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Friday, June 21

Gapers Block

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About a year ago, I wrote a column about what to do with a bushel of tomatoes: turn it into lots of jars of Italian tomato sauce. Some of you did it — thank y'all for telling me how it turned out for you — and some of you rolled your eyes at the thought of buying 53 pounds of tomatoes.

And I don't blame you. Not at all. It was a crapload of work, but the results were fabulous. I still actually have three jars of last year's bounty because I admittedly got a little burnt out on my own sauce. But when Andrew called me and said "Caputo's has bushels of tomatoes for 49 cents a pound. Should I get one?" I didn't hesitate to say yes.

Most of that box will get turned into some wonderful Italian-style tomato sauce, because I know three jars from last year isn't going to get me through another winter. But since I have a surplus, I decided that I should come up with something else to do with at least some of them. And of course I thought about what I was hungry for the next day. That's when I remembered the enchiladas that my mom used to make.

I was delighted when a friend shared her mother's enchilada recipe with me a few years ago, and they are really good. But they're not like my mom's — although I don't want to make them the same way she does.

My mom grew up in southern California and was just as influenced by the cuisine of her Mexican neighbors as she was by that of her mostly German parents. So when she moved to rural Ohio, she was happy that she could get the German ingredients she wanted, but disappointed not to find the Mexican ingredients. This led to improvisation.

Her version of enchiladas was ground meat fried with onion and a little garlic powder and chili powder. The fat would be drained off and then corn tortillas would be filled with the ground beef, mild cheddar cheese and black olive rings from a can. These would be placed in a casserole dish and then covered with red sauce, which was a can of plain tomato sauce that had a packet of "Mexican seasoning" stirred into it. More cheese and olives would be sprinkled on top and then it would be baked.

It wasn't as good as what she grew up with, but it was close enough to keep her nostalgia bug satisfied. And I liked it growing up, but I can't help but feel like I can do better since I have more ingredients at my disposal than she had, and the occasional willingness (and time) to do things like make homemade tomato sauce.

Which brings me to explaining how I made a homemade spicy tomato sauce that has the spice level of what you'd get from a jar of "medium" bottled salsa. The hardware that you need is a 6 to 8-quart stockpot, a pair of new rubber gloves (the cheaper, thinner ones are actually better), a mostly plastic tomato press, a knife, a baking sheet covered with tinfoil, and a bowl.

If you don't want to buy the food mill to peel the tomatoes, here is how you can do it the old-fashioned way. Bring a pot of water to a roiling boil. Drop the tomatoes in one at a time and let them bob around for about 30-60 seconds, or until the skin starts to split. Fish the tomato out of the water and peel the skins off. Wearing the plastic gloves will protect your hands from the heat, and the texturized tips will make it easier to peel the skin. After doing about three tomatoes, you're going to wish you had that food mill, though.

The ingredients you'll need:
1 pound of jalapeño peppers
1 medium yellow onion
7 cloves of garlic
3 1/2 teaspoons of ground cumin
7 pounds of tomatoes
salt to taste

This will get you about 2 quarts of spicy tomato sauce, so if you're interested in making less, follow these proportions:
1 part jalapeño peppers
7 parts tomatoes
2 tablespoons of minced onion per pound of tomatoes
1 clove of garlic per pound of tomatoes
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin per pound of tomatoes
salt to taste

Set your oven to broil. While wearing the rubber gloves, cut the stem off a pepper, then cut it in half and, using your thumb, scrape out the seeds and the white pith. (The white pith and seeds are where a lot of the heat is, so leave these in if you want spicier sauce.) Place the pepper halves on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper, skin side up. Once you've cut all your peppers, put the sheet in your oven on the top-most rack. Watch them closely. After about 3 minutes you'll notice large bubbles appearing on the skins. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and turn the oven off. While still wearing the gloves, grab the bubbled skin and peel it off. You don't have to get every last bit, but the more you get the better texture your sauce will have. Once the skin is removed, place the peppers in a food processor with an onion that has been peeled and cut in quarters, or chop it by hand till it is finely minced. In the stock pot over medium heat, add the oil and cumin. Stir it constantly for about 30 seconds and then add the jalapeño and onions. Lower the heat to medium-low and let it cook slowly until the onion gets soft. This will take a while, so it can cook while you remove the seeds from the tomatoes and run them through the tomato press. If the onion starts to brown, simply turn the heat off and let it sit.

Rinse the tomatoes to remove any dirt and inspect them for any bad spots which should be cut out. If your skin is sensitive, put the gloves on for this next part since the acid in the tomatoes could irritate your skin. Cut the tomato in half and, using either a small spoon or your thumb, scrape out the seeds and juicy center into a bowl to be discarded. The seeds will make the sauce bitter, and the liquid doesn't add much flavor but does increase your cooking time. Run the tomatoes through the press several times to get as much of the pulp off the skins as you can. Discard the skins and add the tomato pulp to the stockpot. Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium low and let it simmer, uncovered, for about an hour and a half. Stir every 10-20 minutes and lower the heat if it seems to be sticking or burning. It should reduce to a thick but smooth sauce. If you want it smoother you can use your blender or a stick-blender to purée it.

Once it reduces, pour it into glass jars (with an inch of room at the top to allow for expansion) and refrigerate for 2-3 weeks or freeze for up to 6 months. Or you can quickly cool it down by putting the pan in an ice-water bath in your sink and then ladle a cup or two into plastic bags so you have them in single-serving portions. Or use it immediately to make yummy enchiladas, kinda like my mom's.

Chicken Enchiladas
1 pound of chicken breast
1 small onion
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup plus 1/2 cup of anejo cheese
12 corn tortillas
2 1/2 cups of fresh tomato sauce

Preheat your oven to 375° F. Rinse the chicken breast and remove any unwanted fat. Chop the breast into 1-inch cubes and place in a food processor with an onion that has been cut into quarters. Pulse several times to chop the chicken into small chunks, but not into mush. Or you can chop it by hand till it is very fine. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and ground cumin. Stir constantly for about 30 seconds and then add the chicken and onion. Stir occasionally while the chicken cooks through. In a small saucepan (but big enough to hold the corn tortilas) set to very low heat, place 2 cups of the fresh tomato sauce. Shred the anejo cheese. Since it melts quickly, you may have to refrigerate it occasionally to firm it up for shredding.

Grease the bottom and sides of a glass casserole dish. Place a corn tortilla into the warm tomato sauce and let it rest for about 30 seconds. Remove it to a plate and place a spoonful of the chicken mixture and a sprinkle of the cheese. Roll it up and place it in your dish seam-side down. Repeat this until you run out of tortillas or filling, or room in your pan. Sprinkle any leftover chicken mixture over the tortillas, pour the leftover sauce over the rolled tortillas and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Put it in your oven and bake in the center of the oven for about 20-30 minutes, or until the sauce gets bubbly. Let cool to set for about 5 minutes before serving with rice and beans.

The sauce is also great as a base for chili, or to be used as salsa, or poured into soups or stews, or anywhere else you might want a spicy tomato sauce.

The sauce requires about 1 hour of prep work, 1 1/2 hours of cooking with occasional stirring breaks. It cost me about $3.50 for the tomatoes, $1.29 for the jalapeños, $.10 for the garlic, $.15 for the onion, and maybe $.20 worth of ground cumin. So for a little more than $5 I got 2 quarts of spicy tomato sauce that will last me several months, which is nice. But knowing that I can replicate the idea of my mother's enchiladas, while improving the flavor, is even better.

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