a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
I grew up in Southern California at a time when we pretty much had a monopoly on Mexican cuisine -- north of the border, at least. It was our L.A. secret that enchiladas, tacos, and burritos were to die for, not to mention an occasional margarita that might happen to stray down one's thirsty gullet. It's hard to imagine now, but even as late as the mid-1960s, there were only one or two Mexican restaurants in New York City. Then suddenly . . . behold, taco mania! Burrito madness, everywhere you looked!
Today I have eaten Mexican food from Beijing (TGI Fridays) to Alexandria, Egypt (a rather nice little joint that's part of the Holiday Inn there), and many places in between. The worst Mexican food, I should report, was in Krakow, Poland - avoid it at all costs. They put marinated vegetables in the burritos, and some other stuff that was difficult even to identify. Of course, Mexican food varies greatly in authenticity and temperature from place to place, even here in the Unites States much closer to its source - from Iowa bland to Texas better-bring-your -fire-extinguisher along.
The best Mexican food north of Tijuana, however, may very well be found in my current adopted home, northern New Mexico, which has an ancient Hispanic culture and deep traditions all its own. The food here is spicy but subtle, with an accent on locally grown green and red chiles that are not for sissies.
Santa Fe is the posh center of New Mexican cuisine these days, with restaurants such as the famous Coyote Cafe leading the way into the nouvelle enchilada and beyond. If you have a flare for the exotic, and would like to try your hand at such dishes as Southwest Painted Soup or Pork Tacos with Wild Mushrooms and Tamarind Chipotle Sauce, you should order yourself a copy of "Coyote Cafe: Foods from the Great Southwest" by chef Mark Miller (Ten Speed Press; ISBN 0-89815-244-5).
But my favorite New Mexican cookbook is by a Harvard educated historian, Huntley Dent, who has made a culinary niche for himself with "The Feast of Santa Fe: Cooking of the American Southwest." The food from this book is simple and earthy, taking the reader through the basics of such things as the correct way to fold a tortilla into a burrito. In fact, you can learn how to make tortillas from scratch - not very difficult. To my mind, the simplicity of this cuisine is its true beauty, peasant food that's profoundly rooted in the land, and a way of life that is disappearing quickly.
my favorite recipe from Huntley Dent for "Chile Colorado,"
or red chile sauce. (And incidentally, we spell "chile"
with an "e" here in New Mexico, not "chili" as
it is spelled in other places.)
What you do is this: Crack open an ice cold Mexican beer and put some spicy Latin music on your stereo to get into the right mood. Then heat the oil in a heavy one to two-quart saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and saut for about 5 minutes. Stir in the oregano, cumin and flour, and cook this mixture for about three minutes, until it bubbles. In a separate bowl, mix the powdered chilies and water together, then pour this into the flour paste mixture, mixing to prevent lumping. On a medium heat, bring the sauce to a boil, mixing occasionally; reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for two or three more minutes. And that's it! Add the salt at the end.
The make enchiladas: Use tongs to dip a tortilla first into hot oil for a second or two, then into the sauce, then fill with some grated Monterrey Jack cheese and perhaps a bit of chicken. Arrange about a dozen filled tortillas in a casserole pan, cover with the rest of the sauce, sprinkle a little more cheese on top, and bake in a 325 F. oven for 15 - 20 minutes.
open another beer, and you are set for a dinner you won't forget.
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