Making chilaquiles always seemed a little out of my reach. I’m familiar with the dish’s humble beginnings, invented as a way of making use of day-old tortillas, but it still held some element of mystery for me: Under the practiced hands of locals, what seemed to be normal, everyday ingredients – fried tortillas, cooked salsa, raw onion, fresh cheese, double cream – transformed into a blend of flavors that felt impossible to recreate.
This is a dish that I came to love after moving to Mexico City, where it quickly became my go-to when I sat down at a restaurant for breakfast. If I couldn’t find anyone to accompany me, I would often go out to breakfast alone just to eat chilaquiles. When the pandemic began to heavily curtail my habit of eating out, I started to crave all those complicated breakfast foods I never made myself (tamales from Doña Emi and the meatballs from Fonda Margarita were also on that list).
So I decided to take the plunge – I mean, what else did I have but time to experiment? – and attempt my own chilaquiles. Turns out, it wasn’t as hard as it looked! My first few versions were pretty traditional – a salsa made of charred tomatoes, onions, and garlic, queso fresco crumbled on top, a little dab of crema here and there – but as time went on I got bolder. The first time I added goat cheese I thought I would die of happiness.
I started to make my own crema mix – a little jocoque (a fermented dairy product) for tang and some regular crema mixed in brought it that much closer to sour cream a la the United States. One day I added leftover pulled pork, and on another pork barbecue. Last night’s leftover ribeye also found its way in.
There were yellow onions, then red onions, then delicately sliced shallots, then pickled onions. Homemade totopos (the fried tortillas that make up the bulk of the dish), grocery store totopos made in-house, and crappy totopos from the OXXO convenience store across the street. I added cotija cheese, fresh mozarella, even parmesan along the way. Not every combination was delicious, but each one was a show, and each made me a little more confident that this was a dish I could handle. With all the frustrations of 2020, I was excelling at chilaquiles.
Although many of my Mexican friends would consider my meanderings sacrilege, so many Mexican gourmands make a living mixing up their traditional cuisine with new fangled ingredients and techniques that I didn’t feel guilty for veering away from tradition. And, just like its genesis, chilaquiles was a great way to use whatever I had on hand. I needed the creativity those small moments provided. On those chilaquiles morning, a belly full to busting, a tongue coated in a half dozen delicious flavors, I felt satisfied that at least one thing was going right.
Editor’s note: Normally when December rolls around, we ask our correspondents to share their “Best Bites,” as a way to reflect on the year in eating. But 2020 was not a normal year. So at a time when the act of eating has changed for so many, our correspondents will write about their “Essential Bites,” the places, dishes, ingredients and other food-related items that were grounding and sustaining in this year of upheaval.
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