April 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Slow-Cooker Enchilada Casserole, and what are your easy versions of dishes?

I prefer tomatoes and green chiles in place of the original recipe's suggestion of jarred jalapenos, which I've tried and found too assertive. They look better for pictures though! (Maureen Tisdale)

“Ooh, this is a treat.”

Is there a better reaction to your husband finding out what you’re serving for lunch?

My husband loves Mexican food, and taco salad (for me) and burritos for him are guaranteed winners. They’re also a bit of a pain; we’re picky as to how we like them, and it’s a lot of dicing and separate ingredients stored carefully to make fresh each meal.

Fortunately, I found a recipe in “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2” from the editors at America’s Test Kitchen that gives us a quick hit of Mexican with many added advantages:

■it can be made ahead and is an easy crowd-pleaser for casual company (I’ve lost count how many times I’ve made it for friends and family)

■unlike taco salad or burritos, it’s a one-dish wonder that can be reheated with little additional work (just sour cream and fresh cilantro to brighten it up)

■it’s super-flexible: with its fully cooked ingredients, the usually 2 to 3 hour cook time on low can be sped up (it heated well on high for 45 minutes for the lunch I was responsible for during our family Thanksgiving trip), it probably would translate easily to oven-baking for the non-slow-cooker crowd and this weekend I found it actually was both tastier and had a better mouth feel than previous versions when it’s left on warm for a few hours (after we had it for lunch, I left it on warm for the babysitter for dinner hours later as we headed to our friends Scott and Holly’s lovely wedding; the sitter put the leftovers in the fridge that evening, and when I had a helping the next day, I was surprised to find the dish actually seemed to condense into a wonderful casserole without drying out).

I’ve played with the recipe to increase the flavor, cheesiness, veggie quotient (tomatoes!) and moisture to our liking, and to dial down the heat a little. One of the best tweaks was inspired by Let’s Talk Food reader Matt Turner, who shared in the comments to the LTF requesting reader suggestions for an international potluck that frying tortillas in lard made a difference in the enchiladas he and his fiancee had for their engagement party. I liked the idea of moistening and flavoring the plain soft corn tortillas with a bit of fat, but didn’t want to go quite so far calorically, so I borrowed from the idea by brushing them with olive oil (or, in a pinch this weekend, spraying them with cooking spray oil). What a huge impact on the taste and texture!

But part of why I wanted to share this easy recipe with you (in addition to using it as an opportunity to ask for your easy versions of well-known dishes) was because there were so many tips and tricks I learned from this recipe in the book (God bless those American Test Kitchen peeps — Kate likes ‘em too, wrote about their Skillet Lemon Souffle recently) that can translate to other slow-cooker dishes:

■Microwaving ground beef, rather than browning it in a frying pan, firms it up so it does not turn into that mealy, grainy mess it can in the slow-cooker; I‘m eager to apply this to slow-cooker chili come fall.

■Making a foil collar (essentially just layered foil) and lining it back against the side of the cooker opposite the controls protects from burning, as dishes typically do right there where many cookers run a bit hotter. This trick has saved my Slow-Cooker Oats with Cashew Butter and Banana and Slow-Cooker Pizza Lasagna, in addition to this Enchilada Casserole.

■You can freeze leftover corn tortillas (which you likely will, as they come in packages of 24 to 36 minimum in my experience) by placing them between pieces of wax or parchment paper in a zipper-lock freezer back, up to 12 per stack. You can then defrost four to six at a time in the microwave at 50 percent power until thawed, 10 to 20 seconds per stack.

With all its tips (keep in mind these are all from one recipe — and the book has more than 200 recipes), the cookbook is the gift that keeps on giving..

As for the dish itself, when I made it for my husband and his mom during a recent visit and asked afterward how much was left, indicating I thought it might last for days, he laughed.

I decided to delight in his enjoyment rather than rue that it wouldn’t stretch through the week quite as planned.

Do you have cherished easier versions of more laborious dishes? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below the recipe. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re easy to sign up for, and free. Detroit News Food Editor Maureen Tisdale will respond to comments or questions in the next few days. You also can follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!

Enchilada Casserole

Adapted from “Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2” from the editors at America’s Text Kitchen. If you have the patience and can stand to see some end up on the floor instead of in the dish (it’s pretty forgiving, fortunately, and who can’t spare a tortilla and eyeball a little replacement cheese?), it’s fun to let kids help; our 22-month-old had a ball holding onto the wooden spoon as I stirred the meat mixture, tearing tortillas and dropping them in, and imitating Mommy by “sprinkling” in cheese (i.e. holding onto a handful of cheese while he waved his hand back and forth over the whole dish, then releasing it in one clump in a corner).

2 pounds 85-percent lean ground beef

2 10-oz cans any mild red enchilada sauce, divided

A 10-oz jar Rotel diced tomatoes & green chiles, the liquid drained but reserved (see notes)

1.5 ounces of your favorite chipotle salsa (see notes)

A 2.25 ounce can of sliced black olives, drained

˝ cup minced fresh cilantro, divided in half (see notes)

2 23 cups shredded cheese, divided (I use a 4-Cheese Mexican blend — Monterey Jack, cheddar, asadero and queso)

12 6-inch soft corn tortillas

1 to 2 tablespoons of oil or a liberal amount of cooking spray (see notes)

Sour cream (I love Kroger brand Chive Sour Cream with this or, frankly, anywhere you want to bring a light onion flavor) and cilantro leaves for finishing

Notes:

■I used the tomatoes and green chiles in place of the original recipe’s suggestion of 1/4 cup jarred jalapenos, which I tried and found too assertive. If you’re a heat lover, though, it’s worth trying.

■Though the amount is small, chipotle salsa really influences the flavor and moisture-level, and the thicker the better; after much experimentation, we’ve enjoyed the dish best with our hard-to-find, beloved if tackily named Jack Ass Salsa I’ve told you about before as it’s key to my favorite Sun-dried Tomato, Avocado & Mushroom Salad.

■In a pinch, don’t use dried cilantro — experienced shudder (way to lose moisture without adding discernible flavor) — but you can leave cilantro out and still have a pretty tasty dish. This weekend, it just so happened I had all the main ingredients except cilantro on hand, and went grocery shopping between when I turned it on and when we ate it. So we just compensated by adding extra cilantro at the end, and darned if it didn’t actually seem better; the little cilantro leaves are so much brighter and more flavorful fresh than long-cooked.

■I usually stretch one tablespoon of olive oil on just the top side (facing up) of each tortilla, brushing it on with a pastry brush to keep it on the light side. But Saturday I brushed both sides, and ran out of the tablespoon. In a rush, I just grabbed cooking spray to finish off the top and it turned out so great I actually wonder if canola oil would work better than olive (I am quick to grab olive for the richer flavor). Another time I might see if the spray worked well instead of brushing throughout — that’s one step closer to Easyville!

To make the dish, microwave the ground beef in a large bowl until it’s no longer pink, stirring occasionally. The original directions said about 10 minutes, but in my 1100 watt microwave, I did 4 minutes, broke up pieces and stirred them, then did another 2 (I previously did it more in baby steps — 2 minutes, 3, 1:30 — which I think is more consistent. But I vote for less baby-sitting).

While that’s going you can prep the cooker; in addition to folding a piece of foil over a few times into one 3-inch wide, maybe 6 inch long “collar” to line along the opposite side from the controls, I recommend using the Reynold’s Slow Cooker Bags and spraying with cooking spray for easy release and clean-up.

Put 1/4 cup of enchilada sauce in the bottom of the prepped cooker, and set aside another 1/4 cup.

Once the beef is done, drain the fat and pour the rest of the enchilada sauce into the beef. Drain the Rotel diced tomato and chili liquid into the now-empty enchilada jar and set that aside, then toss the tomatoes and chilies into the beef mixture. Stir in the chipotle salsa, drained can of black olives, 1/4 cup of the minced cilantro and 1 cup of the cheese.

Then start layering the dish. On top of the sauce at the bottom of the cooker add the first 3 tortillas, brushing each lightly with oil on at least one side and tearing them to fit (in my cooker, it’s 2 side by side and the third torn in half to cover gaps, overlapping the other two some). Top with 1/3 of the beef mixture, then 1/3 cup of cheese. Then another layer of 3 tortillas brushed with oil and torn to fit, another 1/3 of the beef mixture and 1/3 cup of cheese. Then it’s 3 more soft corn tortillas, the final 1/3 beef and then the final 3 tortillas, with the reserved tomato and chili liquid poured all over, topped by the reserved 1/4 cup enchilada sauce and the final cup of cheese, spread and sprinkled evenly to top.

Cover (having an older slow-cooker without those locking lids so popular today, I balance cans on top to seal moisture in best I can) and cook for 2 to 3 hours on low (45 minutes on high if you need to speed it up). Sprinkle with the second 1/4 cup of minced cilantro. Scoop it out and garnish with dollops of sour cream and as many fresh cilantro leaves as you like. Enjoy!

The recipe calls for minced cilantro in and on the dish, which I did here. ... (Maureen Tisdale)