Spot Prawn and Raja Enchiladas
With a Creamy Buttermilk Sauce
It’s spot prawn season here in British Columbia, and that’s always exciting for me. It’s also a little terrifying when I remember how much spot prawns cost – a side effect of their escalating global popularity. The prawns themselves are delicious, local (for me anyway), and incredibly sustainable – all factors that have led to increased prices over the last few years. I’m not complaining though – I’d be very happy to see more success stories in the world of sustainable fisheries. So while I look forward to using them, I also look forward to figuring out how to incorporate them into my meals without breaking the bank. Fortunately, you can build a great meal around approximately four prawns per person, and I’m going to tell you how in a little class called Enchilada 101.
I’ve always enjoyed enchiladas, but I’d never really given them much thought as a cook before this month. When I started looking at recipes I realized something that I wanted to share with you all (and if this isn’t really news to you, I apologize – perhaps I’d been confused by too many baked-and-cheese-covered enchiladas): they’re just tacos-plus-sauce. I’m not saying that dismissively; I love tacos, and the fact that you get to drench them in delicious sauce is just wonderful in my books. True, they can be rolled up into nice tight little cylinders, but they don’t have to be, and if they are served folded over (as is the case here), they’re even easier to put together.
Now that we’ve dismissed any notion that they’re overly complicated or confusing, let’s talk about what you need to do to make enchiladas amazing. First and foremost, the sauce has to really knock your socks off. Bear in mind that you’re going to dunk the tortilla in this sauce AND pour it over top, so you want it to be goooooood. There are all kinds of enchilada sauces to work with – in fact, more accurate Spanish terminology is used to describe the various enchilada types depending on the sauce used. For example, an enchilada made with a creamy tomato-based sauce is actually an entomatada. If I was in Mexico, this would be an enjococada, because I’d be able to buy a dairy product called jocoque. Jocoque is basically a buttermilk-like thin yogurt – not quite cream, not quite… well, not quite anything but what it is. I can’t get jocoque here, but a wonderful substitute can be made by mixing Mexican crema (or crème fraîche – see note below) and buttermilk. The rich dairy base gets you half-way there on the sauce; a simple broth made with the shrimp shells ties everything together (plus it helps you avoid waste and get more out of your prawns). I should note that As is the case with several of my recipes this month, I owe a debt of inspiration to the wonderful Pati Jinich. Her enjococada recipe can be found in her wonderful new book “Mexican Today,” and I’ve adapted the buttermilk/cream sauce component here.
The next key to a good enchilada is a good tortilla. Use corn. For some reason, the use of flour tortillas in enchiladas has proliferated at Mexican and Tex Mex places in the US and Canada, but please don’t use flour. I love flour tortillas, and they’re definitely legitimately Mexican, but they just don’t work with enchiladas. The flavour combination is weird, but the biggest issue is the way the fall apart with sauce. If you make your own fresh tortillas (a surprisingly addictive bit of kitchen DIY) you won’t have to worry about the next step, but if you buy corn tortillas (or use day-old or frozen home-made) you need to make sure that you toast them in a hot pan before filling them. This renders them pliable and improves the flavour – without this step, they’re likely to crumble and crack when folded or rolled.
The last step might seem exceptionally important (and it is), but it’s also quite simple. The filling needs to be great, and it needs to work with the sauce. As I mentioned in my Red Pipian Seafood Soup recipe, you need to marry the sauce to the other ingredients. That’s already been done for you here by incorporating the shrimp stock into the sauce. The combination of prawns and tomatillos is very easy to cook, and the only major key to success is ensuring that you don’t overcook the the prawns.
There you go. Enchilada 101. If you’re at all hesitant, trust me – they’re easy enough to make on a weeknight. If you have the sauce ready ahead of time (you can combine the ingredients the night before, refrigerate it, and warm it up before you cook) then it’s even faster.
If you can get spot prawns – do! They’re amazingly delicious, and the fishery that harvests them is a great example of a sustainable success story. That being said, they’re seasonal and not available everywhere, so you could substitute other prawns/shrimp as well. If you do, I strongly encourage you to investigate sustainable and socially conscious options. Many shrimp fisheries (especially in Asia) are suffering from the combined problems stemming from severe environmental degradation and issues related to slave labour. As a seafood consumer, you can make a positive choice and have an impact that extends far beyond your dinner table. For more information on environmentally sustainable seafood choices, you can read more about the Ocean Wise, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, and Marine Stewardship Council programs at their respective websites.
Rajas are simply strips of roasted poblano pepper. They’re easy to make, delicious, and generally fairly mild in terms of spice – poblanos are usually only a tiny bit spicy, but every once in a while you will end up with one inexplicable fiery pepper. If you can’t get poblanos, or you want something with zero spice, you can substitute bell peppers. Green peppers will be closer in taste to a poblano while red/yellow/orange peppers will be sweeter.
As mentioned above, this sauce can be made with a cultured milk product called jocoque seco sauce rather than Mexican crema and buttermilk, but this is exceptionally hard to find outside of Mexico. If you can get jocoque, use an equal volume of it in place of the crema and buttermilk.
If you can’t get Mexican crema itself, you can use (or make) crème fraîche. To make crème fraîche, combine 2 tbsp of buttermilk with 1 cup of heavy cream and let stand on the counter for 4-6 hours. Mexican crema tends to be a little thinner than crème fraîche, so you can let it sit for a somewhat shorter time than you might otherwise. Some argue that Mexican crema is a little sweeter, though I think this is a matter of taste and wide variation. In any case, you can add 1/2 tsp of sugar if you choose. I realize that making a sauce in order to make a sauce that replaces a third unavailable sauce might sound a bit crazy, but I promise that the labour involved is quite minimal.
Note that you will have leftover sauce with this recipe – if you’re trying to save on ingredients, you can safely cut the amount of sauce by at least 1/3, possibly even 1/2. If you do end up with extra sauce, you can use it to just dip toasted corn tortillas, or as a sauce in/on tortas (Mexican sandwiches). It would also make a pretty stellar cream sauce for pasta with seafood. Use your imagination, but use it up within about 3 days.
As I mentioned above, you want to use soft corn tortillas to make these (and all) enchiladas. Don’t substitute flour tortillas. If you’re feeling particularly DIY (I won’t say ‘adventurous’ because it’s actually really easy) you could try your hand at home made corn tortillas. If not, many conventional grocery stores carry acceptable corn tortillas, and many cities will have a specialty Latin grocery store that will carry fresher ones. If you’re lucky, you may even have a tortilleria in your city that makes fresh ones (if you’re in the Lower Mainland of BC like me, you can check out El Comal in Burnaby).
Nutritional information is given for a single serving (2 enchiladas plus a portion of sauce).
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Spot Prawn and Raja Enchiladas with Buttermilk Sauce
- 3 medium poblano peppers
- 450 g spot prawn tails 18/20 count, peeled, shells/tails reserved
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup Mexican crema (see note)
- 1 cup buttermilk
- pinch nutmeg
- 1 tsp sea salt or to taste
- 1 large tomatillo (about 80 g or 1/2 cup) diced
- 8 corn tortillas
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter (divided into 1/2 and 1-1/2 tbsp portions)
- Roast the poblano peppers under a broiler, over a gas flame, or on an outdoor grill (the latter is my personal favorite way to do this). Turn the peppers occasionally until the skins are blackened all over. Place the roasted peppers in a large bowl and cover tightly (a fitted lid or plastic wrap works well). Set aside for at least 20 minutes, and up to several hours.
- Heat a medium saucepan over medium and add 1/2 tbsp of the butter. Add the shrimp shells and tails (DO NOT add the shrimp itself), garlic, and a pinch of the salt. Saute gently until the shells are crisp and bright reddish-pink and the garlic is fragrant; about 3 minutes. Add approximately 1.5 cups of water to the pan, then bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and allow the broth to simmer for 20-25 minutes. Strain the mixture and set the broth aside.
- Combine the Mexican crema and buttermilk on the stovetop in a medium-sized pot. Heat gently, but do NOT bring to a boil/simmer (the cream will curdle and split). Add the nutmeg, and bay leaves, then add 1 cup of the shrimp stock and the remaining salt. Adjust the salt to taste. Once the mixture is heated-through (again, not simmering), keep it warm on the lowest stovetop setting you have.
- While the sauce is heating (and while the shrimp are cooking if you're particularly good at multi-tasking), heat a heavy, dry cast iron pan or comal over medium heat. Add the tortillas and toast them for about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. They should brown or blister a little bit, and become pliable. You can do one tortilla at a time, but if you fit more of them into the pan without overlapping them, feel free to do several at once.
- Melt the remaining butter (1.5 tbsp) in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the diced tomatillo to the pan and saute for 30 seconds. Add the spot prawns and cook evenly until just done - about 3-4 minutes. Make sure to turn the shrimp to cook both sides evenly, and remember that you want the center to be just past that translucent/raw stage.
- Peel, seed, and slice the poblano peppers into long strips. Dunk a corn tortilla in the buttermilk sauce, then lay it flat on a plate. Fill with a few prawns, some tomatillo, and a few poblano strips. Spoon a tablespoon of sauce over the mixture and fold the tortilla over (because spot prawns are fairly large, you probably don't want to roll these enchiladas - a simple fold-over will do). Spoon some more sauce over the closed enchilada. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and fillings, and serve immediately.