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Southwest Cuisine is Hot, Hot, HotSouthwest Cuisine is Hot, Hot, Hot

April 1, 2001

11 Min Read
Southwest Cuisine is Hot, Hot, Hot

April 2001
Culinary Caonnection

Southwest Cuisine is Hot, Hot, Hot

By Ray Sierengowski, CCC

North America has come to know Southwestern food in the past decade, thanks, in a large part, to the talented chefs who successfully have combined the elements of Spanish, Native American and Mexican cultures in their restaurants. It is the aforementioned chefs that take native ingredients and turn them into the nation’s culinary trends.

Ethnic influences and local food sources provide interesting, flavorful and distinctive dishes to enjoy. Regional foods characterized by the influence of ethnic groups continue to spread across America as the general population discovers and develops an appreciation for the variety, pleasure and healthful benefits inherent in a diverse diet. There are at least six clear culinary regions within the continental United States, and although many dishes are similar in the types of food and cooking techniques used, the results can be excitingly different.

Mapping Southwest cuisine
An examination of popular cooking magazines over the past years will show that many culinary trends come and go quickly, but the proliferation of Southwest cuisine shows no sign of fading; rather, its popularity is growing and its influence has expanded far beyond its regional origins. Its core ingredients of vegetables, legumes, meats and grains lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, from gourmet to vegetarian, when combined with the spices, chiles and cheeses native to New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

Southwest may actually be the oldest U.S. regional style. Prior to 1845, the area was part of Mexico and still draws heavily on foods from that area, particularly corn, beans and chiles. In fact, the words “chili,” “guacamole” and “tomato” are of Aztec origin. The region’s cooking is a melting pot in itself, a blend of Spanish, Mexican and Native American dishes. Long before Europeans arrived on the scene, healthy civilizations lived off the native foods, and taught the new arrivals the benefits of corn, beans and squash. These three foods played a vital role in defining American cuisine.

Spanish immigrants introduced hearth cooking to America, using chiles, tortillas and tomatoes. The blending of Native American and Anglo-European cooking techniques, such as barbecue and grilling, spurred the popular Tex-Mex Southwest-cooking style.

As the U.S. Hispanic population has increased, exposure to the culture and cuisine has grown. The characteristic dishes run the gamut from simple to extraordinary, but most of the ingredients are basic and generally available. The once hard-to-find fresh and dried chiles that make up the heart of the core flavors are now year-round commodities in most major supermarkets. Even the most exotic spices have become more readily available, and as the influence of this ethnic cuisine grows and spreads through the United States, more people are discovering the versatility and basic nutritional value of Southwest cookery.

Popular vote
Jokes currently circling Washington claim that President Bush may have a better chance of influencing the foods Americans enjoy than getting legislation through Congress, as cooks across the country will be influenced by Texan preferences in the White House. Former White House Chef Henry Haller (who cooked for Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) says it makes sense to predict that Americans are going to want to try what the president is eating. “When the Johnsons started having barbecue and chili in the White House, the critics first claimed they didn’t know how to eat,” he says. “But then, as people tried the food, it’s easy to see what happened. Let’s face it, the market for jellybeans never dropped after Regan’s supportive boost.

The president’s influence on food may have financial and strategic implications for the food industry — it’s predicted that tortilla chips, already running second in snack food only to potato chips, will see a jump in popularity. According to the Snack Food Association, Alexandria, VA, Americans consume 1.54 billion pounds of potato chips with tortilla chips close behind at 1.43 billion pounds.

Dallas chef Stephan Pyles, considered a catalyst in the expansion of the popularity of Southwestern cuisine, according to the May 2000 issue of Bon Appétit, says that the president’s influence will result in a greater awareness of the agricultural products and cottage food produced in the region.

Karen Haram, food editor, San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio, TX, predicts that during this Administration, Americans will come to know the difference between jalapeños and chipotles, when to use flour or corn for tortillas and realize that Southwesterners know how to eat beans in ways other than “refried.” Americans will be encouraged to move beyond familiar tacos and fajitas to other Southwest foods such as boacho beans (cooked with beer, cilantro, onion and tomatoes), breakfast tacos made with scrambled eggs, or sautéed potatoes and pico de gallo wrapped in flour tortillas.

Southwestern flavor
Recent years have seen further evolution of this cuisine. The availability of foods, combined with experimentation by innovative chefs, has led to the development of “New Southwest Cuisine.” The foundations of this cooking include the use of fresh, locally grown foods, the introduction of exotic chiles and the incorporation of indigenous crops and wild game to produce new combinations based on traditional foods.

Much of the popularity can be attributed to public recognition of the nutritional value inherent in the way the food is prepared — leaning heavily toward mesquite broiling enhanced with marinades vs. the greasiness of frying.

The most common Southwestern flavorings are onion, tomato, Mexican oregano, cumin, cilantro and coriander, the seeds of the cilantro. A variety of seeds and nuts provide both texture and flavor, and basic meats, such as chicken, beef and pork are used. Chiles flavor and thicken sauces and filling, and are used with corn or tortillas as the basis of many main-dish specialties. Other ingredients found in Southwest cuisine include red pepper, cumin and cinnamon.

Breads are simple, but have a lot of flavor. The most popular bread item, the corn or flour tortilla, is baked on a stovetop grill or skillet and is akin to the deep-fried sapodillas, or Indian fry bread. Hearth bread is usually shaped to resemble a bear’s claw.

Dessert typically includes custards or flans, although fresh fruit and cookies are common. Sweet rolls, called moyettes and pandulce, usually are topped with butter and a sprinkle of sugared cinnamon.

The Texas State Society’s inaugural ball pleased 10,000 guests with a buffet spread that illustrated the wide range Southwest cuisine has to offer. The menu included corn chips with chili, cheese, black bean dip, guacamole and salsa; mesquite-grilled shrimp marinated in lime and cilantro; grilled and fresh vegetables drizzled with tequila orange vinaigrette; chicken, cheese and spinach quesadillas with assorted salsas; skewers of roasted chicken with peanut ancho chile sauce; Texas jalapeño poppers, fajita and taco stations; cured smoked ham with cranberry chipotle sauce; jalapeño biscuits; and smoked barbecue brisket of beef.

Southwest cuisine is to culinologists what Disney World is to children. The never-ending possibilities that the cuisine provides — no matter who you are or where you live — makes this regional fare an easy, nutritious way to bring the heat, spice and lively flavors of the Southwest to your table.

Southwestern Barbecue Paella (Serves 4)

This is an adaptation of a recipe in the book “Savor the Southwest,” by Barbara Pool Fenzl, May 1999. To the chef, this is like many recipes in that it requires plenty of preparation time. Now to the culinologist, this just simply has too many steps. I’m curious to see how food technologists would simplify this for production. I’d love to hear your thoughts — e-mail me at [email protected].

• 1 ear corn in the husk
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 teaspoon chile powder
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

• 2 portobello mushrooms
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 chorizo sausage link

Cactus pads
• 4 prickly pear cactus pads (no pales) or 4 (3 x 1/2-in.) slices zucchini
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 chicken thighs

Barbecued beef short ribs

Rice base
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
• 1/4 cup finely chopped garlic
• 1 cup diced tomatoes
• 1 cup bulk chorizo sausage, or Vienna Beef® smoked
Polish sausage
• 1 teaspoon saffron threads
• 4 jumbo shrimp (15 per lb.), peeled and de-veined
• 1 1/2 cups Texmati rice
• 2 1/2 cups chicken stock, heated to a simmer
• 1 cup cooked black beans
• 1 cup green peas
• 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 4 green-lip mussels
• 4 littleneck clams

• 2 red bell peppers, roasted, seeded, peeled and diced
• 2 poblano chiles, roasted, seeded, peeled and diced
• 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro

Do ahead: The link chorizo, mushrooms, peppers and chiles can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated. The marinade for the chicken and the sauce for the ribs can be made up to two days ahead, covered and refrigerated. Prepare a barbecue grill.

For the corn: Pull back the husk on the corn and remove the silk. In a small bowl, combine the melted butter, chile powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Rub the kernels with the butter mixture and fold the husk back around the corn. Tie at the top with kitchen string. Soak the corn in cold water for about eight minutes so that it doesn’t burn when grilled. Remove from the water, pat dry, and cook over hot coals turning often, until done, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Shuck and cut in half lengthwise; then cut in half crosswise into quarters.

For the mushrooms: Cut the stems off the mushrooms and remove the gills on the underside by gently scraping with the edge of a small knife. Rub the mushrooms with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and place, topside down, on the hot grill. Cook for a few minutes and turn over; cook for two minutes more and turn over again. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook until the mushrooms soften and they begin to seep liquid, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and the remaining teaspoon of olive oil. Let cool and cut into fourths.

For the chorizo sausage link: Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the sausage link, reduce the heat and simmer until the sausage is firm, about 15 minutes. Grill the sausage until crispy, turning frequently so it cooks evenly without being burnt, about 10 minutes. Cool and slice into four diagonal pieces.

For the cactus pads: Trim around the outside edge of the cactus pads with a small knife, and then gently slide the knife flat across each side of the pads to remove spines. Rub the clean pads (or substituted zucchini) with the olive oil and cook on the hot grill for three minutes on each side (they should be softened but still slightly crunchy). Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the rice base: Heat the olive oil in a paella pan, casuela, or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they dissolve into the onions and garlic, about 10 minutes more. Add the bulk chorizo and cook two minutes; add the saffron and stir well. Scrape ingredients aside to make room on the bottom of the pan for shrimp. Cook the shrimp one minute, turn over and cook for another minute. Stir the shrimp into the other ingredients in the pan and cook an additional minute. Remove the shrimp and set aside (they should be about three-fourths cooked). Add the rice and stir for about two minutes. Add 1 cup of the hot stock and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer. Stir the rice every five minutes, adding more stock a little at a time until it is absorbed, until the rice is thoroughly cooked, about 20 minutes from the time it begins to simmer. Add the black beans, peas and cilantro. Stir well and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Final preparation: Arrange the reserved shrimp, corn, portobellos, cactus pads (or zucchini), chorizo slices, mussels, and clams as desired over the rice, leaving enough room for the chicken and ribs. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat until the clams and mussels open up and all ingredients are hot, eight to 10 minutes. Remove the hot chicken and ribs from the barbecue grill and add to the paella. Scatter the red bell pepper, poblano chiles, and cilantro over all. Bring the paella pan to the table and divide among four large plates.

Raymond A. Sierengowski, CCC, is the director of product development and corporate executive chef for Vienna® Sausage Manufacturing Company, Chicago. His first published venture, “Fire In The Kitchen, A Cookbook For Couples™,” was released last year in Chicago and on Amazon.com, and in February 2000, he was recognized by the Chicago Tribune as “Chicago’s Romance Chef.” Sierengowski serves on the Research Chefs Association’s board of directors and is editor of its quarterly newsletter, Culinology™.

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