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Chilaquiles deliver a satisfying combination of carbs, protein and fat.

Tara O'Brady/The Globe and Mail

Chilaquiles are arguably the highest use of a day-old tortillas.

Cut into chips and fried, those tortillas are transformed into chilaquiles, as the golden shards are then directly braised in salsa – as in the sauce, not the jarred condiment – into a slouching pile of comfort. Beef, chicken and chorizo might be incorporated with the salsa during cooking, or introduced at the end, as could be eggs.

(Restaurants and recipes routinely refer to chilaquiles and migas interchangeably, but the time at which the salsa is introduced differentiates the two. Simply put, migas finish with salsa, chilaquiles begin with it.)

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That said, within the area of chilaquiles, preferential and regional variations abound. In their exhaustive Tacopedia: The Taco Encyclopedia, Deborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena consider freshly fried, triangular totopos (nacho chips) as the definitive tortilla shape for chilaquiles, while James Beard Award-winner Lisa Fain, a seventh-generation Texan, calls for strips.

Then consider the eggs and presentation. Wesley Avila of Guerrilla Tacos specifies a fried egg to crown his chilaquiles, then tucks all into a bollilo (a squat baguette variation). The Los Angeles truck-turned-restaurant based its chilaquiles torta on one found near Mexico City’s La Central de Abasto Market. Nick Korbee, of New York City’s Egg Shop, cracks an egg atop a platter of sauced chips then bakes and broils all under a blanket of queso Oaxaca. Mexican chef Gonzalo Guzman adds his chilaquiles to a skillet of half-cooked scramble in his book, Nopalito; the eggs cling to the chips in a way that brings us almost back to migas.

A point that doesn’t seem up for debate is the restorative power of chilaquiles as a hangover cure. While indeed effective, the soul-and-body satisfying combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat make it a worthy candidate for all-day dining.

Chilaquiles recently filled the dinner demand at my home. Prep began with a vigorously savoury salsa roja decidedly Tex-Mex in style. The usual suspects formed the base of the sauce: onion and garlic, then a blistered poblano for smoke and a handful of cilantro stems brought fragrance. The spices went in next, cumin and a robust scattering of chili powder. Around that, I made a blond roux, toasting the flour paste until slightly coloured, for those resonant roasted, nutty notes. For liquid, I used vegetable stock, but water or chicken stock could have been used in its place. The resulting sauce, bubbling like lava, took care of itself as I fried the tortillas to rustling crispness and organized the garnishes.

Once all was done, dinner was a matter of adding the totopos to the salsa, and letting those sag while I fried the eggs. Onto each plate went a glorious slump of the soused chips, upon which an egg was perched. I added black beans because I had them, and on the table lots of pico de gallo, avocado and a collection of other bits and pieces to encourage customization.

The chilaquiles had the crunchy-gone-soft texture I adore; imagine the last nachos on the party tray, but better. The freshly fried chips had relaxed into the salsa, the eggs were rich against the building spice of the sauce, and the crema and lime added essential, cleaving tang. (Speaking of, if you don’t have crema around, use sour cream thinned with milk, seasoned with salt.)

That night, I could have explained to my family the nuances of chilaquiles. But, our mouths were full.

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Chilaquiles rojas with fried eggs

Serves 4

  • 3 tablespoons fruity olive oil or a neutral oil
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 roasted poblano, stemmed, seeded and diced
  • Small bunch cilantro, tender stems only, minced (reserve leaves for serving)
  • 1/4 cup chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups hot vegetable stock or water
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano, Mexican preferred
  • Medium-grained kosher salt, as needed
  • 12 corn tortillas, day old if possible, cut into sixths
  • Oil, for frying
  • Options to serve
  • 2 cups black beans
  • 4 eggs, fried as you like
  • 1/2 cup crema
  • 1/2 cup crumbled cotija cheese
  • Thinly sliced red onion, or pickled onions, as needed
  • Cilantro leaves reserved from sauce, chopped
  • Lime wedges, sliced radish, fresh or pickled jalapenos

Make the sauce. In a high-sided wide skillet warm the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, poblano and cilantro stems, and cook for 1 minute more. Spoon in the chili powder and cumin, stirring constantly for 30 seconds before scattering the flour across the pan. Continue to cook, stirring regularly to guard against scorching, until the flour is evenly tanned, 3 to 5 minutes. Incorporate the stock, a little at a time, until a smooth sauce forms. Sprinkle in the oregano, taste and season with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then knock the burner down to maintain a simmer. Partly cover and leave on the stove to thicken while you fry the tortillas. Stir habitually.

If a smoother salsa is preferred, purée with an immersion blender. (The sauce can be made to this point, cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Reheat before proceeding.)

In a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan heat 2 inches of oil to 375 F. Working in batches as necessary, fry the tortillas until golden and crisp, 3 minutes or so. Lift from the oil with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain. Season with salt while the chips are hot. Continue with remaining batches.

Fold the chips into the salsa, pop on the lid, turn off the heat.

This is a good time to cook the eggs, and heat the beans, if using. To serve, divide the beans between 4 serving plates. Nudge a portion of the chilaquiles alongside, then top each with its egg. Offer garnishes at the table and eat straight away (as if I had to tell you).

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