If you sit down at any restaurant in California, from a burger joint to Spago in Beverly Hills, chances are your meal will be prepared by a Latino worker. Gardening, cooking, cleaning and looking after children are still the domain of immigrants from Latin and South America, and they will probably be for another couple of generations. In kitchens all over the state, some manage to climb to chef’s positions, but most are the engine behind the cooking lines, the hands that learn to make anything, from pasta to sushi.
Working alongside them for many years bestowed me many gifts, of the sort that keep on giving. My rudimentary Spanish has become more passable and I was introduced to subtle differences in Oaxacan or Yucatan cuisines and, while by no means an expert, I have come to appreciate various styles of cooking I was utterly unfamiliar with. And then there was the discovery of Mexican comfort food.
Our morning crew would come in at 6 am and start cooking in earnest and, by 10 am, it was time for a break. Without fail, someone would have blended a batch of licuado (a milk, rice and fruit drink), or some rice pudding with cinnamon or, better still, chilaquiles which, in my mind, are the ultimate comfort food.
While the first chilaquiles recipes appeared in cookbooks at the end of the 19th century, I suspect the dish is a lot of older, and I would venture to say it was born out of the necessity to use older tortillas. It has the advantage of whipping up in minutes and of being the receptacle of whatever you might have in the fridge. If Mexican crema and queso fresco or queso panela are not available in your part of the world, heavy cream and Jack cheese or Gruyère will do.
The recipe hereunder is my adaptation of a version by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the doyennes of LA’s Mexican cooking translated for gringos. You can use commercial salsa but, as I have an intolerance to cilantro, I made the chipotle salsa that came with the recipe and I was happy I did – any old excuse to eat chipotle peppers. For a breakfast variation, try to scramble some eggs in too. I have a hard time drinking my coffee with spicy food but you might enjoy it.
Do try it and you will thank me. It’s not something you will easily find on menus but the cooks in the back will most likely will have made batch while getting ready to prepare your meal.
Serves 6 to 8
Ingredients for the salsa:
2 canned chipotle chilies
2 ripe Roma tomatoes, cored
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 1/2 C water
1 ts salt
a pinch black pepper
- Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until liquid has reduced by one third.
- Take off the heat and let cool a bit. Remove the skins from the tomatoes and then blend the mixture. Strain and refrigerate.
Ingredients for the chilaquiles:
2 C chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 C Mexican crema or heavy cream
6/8 C corn tortilla chips
1 1/2 C queso fresco or other mild cheese, grated
2 C roasted vegetables – I used corn and black beans
1 avocado, peeled and cubed
1 C chipotle salsa or other salsa
- In a wide skillet over medium heat, heat the roasted vegetables. Add the salsa, broth and cream and bring to a boil. Add the tortilla chips and mix gently.
- After a couple of minutes, when the chips are getting moist and are starting to break up, add the cheese. Stir gently allowing the cheese to melt and coat most of the chips.
- Remove from the heat and serve, topped with the avocado. Squeeze some lime juice and enjoy. You can add a sprinkle of cilantro and some red onion too.