The next time you can’t decide whether you want to make Mexican or Italian food for dinner, go for this delicious compromise. Pastel Azteca (also called Budín Azteca) layers Mexican ingredients, with corn tortillas playing the role that the lasagna noodles do in the Italian dish, and the result is pure genius.
Mexican Lasagna is a perfect example of the fusion of cultures that constitute modern Mexico: the tortillas, the chiles, and tomatillos in the sauce hark back to pre-Columbian times, while the chicken and cheese arrived with the Conquistadors. The cream brings to mind the “Frenchified” era in Mexican cooking, which was at its peak in the second half of the 1800s.
Before starting to prepare this dish, you must make a decision—to fry or not to fry. Traditionally, tortillas used in this way have been very briefly fried in oil, a step which improves their texture for this type of use. However, many modern cooks, trying to lower the fat content in their diets, skip this step. Frying the tortillas adds an additional, slightly messy, step to the recipe and raises its calorie and fat levels, but results in a better product; an unfried tortilla gets soaked with sauce while baking and loses it consistency. You decide which option is better in your circumstances, as both choices are bien sabroso.
- 2 medium- to large-sized poblano chile peppers
- 2 cups (1/2 liter) salsa verde cooking sauce (homemade or from a jar)
- 1 small bunch fresh cilantro
- ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream
- Oil for frying (optional)
- 8 to10 cold corn tortillas (preferably left over from the day before)
- 3 to 4 cups cooked, shredded chicken
- 1-1/2 cups well-drained cooked mixed vegetables, (carrots, green beans, peas, corn kernels, etc.
- 8 ounces (225 grams) shredded cheese (choose Chihuahua, Mexican Manchego, or some other kind that melts nicely)
Roast the poblano chiles under a broiler or directly over the burner of a gas stove until singed on all sides. Remove skins, stems, and seeds. (For more details, see How to Roast Chiles)
Cut the flesh of the roasted chiles in very thin strips, or chop them into pieces of about ½ inch (1 centimeter) square.
Place about 1/3 of the chile strips or pieces into a blender, and add the salsa verde, the cilantro, and the cream. Process until completely blended.
If you have decided to fry your tortillas, pour oil into a skillet until it is about half an inch (one centimeter) deep. Heat the oil. Using tongs, place one tortilla into the hot oil for about 2 seconds, turn, then leave 2 more seconds. The tortilla should not change color or become hard. Remove the tortilla from the oil, shake it over the skillet to drain off excess oil, and place it on a plate. Continue in this way until all the tortillas have been briefly fried. (This technique is used often in traditional Mexican cooking and is known as pasar las tortillas por el aceite, which can be translated as “passing the tortillas through the oil.”)
Place the tortillas (regardless of whether they have been fried or not), onto a cutting board. Cut them in two, forming half circles.
Turn your oven on to 375F (190C) so that it can heat up while you complete the rest of the preparation.
Pour the blended sauce into a wide, shallow bowl. One by one, lift a piece of tortilla with the tongs and place it into the sauce, turning it over once so that both sides get covered. Place it in the bottom of a lightly greased glass or metal baking dish that measures approximately 8 inches (20 centimeters) square. Continue in this way until the bottom is completely covered (which should take 5 or 6 tortilla halves).
Place half of the remaining poblano chiles, half the chicken, and half of the vegetables on top of the tortillas in the dish. Sprinkle on one third of the shredded cheese. Top with a few spoonfuls of sauce.
Repeat the procedure to form another layer of sauce-covered tortillas topped with chiles, chicken, veggies, and cheese.
Create a final layer of sauce-covered tortillas. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top, and distribute any remaining sauce around the sides of the baking dish.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is slightly browned.
Take your delicious Mexican Lasagna out of the oven and allow it to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes so that it can firm up a bit.
Use a sharp knife to cut your dish into squares, and a spatula to dish portions onto individual plates. If you like, serve your Mexican Lasagna with a side of pot beans (frijoles de la olla) or refried beans.
Variations on Mexican Lasagna
Use shredded beef or pork in place of the chicken. Just make sure that the meat is cooked until it is very tender, so that it can be easily cut with a fork, if necessary, once it is served.
If you would prefer a vegetarian dish, substitute the chicken with mushrooms: sautee sliced mushrooms with a little diced onion before adding to the lasagna.
Make this dish even more Mexican (and a bit more fancy) by using fresh squash flowers instead of mixed vegetables. Slightly sautee the flowers with some corn kernels and bit of diced onion before using in the recipe.