“Around here, everyone eats enchiladas at least once a week and I couldn’t imagine going without them,” says Roberto’s Mexican Foods owner Robert Estrada. “Cheese between corn tortillas – what’s not to love?”
Consider Estrada a champion of the humble enchilada – red or green chile sauced corn tortillas rolled with grated cheese and garnished with sweet white onion and black olives – a dish he makes for himself every Sunday (“I make it for myself as my treat,” says Estrada). He learned how to make enchiladas from his mother as a young boy growing up near Las Cruces, New Mexico and serves up a variation of his mother’s time-honored recipe in each of his three restaurants with such incredible down home flavor that the 75-year-old’s recipe is voted “Best Enchiladas in Las Cruces,” nearly every year.
So it was no small surprise when back in 1980, Estrada – a self-taught chef known across the state for his best-selling enchiladas – was approached by the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce to help spearhead a community gathering to celebrate his very favorite food. Since then, The Whole Enchilada Fiesta in Las Cruces has become a three-day landmark event drawing over 40,000 visitors from across the state featuring a musical performances, an enchilada eating contest, a car and motorcycle show, a 5K run and the state’s largest parade.
And the star of the event? The “whole enchilada” – an enormous enchilada of Estrada’s making that usually weighs an upwards of 750 pounds. The flat, 30-foot diameter enchilada – which has earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records – is cooked on an enormous griddle with three tortillas weighing 250 pounds and is topped with 175 pounds of cheese, 75 gallons of red chile sauce and 50 pounds of onions, creating an attraction that makes the festival one of New Mexico’s most popular events (right after the New Mexico State Fair and the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta).
But what’s the big deal about enchiladas in this part of New Mexico, anyway? Estrada chalks it up to the heavy Mexican American presence in Las Cruces – a largely Catholic community where for generations, each household ate enchiladas for Friday dinner in lieu of a meat entrée. And while enchiladas are an inexpensive dish which relies on household staples like chiles, masa, onion, tortillas and cheese, Estrada says the secret to making great enchiladas is all in the corn, an Aztec staple which has earned its place in American cuisine.
“My mom taught me how to cook the corn and grind it into masa, and then how to make those tortillas by hand,” says Estrada, who headed up the 32nd annual fiesta last weekend but was unable to make the lauded “big enchilada” this year due to heavy rain and technical difficulties. “That corn masa is where the flavor is. Anyone can go buy corn meal and add water to make a tortilla, but grinding corn is a real skill.”
While Estrada might have the masa making technique down pat, he assures home cooks that they can still make a mean pan of enchiladas using yellow or white corn tortillas purchased from the grocery store. Here’s his recipe – and should you find yourself in Las Cruces, pop into any of Estrada’s restaurants, where he says he’ll be more than happy to fix up out-of-town visitors a plate of enchiladas just like his mom used to make.
Red Chile Enchiladas
1 pt enchilada sauce
1 dozen fresh corn tortillas
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 lb. grated Colby Jack cheese
1 cup sliced black olives
1 white onion, finely chopped
1. Heat all but 2 tablespoons of shortening in skillet and once melted, dip each tortilla into the shortening for 30 seconds before remove to platter.
2. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of shortening in skillet and pour in the enchilada sauce. Heat until warmed through and then dip each tortilla into the sauce, coating thoroughly in sauce before removing to platter.
3. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Place 1 teaspoon of chopped onions, 1 teaspoon of cheese and 1 teaspoon of chopped olives in center of tortilla and roll. When all tortillas have been filled and rolled, place them in glass or tin pan and pour remaining chile sauce over them. Garnish with the remaining onions, cheese and olives. Bake uncovered until cheese is melted. Serves 4 to 6. Garnish each plate with lettuce or greens.
Red Chile Enchilada Sauce
4 ounces New Mexico red chile pods or red chiles of your choice
2 cups water
2 cloves garlic, peeled
Salt to taste
1. Heat a large iron cast skillet on the stove to high heat. While the pan heats, strip the stems and seeds from the chiles. Arrange the chiles on the pan and turning once with a pair of tongs, cook until lightly toasted. Remove from heat and rinse well.
2. Add the chiles with water and garlic to a blender and blend until smooth. Add more water until chile sauce reaches desired consistency and heat level. Add salt to taste and add sauce to a saucepan and simmer until completely warmed, about 15 minutes. If desired, add a pinch of oregano. Makes about one pint of sauce.