Cheri Brown is like a lot of us. She can't break out of her cooking comfort zone.
But that packet mix that's she's relied on for so long to make enchiladas has gotten old.
"I'm tired of the same old," said the Ceres woman.
We've all been in Brown's shoes. We continue to use a packet or box mix, say for pudding or gravy, because it's so easy. And just because it's easy doesn't mean it's better, according to Annie Bell, most recently the author of "The Camping Cookbook" (Kyle Books, $16.95). "My great bugbear with ready mixes is that they play on people's insecurities."
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You still have to add the wet ingredients, Bell said. "There is also every chance that the dried ones will be of a lesser quality than had you bought them yourself."
So how do you trade easy and reliable for fresh and flavorful leavened with a shot of self-confidence?
We took Brown's request for an enchilada sauce makeover to a half-dozen restaurateurs. Florencio Aguilar, owner for 15 years of La Morenita in Merced and for three years of Florencio's Mexican Restaurant, was the only one who responded to our request.
His graciousness and his reassuring voice won us over.
"They're so easy to make," said Aguilar of enchiladas. "I make them for parties, I make them for weddings."
Enchiladas really are a cook's best friend. They're nearly foolproof, plus they can be made ahead and baked later. They're a perfect vessel for leftover cooked meat. And they can be personalized with olives, green onions, mint, cilantro, etc. They're also easy to assemble: Make sauce and mix a third with the meat, pour a third in the bottom of a rectangular baking dish and save a third for pouring over the assembled batch. Lightly fry corn tortillas or warm them on a hot griddle, dip both sides of the tortilla in the sauce in the baking dish, fill and roll and place at the far end of the baking dish. Repeat. When you're done, top with the remaining enchilada sauce, cheese, olives and green onions and bake.
Alternatively, warm the sauce and filling. Quickly fry the tortillas in a little bit of hot oil and dip in the warm sauce. Fill and roll. Top with cheese and broil until the cheese melts.
Getting into the habit of cooking and planning meals can go a long way toward making a kitchen an inviting gathering place and breaking out of the same-old "what's for dinner?" routine. For Brown and her recently retired husband, cooking together can be a way to reconnect with each other even after 25 years of marriage.
Plus, food is enjoying an "eat local" renaissance, so finding advice and trying new recipes couldn't be easier. There are food blogs, cooking shows and cookbooks with names like "What to Cook & How to Cook It" that take the mystery out of putting together a dish. Each recipe in Jane Hornby's "What to Cook" (Phaidon Press, $39.95) is accompanied by photographs showing every step in the cooking process, from measuring the ingredients to the plated dish.
Starting with a food you like (enchiladas) and trying the many variations (red sauce, green sauce, cream sauce) can inspire confidence and be a launching point for other dishes.
"If you are not a seasoned cook, don't be hoodwinked into believing that complicated techniques and lengthy lists of ingredients will give you better results," Bell wrote in an e-mail. "Being freshly prepared is enough in itself."
Yvette Van Boven, author of "Homemade" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $40), suggests soup as a starter recipe.
"Not only is soup a comforting dish," she wrote in an e-mail. "It's almost always easy to make!"
And, she added, "they fill the house with a homemade soup aroma that gets you hungry in an instant."
Bee staff writer Sharon K. Ghag can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2340.
Red Enchilada Sauce
Makes: Enough for 12 enchiladas
This recipe is from Florencio Aguilar of Florencio's Mexican Restaurant in Merced. He suggests using it with a beef filling.
6 dry pasilla chilies
12 California chilies
6 New Mexico chilies
6 Guajillo chilies
½ teaspoon oregano
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
Soak chilies in 2 cups warm water for 30 minutes, and then boil for about 20 minutes or until chilies soften and begin to break apart. Cool mixture. Place the cooled mixture in a blender with a ½ teaspoon of oregano (Mexican preferred), the four garlic cloves and 1 teaspoon salt and process until smooth. Pour the contents of the blender back into the pan and cook for 20 minutes or until it thickens slightly. You should have about 1 cup sauce.
White Enchilada Sauce
Makes: Enough for 12 enchiladas
This recipe is from Florencio Aguilar of Florencio's Mexican Restaurant in Merced. This sauce is ideal with chicken.
1 cup sour cream
½ cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
½ cup jack cheese, shredded
4 ounces butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
12 ounces heavy cream
Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan and warm until bubbles begin to form and the sauce is warmed to the touch and all the ingredients blend.
Green Enchilada Sauce
Makes: Enough for 12 enchiladas
This recipe is also from Florencio Aguilar. Try it with chicken, shrimp, fish or any white meat.
20 fresh tomatillos
10 fresh jalapeños
3 garlic cloves
Roughly chop and then boil the tomatillos until they soften, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the jalapeños by holding them with tongs over an open flame until the skin blisters. Cool and remove as much skin as possible.
Place the tomatillos, jalapeños, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt in a small pan and cook for 20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens and the mixture turns yellow.
This recipe is adapted from "The Culinary Institute of America Cookbook" (Lebhar-Friedman Books, $39.95).
2 teaspoons corn oil
1 onion, medium dice
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup farmer's cheese
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 cups shredded cooked chicken meat
2 cups quartered tomatillos
1 cup sliced scallions
2/3 cup chopped cilantro
2 roasted jalapeños, seeded, diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
½ teaspoon each, ground cumin and coriander
12 corn tortillas
6 ounces Monterey jack, shredded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil in a small skillet. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is a light golden brown, six to eight minutes. Remove onion from the heat.
Purée the farmer's cheese in a food processor until smooth. With the machine running, add the heavy cream in a stream. Remove the cheese mixture from the processor to a bowl. Fold in the chicken and sautéed onion.
Place the tomatillos, scallions, cilantro, jalapeños, mint, cumin and coriander in a food processor or blender and purée to make a sauce. Place in a shallow bowl.
Soften tortillas one at a time by toasting in a cast-iron skillet on medium heat for about 15 seconds on each side. Dip the tortilla into the sauce to lightly coat. Place a spoonful of filling in the center of the tortilla and roll up. Place the filled and rolled enchilada in a buttered baking dish. Repeat. Spoon remaining sauce over the enchiladas, sprinkle with cheese, cover and bake until the filling is hot, about 15 minutes. Remove cover and bake long enough for the topping to melt.
Cheese Enchiladas With Red Sauce
Total time: 1½ hours
This recipe is from "Eating Well Fast & Flavorful Meatless Meals by Jessie Price" (The Countryman Press, $24.95).
2 teaspoons canola oil
½ cup minced white onion
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup mild to medium red New Mexico chili powder
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
½ teaspoon salt
1 15-ounce can pinto beans, rinsed and mashed
2 tablespoons low-fat plain yogurt
12 corn tortillas
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
¼ cup minced white onion
Sauce: Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add half cup onion; cook, stirring, until it softens, about one minute. Stir in garlic and continue cooking until the onion is translucent and soft, about two more minutes. Stir in chili powder. Add broth, water, oregano and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until thickened and reduced about one-third, about 20 minutes. Sauce should be thick enough to lightly coat a spoon.
To prepare enchiladas: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 7-by-11-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Combine beans and yogurt in a small bowl. Spread about ¼ cup of the sauce in the baking dish. Arrange four tortillas in the dish, overlapping them to cover the bottom. Top with half the bean mixture and spread it thin. Scatter 2/3 cup cheese and 2 tablespoons onion on top of the beans. Top with 1/3 of the remaining sauce, four tortillas, the remaining bean mixture, 2/3 cup cheese and the remaining 2 tablespoons onion. Spread half the remaining sauce on top and cover with the remaining four tortillas. Top with remaining sauce and the remaining 1/3 cup cheese. Bake enchiladas until hot and bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes.
Note: Whole dried New Mexican chilies can be used in place of the chili powder. Just grind in a spice mill. Ancho chili powder also can be used.