Every year, the kids I teach to cook at my school beg me to let them make enchiladas. And every year I tell them it’s too complicated, messy, and time-consuming, so let’s make an easy enchilada casserole with tortilla chips instead. But in truth, because I’d never actually made enchiladas, I didn’t know what I was talking about. This year, I gave it a try. Assembling them with older kids was surprisingly fun and manageable. As a savory one-dish meal, enchiladas are also a great alternative to lasagna when you have several hungry mouths to feed. And because you can fill them with almost anything, they can be a delicious vegetarian entree or a great use for leftover chicken, beef, or pork.
The only remotely tricky part of making enchiladas is softening the shell briefly in hot oil before filling them. I admit that this was the part that put me off — I don’t like frying, cooking with lots of oil, or any unreasonably messy tasks that require me to lay out paper towels. However, many 12- and 13-year-olds love doing this kind of thing (though they’re likely to need some basic safety reminders). You might not mind it, either.
Enchiladas are also forgiving. They end up swimming in savory sauce, so imperfect tortillas aren’t a crisis. In fact, the first time I tried this with my middle schoolers, the kids had some trouble keeping the tortillas from crisping up a bit as they briefly warmed them in oil. As a result, some of their tortillas cracked as they rolled them around the cheese filling. But these flaws didn’t affect the final result. More important is taking care not to overfill the little bundles, but honestly, even that doesn’t matter too much for home cooks. When I made them at home with my boys, the younger one helped spread the sauce and fill the enchiladas while the older one manned the stove, and the result made them — and their parents — happy.
This version, adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, might not delight purists or perfectionists. I’m sure there’s a far more beautiful and authentic enchilada out there. You probably know someone with a recipe for a lusciously spicy sauce. But when a promisingly warm early spring day yields to sunset’s chill, a dish of cheesy, saucy warmth doesn’t have to be pretty.
To assemble enchiladas
4 cups enchilada sauce (I’ve had good results with canned varieties like Las Palmas; Frontera Grill’s is delicious but pricey)
Corn, canola, or other vegetable oil
24 small corn tortillas
3 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, or an equal amount of shredded leftover chicken, beef, or pork, or a combination of meat or beans and cheese equaling around 3 cups
1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco or more Monterey Jack
3-4 scallions, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Preheat oven to 350. Warm the enchilada sauce gently in a microwave-safe glass measuring cup or a small saucepan. Spoon a thin layer of the salsa into the bottom of a 9x12-inch baking dish.
Put about 1/2 inch of the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When hot but not smoking, cook the tortillas, one at a time, until softened and pliable, about 10 seconds. Add more oil to the pan as needed. Drain tortillas on paper towels.
Have your filling mixed and ready in a bowl.
Sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of each tortilla, roll tightly, and put the enchiladas in the prepared dish, seam side down. The rolls should be packed in snugly against one another. Cover the top with more sauce and bake for 25 minutes. When the enchiladas come out of the oven, sprinkle them with the additional cheese, onion, and cilantro. Serve with lime wedges on the side.