“The traditional techniques of tortilla making reflected the “hard but sure” nature of Mexican campesino kitchens. Twentieth century anthropologists found that a woman cooking for a large family typically spent the entire morning, five or six hours, making tortillas. Work began the night before, when she simmered the corn solution in lime to make nixtamal. The woman rose before dawn to grind the corn on the metate into a dough called masa. Immediately before each meal, she deftly patted the dough into flat, round tortillas and cooked them briefly over the comal. Tortillas could not be saved for the following day, or even the next meal, because they became hard and inedible after a few hours. The dough likewise would not keep more than a day before it began to ferment. So each morning she returned to the stone on hands and knees, with back sloped as if she were a metate wielded by some tyrannical maize goddess.” (Jeffery Pilcher, Que Vivan Los Tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998), 101)
“Visiting writers such as Stephen Crane, author of Red Badge of Courage, were charmed by the Chili Queens [of San Antonio]. He recalled in 1895 that “upon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades — chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles.” Crane depicted a romantic scene: “In the soft atmosphere of the southern night, the cheap glass bottles upon the stands shine like crystal and lamps glow with a tender radiance. A hum of conversation ascends from the strolling visitors who are at their social shrine.”’ (Frank W. Jennings, “Popular Chili Queens Graced San Antonio Plazas,” Journal of Life and Culture in San Antonio)
Two important factors make cooking and eating easier, in some ways, for those who have Celiac and who also live South Texas: the prevalence of Tex-Mex cuisine, and the invention of the mechanized tortilla press. Corn tortillas, most of the time, are perfectly safe for consumption by those who have Celiac or who are gluten-intolerant. Even though they are now mass produced and commercially available, the ingredients from, and the process by which, they’re made remains much the same as those that were processed and pounded out so dutifully by the indigenous women of ancient Mexico.
Commercially available corn tortillas certainly make life easier for those of us who want the benefits of their convenience, but often lack the time to make our own. They are even more valuable as a food source for people who cannot eat gluten; one can place an infinite number of ingredients in a corn tortilla and have a quick gluten-free snack or meal. The corn tortilla’s versatility makes it a perfect foundational ingredient for that other regional food that can be made from an infinite number of ingredients, artfully put together to form a hearty meal: the enchilada. The enchilada we’re familiar with, however, has changed quite a bit from its origins. Dating to the pre-Columbian times, this dish originally consisted of tortillas spread with two sauces: one from squash seeds with epazote tea, and the other from habanero peppers simmered in a tomato puree. These proto-enchiladas would often be stuffed with boiled eggs, but not with cheese. Obviously, the enchilada has evolved over the years into a dish that contains various veggies and / or meat, any variety of cheeses, and any number of sauces. In fact, as long as one has some corn tortillas in her pantry or fridge, and a knack for knowing which ingredients she happens to have on hand in her kitchen complement each other, she can quickly create an impromptu, gluten-free enchilada dinner.
The following crab enchilada recipe originated in just such a manner. I found myself without having planned a vegetarian or seafood dinner one Friday during lent. Not wanting to go to the trouble of dressing to go out, I assessed the content of our pantry and our refrigerator, found corn tortillas, crab, avocado salsa, and cheese. These ingredients, I thought, were perfect for enchiladas. The enchiladas actually tasted delicious and the recipe is now one of my favorites for a quick dinner. It tastes as if it takes more time to prepare than it does: perfect for company!
A note about corn tortillas: they are not all gluten-free, so read ingredients on packages of corn tortillas carefully. Sadly, many Mexican restaurants, such as Curra’s in Austin, and Mi Tierra in San Antonio, add a small amount of flour to their corn tortillas. Anyone who has Celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, before he orders anything made with corn tortillas at a Mexican restaurant, should check with that restaurant’s manager to make sure the corn tortillas contain masa or corn flour, only. One can ask the waiter or waitress; however, food servers (as in any other vocation or profession) vary in their level of competence and reliability, and some won’t bother to ask the cook the necessary questions. The restaurant manager will certainly find out what she doesn’t know off hand, concerning the ingredients in the restaurant’s corn tortillas.
Crab Enchiladas with Avocado Sauce
1 lb Blue Star lump crab meat (see my previous post about Blue Star crab)
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
1 tbls lemon zest
1 tbls lemon juice
1 tbls Tajin Clásico Seasoning
Pepper to taste
3 cups prepared prepared tomatillo-Avocado salsa
12 6-inch gluten-free corn tortillas
3 – 4 cups Monterrey jack cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix together the crab meat, green onions, lemon zest, lemon juice, and Tajin seasoning. Add pepper to taste.
Spread about ¼ cup of the tomatillo salsa on the bottom of a 13×9 inch baking dish. Stack the tortillas on a microwave plate. Cover with a wet paper towel. Microwave on high 30 to 60 seconds, until softened.
Spoon some crab mixture down the center of a tortilla. Sprinkle 1 – 2 tablespoons of shredded Monterrey jack cheese on top of the crab mixture. Roll the tortilla and place, seam side down, in the prepared pan.
Repeat with the remaining tortillas, until all are filled. Pour the remaining tomatillo-avocado sauce over the enchiladas.
Bake in a 350 degree oven until heated through. Just before removing from the oven, sprinkle the remaining Monterrey jack cheese over the top of the enchiladas. Sprinkle more Tajin seasoning over the top of the cheese. Heat until the cheese is completely melted.