Recipes are a gold mine for the culinary anthropologist. A dish may be called curry, kofte, fried rice, chutney or meatballs, yet have little in common with its cousins elsewhere. So it is with “Mexican lasagna”— known locally as pastel Azteca (Aztec pie) or tortilla pie—which I learned from cooking school teacher Esmeralda Brinn Bolaños during a visit to Mexico City.
Though it does use cheese—in Brinn Bolaños’ case, three varieties plus crema, a sour cream-like Mexican cream—the similarity to the iconic pasta dish from the Italian-American repertoire ends there.
Her version begins with charred poblanos, the first step in so many Mexican recipes (as in rajas poblanas, a popular dish of sliced poblano chilies in cream sauce), then moves on to a classic blender salsa verde made with tomatillos, garlic, vinegar, cilantro and spices. (During another cooking lesson in Mexico, I learned how to char poblanos quickly and easily—a 60-second dunk in boiling oil does the trick admirably.)
After a week spent cooking in Mexico City, it became clear to me that blender sauces are fundamental to Mexican cuisine. Take raw ingredients—you can char the chilies beforehand, if you like—process them in a blender, then heat the mixture in a skillet to which other items are added, usually some form of protein. A quick way to develop complex flavors.
In this recipe, chicken and onion are added to the briefly heated sauce for cooking. The dish is assembled with the skinned and chopped poblanos, cheese, crema (or crème fraîche) and corn kernels. Brinn Bolaños shallow-fries her tortillas before she layers her version into individual mini-casseroles. We use corn tortillas right out of the package for a softer, easier-to-cut texture and a springform pan to make assembling simpler and ideal for cutting into wedges. We finish the dish in a 375°F oven, not under the broiler, to avoid scorching.
A classic lasagna made with a ragù Bolognese and just a hint of cheese is worth at least a poem and perhaps a whole song. But pastel Azteca, replete with tomatillos, poblanos, cilantro, crema and tortillas, is a dish of a different color.