A Cheesy Crowd Pleaser

Once a week we have a community lunch at the Fellowship Room of our one year-round church. Even in winter, about twenty folks show up, listen to the music of a local jazz and old-time music band, have a cup of coffee or tea, eat lunch, and head back home while meals-to-go are sent out to the home-bound. This time of year, closer to forty show up and even pre-school kiddies sit and eat with older folks, workmen and women, and long time summer islanders returning for the season. It is a cheerful, pleasant time, and lots of volunteers show up to help cook, serve, and clean-up, and drive the take-out meals.

Our menus vary widely, though we have some annual treats like Andrew’s boiled dinner close to St. Patrick’s Day, and George and Murt do barbecued chicken once or twice a year. Even a crew from the town office puts together a lunch with our assessor Vern doing the pulled pork, and the Sewing Circle and Historical Society take a turn as well. Our island hunters contribute venison and moosemeat from time to time. There are chili lunches, soup, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and some cooks are ambitious enough to make lasagna.

I cook once a month or so, and a few weeks ago made a Mexican lasagna which turned out to be a lovely, big, cheesy crowd-pleaser. I had heard about it a long time ago, and knew it was made out of tortillas instead of pasta, but aside from that, I was a little fuzzy on the details. Because we often cook with donated food, and someone had delivered up a couple of large packages of corn tortillas, and also several huge cans of plum tomatoes, I saw my chance to try out this dish.

Theoretically, Mexican lasagna ought to be made with salsa in place of a classic tomato sauce, has layers of sour cream and burger, and is topped with cheddar and Monterey jack cheese. With all the canned tomatoes I had, there was no way I was going to buy salsa, so instead I added onions and salsa seasonings—cumin, chili, coriander, garlic—to the tomatoes for the right Tex-Mex flavor. If you try this at home, taco seasoning would do you just as well, or you can make your own according to directions easily found on the Internet. Some recipes call for enchilada sauce in addition to the salsa, but I just opted to use the tomato-based sauce.

A bonus with this dish might be that a wheat-avoider, or anyone with a gluten allergy, could enjoy a good old lasagna-like experience without worry. In any event, I found working with tortillas was a lot easier than boiling lasagna noodles, and dealing with those big, wide, slithery slabs. You can also make this into a vegetarian dish by using pintos, or black beans and corn in place of the burger. You can also add capsicum heat to taste by using chilies, or jalapenos, or whatever your hot-pepper choice might be.

Usually, I am opposed to buying pre-grated cheese, partly because they douse the stuff with cellulose to keep it from sticking. For home consumption, I am a big believer in grating my own darn cheese. When I am cooking for fifty, it is a different ball game, and the large bags of premixed Mexican-style cheeses are a huge blessing. Even though I offer you a recipe below for a standard, family-sized, Mexican lasagna, I recommend tweaking to suit your pantry supply and personal taste.

Mexican Lasagna

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, diced

1 ½ pounds of ground meat (beef, turkey, or a mixture)

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon powdered garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

1 large container of salsa or 2 ten-ounce cans of enchilada sauce

9 – 12 six-inch corn tortillas

1 pint sour cream

3-4 cups of cheddar and jack cheese mixed, shredded

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the oil in a heavy pan, and cook the onions until they are soft, about five minutes, then add the ground meat, and brown it, adding cumin, coriander, chili powder and garlic while it cooks. Add salt and pepper, and/or more of the spices to taste. Spread some of the enchilada sauce or salsa on the bottom of a nine-by-thirteen inch baking dish. Lay three of the tortillas over it, cutting some, if you wish, into halves or quarters to fit into corners. Spread some sour cream over the tortillas, sprinkle some of the cooked, ground meat over that, and add a sprinkle of the grated cheese, then more salsa, and repeat with the tortillas. Layer it up until you have used all your ingredients and top with cheese. Bake for forty-five to fifty minutes until it is bubbling hot, and the cheese on top has melted.

Makes six to eight servings.

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.