Success and Failure

October 19, 2010

Here is a question.  Which is worse – enduring a recipe fail and having no idea why it failed, or enduring a recipe fail and knowing exactly what you did wrong?  Is it better to kick yourself or the cookbook?

This was supposed to be Enchiladas Verdes.  Corn tortillas filled with an intoxicating mixture of red onion, zucchini, and the season’s last corn – all sautéed with a bunch of cumin until just cooked.  Tomatillo sauce covers the bottom of the dish, the tops of the enchiladas and a handful of cheese is strewn over the top, and the whole dish is baked until melty and gooey.  Sounds good, right?  Where did I go wrong?

Actually, in this case, I know exactly where I went wrong.  Enchiladas typically use corn tortillas as opposed to burritos which use flour tortillas.  Flour tortillas are easy to wrap around filling but corn tend to split if they are not prepped.  The way most recipes instruct you to do this is to heat up some oil on the stove and dip the tortillas one by one in the hot oil.  It is kind of a time consuming process, messy, and not too healthy.

Now.  I don’t pretend to be Cooking Light here.  There are 73 dessert recipes on this site after all.  But in my savory cooking, I really do try to be mindful and keep things healthy.  I have done the tortilla dipping in oil thing before and it pained me to do so.  I figured I could maybe just brush the tortillas with a bit of oil, wrap them in foil, and warm them in the oven.  It did not work.  It was clear from the first enchilada that my tortillas were going to be splitsville.  I was undone by my own attempts at lightening up a dish.

So, I had a double helping of an amazing tomatillo sauce, a terrific filling, lots of tortillas and avocados.  I also had a green rice that I had intended to serve alongside the enchiladas.  I mixed the rice and filling together with about one third of the tomatillo sauce, put it in a baking dish, sprinkled queso fresco on top, and baked it.  I mashed another third of the sauce into the avocados for a super tangy guacamole.  I served the remaining third in a dish to spoon over everything including the black beans I cooked down with lots of onions and cumin.  And with the tortillas, I made these.

I always tell people that my downfall is not brownies, cookies, or cakes (although I like all three), but salty crunchy things.  Like chips.  Specifically tortilla chips.  I can’t have them in the house.  I have a whole shelf of my pantry devoted to chocolate and it stays untouched until I go to bake something with it.  But if there are chips in the house, they do not last more than a day or two.  Sometimes I will buy the low fat ones but they are so unsatisfying – salty cardboard – that it isn’t really worth it.

Making your own chips is so easy and so much healthier than the store-bought version.  I would even argue that they taste better because you control the seasoning.  If you buy nice thick tortillas you get nice thick chips.  And thick chips are great for scooping up huge quantities of tomatillo guacamole.  So, I can’t share the enchilada recipe since I technically didn’t make it but I’ll tell you how I made the chips.  And as an added bonus, I’ll share the tomatillo sauce.

One Year Ago:  Petits Pains au Chocolat

Fresh Corn Tortilla Chips
Dana Treat Original
Makes 24 thick chips

I’m not super exact on measurements here because it so depends on your taste.  I like my chips really salty but if you don’t just use a pinch or two.

6 corn tortillas
Vegetable oil
Kosher salt
About 2 tsp. chile powder, or more (or less!) to taste
1 lime, cut in half

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.  Using a pastry brush, brush the top of each tortilla with the vegetable oil.  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a small pinch of chile powder.  Repeat with the remaining tortillas, stacking one on top of the other as you finish.  Using a large sharp knife, cut through the stack both lengthwise and width wise to end up with 24 pieces total.

Separate out the chips and place on a baking sheet.  Put in the oven and bake until the chips become fragrant and start to brown around the edges, 10 to 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and immediately squeeze the juice from the lime over the chips.  Sprinkle with another pinch of salt and allow to cool.

Tomatillo Sauce
Adapted from Fields of Greens
Makes about 2 cups

As written, this recipe will make a loose sauce so don’t expect salsa consistency.  If you want it chunkier, just pulse it in the processor until you reach the desired texture.

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
Salt and cayenne pepper
½ green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked
1 or 2 jalapeños, seeded and chopped
2 tbsp. chopped cilantro

Pour a little water into a medium-size saucepan; add the onion, a pinch of salt, and a small pinch of cayenne.  Cover and cook the onion without stirring, over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the bell pepper, tomatillos, and chiles.  Cover again and cook until the tomatillos are very soft and have released their juices, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Purée in a blender or food processor until the sauce is smooth, season with salt and more jalapeños or cayenne to taste.  Add the cilantro just before serving.


  1. this looks wonderful, failure or not!

    if you want to avoid cooking the tortillas in oil to soften the up, try steaming them. i always steam mine, never fry. they end up super pliable and it’s less time consuming. you can work on your filling, etc. while the tortillas are steaming.

    Comment by eliza — October 19, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  2. I hate not knowing why a recipe fails! And, I don’t always have good luck with corn tortillas. You could try stacking them in a steaming basket rather than frying them, but if they steam for too long, they fall apart. One more idea, you could stack them for enchiladas rather than roll them. Sounds like you had a delicious meal just the same!

    Comment by lisaiscooking — October 19, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

  3. This looks good anyway. Rick Bayless suggests steaming the corn tortillas in a steamer or microwave (wrapped in damp paper towels) and it works beautifully.

    Comment by Kate @ Savour Fare — October 19, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  4. My mom also abhorred dipping the tortillas in oil and so would dip her tortillas in a skillet with warm enchilada sauce – effective, but extremely messy (we had tried steaming but found they got sort of watery/soggy). One day, making enchiladas on my own and tired of sauce-covered hands, I decided to try our usual tortilla cooking method – I grew up cooking tortillas (both corn and flour) straight on the burner of a gas stove – when we were stuck with electric stoves we would cook the tortilla in a “dry” (but seasoned) cast iron skillet over medium heat (an electric skillet or griddle also works). Now if we were cooking the tortilla for tacos or something I let the tortilla puff a little and get golden brown in spots – but for enchiladas I just heat them until pliable but not browning. The tortillas are soft and pliable long enough to fill and place in the casserole dish and my hands stay relatively clean. You might want to use just a bit more sauce in the casserole to compensate for the dry tortillas.

    Comment by Michelle — October 19, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

  5. I’ve found that microwaving the tortillas sans oil really doesn’t do such a bad job for enchiladas…you might want to give it a try! I’ll be honest, I crave both salty and sweet. Constantly. All the time. Basically I can’t keep any snack food in the house.

    I love your idea to just eat the various DELICIOUS components separately. Sounds like a good deal.

    Comment by Joanne — October 19, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

  6. Your chips look great. And, for the record, I would always rather blame the cookbook.

    Comment by Beth — October 19, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

  7. i completely agree – cant bring myself to dredge corn tortillas in oil. I’ve come to the solution of layering things like a mexican lasagna, as opposed to rolling them up. Same flavors, different shape and you don’t have to fry. I like your little plate of everything on it’s own, looks so professional :)

    Comment by Sara — October 19, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

  8. there is no such thing as a failed recipe , in my books ,just an adaptation of an existing one !!

    i warm up my tortillas by placing them directly on a gas stove top – have a handy pair of long tongs handy and just move them around the flame and flip over a couple of time then place them in a plate , loosely covered with a kitchen towl or paper towel . i use this technique for flour , corn or sprouted tortilla wraps and it always work – and much healthier for everyone .


    Comment by Gourmet Goddess — October 19, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  9. Tip from someone who’s lived in south texas too long… heat them up on a low pan, or nuke them in the microwave… Anything that gets them hot. I mainly use flour tortillas (I don’t really like corn ones) and I’ve never had them split if they’re at least heated in some way. The rest? Never seems to matter beyond that.

    Comment by Jami — October 20, 2010 @ 2:41 am

  10. Brushing or spraying with oil, and putting tortillas between two plates (one inverted on top as a lid), and microwaving has always worked for me. Or else do the same and put on a sheet pan in the oven just long enough to soften but not crisp.

    Comment by Serina — October 20, 2010 @ 3:50 am

  11. I always make my enchiladas layered, like a lasagna. Then it doesn’t matter if the tortillas are all messed up!

    Comment by Susan — October 20, 2010 @ 4:23 am

  12. I go with #4 Michelle, I usually heat my tortillas in a dry cast iron pan, sometimes I will also dip it in the warm sauce. Usually I make mole enchiladas, and it does get messy, but sometimes that is a good thing. These look good, Thanks.

    Comment by Nita Dickerson — October 20, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  13. I always think that it’s worse to not know why a recipe failed. I end up being very trusting of cookbooks and assume I messed up somewhere along the way and am left only to guess what I did wrong. This often makes me want to try again, and that’s when my relationship to cookbook in question becomes complicated. How foolproof have the other recipes been? Does the recipe really sound good enough to try again, now that I actually know what a failure looks like? So much to think about! I don’t like that much stress in my kitchen. I’d rather just know what I did wrong, kick myself a bit, and move on.

    As ever, love your site. Thanks for sharing so much!

    Comment by Edith-Nicole — October 21, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  14. I had a fail today. Overbaked some scones that it turns out were too savory for everyone’s taste anyway. In general, I’d rather not know why a recipe fails, so I don’t have to kick myself about it. :)

    Comment by Julie — October 22, 2010 @ 12:08 am

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