When I go to the Latin American markets on San Pablo in Berkeley or on San Leandro Blvd in San Leandro, I usually end up buying a 6-inch stack of about 60 corn tortillas (which is the medium size package. The large has over 100!). Even on a Mexican food weekend marathon that includes quesadillas, tacos and enchiladas, I typically eat less than half of the package, and the rest go in the freezer. Repeat this process over a few months, throw in a few purchases of fresh masa (3/4 of which immediately goes in the freezer) and it leads to freezer chaos.
One of my favorite solutions to the tortilla stockpile is tortilla casserole. It doesn’t require ultra-fresh tortillas, travels well as a leftover to work for lunch, allows for improvisation, and even freezes well (if I remember my schoolwork properly, the first law of freezer-dynamics is something about conservation of freezer volume, or that freezer space cannot be created or destroyed, but only refilled.).
The process is similar to a lasagna: make a sauce, cook some vegetables, grate some cheese, prepare the starch layer (corn tortillas in this case — I would not recommend flour tortillas, unless you really like goo) and assemble and bake it.
As delicious and warming as it is, it is not photogenic, so you’ll have to rely on your imagination to picture it coming together. And you can let your imagination guide you when preparing your own tortilla casserole, as the possible sauce and vegetable combinations are numerous.
For a 9″ x 13″ casserole (23 cm x 30 cm), you need about 8 cups of sauce (2 L). Some of my favorites are roasted tomatillo, tomato-chipotle, and tomato-red chile.
The vegetables should be chopped in relatively small pieces (about 1 cm across), then partially pre-cooked. For a 9″ x 13″ pan, you need about 8 cups of raw vegetables. Here are some of my favorites:
- Steamed or braised chard leaves, chopped fine.
- Sauteed zucchini
- Roasted butternut squash (peel, cut into cubes, toss with oil, place on a baking sheet, then bake at 450 F until tender)
- Roasted poblano chiles (wash the chile, roast over a flame until blackened, put it in a covered pot to steam for 10 mintues, then peel off the blackened skin. Remove the stem and seeds, and cut into strips)
- Once I used diced pieces of deep fried tofu. Different, but still good.
Keep them separate or mix them all together.
I use a melting cheese like Monterey Jack or mild Cheddar, and need about 2 cups for the 9×13 pan.
The easiest way to prepare the tortillas is to remove them from the package and cut them in half. This results in a somewhat pudding-like texture, as they disintegrate in the sauce.
For more distinct tortillas, they can be pre-treated in the oven in the following way: Preheat oven to 300 F. Brush both sides of a corn tortilla with vegetable oil, then put on a cookie sheet in stacks of three or four. Bake for 10-15 minutes, flipping the piles once or twice, until tortillas are pliable.
Assembly, Baking and Serving
The assembly process is like lasagna: start with a coating of sauce on the baking dish, then a layer of tortillas, a layer of vegetables, some cheese, some sauce, and so on until you have four layers of tortillas. Top with sauce and melting cheese.
Bake at 350-400 F for about 30 or 40 minutes, until hot throughout. Cover the dish with foil for the 20 minutes, then finish the baking uncovered.
Serve with beans, a salad, and garnishes of chopped cilantro, crumbled queso anejo (an aged Mexican cheese), chopped white onion, and extra hot sauce.