Budin Azteca (Mexican Tortilla Casserole)
Vegetables layered with corn tortillas, roasted chiles, pureed tomatoes, Mexican crema and a little shredded chicken. Serve with Refried Beans (Frijoles Refritos) for a complete, authentic meal.
Corn kernels cut from 1 large ear grilled or otherwise cooked corn, or 3/4 cup frozen corn kernels
6 medium grilled zucchini or summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 roasted poblano or other mild chiles, diced
Ground black pepper to taste
About 1 cup canola or other flavorless oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1/2 cup)
1 fat clove garlic
2 cups unsalted pureed tomatoes (from a can or made from 3 large plum tomatoes)
12 corn tortillas
3/4 cup Crema Mexicana (Mexican soured cream) or creme fraiche, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups cooked shredded chicken at room temperature (you can skip the chicken or substitute portabella or cremini mushrooms to make this dish vegetarian)
1 cup shredded queso blanco, queso fresco or Monterrey jack cheese
Optional: cilantro for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, with the rack in the middle position.
2. If using frozen corn, warm it in a saucepan over medium-low heat or in the microwave according to package instructions.
3. Combine the corn, squash and chiles in a large bowl. No seasoning should be required if squash was seasoned when cooked (as in this recipe). If squash is unseasoned, add a few pinches of salt and pepper to the mixture until it tastes delicious.
4. Warm a skillet over medium heat and add 1 Tablespoon of the oil to the skillet. When oil is warm, add onions and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. (Slight browning is ok, but if they threaten to do anything more, adjust the heat as needed.) Mince the garlic clove and add it to the skillet, stirring it into the onions just until fragrant. Stir the pureed tomatoes into the pan along with 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Turn the heat to high and allow the tomato mixture to boil without the lid for 5 minutes. Cover, turn the heat to medium low and cook for another 10 minutes, then turn the heat off.
5. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and set up a workstation near your stove like this:
A saucepan with 1 inch of oil for frying tortillas (with tortillas and tongs nearby)
A 3-quart casserole/baking dish (9x13 rectangle, or similar sized oval) in which to layer all the ingredients
Bowl of mixed veggies with a large spoon
Crema (or creme fraiche) with a spoon
6. Turn the flame under the saucepan of oil to medium-high. While the oil heats up, spread a thin layer of veggies in the bottom of the baking dish (the tortillas will rest on the veggies, making it easier to scoop everything out of the baking dish).
7. Test the oil to confirm it has fully heated: the edge of a tortilla dipped briefly in the oil should sizzle quickly. When the oil is ready, use the tongs to lay one tortilla in the hot oil, turning it over occasionally and allowing it to sizzle long enough to soften and then very slightly firm up, but not long enough to become crisp. Depending on the heat of your oil, this should all take about 3-10 seconds per tortilla.
8. When the tortilla is ready, use the tongs to remove it from the oil, letting excess oil drip back into the saucepan. Lay the tortilla over the vegetables against one corner of the casserole dish. Repeat with 4-5 more tortillas, laying them over the rest of the vegetables in the dish, slightly overlapping, until the whole surface is covered. For a 9x13 rectangular dish, this will take 6 tortillas. (Note in the picture that in my oval baking dish, I used 4 tortillas, then cut a fifth tortilla into pieces to fill gaps around the edges where needed.) Keep the oil hot while you briefly layer the rest of the ingredients (if it starts to smoke or smell like its burning, turn it down).
9. Spoon half the tomato sauce over the tortillas, spreading it evenly with the back of the spoon to cover the surface of tortillas.
10. Spoon half the remaining vegetables over the tomato sauce, evenly distributing them over the whole surface. It may seem like the vegetables are too sparse, but not to worry: each serving will include 3 layers, so there will be plenty.
11. Drizzle half the Crema over the vegetables, followed by half the chicken, followed by just one third of the cheese (the top will be cheesier than the inside).
12. Create another layer of fried tortillas over the other ingredients, followed by the rest of the ingredients in order: tomato sauce, vegetables, Crema, chicken and finally, cheese.
13. Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and slide it into the oven for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 5 minutes. When finished, the cheese should be melty and everything else should be bubbly. (Note that queso blanco and queso fresco don't change shape dramatically when they melt, the way Monterrey jack does.)
14. Garnish with minced or torn cilantro leaves and serve hot.