Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dinner for your weekend: Chicken Enchilada Casserole

Tex-Mex is one of my favorite types of food; when Benjamin and I lived in Austin, we were in heaven, calling it our Golden Age of Tex-Mex and mourning its eventual loss, even as we took full advantage. When we first moved to Arkansas, the lack of really good Tex-Mex was a huge disappointment - I mean, Arkansas is right next door to Texas, surely something should have rubbed off! I once tried to order enchiladas with a verde sauce - usually made with tomatillos - and instead got enchiladas topped with nothing but ground up jalapenos! And Benjamin has been constantly disappointed when he tries to order something spicy, only to be "reassured" by the waiter that the dish isn't really too spicy. 

Lately, the options for good Tex-Mex in Little Rock have improved quite a bit with the opening of Local Lime, Chuy's (an Austin original that is welcome here in Little Rock, but one which we never went to in Austin - not dive-y enough, with long wait times), Heights Taco and Tamales, and The Fold. We don't eat out that often anymore though, and my craving for Tex-Mex occurs far more frequently than our trips to restaurants. What to do? Make my own, of course. We have several good cookbooks for Tex-Mex and more authentic Mexican food, we have various taco and taco salad recipes, and we have Chicken Enchilada Casserole.

This is a family recipe that my dad passed along to me when I first moved into an apartment of my own, and one that I don't remember liking all that much as a child - casseroles being a problem because the good stuff (chicken, cheese, tortillas) is all mixed up with more dubious stuff (onions, canned tomatoes, sauce). But now, I love casseroles, and this one in particular, precisely because everything is all mixed up and the flavors can meld and intensify. I have made a few modifications, because the recipe is originally from a 1976 issue of Diabetes Forecast magazine, and needed a little simplification and spicing up, but it is still pretty healthy, easy to make, and easy to scale up. I imagine it would be easy to freeze in individual portions, if you like that sort of thing (I might, but there are never enough left overs in our house).

So, for your dining pleasure, I give you Chicken Enchilada Casserole:

1 tablespoon oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced* 
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons chili powder (I use 1 3/4 tsp regular, and 1/4 tsp chipotle for more spice)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 can diced tomatoes**
2 cups cooked chicken, chopped*** (approximately 2 chicken breasts. I simmer mine in some lightly salted water until cooked through, then let cool and chop)
1/2 cup chicken stock
6-9 corn tortillas, cut in quarters
1 1/2 cups (or more) grated pepper jack cheese**** (the original calls for sharp cheddar - use whatever you prefer)
Sour cream and avocados

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Get out a medium (2-3 qt) casserole dish.
2) Heat the oil in the skillet and add the onion and garlic. Saute until tender - do not allow to brown. Add the salt, chili powder(s), cumin, and oregano and mix well. Add the tomatoes, chicken, and chicken stock, mix well, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes on low heat.
3) In the casserole dish, layer the chicken mixture, tortillas, and grated cheese, repeating until you have used all the ingredients. You should end up with a cheese layer on top.
4) Cover and bake for 25-30 minutes until bubbling and the cheese is melted. If you prefer, remove the cover and broil for a couple of minutes to brown the cheese. 

My dad always serves this with extra flour tortillas for sopping up the sauce. We like to top it with sour cream and avocados, if they are on hand.

* Our go-to Mexican cookbook always recommends white onions in its dishes, but we usually just use yellow for this one
** Do NOT use the canned ones with herbs and spices already added - just plain. The original calls for three medium tomatoes, and if you have flavorful, ripe ones go ahead and use them instead. I use canned for convenience.
***  For mine, I usually use two chicken breasts that I have simmered in some lightly salted water until cooked through, then let cool and chop. My dad microwaves his, and I think you could use a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken too, if you wanted.
**** The original calls for sharp cheddar, but I never use cheddar for Tex-Mex these days - use whatever you prefer or can find. To save time, you could also use a Mexican blend of prepackaged, shredded cheese.

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