Cultural Diffusion Right There in My Oven: Enchiladas Suizas

Every time we go back to my homeland in Washington’s Columbia Basin, we always work in at least one dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Inca in Moses Lake (I know, from the restaurant’s name you’d think it would specialize in Peruvian food).  You won’t find Inca written up in the food critic columns, but here’s a reliable indicator of good authentic Mexican food: this town in the heart of the Northwest’s most productive agricultural region has a sizeable Latino population, and if you go into Inca on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll find a good number of them enjoying a real-deal meal.

One of Inca’s specialties is enchiladas suizas (Swiss enchiladas).  I always used to wonder about the name, since spicy enchiladas don’t automatically make me think of Switzerland.  My Mexican grandma used to make a similar enchilada dish topped with a salsa of green chiles or sometimes tomatillos and filled with whatever meat, cheese, and/or vegetable she had on hand, but she simply called them enchiladas verdes (green enchiladas, certainly a functional name).  When I taught social studies my students always learned about cultural diffusion, and with the Columbus Day holiday, I’ve been thinking again about the “Columbian Exchange,” especially in terms of its influence on the food I love.  These enchiladas suizas are a perfect example, with their main ingredients of New World corn, tomatillos, and chiles and Old World chicken and dairy products.

Quite a few years ago I took a group of my Spanish students on a study trip to Mexico.  We had a meal at Sanborn’s in Guadalajara, a chain restaurant that you could sort of compare to someplace like Applebee’s in the U.S. – decent food for the price, not quite up-scale but several steps above fast food, with a couple of popular signature dishes.  One of those offerings at Sanborn’s is enchiladas suizas, and that day we happened to be seated near a family from Switzerland, of all places.  Not surprisingly, they were unfamiliar with Swiss enchiladas and asked the waiter about them, and he said the enchiladas were thus named because they are topped with Swiss cheese, a contribution of immigrants who came to Mexico from Switzerland during the late 1800s development push of Porfirio Díaz.  Aha, so that was it!  Inca uses crumbled queso fresco (also very good), so I never made the connection.  Ever since that trip to Mexico I’ve made enchiladas suizas with a Swiss cheese, and every time I make them I remember that pleasant afternoon at Sanborn’s.

My tomatillo plants are still going strong, so I’ve taken advantage of them and we’ve had enchiladas suizas twice this week.  These are a great easy make-ahead dish and can be kept in the fridge for a day or two before baking.  The thought also occurred to me when I was making my enchiladas that they would be a very easy assembly-line type production if you like to cook with friends (we love to make tamales like that in an all-afternoon-into-evening party, but this would be a good alternative when there isn’t that much time).

Think of this recipe as a starting point for your own variation, and even if you go with my chicken version, adjust the seasonings to your own taste (I don’t really like garlic, for example, but I think most people would consider it a good addition).  When we had a vegetarian dinner guest, I used a sautéed vegetable medley of butternut squash, potato, and green bell pepper chunks, and it was really good.  That reminds me of an anthropology prof when I studied in Guadalajara years ago….with every new culture she introduced she would tell us that the people relied on “la sagrada trinidad de la gastronomía precolombina – el maíz, el frijol y la calabaza” (the holy trinity of pre-Columbian food – corn, bean, and squash)…. I think some tender-cooked black beans mixed with butternut chunks and some of the bean broth would make a fabulous enchilada filling and blend perfectly with the spicy sweet-tart tomatillo salsa.   All that to say, if you are new to enchilada-making, follow this recipe, but after you are comfortable with the technique, experiment a little and remember that the guiding principle of real country-style Mexican cooking is to use what you have available.  Speaking of ingredients, in this recipe I use emmentaler cheese, which is readily available and inexpensive where I live, but I have a feeling it would cost a lot in the U.S.  Any Swiss-type cheese is fine for this recipe; no need for fancy imports.

Enchiladas Suizas

  • 2 tablespoons minced onions
  • 2 cups diced cooked chicken
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon dark red chile powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
  • 1 cup roasted tomatillo salsa made with roasted jalapeños or poblanos (substitute green chile salsa or canned green enchilada sauce if desired)
  • 1 cup Mexican crema (substitute ½ cup crème fraiche mixed with ½ cup milk)
  • 10 white corn tortillas
  • Corn or other vegetable oil for frying
  • ½ to ¾ cup shredded emmentaler or other Swiss cheese
  • Additional Mexican crema, crème fraiche, or sour cream if desired for garnish

In a small saucepan or sauté pan, lightly brown the onions in a little oil – you can skip this step and simply mix the chopped onions into the rest of the filling ingredients if you aren’t afflicted with an aversion to onions crunching around in your mouth (or omit them entirely if you don’t like onions).  Add the chicken, broth, and seasonings; cook until it is heated through and then keep it on low heat with a lid on.

Combine the salsa and crema or crème fraiche/milk mixture (if the salsa is really mild blend in an additional one or two roasted jalapeños or a small roasted poblano – it won’t be too picante by the time you add the crema and pour the salsa over the mildly spiced tortilla-wrapped chicken).   As you can see in the photos, I used roughly equal parts tomatillos and jalapeños.  That’s because when I cut the first jalapeño in half and scraped out the seeds, it didn’t smell at all hot, so I left the rest whole and used quite a few more.  ¡Híjole!   It turned out mouth-burning picante, but oh, so good.  For details on how to make the tomatillo salsa, see last month’s recipe.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a small frying pan.  Very quickly pass the tortillas through the oil, turning after 3-4 seconds to cook the other side for another 3-4 seconds (use tongs), and stack them on a paper-towel lined plate, blotting with another paper towel as you stack.  This will soften the tortillas so they won’t crack when you fill and roll them, and it is one of the keys to authentic texture and flavor.  I’ve tried all kinds of alternate methods including microwaving, heating on a dry comal, steaming, dipping directly in well-heated salsa, etc., but none of these methods work as well unless you have really fresh tortillas (there used to be a store in Moses Lake that manufactured them on the premises, and we could buy an amazingly good warm stack straight off the conveyor belt – I grew up on my Grandma’s flour tortillas and didn’t know what I was missing until that store opened, and now I really miss those delicious tortillas).   Since the tortillas I used in this recipe travelled across the ocean in a package that says they are best if used by January 17, 2012, I opted for my usual hot oil method.  If you have freshly-made tortillas, you can heat them on a hot dry skillet for a few seconds and they will roll without cracking if you work quickly and heat and fill one tortilla at a time, but if your tortillas are more than a couple of days old, give them a quick frying in oil.  If you are concerned about extra fat and calories, it really isn’t very much (I quickly fried 10 tortillas like this in a small pan with two tablespoons of oil and still had a little left in the pan, so I would say that each tortilla absorbed less than a teaspoon of oil).

Heat the oven to 350 F. and spray a baking dish with cooking spray.  Pour a little of the salsa mixture into the bottom of the pan and spread it around. (I used two 8” square glass pans and each pan held a row of four enchiladas with one more along the end of the four – I baked one pan right away and kept the other pan in the fridge for later in the week.  If you want to bake all of the enchiladas at once, they will fit in a 9 x 13 pan.)

Spoon a scant ¼ cup of the chicken mixture onto a tortilla, roll it over, and place seam side down in the baking dish on top of the thin layer of salsa; repeat to fill the rest of the tortillas.  After you have used all of the chicken to fill the tortillas, pour the salsa/crema mixture into the liquid left in the chicken pan and mix to combine.  Then pour the mixture evenly over the enchiladas, cover with foil, and bake for 20 minutes or until the enchiladas are heated all the way through.  Take off the foil and sprinkle with shredded cheese.  Return to the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and the salsa is bubbly hot (as you might be able to tell from the photo, only one of us is a cheese-eater).

If you are making the enchiladas to serve later, pour a very thin layer of the salsa over each enchilada; cover the dish and refrigerate, and save the rest of the salsa to add when you are baking the enchiladas.  By the way, if you have leftovers, they reheat well in the microwave.

Enchiladas suizas are super-easy to make and really, really delicious.  If you want to make good traditional chicken enchiladas like you would find in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S. instead, simply substitute a red or green chile salsa and queso fresco.  Mexican food is infinitely varied, and there are many different regional versions of enchiladas, so don’t stop with these.  Just try making some enchiladas, and you’ll have a new specialty of your own!


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