Certain ingredients are like old friends you can count on — the ones you know will be there for you when the chips are down, when you are not at your best, when you need comfort.
If I’ve got these guys hanging out in my kitchen — tortillas (corn or flour), a tasty melting cheese (manchego or cheddar, maybe), beans (canned or from-the-freezer homemade black or pinto), salsa (jarred or fresh-made) and peppers (fresh or canned) — I know I can quickly create a Mexican-style dish that I’ll really enjoy.
These are inexpensive, long-lasting items that complement our current desire to cook from our pantries and refrigerators rather than popping into the store.
I now do my household grocery shopping every two weeks — my goal since the beginning of the social distancing directive issued in response to the pandemic. It took me a while to get there, but to do it, I plan what we will eat, and I keep a running list of what I need. I quickly realized how often I fall back on these ingredients, because I so often run out.
I add them to my list as soon as I defrost my one remaining portion of home-cooked beans or start grating that last block of cheese. I stop and grab a pen as soon as I hear the spoon hit the bottom of the salsa jar.
And, with the many permutations available, I can almost always get my hands on some variation of them — even in these days of picked-over grocery shelves.
With them in hand, I can make quesadillas, tostadas or burritos. I can fry the corn tortillas to make nachos or enjoy them with a hot cheesy bean dip. If I have greens, I can make a big salad with migas-style eggs. Or, I can search the refrigerator for other items, such as kalamata olives, pickled jalapeños, green onions and avocado, to create a build-your-own taco platter.
I thought about my ingredient friends again after making an old favorite: A Mexican-style shrimp casserole. It is not original. I don’t remember where I first tasted it, but people have been making variations of this dish for generations.
I wanted something warm and comforting, so I layered tender corn tortillas with gently mashed canned black beans, fresh corn (had some on the cob that I scraped), store-bought enchilada sauce, fresh minced jalapeño and grated cheddar cheese. I happened to have part of a bag of shrimp in the freezer, so I thawed, poached, chopped and layered them in as well.
When I can, I like to spice things up a bit. I happened upon three lovely poblano peppers during my last grocery trip, so I made a poblano cream sauce by roasting the peppers and then whirring them in a food processor with sour cream and garlic. (It’s tasty with chips or atop tacos or nachos and as a condiment for broiled pork or chicken.)
The casserole comes together in about 45 minutes.
The dish is so simple and so variable, you almost don’t need a recipe.
For the casserole, I prefer the more tender corn tortillas, but, otherwise, I’ve switched just about every ingredient out for another. I have made this vegetarian, with just beans, and I have added leftover cooked chicken, pork and ground beef rather than shrimp. If I do not have enchilada sauce, I use my favorite salsa. Canned chile peppers work just fine in place of fresh. The cheese? If it melts well, I’ll try it. Low-fat cheddar cuts the calories and fat. And, for the vegetables, it is great with chopped frozen green beans or small-diced carrots, too.