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Champandongo is ugly. It is one of those foods that is impossible to make look delectable and stunning, even with the aid of a professional photographer. From above, from below, from the side, it looks like a massive culinary failure.
So the impact when it tastes phenomenal is all that much greater. The homely mound of meat, tortillas, molé and cheese is a complex wonder on the palate. It's no surprise that Tita in Laura Esquivel's Como Agua Para Chocolate pours her repressed desires into the dish. And yet despite being featured in Esquivel's famous novel, champandongo has yet to make a splash on the Mexican culinary landscape.
Which is a shame, really, because champandongo is a stunner. The dish is all about balance. Each of the ingredients balances out and tames another to make a smooth, even tapestry of tastes. The meaty cumin balances out the spoonful of sugar. The pork balances out the beef. The spicy onion balances out the tangy orange. The tomatoes neutralize the sweetness of the molé, which in turn kills the acidity of the tomatoes. The tortillas and the cream compliment and check the heady flavors of meat and molé.
But it’s the nuts that make the dish. Chopped almonds and walnuts – there are lots of them, 14 ounces in total – save champandongo from the melting, gooey heaviness of traditional lasagna. They give it an almost Middle Eastern flavor, like a Mexican moussaka. The crunch of the nuts counteracts and blends with the soft yield of the tortillas, and these two ingredients are what distinguish champandongo from the Italian counterpart it most resembles.
I think this is due mostly to the fact that tortillas make up for the dense, oozy cheesiness of traditional lasagna. It’s critical to heat the tortillas gently in a small spoonful or so of oil – do not fry them. They should be soft and airy. The champandongo itself shouldn’t bake for more than 15 minutes. This ensures the tortillas stay fluffy, giving the dish a lightness where with cheese there would be density.
The molé gives more flavor than it does weight, and the orange and tomato also keep the dish from being too bogged down by the flavors of meat and onion. Champandongo is shockingly light for all of its layers and ingredients, and goes far beyond the simple pleasures usually associated with big meaty casseroles. Sure, champandongo looks like one layer of guilt atop another, but it tastes like a four-star palate teaser, each bite unfolding flavor after flavor.
So don’t let its homeliness frighten you away from serving it at a dinner party. With a side of plump black beans, a light green salad, and a smoky red wine, champandongo will wow with the best of them.
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
7 oz. walnuts, chopped in small pieces (not ground)
7 oz. almonds, chopped in small pieces (not ground)
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup molé (most small containers in the grocery store are 235 grams, which is fine)
1-2 tablespoons cumin (depending on taste)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 lb. tortillas
1/4 cup cream
8 oz. Spanish Manchego cheese
Preheat oven to 400ºF.
Sauté onion in a several tablespoons oil. Once onion is translucent, add beef and pork. Sprinkle meat and onion mixture with cumin and sugar. Once beef and pork are golden brown, add tomatoes and nuts and squeeze the juice of the orange on top (I used about 3 tablespoons of juice - add more or less to taste).
Meanwhile, while meat is browning, add molé to chicken stock and stir constantly until molé has a thick, soupy consistency. Heat tortillas in 1-2 tablespoons of oil in a non-stick pan.
Spread a thin layer of the cream on the bottom of a large, glass casserole dish. Top with a layer of tortillas, then a layer of the meat mixture, then a coating of molé, and finally the manchengo cheese. Repeat.
Place the dish in the oven and bake for no more than 15 minutes. Slice into pieces and serve immediately.
*Recipe adapted from The Eternal Stomach
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