My usual version of enchiladas starts with a glance in an empty fridge, a brief utterance of four-letter words, a recollection that the pantry has both a jar of salsa and a jar of tomato sauce, and a dash to the corner bodega for corn tortillas. It’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done.
These days, though, I’m making them from scratch. Turns out, it’s not all that complicated. All you need is a batch of Roberto Santibanez’s ranchera sauce, and you’re most of the way there.
Back in 2012, Santibanez wrote a book called Truly Mexican. In the quarterfinal round of Food52′s cookbook contest, The Piglet, Truly Mexican lost to Nigel Slater’s Tender (one of my favorite cookbooks), and the judgement seemed unjust: the cartoonist Roz Chast drew the most absurd, unconsidered evaluation of the book, dinging it for making her roast chilies (the smell made her cough – the horror!), and for calling for smoky ancho chilies: she substituted plain green chilies and the recipe came out bland, go figure. I — along with many Food52 loyalists – was angry. Here was a cookbook that others had lauded for its best-ever guacamole and excellent, instructive corn tortilla recipe, and Chast made a recipe for which she didn’t have the proper ingredients, then blamed her failure on the book. Correcting the injustice in my tiny way, I went out and bought Truly Mexican.
This was not a mistake. Santibez takes what often feels like a confounding cuisine and makes it approachable. His prose and instructions have none of Diana Kennedy’s chiding; instead, he recommends substitutions where appropriate, and tells you frankly when an alternative just won’t do. He also has a section on salsas and another on moles and pipians, both of which are so thick that the entire middle of his book is devoted to sauce. As someone who sees solid food as a vehicle for flavored liquid, this delights me.
It also makes the book feel like a reference guide. A few times now, I’ve made a big batch of one of Santibanez’s sauces, poured it into a jar, and used it across the week on any number of things (folded tortillas, fish, scrambled eggs, etc). I love cooking this way.
Santibanez’s ranchera sauce is simple, but it’s perfectly balanced. When you lean over the stove and take a sniff, it smells authentically Mexican, i.e. nothing like the hack job I used to use for my enchiladas. And because it really is so versatile, I also use it for migas, and for chilaquiles, which I’ll tell you about later this week. First things first: make a batch of the sauce. Better yet, make a double. Then let’s talk about how delicious it is.
Adapted lightly from Roberto Santibanez’s book Truly Mexican
Makes a little more than 1 pint
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes (about 4 medium-large)
1 fresh serrano or jalapeno chile, coarsely chopped, including seeds
1 large garlic clove, smashed and peeled
2 tablespoons mild olive oil
2/3 cup diced white onion
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or rounded 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 (1-inch) piece canela (Mexican cinnamon) or regular cinnamon, or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Set the oven or toaster oven to broil and preheat. Alternatively, you can preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. If you’re using the broiler, position the rack 8 inches from the heat source.
Core tomatoes and cut a small “X” through the skin on the opposite end of the core. This will make it easier to slip off the skin. Roast the tomatoes (Santibanez recommends cored sides up but I did the opposite) on a foil-lined baking pan until their tops have blackened and the tomatoes are cooked all the way through, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside for 5-10 minutes to cool. Then slip off the skins.
Put the tomatoes, chile, and garlic in the blender jar, and blend until smooth. Alternatively, transfer them to a large bowl and use an immersion blender to puree the mixture. Either way, be careful when you’re blending hot ingredients: if using a blender, cover the top with a kitchen towel, hold the top firmly in place with your hand, and start blending using short pulses before going on full speed, to avoid an explosion.
Heat the oil in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato mixture, and bring to a boil. As the tomato mixture is cooking, swish 1/4 cup of water around in the blender jar and add it to the pan. If you used a bowl and immersion blender, you can do the same, and use a spatula to scrape the bits of sauce from the bowl into the pan. Reduce the heat, stir in the sugar, salt, and cinnamon, and simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened slightly, about 20 minutes.
The sauce will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator; Santibanez says it keeps in the freezer for one month, but I think that estimate is conservative.