Easter is a major holiday in my family. Ever since I can remember, Daddy has organized a huge Easter egg hunt in the backyard for all the little kids (and some of the big kids) in our family and extended family. He and Mami spend all year picking up knick knacks and fun stuff as prizes and we gather together over a field of newspapers on the dining room table to dye a mountain of eggs and eat Cubanitos (little Cuban sandwiches) from Publix. It’s a grand tradition that’s really difficult for me to miss – so even though I was just there in the winter, Jamie and I made the Easter trip to Jacksonville this spring.
Easter was early this year – at the end of March, which is a gorgeous time to be in North Florida. We still missed the azaleas and dogwoods blooming in shades of fuchsia, pink and cream (sigh) but the temperature was gentle, the sun was smiling and it was a great time to be by the water. When us desert dwellers find ourselves anywhere near a body of water, we get our fill of seafood at every turn possible. So Mami and Daddy took us to one of our favorite seafood shacks, Singleton’s, nestled in the docks of Mayport, a protected harbor where pelicans and sea gulls make themselves at home on the quirky-cute shrimp boats.
There’s my lovely mother admiring the ships. Maritime ogling aside, this post is about a dish I started making here in Tucson that I decided to cook to round out the Easter buffet feast that runs alongside the egg hunt. As Jamie and I headed back to my parents house after a short but sweet dalliance at Neptune Beach, I was racking my brain for an easy but crowd-pleasing dish I could offer up. When I brought this up in the car, speeding past pines trees and magnolias and marshland, Jamie immediately blurted two words: “Mexican lasagna”. Of course! The guest list had been piling up and I knew that there would be some surprise (but still very welcome) pop-ins. Mexican lasagna would be the perfect culinary secret weapon.
I discovered this delish dish on, of course, The Pioneer Woman. It’s actually a recipe of a friend of hers, whom she lovingly calls ‘Pastor Ryan’. It uses the layering concept of a lasagna but with Mexican ingredients: tortillas instead of noodles, taco beef instead of bolognese sauce, Mexican cheese mix instead of ricotta, you get the idea. The original recipe makes a huge amount and I usually halve it to fill my normal pan. But I figured I’d cook up the whole recipe this time, using two lasagna pans (the disposable kind from the grocery store since I couldn’t find the right size pan in my parents’ kitchen). It’s one of those totally fun dishes, it takes a while getting the rice and beef ready, but it’s easy and the layering process makes it almost like a craft project.
I slightly tweaked the recipe, mostly with how I make the rice. The result was plenty of groans – exactly the desired effect. I gotta tell you, though, I had some fierce competition with my sister-in-law Donna’s orzo salad (Greek heaven!), the glazed ham, Mrs. Sullivan’s deviled eggs and Diane’s heavenly corn pudding.
More and more people kept showing up, but nobody went hungry that day. Plus there were leftovers for my folks – mission accomplished.
This is a bit overdue, so at the request of several of this year’s Easter attendees, here’s how I made it. It looks a little long and definitely requires some time, but it’ll be worth it!
Pastor Ryan’s Mexican Lasagna
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman
Makes two lasagna pans of food and serves a bazillion
3-4 Tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
4-8 cloves garlic, minced (depending on your preference)
4 cups long grain rice
2 cans diced tomatoes, with liquid (14.5 oz cans)
1 can diced green hatch chilies, with liquid (4 oz can)
6 cups low sodium Chicken Broth/stock, maybe more if rice is dry
Taco Seasoning: chili powder, paprika, and cumin or use a spice mix
Chopped cilantro, to taste
1 can black beans (Goya or some other Latin American brand preferably)
3 pounds lean ground beef
2 jars (16 oz) salsa verde
1 package flour tortillas (need at least 8, maybe more)
3 packages (16 oz) Mexican cheese mix
1 jar (16 oz) enchilada sauce
Sour Cream, to taste
1. Prepare the Mexican rice:
- Heat butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat.
- Add onions and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
- Reduce heat to low and add garlic and rice. Stir constantly, making sure the rice doesn’t burn, but you want all the grains coated in butter and slightly toasted. Cook over low heat for 3 minutes.
- Add tomatoes and hatch chilies. Stir to combine and let cook for 2 minutes.
- Add broth and stir to mix. Then add some salt and stir in the following spices (if you’re not big on spiciness, then start smaller and add to taste): 3 tablespoons chili powder, 1 ½ tablespoon, paprika and 1 ½ tablespoon of cumin.
- Bring to a boil. Take the heat back down to low, cover and simmer for 10 to 15 additional minutes or until rice is done. After the first 10 minutes, take a peek and add more liquid as needed – the liquids from the tomatoes and chilies should be enough but keep an eye on it and see if the rice is looking dry. If so, add a cup more of broth/stock.
- When you’re satisfied the rice is done, turn off the heat and let it sit for a about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the chopped cilantro.
2. Prepare the taco beef:
- In a large skillet, brown the ground beef over medium heat until the pink is gone.
- Add the taco seasoning, again about 3 tablespoons chili powder, 1 ½ tablespoon, paprika and 1 ½ tablespoon of cumin and salt to taste.
- Add about 4-6 ounces of water (you can use the hatch chilies can to measure).
- Stir and simmer for a few minutes until everything’s incorporated and hot, then turn off the heat.
3. Assemble the lasagna across the two lasagna pans in this order:
- Spread one container of salsa verde in the bottom of both pans (so that’s half a container per pan).
- Layer on tortillas. Some overlapping is expected. Sometimes I tear one in half to butt up flat against the side of the pan, but it doesn’t really matter.
- Half of the rice mixture (a quarter of the rice per pan)
- Half of the cheese (3/4s of a bag per pan)
- Add another layer of tortillas
- Pour enchilada sauce over the tortillas and spread it out evenly (half a jar per pan)
- Add layer of browned ground beef (one layer per pan – you may have some extra)
- Remaining half of rice mixture (a quarter of the rice..oh you get the idea now)
- Second jar of salsa verde
- Remaining half of cheese.
4. Bake at 375º for 25-35 minutes until cheese has melted and begins to brown a bit. Serve with sour cream and more chopped cilantro.
Note: Your pans will be full to bursting – that’s fine. But it’s still likely you’ll have a lot of leftover rice or other ingredients. Just set those out separately so people can make their own burritos or what not. If you have vegetarians coming over, I recommend making the rice with a delicious veggie broth or Rapunzel cubes, set out leftover rice, cheese, cilantro and tortillas and they can make their own veggie burritos.
You’ll be the belle (or beau) of the ball with these plump, cheesy, ricey, beefy offerings so learn how to take compliments graciously!