I know it’s going to be a strange day when I find I’m having trouble composing a simple email. As a writer, when my fingers merely loiter over the keyboard, and my mind stumbles over sentence structure in a quick note to a friend that only needs to say Happy Birthday — I know it’s going to be a long day.
That’s about the time I cut to the kitchen. Or the laundry room, or the backyard for the unpleasant but necessary dog-pooh round-up. That’s my usual attack on a day that drags on and on with no visible signs of accomplishment — get out of that room and do something else.
Reinventing my day in the middle of a writer’s block is the smart thing to do, I’ve found over the past year or so. It saves me hours of frustration and the subsequent mental scolding I’ll give myself over dinner for a day that came and went with nothing to show for it. Who needs that kind of drama in an already unforgiving world? The kinder, gentler approach wins me over every time.
Kudos beat scolds any day. Just ask a mischievous preschooler or underappreciated worker bee. A big pat on the back to me for starting the laundry early, rather than 30 minutes before I wanted to wear my favorite capris, for watering the lawn first thing in the morning before the allergen-thick breezes kicked in, or for picking up the dog-pooh before I’ve stepped in it moving the sprinkler around the yard. That’s motivation that gets results.
And since it is Cinco de Mayo, I’ve another legitimate reason to play in the kitchen — as if I needed more convincing. May 5th is a big foodie day — no matter what food website you frequent. It unofficially begins the outdoor fiesta season, where colorful platters of fajitas and bowls of guacamole will soon give way to burgers and ribs on the barbecue. Bring it on!
Normally, I’m not big on Mexican food, at least not in Mexican restaurants where I tend to eat about a gazillion chips with salsa before my meal arrives, leaving me bloated for the rest of the night and sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. But fresh, reinvented Mexican food from humble home cooks who love to put their family’s unique touches on traditional fare? Well, that’s a reason to celebrate right there.
When Dad was craving Mexican, my mom made soft tacos with ground meat, all the fixins, and corn tortillas quickly cooked in Crisco in a cast iron skillet — only about 15 seconds so they wouldn’t get crisp. But if mom was planning a menu for company or visiting relatives, her chicken tortilla casserole took center stage on the dining room table.
A thick, hearty, cheesy concoction that is easy and quick to assemble, thanks to the convenience of store-bought products such as canned soup, packaged shredded cheese, and the glorious precooked rotisserie chicken. I’ve added or changed up ingredients here and there over the years, or experimented with different cheeses, but mom’s original recipe has basically stayed the same for more than 35 years. It’s a great addition to any Mexican fiesta buffet, and the memories that come flooding back to me as the aroma of this baking casserole fills my kitchen is the best part of the meal.
However, I didn’t eat my home-baked tortilla casserole tonight — but that’s OK because it is actually much better a day or two later and freezes beautifully. Instead, this Cinco de Mayo, I met friends for dinner at . . . get this . . . an Asian restaurant.
Makes perfect sense to me. I do like margaritas, but I love mai-tais. Just think of it as Cinco de Mayo, Reinvented.
Can Asian-infused tamales be far behind?
CHICKEN TORTILLA BAKE
For our family’s take on this comforting classic — a dish that some would call a Mexican lasagna — I start with a good old, reliable precooked rotisserie chicken — although my mother’s original recipe called for roasting four large whole chicken breasts ahead of time, which also works just fine. But for my money — which I’m watching more carefully these days — you can’t beat a Costco rotisserie bird right out of their massive ovens. At about twice the size of a grocery store rotisserie chicken, and much tastier in my mind, these big birds will have you doing a delighted double take at the price tag. They are one of the best buys in town — as chicken is so versatile, so reinventable. But don’t spread that around, we don’t want the Costco folks to up the price on us!
- 4 large whole chicken breasts, bone-in — or the breast and thigh meat from a large precooked rotisserie chicken
- 1 can drained black beans (Mom never used these, but I added them for color and to up the nutritional value)
- 1 can Cream of Mushroom soup
- 1 can Cream of Chicken soup
- 1 can of milk (I used Half&Half because that’s all I had in the fridge! Oh, darn!)
- 1 small can mild diced green chilis
- 1 dozen corn tortillas
- 1 yellow onion, grated (Believe me, grated beats chopped here because grating produces the deliciously flavorful onion juice.)
- Two 8-oz packages of shredded sharp cheddar cheese (I sometimes do half sharp cheddar and half Monterey Jack)
- Salt & pepper and olive oil (optional)
- Hot sauce (optional)
Begin by buttering a 9×13 baking dish, and set aside. If you’re cooking your own chicken breasts, sprinkle them with the salt and pepper, drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil, wrap in foil and bake at 400 degrees for about 1 hour. Cool, debone, and cut the breast meat into bite-sized chunks. If using the rotisserie chicken, remove the skin and debone the breasts and thighs, and cut into chunks.
Cut tortillas into strips, about 2 inches wide. In a large bowl, mix soups, milk, onion, and green chilis, and add a few drops of hot sauce if you like the heat.
In your prepared baking dish, layer the tortilla strips, chicken, beans, sauce, and cheese — and repeat. Top with the last of the cheese and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours or overnight. (Great make-ahead dish for a dinner party.)
Bake at 325 degrees for about an hour and 15 minutes. Let stand at least 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream, or finely chopped tomatoes and a sprinkling of chives. Serve alongside a bowl of chips and guacamole, a fresh fruit platter, or a lightly dressed green salad. Fiesta, baby!