Tortilla Casserole

I am crazy about this recipe. The combination of beans and corn tortillas is my favorite thing in the world to eat. Tacos were my favorite food growing up. My mom made them with actual fried corn tortillas, not with taco shells, and at the point that I could be trusted to handle such things, I was in charge of frying the tortillas for dinner. To see the stiff, cold, pale tortilla go into the hot oil and emerge in only a few seconds, brightened, puffed, and suddenly undulating dangerously from my tongs was instant gratification cooking. After dinner, I would happily sneak leftover tortillas all by themselves. Fried tortillas remain a favorite. They’re one of my major comfort foods, & are central to the enchilada recipe below and this casserole recipe, as well as the tacos we make at home. When I was in Mexico this summer, I had a boxed lunch of tortillas & beans on one excursion because I knew that the scheduled lunch was barbeque. As everyone else was eating barbeque, coleslaw, and lasagna, the guide walked by me and said, “Look, she’s Mexican!”

My mom made a taco casserole when I was a kid. It was based on ground beef seasoned with cumin and some tomato paste, I think, & used cheese and black olives. After I became a vegetarian, I started making a version with refried beans, which makes a great fast dinner. Once you’ve fried the tortillas, the assembly is easy and after that all you have to do is pop it in the oven while you make a salad. It’s also a very flexible recipe – if you have leftover chili, you can use chili instead of all beans. The cheese can be omitted for vegans. If you happen to have fresh or frozen corn, some of that can go in here. Chopped green or black olives are welcome if you’re not married to an olive-hater. Leftover rice, jarred roasted peppers, the little bit left in those two jars of salsa – all welcome here. I’ll give a basic recipe but expect that you’ll zig and zag with it as you prefer. It adapts well to more or less liquid, but works best if the mix is a little soupy when it goes in the oven.

Preheat the oven to 375.

Heat 2 T. oil in a small skillet. Fry 12 corn tortillas over medium-high heat until softened, (less than a minute) draining them against the side of the skillet and placing them on layers of folded paper toweling when done. Forceps-style tongs or a pancake-turner style spatula are your best aids here.

Grate 6 oz. sharp cheese and set aside.

Cook 2.5 c. pinto or black beans (measured when dry and prepared like Standard Pinto Beans, below) or open two cans of vegetarian refried beans or three cans of regular black or pinto beans. Drain any plain canned beans you use. Add 2/3 c. salsa to the completed beans and salt and pepper and hot sauce if they need it after that. If you are using canned beans, add 1/2 c. chopped cilantro if you’ve got it. Put any other additions (olives, peppers, corn, etc.) in here.

Pick the right casserole for the job. Deep and shallow both work – just pick one that will hold the volume. Start with the beans, spreading 1/4 of them in the bottom of the casserole, adding the cheese and topping with three tortillas. Tear one tortilla in half if it makes them fit better. Repeat with additional layers. Tear the tortillas for the last layer into strips and place them on top of the final layer. Bake for 25 minutes, until heated through & tortillas on top are slightly crispy. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

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