Chimichangas Über Alles

Ah, the noble chimichanga. Noble? Noble?! Yes, you read that right – here’s a little ode to one of the best damn vehicles for leftovers there is. Sure, we might assume it’s a mongrel member of the Fake Mex Food Club, designed only to fool gringoes into a simulacrum of adventurous eating – but I think we’d be dead wrong.

There’s a raft of origin stories for the chimi, all based in U.S. Tex Mex bastions. Whether it’s the owner of El Charro in Tucson accidentally dropping a burrito in the deep fat frier and uttering a Mexican curse that lead to the naming of the dish, or Woody Johnson of Macayo’s in Phoenix experimenting back in ‘46, they’re likely all a bit of a tall tale. You can bet dimes to dollars they originated in Mexico.

Fill a flour tortilla with frijoles, queso, picadillo, adobada, machaca, seca, pollo, fish or shellfish – that’s the root of a chimichanga. The name probably is a thinly veiled gringo teaser, but who cares when they’re delicious?

Great chimis needn’t be bad for you. You can bake, or as I prefer, shallow fry to crisp and then finish in the oven – that marries the delightful crunch of a crisp tortilla with a perfect hot filling, and avoids the hassle and greasiness of deep frying. What you choose to stuff with will also have obvious bearing on how healthy your finished dish is.

Chimis are perfect for repurposing leftovers. While a traditional stuffing theme will certainly be a nod to Mexican staples, you can make them out anything you want – green chicken curry chimi? Hell yes. Stuff one with veggies, rice, beans and cheese, and you’ve got a delicious, healthy dish. From chicken wings to char siu pork, or firm tofu to refried beans, your imagination is the limit.

When you’re ready to stuff your chimis, layer ingredients in ratios that yield a harmonious blend – there’s no hard and fast rule, it’s all what floats your boat. How much to stuff is largely dependent on the size and elasticity of your chosen tortilla, but avoid overstuffing to a silly degree – that just leads to filling leaking out during cooking, or gods forbid, to CCSF – That’s Catastrophic Chimichanga Structural Failure – and nobody wants to see that…

The typical mix is beans, rice, veggies and cheese, and another protein if you have something that needs to get used. For veggies, you can’t go wrong with onion, garlic, chile, and tomato, but any mix is fine – you can sauté them prior to assembly, but if you go with my two step method, you don’t need to.

For a traditional version, Mexican cheeses are what you want – Asadero, Chihuahua, Manchego, or Oaxaca for filling, and Queso Blanco, Cotija, or Enchilado for topping would be great choices – and they’re easier to find these days with the flowering of local Latin groceries.

If you’ve attempted chimis and exacted less than stellar results, it’ll come as no surprise that there are techniques you need to employ to achieve consistent and attractive results – and yeah, it matters – we eat with our eyes, ya know. There are four points of order to avoid a frustratingly sloppy chimi, and they’re as follows.

1. Fresh tortillas are your best option – they’re far more pliable and tastier than store bought stuff. Pliability is critical to a successful chimi, so if you’re using store bought, here’s your solution – wrap them in a clean, lightly moistened kitchen towel, put them on a plate, and then microwave for 30 seconds – that’ll give you fairly flexible tortillas to work with. Works great for burritos, too.

2. Get your mise en place together, and set out a generously sized station for assembly. Having everything portioned into bowls makes the process more efficient, less frustrating, and far less messy.

3. The tuck – how to properly stuff eludes a lot of folks, so don’t feel bad if you’re one of ‘em. Think of the tortilla as an unfolded envelope – you want to stuff the lower middle section of the tortilla, leaving room on both sides, some below, and a bit more than that above. Next, fold the bottom over your fillings, then the sides over the bottom, and finally, bring the top flap over all, and you’re there. You can seal with a little egg wash, but once you get the hang of it, you won’t need it. Line them up, prepped for cooking.

4. As mentioned above, I firmly believe you’ll get the most consistent flavor blend and crunch from a two step cooking process – a quick shallow fry, then a quick bake. That’ll also give you ingredients that are thoroughly heated through – something often lacking in the deep fried version.

It’s a simple deal – preheat your oven to 350° F, then heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Add chimis two at a time, and fry them just long enough to get a golden brown crust on the tortillas, flipping with a spatula to get every side done. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment, and bake for 20 minutes, and you’re done.

Top chimis with whatever you like – crema, pico de gallo, salsa, lime wedges, cilantro, fresh tomato or onion. Fresh greens make a perfect bedding – we do mixed lettuces and cabbage – use what you like best. Serve ‘em with an ice cold Mexican beer and enjoy.