Chilaquiles, true poverty cooking and a fundamental standby of every Mexican cook and kitchen since pre-Hispanic times, come in many guises. The building block is stale tortillas which are moistened with some kind of sauce – tomato or tomatillo, bean purée, mole – and in their simplest form, they go no further than this and they are utterly delicious in their plainness. However, they can also be dressed up to the nines, with chicken or seafood, with cheese and cream, with wild mushrooms, herbs and spices, additions which turn them into a dish of real sophistication. The same principle is also often applied to make them into a casserole, to be baked in the oven. The renowned Pastel Azteca or Aztec Pudding is an excellent example of this method, where the tortillas are layered up in a gratin dish with a filling of shredded chicken, tomatillo sauce, cream and cheddar cheese.
The following recipe is more straightforward: the tortillas are folded into a rich, smoky tomato sauce studded with feta cheese, topped with cheddar and baked until crusty. And since there are seldom stale tortillas available in my kitchen, I have to admit that I invariably resort to the use of bought tortilla chips for my chilaquiles which are quick and easy and work a treat.
Chilaquile Casserole – Chilaquiles Rojos al Horno
Serves 2 as a main course
For the tomato sauce:-
500 g/18 oz tomatoes, halved
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
45 ml/3 tbsp olive oil
250 g/9 oz onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
15 ml/1 tbsp chipotle chilli paste or powder or to taste
125 ml/1/2 cup/4 fl oz double/thick cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 skinless, boneless chicken breast, about 150 g/5 oz
150 g/5 oz plain tortilla chips
100 g/4 oz Mexican queso fresco, ricotta salata or Feta cheese, crumbled
100 g/4 oz mature cheddar style cheese, coarsely grated
For the sauce, heat the grill to high. Line the grill pan with foil and place the tomato halves, cut side up, and garlic cloves on it. Grill 10 cm/4 in from the heat for about 20 minutes, until soft and slightly blackened, turning the garlic cloves over half way through. Cool, then peel the garlic and place it in a food processor with the tomatoes and any juices. Process to a chunky purée.
While the tomatoes are grilling, heat the olive oil in a roomy frying pan and cook the onions until soft and golden. Add the tomato purée, the chipotle chilli paste and some seasoning, and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often, until nice and thick. Stir in the cream and bring back to a simmer. The sauce can be prepared to this point in advance and refrigerated or frozen. Reheat before use.
Place the chicken in a small saucepan and add just enough cold water to cover by 1 cm/1/2 in. Bring to the boil over medium heat. Turn the heat off and set aside until cold. Remove the chicken from the liquid and shred. The broth can be refrigerated and used for another purpose.
Preheat the oven to 180oC/350oF/gas 4/fan oven 160oC.
Reheat the sauce if necessary. Add the tortilla chips and turn them over and over in the sauce with a spatula until they are well coated. Transfer half of the mixture to a 1.5 litre/2 1/2 pints/6 cups gratin dish. Sprinkle first with half the feta then half the cheddar. Spoon the remaining chilaquiles over the top and again cover with the feta and cheddar.
Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden and crusty.
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