I just returned, oh a week or so ago, from a long trip to Thailand. It was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Everything about the country is wonderful and beautiful – the terrain, the people and oh god, the food. I cannot say enough about the food. It was damn near impossible to get a bad meal. Everything, and I mean everything from fancy hotels to local restaurants to street carts was amazing. But I have this thing; this sort of food A.D.D. Sometimes when I travel for a long time I need to mix it up, need to have something a little different no matter how good the local cuisine. It happened after a few weeks in Italy (a rather interesting foray into Chinese.) It happened again after some time in France (a happy trial of African food.) There was that interesting meal in Spain, again Chinese and rather porky. I’ve even a little ashamed to admit popping into a McDonald’s once or twice for a salty crunchy fry fix (Gah!) And it happened in Thailand. With Mexican. Oh yeah, I went there.
I was on a very small island, off the Thai Sea, called Koh Tao. It’s a teeny place that I do believe has the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen, and boy have I seen some good ones. I had just signed up for some scuba dives because that is absolutely what you do on this island and decided to spend the remainder of the afternoon putzing around. I’m a champion putzer. The town – Sairee Beach – wasn’t all that big and I wanted to see what was going on besides scuba. Turns out not much, but there were a few little shops and many small restaurants worth investigating. As I wandered one of the back streets (one of two backstreets actually – I said it was small) I passed, of all things, a Mexican restaurant. In Thailand. On a very, very small island. Huh.
I know, I know. I really should know better but Mexican food is usually the first meal I have when I return from traveling. It’s my kind of comfort food and what I crave. Must be the AZ girl in me. After nearly four weeks of Thai food, I just wanted something different. I thought my travel book gave the place a good review but when I just went back to look it up, here’s what it says: “this self proclaimed ‘funky’ joint slings burritos of questionable authenticity in two locations in Sairee Beach and one in Mae Hat.” Well, damn. I just realized I was completely thinking of another place. On another island. Oh the devil is in the details.
Regardless. What the hell, right? It’s only a meal. Right?
Here’s what I need to remember. A) I have very good instincts. I should trust them. B) Lonely Planet is written primarily by Brits who, in my experience, wouldn’t know good Mexican food if they were beaten over the head with it. (I once went with an expat friend dying for some good Mex to a London restaurant owned by “Real Mexicans” according to their website. Enough said.) C) I really need to pay more attention. Damn beaches mellow me out every time. D) I can find the humor in just about anything.
Having grown up in Arizona, I KNOW good Mexican food. Which, again, is why I should know better but dammit, I was hungry and the thought of another curry, no matter how delicious, I just couldn’t handle. So I threw caution to the wind.
After perusing the menu of the usual suspects – tacos, burritos, fajitas, etc. – and several pages of Thai specialties (of course), I ordered a Thai beer (Chang!) and a chicken chimichanga. Even writing that now that makes me laugh; it’s just so damn odd. The menu description said it came with “rice, beans, salsa and guacamole.” Sounded familiar. How bad could it be?
Well, it actually looked pretty good if maybe a little bit different. I mean, check out the pic. Looks tasty, no? The rice was white and was actually jasmine rice so it was a tad odd but tasty. The beans weren’t refried, or even mashed but they were OK too. The chimichanga itself was actually kind of good if small – sautéed chicken in a crispy golden tortilla with a little tomato something on top, not salsa but lightly cooked tomatoes and onions that was rather lovely. But then again it’s deep fried so how bad could it be? Different, yes, but certainly edible.
What completely threw me for a loop was the cup of “salsa and guacamole.” And yes, those quotes are intentional. The “guacamole” was sort of grey-ish and most likely came right out of a jar. Think about that for a moment. A jar. Yep, that’s what it tasted like. Blech. Luckily, it wasn’t on top of my golden deep fried friend so I could avoid its wretchedness. Having been to a dozen Thai markets and not seeing a single avocado, I wasn’t expecting much anyway.
But the salsa was downright weird. You see, the Thais use a wonderful balance of flavors in their cooking – sweet, salty, tangy, spicy – and in doing so, typically use a lot of sugar in their recipes. The “salsa” was no exception – it was extremely sweet, tooth-achingly so and had a distinct ginger accent. It was just odd and left me thinking, “How hard is salsa, really?” They have all the ingredients readily available – tomato, onion, chilies – so what the hell? Perhaps they adapt for local tastes? All I know is the place was full of gringos aka far’angs, not so much locals so I don’t know what the deal was. It was pretty awful but again, it was on the side and not contaminating what I had by this time decided was a pretty good fried tortilla.
Am I glad I tried it? Hell yes. It cracks me up still, a few weeks later. Sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind and say “what the hell” to get out of a rut. There’s a reason I come home with a zillion hilarious travel stories and this one is now on the list. I mean, who in their right mind orders a chimichanga in Thailand? Oh, I do!
Sadly, it left me with a hankering for some good Mexican food and I had to wait at least another week for that. I really wanted this to be good and it was just OK. Actually, except for that salsa and guacamole, it could have been a lot worse so I shouldn’t have been that disappointed but maybe I was, just a little bit.
So as you can guess, one of the first things I did when I got home and semi-recovered from some wicked jetlag (and I mean wicked with a capital W) was make some enchiladas. Sure, I could have gone out but I had a real need to make something myself after cooking for others. There’s something very therapeutic in cooking and I needed that. I needed a project and I needed some comfort food, so bingo on both counts.
Not having a huge Mexican repertoire myself, I zipped over to the Homesick Texan’s blog. I love her stories and the few recipes I’ve made have always been delicious. Perusing the recipe index, I saw chicken sour cream enchiladas and was sold. This was it.
I changed things up a bit. Rather than just a chicken filling, I made a chicken-potato-poblano filling. I’ve always loved this combination of soothing chicken with the zip of chilies and the creaminess of potatoes. I’m not sure where I got it from though – I really don’t remember but I know I like it. I also prefer to poach the chicken rather than pan searing/baking as she does. I just think it tastes better but to each her own.
For the sauce, I used her recipe pretty much as written and it’s delicious. Why mess up a good thing? A little spicy from the serranos (which I pinched from my garden plot that morning), zippy from some roasted tomatillos and creamy from sour cream. It fit the bill in each and every way.
This recipe really hit the spot and certainly made up for my past lapse in judgement. If only other things in life were this easy. The dish was warm, comforting and delicious and everything I wanted, no needed, it to be. Then I promptly fell asleep with a toasty full belly at 4:30pm and woke up at 3am. This god damn stupid jet lag. It’s killing me.
A little tangent. One thing I love love love about Chicago is the abundant Hispanic population creates an insane demand for tortillas. We have amazing tortillas readily available and several companies around the city that deliver them super fresh. My very favorite thing is that often, especially at the carnicerias but even at my corner Jewel, the packages will still be warm when you toss them into the cart. That’s some fresh stuff right there folks, and I just love it.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: MUCHO GRANDE. Sometimes we need something that warms the soul. I say this a lot but for me enchiladas, whether they be ranchero, mole or sour cream, homemade or restaurant fixed, do it every single time. Don’t get me wrong – this recipe is a god damn project. There are all kinds of parts and it took me a few foggy hours one morning to put it all together. But there’s something therapeutic in mindless tasks like chopping, sautéing, stirring and when it was done and bubbling on my counter top, I felt like I was home. Really at home and nothing can beat that feeling.
SOUR CREAM CHICKEN-POBLANO-POTATO ENCHILADAS
Adapted from a recipe by the Homesick Texan
For the filling:
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2 large poblano peppers
1 large red potato (about 10-12 ounces), peeled and cut in ¼” dice
For the sour cream sauce:
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 serrano chiles, diced (seeds and all)
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups sour cream
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
8 fresh tomatillos, husks removed
good pinch of cayenne
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
For the enchiladas:
12-16 corn tortillas
2 cups shredded Pepper Jack cheese (maybe more)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- For the filling/cook the chicken: Place the chicken breasts in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water.
- Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer on low until cooked through – about 10 minutes.
- Remove chicken from the poaching liquid and allow to cool.
- Once cool, shred the chicken, place in a medium bowl and set aside until needed.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400°F and line a sheet pan with foil.
- Roast the peppers & tomatillos: Lightly coat the poblano peppers and the tomatillos with vegetable or olive oil and roast until the peppers are charred, turning to char evenly on all sides, about 15-20 minutes total.
- Place the charred peppers in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let steam about 10 minutes to loosen the skins and cool a bit. (Set the tomatillos aside until needed for the sauce.)
- Peel the skins from the peppers and discard the seeds.
- Dice the peppers and add to the chicken.
- Reduce oven to 350°F.
- Cook the potatoes: Rinse the chicken pot out, add the diced potato, cover with water and a ½ teaspoon of kosher salt and bring to a boil.
- Cook the potatoes until tender – about 10 minutes. Drain and add to the chicken.
- Rinse the pot again and over medium-high heat, sauté the diced onion in a Tablespoon of oil until translucent.
- Add the sautéed onion to the chicken mixture.
- Stir the filling together and taste for seasoning – add additional salt and pepper if needed. Set aside until needed.
- In a medium sauté pan, sauté the diced onion in the Tablespoon of oil until translucent and add to the bowl with the chicken and peppers.
- For the sauce: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high.
- When the butter starts to foam, add the diced serranos and sauté for a minute or two until fragrant.
- Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute, again until fragrant.
- Add the flour and stir until well incorporated into a sort of paste then cook for 2-3 minutes to cook off any “floury” taste (you’re making a roux here.)
- Add the chicken stock and whisk, over medium heat, until the mixture thickens a bit.
- Add the sour cream, cumin, cayenne and cilantro. Whisk until combined.
- Using a regular blender or a stick/immersion blender, add the tomatillos to the sauce and puree until well blended and smooth.
- Taste for seasoning – salt and pepper – adjust if needed.
- Add a ladle or two of the sauce to the filling just to moisten and stir gently to combine.
- Assemble: In a large casserole dish (9”x13”ish), spread 1 cup of the sauce.
- Heat a Tablespoon of oil in a skillet and cook the corn tortillas on each side a couple of minutes until soft.
- Place about ¼ cup of the filling and a Tablespoon or two of cheese in the lower third of the tortilla and roll the tortilla around the filling.
- Place seam side down in the sauced casserole pan.
- Continue with the remaining tortillas and filling.
- Pour the remaining sauce on top and smooth evenly.
- Top with any remaining cheese (I like a nice cheesy top so I sometimes add more than what I have left.)
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown and bubbling.
- Serve with Spanish rice and refried beans for a damn fine meal.