A steaming plate of enchiladas is one of my favorite meals. I love how the depth of flavor in a good enchilada sauce wakes up the tongue; and then of course there's the added bonus of melted cheese. But the process of making enchiladas is a bit fussy. Baked while sitting rank and file, nestled against each other in a queue, they demand a tidy symmetry. The result is a row of neat and snug packages wrapped in their own corn tortillas, which is lovely on the plate, but unnecessary for a family dinner. Anyone who has gone through the process of making homemade enchiladas knows that filling each individual tortilla can be time consuming and messy; plus traditional enchilada sauce is difficult to make from scratch and it's hard to find a good one in a can or jar. It is for all these reasons that I abandoned making red sauce enchiladas at home and instead converted my recipe into a casserole. Little did I realize how good this dish would be, how inexpensive it would be to make, nor how much my family would love it.
The casserole's innate unruly character seemed like a perfect fit for enchilada's zesty ingredients. I figured I would use many of the same components -- chicken, cheese and a red sauce -- and then crossed my fingers that I would end up with something that was close to enchiladas. Yet as with so much in life, making what seemed a paltry amendment to preparation instructions ended up altering the finished product's essence. With the ingredients now added in a hodgepodge of layers, the spices and flavors were given the freedom to intermingle while chilies, sour cream and cheese were at liberty to melt into each other. And while conventional enchilada sauces are made up of dried chilies, I felt that the freewheeling nature of the casserole gave me license to be a bit more innovative. Okay, fine, I only added in tomatoes as a sauce base, but I never would have done this if I'd been making old-school enchiladas. When all was said and done, and I removed that bubbling cheesy dish from the oven, I found that enchilada casserole tastes even more luxurious than its authentic cousin.
As with enchiladas, this casserole is full of southwestern ingredients. Fresh Anaheim chili peppers cooked with chicken (or vegetables), onions, tomatoes, cumin, and Mexican oregano, not to mention a nice dose of chili powder, provides the satisfying Mexican flavors you expect but also a little more. You can also add in a jalapeno for some heat. If you want to keep this dish meat-free, just use roasted butternut or acorn squash instead of chicken (and savor the sweet earthy taste of those vegetables against the mildly picante flavors of the sauce).
Making the filling for this one-dish meal is a breeze, but assembling it is even easier. After toasting the tortillas a bit in a pan, you just layer half of them in a casserole dish, top with half the filling, some cheese and sour cream, and then add on another layer. That's it.
So if you love enchiladas, but aren't crazy about making them; or if you simply crave an easy-to-make hearty one-dish meal that will please your entire family, here is my recipe for Cheesy Enchilada Casserole. The main recipe uses chicken but I've also included a vegetarian alternative that uses butternut or acorn squash at the end. Both are great choices for an easy and hearty dinner at home.
Cheesy Chicken Enchilada Casserole
Makes: one 9 x 13 casserole
12 corn tortillas
5 chicken thighs (or two cups leftover chicken)
½ cup chicken stock or water
2 large Anaheim peppers chopped
½ large onion chopped
1 Tbsp plus ½ tsp Ancho or Chipotle chili powder (regular chili powder can be subbed in, but the Ancho and Chipotle are so good they're worth seeking out)
1 tsp cumin
1 Tbsp Mexican oregano (or regular)
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup sour cream
¼ cup milk
1 cup shredded Monterey jack, Colby or cheddar cheese (use 1 ½ cups if not using Cotijo)
½ cup Cotijo cheese (optional)
1 Tbsp lime juice
¼ cup chopped cilantro (optional)
1 Tbsp corn or vegetable oil (or enough to thinly coat the bottom of a large pan)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. If using fresh chicken, place thighs in a pan, sprinkle with salt, pepper and about ½ tsp chili powder and then cover with chicken stock or water. Cook covered for 7-10 minutes, turning over after about 4 minutes. Simmer until cooked through and then remove both chicken and broth from the pan to cool. Shred chicken and keep the broth in a separate dish.
3. Heat the same pan (now empty) to medium heat and then add in the oil, chopped Anaheim peppers and onions. If using jalapeno, add now. Sauté for 10 minutes.
4. Add in the rest of your chili powder plus your cumin and oregano. Be sure to crush the oregano in your hand first (as this releases the flavors more thoroughly into the dish). Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Add in your shredded chicken (if using chopped leftover chicken add in now), broth, and tomatoes and stir until everything is thoroughly mixed in. Taste and then add more salt if needed. Simmer for 15 - 20 minutes on low heat.
6. Heat a medium pan (I like to use cast iron) to warm up your tortillas. I use medium high heat. Add in a little oil (must enough to barely cover the bottom of the pan) and fry each tortilla until warmed through and slightly crisp. Set aside on a plate.
7. Mix the cilantro and lime juice into your filling and stir. Taste one more time to see if you need to add any salt or pepper and then remove from heat.
8. Mix the milk into your sour cream (whisking to combine) and then set up a workspace with your 9 x 13" pan (which you should spray or line with oil), tortillas, grated cheeses, and filling.
9. Using a ladle, scoop mostly sauce (i.e., not much meat or vegetables) into the bottom of the casserole dish and then lay 6 of your heated tortillas into the bottom of the pan. Top with half your filling followed by drizzling on half your sour cream (making sure you even distribute). Set half your cheese on top of that and then repeat by laying on the remaining tortillas, filling, sour cream and cheeses.
10. Set dish in the oven for about 30 minutes (25 if using a convection oven) or until the entire casserole is warmed through and the cheese is bubbly.
11. Serve and enjoy.
Cheesy Squash Enchilada Casserole Variation
Follow the above instructions with the following alteration:
1. Instead of cooking the chicken in step 1, roast your peeled and chopped squash in the oven with some olive oil and salt until al dente.
2. In step 5 leave out the chicken (obviously) and add in ½ cup vegetable broth instead. Also, do not add in your squash yet as you don't want to overcook it. Instead just simmer your other vegetables in the tomatoes and broth.
3. Add your cubed and roasted squash in step 7.