Last week, I had the opportunity to fulfill a fantasy I’ve always had: being a ranch cook.
Let me admit, first of all, a chuck wagon never really figured into this fantasy. Given the choice of having a couple of stainless steel ovens, dishwashers and running water, I’d choose these any day over digging up a meal in a cast iron pot buried in hot coals. Outside, in 103-degree heat.
Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard, near Elmendorf, about 20 minutes south of San Antonio, was busy last week as it was harvest time in the orchard. The ranch kitchen is nicely equipped, air conditioned and big enough for a cook and several helpers to work at one time. This was fortunate since we’d have roughly 24 people sitting down to lunch that day, and helpers, thank goodness, were on hand.
In choosing a meal for the crew I decided on enchiladas. They are always a crowd-pleaser, easy to make and easy to serve. Put one on a plate with a steak and some guacamole and you have Steak a la Tampiqueña, a fancy sort of dish for dinner. Put together several dozen enchiladas for a ranch lunch, add beans and a salad on the side and you’re home free.
Instead of red enchiladas with cheese and green chicken enchiladas, I decided to put the red sauce over the chicken-filled tortillas and I made the green enchiladas with several kinds of cheese. No one seemed to mind this switcheroo. (Someone even told the Italian visitors that the dishes were "Mexican lasagna.")
Since I don’t often cook with recipes, and since most of us have our own method of making enchiladas, I’ll just put some pointers on making enchiladas for a crowd. Oh, and here's a tip right at the top: If you're cooking for working men (or growing boys) make plenty. Be sure everyone gets three — maybe four.
- If you’re making chicken enchiladas, try to stew the chicken you’ll need, even if you do it a day ahead. It will taste the best. I took the meat off the bones of two large, cooked chickens, shredded it and added fresh Mexican oregano, a little garlic salt and pepper, diced onions, shredded Jack and Colby cheese, plus just a little of the chicken broth to keep the meat moist.
- Use your favorite enchilada sauce, and plenty of it. (I used three-four large cans per tray of enchiladas.) Fry the tortillas (or spray them with oil and bake them just long enough for them to soften.) Put them in a stack on a warm plate.
- Heat the enchilada sauce, then ladle enough of it onto a cookie sheet (with sides) to just cover the bottom. Dip each tortilla in warm sauce. Roll up 2-3 tablespoons of the chicken into the tortilla and set it in the pan, seam side down. Repeat, lining them up, until the pan is full. You’ll probably have more than two dozen enchiladas.
- Pour more of the sauce over the enchiladas, sprinkle on more cheese (be liberal, as this is usually everyone’s favorite part) and put in a 350-degree oven until they are baked and bubbly (about 15 minutes). When they came out of the oven, I sprinkled on a couple of handfuls of crumbled Mexican cotija cheese, too, as I like its salty flavor.
For the green cheese enchiladas, I used canned green enchilada sauce, plus a can or two of Herdez tomatillo salsa. Proceed the same way with the tortillas. Heat the sauce and have a big bowl of shredded Jack and Longhorn cheese ready, along with some grated Mexican cheese, such as Chihuahua.
I seasoned the cheese with a chopped cilantro and diced onion. Finely minced green olive is also good in these enchiladas, or even in the sauce, but I didn’t remember to pick any up. (And freshly harvested green olives are inedible!)
We rolled another cookie sheet full of green enchiladas. Again, they went into the oven and baked until the cheese over the top was melted and bubbly and the enchiladas well cooked. Cotija is especially great on green enchiladas, whether made of cheese or chicken. If you like sour cream on green chicken enchiladas, drizzle some over the top of these cheese enchiladas, too, before you bake them. I like to use Mexican crema, too.
I won’t say everyone was wowed by these enchiladas, but they were good. I think the crew was more interested in getting enough to eat so they could power through the rest of a hot and strenuous day. For me, though, it was a fantasy come true – even without the chuck wagon.