mole sauce over the tortillas, spreading it evenly to the edges of the pan. Bake the enchiladas until hot and lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Garnish with cilantro if desired, and serve hot or warm.