When I was in the seventh grade, I had my first ever flute audition. It was for the seventh-and-eighth grade Vermont District Six concert band. I played a section of a flute solo, two major scales chosen at random by the judges, and a piece of simple sight reading. I was nervous, but also filled with the hubris I had discovered in myself as a budding flutist. One needs both nerves and hubris for any kind of audition, and I probably had too much of both. But I had been playing the flute for a couple of years, and as it turned out I was quite good at it. I was never one for team sports, try as I might season after season. The individualized focus, intense challenge, and personal success of being a flutist suited me much better. As did the absence of obligatory running. And even though I was never great at sports, I was a supremely competitive little thing. Boy did I ever nail that audition. In a little classroom, on a Saturday morning, in a school half-an-hour from home, I went out into the world and won my first Principal chair.
Principal flute meant solos, and at the All-District Band and Chorus Festival later that year I played my very first one. In public. For a packed auditorium. I’ll never forget it. I was dressed in black from head to toe; before the concert, my mother and I had to go out shopping in order to buy me my first “concert dress” ensemble. Funereal, certainly. A little convent-chic, perhaps. And not an easy outfit to find for a seventh-grader. Long black skirts and long-sleeved black blouses aren’t popular with the tween set. But there I sat in my formal attire, just me, my flute, and a few hundred pairs of eyes staring at me. With a deep breath, I played the opening melody of In the Bleak Midwinter. They were the first notes of the concert, and I got to play them all alone: In the bleak midwinter, icy winds did blow; earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Nerves, you say? Yup. By the barrel. But my aforementioned hubris meant I wasn’t going to let them show. As I continued the opening tune, the clarinet and oboe turned my solo into a trio: Snow had fallen softly, snow on snow on snow; in the bleak midwinter, oh so long ago. It was the biggest moment of my life so far–positively monumental in the world of a seventh-grader.
The rest of the band joined in to finish the song, and my moment in the spotlight was done. But that melody has echoed in my head ever since. It pops in unbidden especially frequently during January and February, when the world is firmly ensconced in the mid of winter, and it is bleak indeed.
This winter has been particularly hard: frigid cold, so-called “arctic blasts,” and abundant snow. Not surprisingly, comfort food is on the menu most days in my house. I can’t seem to get enough of warm soups, steamy casseroles, and slow-cooker favorites. Recently, I turned to a comfort dish first introduced to me by my Benedictine friends. My brother monks love to make Chilaquiles, a bit of Mexican home cooking designed to use up leftover tortillas. Dried corn tortillas or tortilla chips are broken up and layered with a flavorful, smooth tomato sauce and shredded cheese. The whole thing is baked until bubbly. It might seem unusual to make a casserole with layers of corn tortillas or chips, but it really is delicious. And what’s more, its a flexible recipe that’s quick and easy to prepare. Perfect for weeknights, or Friday evenings when you hardly have the energy to stand, let alone cook (and when you probably have some remnants from the week’s cooking and eating that need using up).
Thanks to the recent Super Bowl, I was in just this scenario. It was Friday. The long week was over. I was hungry. A familiar scene in my house. Taking stock, I had half-eaten bags of tortilla chips hanging around and an unopened block of monterey jack sitting in my fridge. I always have frozen corn, and I happened upon a can of black beans far in the hinterlands of the pantry. In other words, Chilaquiles specialize in the economy of using what you have, and I had almost everything I needed. I decided on a prepared enchilada sauce to make the prep-and-baking even more achievable on a Friday evening. But feel free to change up the veggies, use a different kind of cheese, add jarred jalapenos, or try different sauces/salsas. You could also double the amounts and use a 13×9 inch pan if you’re feeding more than 3-4 people. This is meant to be hearty home cooking, not a fussy recipe, so play around with it. Here’s how I made mine:
BLACK BEAN and CORN CHILAQUILES CASSEROLE
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed in a garlic press
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup frozen corn
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp. coriander
2-3 cups of tortilla chips broken into pieces (or corn tortillas, left out to dry, broken into pieces)
8 oz. monterey jack cheese, shredded
1 1/2 cups enchilada sauce or another hot sauce or smooth salsa
Preheat the oven to 375-degrees
In a skillet, saute the onions, peppers, and garlic until soft. 4-5 minutes.
Add the beans and corn. Cover and cook until heated through. 3-4 minutes.
Cover the bottom of a 1.5 quart–or similarly sized–casserole dish with broken tortilla chips. Add half of the vegetable mixture. Pour half of the sauce evenly over the top. Cover with half of the cheese. Repeat: chips, vegetables, sauce, cheese.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until the filling is bubbly and the cheese is lightly browned.
Let sit for 15-20 minutes to allow the casserole to cool and set slightly. Cut into slices, lasagna-style, and serve.
Serve on its own, or with sour cream. Avocado slices would also be nice, or a green salad, but it’s really a hearty one-pot meal. As a mid-winter casserole should be.