Chicken enchiladas are not really about the chicken. What makes a yummy enchilada is an authentically-flavored sauce and a wonderful complement of tastes and textures in the filling. Using fresh corn tortillas warmed and slightly crisped in hot oil before rolling is most everyone’s favorite method. Try swapping in a few collard leaves for the tortillas if you are looking to avoid corn. Have leftover chicken? Enchiladas are a great spot for a second act!
For my family, I use Trader Joe’s white corn tortillas that contain only 3 ingredients: ground white corn masa flour, water, and lime. They are never frozen or refrigerated, come in fresh daily, and are the best tortillas I have found outside of home made. Each tortilla has 11 grams of carbs, 1 gram each of protein and fiber, and is 60 calories. Price for a dozen is $1.29, which allows me to buy extra in case I need them. (Whole Foods sells very nice organic white and yellow corn tortilla with 15 g of carbs and 2 g of protein–they are a little thinner than Trader Joe’s and cost $2.99 for 8 tortillas.)
Now for the sauce. You can have a fabulous, deeply-flavored enchilada sauce in 15-20 minutes with dried peppers. It’s easy and requires only a few ingredients and a blender or food processor. The recipe makes enough for several batches and freezes well. Purchased enchilada sauces often have sugar, artificial ingredients, and are lacking real pepper flavor. Find a store with dried peppers (most grocery stores carry ancho peppers, the commonest pepper for sauces) and get some to have on hand. Pick a second kind of pepper if they have one for contrast. The dried peppers will keep for at least six months if they are sealed in a zip lock bag (or their original packaging) and put up in a cupboard. Some stores now sell a good selection in bulk, like Ballard Market in Seattle.
Since enchilada assembly takes a little time, we suggest that you cook your chicken and sauce earlier in the day or the night before. It’s easy to poach two chicken breasts while you make your sauce. This will simplify the process considerably. Shredding room temperature chicken is effortless, so we do that before it goes in the refrigerator.
If you are using leftover chicken and store bought sauce then you can get right to the vegetable filling. We use a Cuisinart to quickly chop the vegetables, but they can be done by hand.
A note on boneless, skinless, chicken breasts: Mexican restaurants and celebrated chefs always use whole chickens (or at least some dark meat cooked with skin and bones) because of the added flavor, moisture, and cheaper cost. It takes more time to cook and shred but the chicken is far superior. Our recipe uses boneless, skinless breasts because that’s what almost every American home cook (including me) would usually do when making enchiladas. Once it’s mixed into a textured filling and wrapped in a good tortilla with a rich homemade sauce, no one will even notice that you took a shortcut by using breast meat. We simmer-poach ours in a seasoned broth to maximize the flavor and moisture content.
Poach Chicken: Remove chicken breasts from the refrigerator and place flat on the bottom of saucepan deep enough to cover with 8 cups of liquid (you want several inches of liquid above the top of the breasts). Add 4 cups of stock (one box) and 4 cups of room temperature water, ½ tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper, and 2 tsp dried oregano. Turn heat to medium. Once the liquid almost reaches a boil (about 10 minutes), lower the heat to a simmer until the chicken is cooked.
Low temperature poaching is the best method for tenderness and even cooking. Check the breast at about 20-25 minutes. Two large breasts (total of 1.3 pounds) take 30 minutes on my stove. Test to see if they are cooked by slicing into a piece. Set aside to cool, or return to water for a few more minutes when it’s underdone.
If you are poaching chicken the day before or long in advance, shred the chicken while at room temperature, it’s easier, then refrigerate; I store mine in a little bit of the chicken poaching broth.
Enchilada Sauce: Making our enchilada sauce is a good companion activity that can be done while your chicken poaches.
Prepare Vegetables for the Enchilada Filling: Chop the onions, peppers, carrots, and zucchini (if you are using) into small pieces–I do this in a food processor. Add 2 T olive oil to large skillet and warm. Sauté the chopped vegetables briefly for 5-10 minutes.
Prep and Add Cilantro and Beans: Roughly chop 1 cup or more of cilantro and open and drain a can of black beans. Add the beans and cilantro the the vegetables (this may be done in a bowl).
Mix these ingredients together.
Shred the Chicken: Pull the cooled chicken apart and add to the vegetable mixture.
Mix in the Salsa and Cheese and Optional Garlic: Also mix in ½ cup of your favorite salsa and a ½ cup of grated cheese. Taste the filling, adjust the seasoning, and add another ½ cup cheese or salsa, as necessary (you don’t want it soggy). If you want garlic included, add the pressed or chopped garlic cloves now and combine. Your filling is complete; taste one last time and add a pinch more salt and pepper if required.
Warm/Crisp Tortillas in High-Heat Oil/Non-Stick Skillet: Open your tortilla package and set a stack of tortillas next to the skillet. I use two wooden spoons and sometimes a silicone brush for the collard. Rinse the collard leaves and pat dry. Trim the stems even with leaf line (photo in intro). Cover a dinner plate with 5-6 paper towels to blot the excess oil when tortillas come out of pan. Have 4 or more extra paper towels stacked at the ready.
Pour in ⅓ cup oil to skillet and set the heat at medium temperature, or just barely over. Note: it’s best to use up all the oil and rewarm another little 1/3 cup batch; this process is not the same as crisping tacos which requires a much deeper reservoir of oil and higher heat.
Once the oil warms, set a tortilla in the pan and warm/crisp it for a total of about 50-60 seconds, turning the tortilla over and back several times. I use the tips of two wooden spoons to do this. When the tortillas are done hold them up over the pan and let any excess oil drop off before you set them on the stack of paper towels. As the oil level decreases, swirl the tortillas around in the skillet to use up the oil that is at the edge of the pan. Once the tortillas are cooked, use the reserved paper towels to blot the extra oil off the top of each tortilla.
Warm Collard Leaves: Collard leaves are warmed on both sides in skillet when there is next to no oil remaining (not enough to do another tortilla). I do mine for about 10 seconds a side, just softened. The silicone brush is helpful to just dab the collard with any remaining drops of oil.
Turn oven to 375-400 degrees. Place your enchilada pan in front of you. Nearby, set the filling with a large spoon (I use 1/3 cup measure for mine). The enchilada sauce can either be added to the bottom of the pan, and refilled while rolling, or put in a wide shallow bowl next to the pan for dunking the tortilla before filling. Have the grated cheese at the ready.
I prefer to fill the bottom of the enchilada pan with sauce since it’s a slightly less drippy messy method ( I do use disposable kitchen gloves for enchilada and meatball assembly and chicken prep). I put about a cup of sauce in the bottom and a tablespoon or two of olive oil and swirl it into the sauce so the bottom of the enchiladas don’t get too soggy. If you are dunking, add only about ½ cup of sauce and 1 Tblsp olive oil and lightly coat the bottom of the pan.
Set a tortilla in the pan and add the filling (I like them fat hence the ⅓ cup measure). Roll the tortilla and place seam side down. Repeat the process.
Do the same with the collard leaves. I intersperse the collard wraps with the tortillas for easy removal and to avoid burning the more delicate leaves.
You will have to add more sauce to the pan as it gets filled. The tops of the last few tortillas will require extra sauce after rolling since there won’t be enough remaining space in the bottom of the pan to set the tortilla flat and have their back side coated with sauce from the bottom of the pan.
Bake for 15-20 Minutes: Once your pan is filled, add grated cheese to the top and place uncovered in the oven. They bake for about 15-20 minutes (check at 15); you will probably be able to smell the enchiladas when they are ready. Add extra sauce and cheese as desired before serving.