Certain ingredients are like old friends you can count on – the ones you know will be there for you when the chips are down, when you are not at your best, when you need comfort.

If I’ve got these guys hanging out in my kitchen – tortillas (corn or flour), a tasty melting cheese (manchego or cheddar, maybe), beans (canned or from-the-freezer homemade black or pinto), salsa (jarred or fresh-made) and peppers (fresh or canned) – I know I can quickly create a Mexican-style dish that I’ll really enjoy.

These are inexpensive, long-lasting items that complement our current desire to cook from our pantries and refrigerators rather than popping into the store.

I now do my household grocery shopping every two weeks – my goal since the beginning of the social distancing directive issued in response to the pandemic. It took me a while to get there, but to do it, I plan what we will eat, and I keep a running list of what I need. I quickly realized how often I fall back on these ingredients, because I so often run out.

I add them to my list as soon as I defrost my one remaining portion of home-cooked beans or start grating that last block of cheese. I stop and grab a pen as soon as I hear the spoon hit the bottom of the salsa jar.

And, with the many permutations available, I can almost always get my hands on some variation of them – even in these days of picked-over grocery shelves.

With them in hand, I can make quesadillas, tostadas or burritos. I can fry the corn tortillas to make nachos or enjoy them with a hot cheesy bean dip. If I have greens, I can make a big salad with migas-style eggs. Or, I can search the refrigerator for other items, such as Kalamata olives, pickled jalapeños, green onions and avocado, to create a build-your-own taco platter.

I thought about my ingredient friends again after making an old favorite: A Mexican-style shrimp casserole. It is not original. I don’t remember where I first tasted it, but people have been making variations of this dish for generations.

I wanted something warm and comforting, so I layered tender corn tortillas with gently mashed canned black beans, fresh corn (had some on the cob that I scraped), store-bought enchilada sauce, fresh minced jalapeño and grated cheddar cheese. I happened to have part of a bag of shrimp in the freezer, so I thawed, poached, chopped and layered them in as well.

When I can, I like to spice things up a bit. I happened upon three lovely poblano peppers during my last grocery trip, so I made a poblano cream sauce by roasting the peppers and then whirring them in a food processor with sour cream and garlic. (It’s tasty with chips or atop tacos or nachos and as a condiment for broiled pork or chicken.)

The casserole comes together in about 45 minutes. In my household of two, we ate from it twice, then froze the rest for later, making it a budget-friendly option as well.

The dish is so simple and so variable, you almost don’t need a recipe.

For the casserole, I prefer the more tender corn tortillas, but, otherwise, I’ve switched just about every ingredient out for another. I have made this vegetarian, with just beans, and I have added leftover cooked chicken, pork and ground beef rather than shrimp. If I do not have enchilada sauce, I use my favorite salsa. Canned chile peppers work just fine in place of fresh. The cheese? If it melts well, I’ll try it. Low-fat cheddar cuts the calories and fat. And, for the vegetables, it is great with chopped frozen green beans or small-diced carrots, too.

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Poblano Cream Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post

MEXICAN-STYLE SHRIMP CASSEROLE

Active: 20 minutes | Total: 45 minutes

6 to 8 servings

This old-school casserole will call to mind the flavors of Mexico. It’s simple and delicious. To get it on the table faster, use cooked peeled and deveined shrimp and frozen corn. You can used refried beans in place of whole beans, but we prefer the texture of the slightly mashed beans. We found several beautiful poblano peppers and used them to make an optional poblano cream to go with the casserole.

Make Ahead: Assemble the casserole and then cover it tightly and refrigerate it for up to 1 day before baking. Let the dish sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes, before warming it in the 350-degree oven as described below.

Storage Notes: The baked casserole can be tightly covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Let the dish sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes, before warming it in a 350-degree oven. If freezing uncooked casserole, do not add the cheese on top, wrap tightly and freeze for several weeks. If cooking frozen, allow dish to warm at room temperature for about 20 minutes and then cook as directed, but expect cooking time to take up to 1 hour.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups enchilada sauce or medium red or green salsa, divided

1 cup (about 7 ounces) frozen corn, thawed

1/4 cup minced fresh jalapeño chile peppers (about 1 large), seeded, or 1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chiles, drained

1/4 cup roughly chopped kalamata olives, about 12 (optional)

1 1/2 pounds peeled cooked shrimp, tails removed, diced (see NOTE)

12 (6-inch) corn tortillas

1 (15-ounce) can whole pinto or black beans

2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) shredded cheese, such as Monterey Jack or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Poblano Cream (see related recipe), Mexican crema or sour cream, for serving (optional)

Steps

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish with cooking spray.

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, add 1/2 cup enchilada sauce (or salsa), corn, chiles and olives. Bring to a simmer and add the shrimp, cooking until the shrimp are warm, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Spread 1/4 cup enchilada sauce (or salsa) in the baking dish. Top with a layer of 6 overlapping tortillas.

Place the beans in a medium bowl and gently mash, leaving some whole.

Spread the beans evenly over the tortillas. Top the beans with the shrimp mixture, followed by 1 cup cheese. Top with the remaining 6 tortillas. Pour the remaining 3/4 cup of sauce over the tortillas and spread evenly so all are moistened. Cover the dish tightly with foil.

Bake the casserole for about 20 minutes, or until it begins to bubble on the sides. Remove the foil.

Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 cups cheese on top and return the dish to the oven for an additional 8 minutes, until the cheese is melted.

Let the casserole cool for at least 5 minutes before slicing, then sprinkle with cilantro, if using.

Serve with poblano cream, Mexican crema or sour cream, and lime wedges, if desired.

NOTE: To cook the shrimp, peel and devein them, removing the tails. Bring a medium pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the shrimp and return to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and poach the shrimp until pink and curled, about 2 minutes. Drain.

Nutrition | Calories: 530; Total Fat: 15 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 150 mg; Sodium: 1041 mg; Carbohydrates: 59 g; Dietary Fiber: 12 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 40 g.

(From Washington Post recipes editor Ann Maloney.)

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POBLANO CREAM

6 servings; makes 1 1/2 cups

This bright green cream sauce is perfect with chips and salsa or served atop enchiladas, tacos or even broiled chicken or steak. If you like it spicy hot, leave the seeds in the mix when blending the peppers with the cream, but omit the cayenne. The sauce works well with a variety of dairy, including Mexican crema, sour cream or yogurt.

Storage Notes: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to three days.

Ingredients

3 medium poblano peppers (See NOTE)

1/4 cup Mexican crema, sour cream or Greek yogurt

3 medium cloves garlic

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Steps

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees. Place the poblanos on a well-oiled sheet pan. Roast in the oven for about 15 minutes, until the peppers start to blister.

Transfer the peppers to a bowl and cover with a clean kitchen towel or a plate for 5 minutes, then peel the thin skins from the poblanos.

Cut the tops off the peppers and remove the seed pods.

In a food processor, combine the poblanos, crema (or sour cream or yogurt), garlic, cayenne and salt. Process until smooth. Transfer the cream to a bowl and serve at room temperature.

NOTES: If the poblanos are not seeded, the sauce will be very spicy, so omit the cayenne.

If you can’t find fresh poblanos, the sauce can be made with two 7-ounce cans of poblanos, but it will be more of a khaki color and not as bright tasting.

Nutrition | Per serving: 45 calories, 0 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar


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