Monday, January 19, 2009

What Does a Guy Have To Do To Get a Home Cooked Meal Around Here?

So. The enchiladas the other night. This was a great, much needed experience, and the best part is I can still smell the enchiladas on the pants I was wearing that night. Which is made easier due to the fact that I pretty much wear the same pants every day.

A good friend of mine used to bring things she made in to work for me to try, which I loved, because people would never do that. And people would never invite me to their house for a meal. Hoping it wasn't due to a glaring-to-everyone-but-me personality defect, or the aforementioned wardrobe planning skills, I decided it was because people were worried that I, as a chef, would nitpick their cooking and judge it if it wasn't high-caliber 5 star cooking. Which, in actuality, is the opposite of what I was after--in fact, I wanted the casseroles, I wanted overcooked green beans, I wanted to cover what was served with ketchup. I wanted real food, that real people ate. Not food that was overthought and stressed over and picked and prodded and wiped. I wanted a meal, not a project. "Please, someone, just invite me to dinner and give me tuna casserole!" became my motto.

So my friend decided it was high time we make enchiladas. And I think it was something she wanted to prepare and serve herself; of course I didn't allow that and got in the kitchen with her, looking in each pot (one with simmering guajillo, arbol, and ancho chiles--the smell coming out of that as I stuck my head into the steam bath after lifting the lid off was simply amazing; one with poaching chicken, and one with only water--she was making tea, as it was 1 degree out). The fourth and final burner was occupied with a pan of oil--the idea was that tortillas would be fried in here slightly to give them a bit of a crust and backbone to hold up to the sauce when rolled, but not so much that they would crack. (Side note: you wanna make tortillas? It's the best, and it's easy, and you can get a great, heavy iron tortilla press down at Maxwell Street Market for like 10 bucks, depending on your haggling skills and audibility impairdness due to taco-eating and mexican hot chocolate (so thick and rich and from a big bubbling pot) drinking. One can also acquire reasonably priced socks here.)

So I drank some tea, and she pulled the chicken apart. She grated the melty Chihuahua cheese, and turned on the oil. But she was worried that water had spilled into the oil, and went to great length describing her fear of popping and cracking and spattering oil. I assured her that this wouldn't last long, assuming that the water would evaporate and pop out in a few big cracks. I had no idea what I was talking about. Sure enough, the thing started cracking like mad, and shooting hot oil everywhere. So, I grabbed the lid off the chiles, and this served many purposes: we could now smell the chiles as they simmered away, and I now had a shield and a reason to be in the kitchen. I would bravely fry the tortillas to the occasional jolting POP of oil and revel in the clever way I insinuated myself into clumsily helping. After all, cooking should involve all hands on deck (something that, I'm aware, I am much better at talking about than actually allowing when said cooking is done in my kitchen; but I believe in it, and I am trying).

She transfered the chiles and their liquid to a blender and pureed them in batches; then returned the sauce to the pan to cook some of the water back out of it. She added something from a great big jar she called "boullion", but with a hard-edged Spanish accent, to the sauce. She said it was something her grandmother always had, and I surmised it had to be similar to the cubes most American moms have in their cupboards, the same thing I always assumed was a gastronomical no-no until I read an article on the discovery that many French and Italian chefs actually use the stuff quite a bit. Whatever the case--and whatever your opinion on MSG--this stuff made the sauce unbeatable. The depth of dried, roasted, smoky chiles dancing with the new darling of everyone's palate, umami, made me continually cut chunks of the cheese to dip into the sauce.

She then dipped the fried tortillas into the bubbling sauce and let them soak a bit, then, with the brave bare hands of a hundred generations, transferred the tortillas to a pan where she filled each one with the chicken and cheese, then rolled them up and lay them in a row all next to each other. The pan filled, she poured sauce over the enchiladas and rained more cheese everywhere, and baked the dish until everything came out ooey and gooey and warm and melty and wonderful. I must have eaten half the pan. What a rare, special treat. I finally got my casserole, and it was way beyond anything I had hoped for in my quest for the elusive home cooked meal.