Tex-Mex is not Mexican food. That’s right, even though many of the restaurants you see across Texas often call themselves Mexican they’re not. But that’s OK. When Diana Kennedy said that the food Texans were cooking was an abomination of her beloved la cocina Mexicana, Texans replied, “You’re correct. Tex-Mex is a cuisine of its own!”
As much respect I have for Kennedy’s work, she was rather draconian in her assessment of what was happening north of the border. And as Tex-Mex is practically a youngster in the grand scheme of world cuisines (it’s only been around for about 150 years), it’s still evolving.
Many traditional Mexican ingredients, such as epazote, huitlacoche, prickly pear, jicama and yes, even cilantro were absent on the classic Tex-Mex menu, which was a brown and yellow feast of tamales, tacos, enchiladas, and queso, sandwiched between mountains of rice and refried beans.
Yet despite the evolution of the cuisine, there will always be room in my heart for that Tex-Mex classic: cheese enchiladas. And no, I’m not talking about goat cheese enchiladas. And no, I’m not talking about radish, rajas, and queso añejo enchiladas. I’m talking about a plate of rolled corn tortillas stuffed with oozing yellow cheese, floating in puddles of brown-chili gravy. Yes, that kind of cheese enchilada. The Tex-Mex kind.
What makes these enchiladas so special? It’s the chili gravy, a Tex-Mex classic and said by food writer Robb Walsh to be the essence of the cuisine itself. (And if you don’t have Walsh’s definitive tome on the subject, The Tex Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, a must-have for all homesick Texans or fans of Texan cooking.)
Chili gravy is a mash-up between flour-based gravy and Mexican chile sauce. It’s a smooth and silky substance, redolent with earthy cumin, smoky chiles, and pungent garlic. It’s not fiery, as it was created by Anglos, but it does have flavor. And usually, there’s no meat in chili gravy—it’s just fat, flour, broth, and spices.
If you eat Tex-Mex outside of the state, the absence of this sauce is what makes the food taste wrong. It took me a long time to crack the Tex-Mex code, but when I found this recipe and made it for the first time, it was an epiphany: this was the flavor I’d been searching for.
On cold, bitter days, sometimes you just want to eat comfortable food, something to make you feel warm and cozy. And if macaroni and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches are your usual comforts of choice, why not give these a try? They’re cheesy, not too spicy, and a true taste of Texas. Sure, you may have had cheese enchiladas, but unless you had them in Texas, they probably didn’t taste like these.
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Cheese enchiladas with chili gravy
Ingredients for the gravy:
- 1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 cups beef broth, chicken broth, or water
Ingredients for the cheese enchiladas
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 8 corn tortillas
- 3 cups shredded Colby-Jack cheese
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- Pickled jalapeños, for serving
- To make the gravy, heat the lard or oil in a pot over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and stir until it's lightly browned and fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute.
- Whisk in the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, oregano, salt, and pepper until well combined. Pour in the broth, then whisk with the flour until well blended. Continue to whisk until the sauce thickens, about 3-5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Turn the heat to low and let the gravy simmer for 15 minutes. Add more broth or water to thin the sauce if it's too thick.
- Meanwhile, to make the enchiladas, preheat the oven to 450° F.
- Pour the vegetable oil into a baking dish or large cast-iron skillet. Place the tortillas in the baking dish (it’s okay if they overlap) and make sure they are covered with the oil. Place uncovered in the oven as it heats for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the tortillas are soft and warm. Remove the tortillas from the baking dish and cover. Pour 1/2 cup of chili gravy into the dish.
- To assemble the enchiladas, take a tortilla and place 1/4 cup of the shredded cheese and 1 tablespoon of the onion down the center then roll it. Place the rolled tortilla in the baking dish, seam side down. Continue with the remaining tortillas.
- After assembling the enchiladas, evenly pour over them the rest of the chili gravy. Sprinkle on top the remaining cheese and onions. Bake uncovered for 10 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and cheese has melted.
- Serve warm with pickled jalapeños on the side.