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.