I dislike the blanket term "Mexican food", since just like any other country there are a wide range of styles and ingredients and regional traditions. About the closest you can get to summing up a cuisine in one national term is with an island like Jamaica or Cuba. Also, I've never been to Mexico, but have enjoyed the recent explosion of more authentic restaurants, and I'm a huge fan of the fusion style of New Mexico. The problem is that I was never particularly good at cooking in this general category.
With Italian food (another overly broad category), it took a few revelations like really learning how to cook pasta. It's not just boiling water and throwing a noodle against the wall to get it to stick. It's using the right amount of water and salt, and the right shape of pasta for the sauce, and incorporating some of the pasta water into the sauce. It's learning how to layer the sauce over time to build, concentrate, and balance flavors. It's using odd, bitter vegetables to complement sweet and savory elements in the meal.
I decided to try to apply some of the same work in fundamentals to generic Mexican food.
I used some of the leftover mole sauce from my chicken enchiladas that I'd saved in the freezer. The construction here is simple: white corn tortillas, refried beans, mole, fried egg, a dash of hot sauce, served with a little shredded romaine lettuce and sour cream.
What made it good? The labor-intensive homemade sauce was a big part, but I also augmented the beans with rendered chicken fat. Not a lot, just enough to give flavor and texture. I'm also an eternal fan of any dish that involves a runny yolk meant to ooze down and meld with the other ingredients, forming new sauces along the way. Also important here: no cheese. I love cheese, and even have a guilty fondness for the gloopy cheese-laden plates that pass for Tex Mex cooking around here, but that's a crutch, and it's not focusing on flavor. It's just a shortcut to add a bunch of fat and salt to a dish without much work.
While this is ostensibly a breakfast dish, I had it for dinner and couldn't quite finish the three eggs. Rich, hearty, delicious, and pretty quick and easy to make if you have some leftovers lying around.
Enchiladas Verdes de Carnitas
My usual way to make carnitas is to take a Boston butt (pork shoulder) and throw it in a pot with two cans of Ro-Tel peppers and tomatoes. Let it all slow cook until the whole thing falls apart. Remove the bones, and shred the pork with forks or your fingers. Once you're done, you can pack plastic containers full of shredded pork and rendered fat and freeze them for use in all sorts of things in the future. Here, I decided to make some simple enchiladas.
The mistake I've made in the past with enchiladas is just using dry tortillas, filled and rolled up, and then they crack and taste awful. I've learned to warm them up in a lightly oiled skillet until they just start to turn translucent, and then fill and roll. Makes all the difference in the world. Also, the bottom of your baking dish needs to have sauce in it. I'd love to say that I made one from scratch here, but I had a couple of jars of salsa verde that I wanted to use up. A little sauce on the bottom, and then it's important to make sure that all exposed surfaces of the tortilla have some sort of sauce on them. The filling is simply carnitas, topped with salsa verde, a little cheese (OK, I was in the mood for it this time), and then a little extra carnitas on top for decoration. If you're feeding a bigger crowd, this is also a good way to indicate what's filled with chicken/pork/beef/etc. I served it with some slow cooked black beans.
I'm not going to claim that either of these is truly authentic, but I found myself way more satisfied with the results than attempts in the past. And really, there wasn't much to it. Just a few simple techniques here and there that made everything come together properly. And while neither of these came directly from him, I do have to give big thanks to Rick Bayless for an excellent explanation of the basic philosophy in his cookbooks.