GUEST POST: Abuelita’s Chilaquiles

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5.03.13 by Shaeda Ahmadi

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Sarah made the mistake of inviting me back for another post.  If you’re stumped about what to serve at that Cinco de Mayo brunch, give this puppy a shot.  They go just wonderfully with a cold Corona, or refreshing margarita.

My abuelita Josefina has the most beautiful hands.

Her fingers are long and agile; now that she’s older, they curl inward on their own, as if they’re waiting to catch something. She has perfectly oval nail beds. I remember them as a child always painted a fiery red or a delicate rose, but nothing in between. These hands are somehow, miraculous, wrinkle-free. I have no idea how she’s managed it, but as the rest of her body has given in to time, her hands remain unblemished.

One of my favorite dishes growing up (and now, if I’m being completely honest here), was my grandmother’s chilaquiles. There’s something to this day about the smell of frying bacon and the sight of cotija cheese that makes my stomach rumble for the past. Whenever my mother and I discuss details of an upcoming sojourn to California, she always asks me the same question: “Tatis wants to know if you want chilaquiles. Well?”

Of course I do. Wouldn’t you?

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Chilaquiles are the ultimate Mexican comfort food. You can them on brunch menus, hidden away as one tapa among dozen. They can be served in a red or green chile-based sauce, but the main elements never change. Fried tortillas, salsa, diced onions, and cheese. I order them nearly every time I see them on the menu, my taste buds longing for a taste of home. And I am nearly always disappointed when that first bite reaches my lips. The sauce may have no flavor; the plate may be so overloaded with condiments that my dish resembles a nacho platter. I’m starting to realize that I need to just concede defeat here. Nothing will be quite like Tatis’ chilaquiles.  It’s high time I started making them myself.

During my last visit, I stood over at her shoulder in the tiny kitchen she lords over, watching her movements like a hawk. I tried to take stock of her movements, pinpoint when exactly she began to make a well amid the pile of crunchy tortilla strips to saute the onions, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her hands.

They were shaking. Very subtly, but the tremor was there.

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In that moment, my heart sank. We’ve known for some time that her nervous system has been dancing on the edge of Parkinson’s, but this was the first time I’d see it take a hold of her body. Gone were the sturdy, capable fingers that held my hand as we walked to school, or pulled my thick hair into a tight bun on the top of my head. (My hairline receded a full inch the year my grandmother lived with us. It’s grown back, thankfully, but neither my school pictures or elephant memory have forgotten.) Where were those hands now? The hands of a seamstress, who worked in a cramped factory seven days a week to help feed her family; the hands of mother, hand washing diapers to dry on a line.

She asked me to pass her the onions, so I did.

As her voice pulled me back into the present, I held out my plate and watched her deftly pile the chilaquiles high. Our arms brushed, for just a moment, and she smiled proudly. Look at those beauties, she said, motioning to my hands. You get those from me, you know.

Ojala, I thought. God willing.

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Abuelita’s Chilaquiles*

*A quick note about chiles. When I finally got instructions from my mother after weeks of harassment, she sent me back an ingredient list that called for “three red peppers (the skinny ones).” Helpful, right? After some investigating and a conversation with my aunt, I can safely say that Tatis normally uses chile de arbol, a dried chili that is usually readily found at your local grocer. Any combination of chiles you’d like to use will do just fine.

6 slices of thick cut bacon
1 package corn tortillas
2 whole red tomatoes
2 medium sized tomatillos
3 red jalapeños
1 thai chili
1 15 oz can of tomato sauce
2 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 cup white onion, finely diced + extra for garnish
Cotija cheese
optional: one fried egg

Cut your tortilla into strips, then again to form squares. Leave out at room temperature for at least a day, allowing them to become stale. Fry the bacon in batches until well done; set the pieces aside on a paper towel to trade, and reserve the grease.

In an oven heated to 350 degrees, bake the tomatillos on a baking sheet for ten minutes or until soft to the touch. While our green friends sizzle away, finely chop the jalapeños and thai chili, keeping as many of the seeds (and the heat) as you can muster. Roughly chop the baked tomatillo and tomatoes.

In a medium saucepan on medium heat, bring the tomato, tomatillos and chili to a boil. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until the tomato pulp falls apart and the jalapeno become slightly aromatic. Add oregano, salt and tomato sauce and cook for another 5 minutes. Throw the whole thing into a blender with the garlic cloves, or puree with an immersion blender. Set aside.

Reheat your preserved bacon grease over medium-high heat. When hot, add the tortilla squares in batches and fry until each is perfectly crispy. Form a well in the center of the pan to saute your onions for 2 – 3 minutes. Add sauce to the pan, coating thoroughly, and cook for two more minutes.

Serve with a healthy serving of cotija cheese, crumbled up bacon, and diced onion. A fried egg on top will do nicely also, but you won’t miss it.

  • Karen Knapp

    I imagine that there are as many recipes for chilaquiles as there are abuelitas. I live on the west coast of Mexico, and our chilaquiles here are slightly different, but always delicious. They are usually served with some drizzles of crema, as well. Thanks for the recipe, so lovingly written.

    • Shaeds

      Karen–thanks so much for the lovely thoughts!

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