How I learned to get Tex-Mex

Special to The Washington PostMarch 19, 2014 

It was 1997, and I was excited. A year after moving to Dallas from Mexico City, where I was born and raised, I would finally have the chance to get what Tex-Mex cooking was all about. I was visiting San Antonio, the capital of Tex-Mex, at one of its most famous Tex-Mex restaurants. And then the food came.

The large, oval combo platter in front of me was supposed to be cheese enchiladas with red rice and refried beans, but all I could see was a thick blanket of cream-colored sauce with melted, yellow processed cheese on top, threatening to spill over the plate. I couldn’t tell whether the tortillas were corn or flour, and they were barely filled; the mealy red rice had a watered-down tomato taste and an overdose of cumin; the refried beans were runny . I was hungry, and curious, so I ate it all. In a strange way, it was comforting, but I was perplexed.

I still think about that meal because it is emblematic of the problems people have with Tex-Mex. Mexican food purists take swipes at it, claiming it is simply bad Americanized Mexican food, while Texans rush to defend it as its own breed. What is Tex-Mex supposed to taste like? What does the term even mean? Where is the Tex, and where is the Mex?

To understand, a sweep through Texas history might help. Texas and Mexico go way back, to when they were neither Mexico, nor Texas, but for more than 300 years part of Spain’s colony of New Spain. And the mixing started: evangelization efforts to convert native people to Catholicism, intermarriage between people — and between ingredients in the kitchens. Texas went along with Mexico in separating from Spain in 1821, and the two stayed together for another 15 years.

Texas became part of the United States in 1845. American settlers — cowboys, ranchers, treasure hunters — brought their food ways to the table, their preference of wheat over corn, their belief that anything Mexican, its food or its people, was utterly inferior.

FOR AMERICAN PALATES

Still, Americans have always been drawn to Mexican flavors. Those flavors’ path into the mainstream, though, hasn’t been easy. One entrepreneur after another has tried to bring “Mex” to the plate, while being sensitive to Americans’ dietary concerns and those with a less-adventurous palate.

For example, as journalist Gustavo Arellano writes in “Taco USA,” starting in the late 1880s, consumers could satisfy their hunger for “Mex” by grabbing a bite at San Antonio street food stands from the Chili Queens and the Tamale Kings. San Antonio even went by the nickname of Tamaleville: People couldn’t get enough of them.

Around the same time, a German immigrant, Willie Gebhardt, concocted what might be the culprit behind today’s supermarket “chili powder.” He claimed that his Gebhardt Eagle Chili Powder could give any American meal — fried chicken, meatballs, even baked ham! — an “authentic Old Mexico tang,” according to his 1923 cookbook, “Mexican Cookery for American Homes.” The powder (made from ground ancho chilies, cumin, oregano and black pepper) was accessible and modern and came from a jar, no risks involved. Gebhardt became a spice magnate, but many traditional Mexican cooks wouldn’t touch the stuff; they prided themselves on tailoring the use of different dried and fresh chilies for different dishes.

Tex-Mex is now so much more than that, and it keeps growing. It encompasses chili gravy, queso dip (with its fanatics all over the world), the puffy taco, the fajita platter, all sorts of tacos, seviches and carne asada tostadas, among other dishes. As more Mexican ingredients are accepted, demanded and available, the pool of Mexican cooks is more diverse than ever before, making the Mex in the Tex-Mex that much more vibrant.

For example, aside from the queso dip (based on the purely American Velveeta “cheese”), people are becoming enamored with queso fundido, broiled cheese topped with chorizo or poblano pepper strips, a dish from northern Mexico that’s served with flour tortillas. Fajitas and carne asada dishes come from neighboring northern states, where cattle ranchers love beef; the chiles rellenos come from central Mexico, where poblanos thrive; the fresh, citrusy seviches come from the coasts. The famed mole poblano from the state of Puebla now covers enchiladas in many Tex-Mex spots.

TEXAS INFLUENCE

But Texas has framed the cuisine. Take the case of Matt’s El Rancho, established by Matt Martinez (a.k.a. “The King of Mexican Food”) in Austin in 1952. As Gloria Reyna, his daughter who now helps run the business, described in a phone interview, her father was born in San Antonio and her mother in Austin, but her grandparents had come from northern Mexico: San Luis Potosi and Monterrey in Nuevo Leon. She told me the restaurant’s cooks prepare everything fresh — their masa, tortillas and chips are made in-house, just as in Mexico — but when I asked about the Mexican connection of the dishes, she said, “We cook it like we do in Texas, the Tex-Mex way.”

But after years of living in the United Sates, I have different expectations. What I thought was a strange kind of Mexican food with too much cumin I know now to be purely Tex-Mex, a breed of its own, with strong, unique traits. And a tradition unto itself. Similarly, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Tex-Mex’s oversauced and cheesed-up plates, which seem to represent an American affinity for abundance, just as so many Italian American restaurants load meatballs and tomato sauce on pasta in ways that Italians never do in the old country.

Whether it’s those changed expectations or an improvement in quality, I’m not sure, but I’ve had much better Tex-Mex meals than that one in 1997.

Poblano, Bacon and Cheddar Skillet Corn Bread  •  3 fresh poblano chili peppers

 •  6 to 8 slices center-cut bacon (about 4 ounces total)

 •  1/2 cup yellow cornmeal

 •  11/4 cups flour

 •  cup packed light brown sugar

 •  1 teaspoon baking powder

 •  1 teaspoon baking soda

 •  1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

 •  1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

 •  1 cup whole milk

 •  1/2 cup heavy cream

 •  4 large eggs, well beaten

 •  2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

 •  2 cups fresh or frozen/defrosted corn kernels

Place the poblanos directly on a gas burner over medium-high heat. Cook, turning them as needed, for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are charred all over. (Alternatively, position an oven rack 4 inches from the broiling element and preheat the broiler. Arrange the poblanos on a piece of aluminum foil and place on the rack to broil for 10 to 15 minutes; turn frequently until charred all over.)

Transfer the poblanos to a zip-top bag and seal, or place in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. When they are cool enough to handle, discard the blackened skin, stem, ribs and seeds, then dice the remaining flesh. (It is easier to remove the skin under running water, but some cooks say that washes away flavor.) Cut the flesh into small dice; the yield is a packed 3/4 cup.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.

Heat a 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisped. Transfer the bacon to the lined plate to drain. Turn off the heat, leaving the fat in the skillet.

Combine the cornmeal, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and black pepper in a mixing bowl.

Whisk together the milk, cream and eggs in a large liquid measuring cup, then stir into the cornmeal mixture until just incorporated. Add the diced poblano, the cheese and corn. Crumble the bacon over the bowl. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat from the skillet into the batter, stirring gently to incorporate.

Heat that same skillet over medium heat. Once the remaining bacon fat shimmers, pour the corn bread batter evenly into the skillet. Transfer to the oven; bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cut into wedges; serve warm.

Nutrition information per serving: 380 calories, 18 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 660 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar Tex-Mex Chili  •  1/4 cup vegetable oil

 •  1 pound beef stew meat, cubed or cut into 1-inch chunks

 •  1 pound lean ground pork or lean ground beef

 •  Kosher salt or sea salt

 •  Freshly ground black pepper

 •  1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped

 •  1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded then coarsely chopped

 •  1 tablespoon chopped jalapeno pepper (seeding optional)

 •  4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

 •  1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

 •  1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

 •  1/2 teaspoon mild or hot paprika

 •  1 teaspoon ancho chili powder or chipotle chili powder

 •  1 tablespoon sauce from canned chipotles in adobo, or more to taste

 •  1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

 •  1 teaspoon dried oregano

 •  1 tablespoon tomato paste

 •  28 ounces canned, crushed, no-salt-added tomatoes

 •  1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

 •  1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

 •  4 cups no-salt-added beef broth

 •  30 ounces no-salt-added, homemade or canned pinto beans (drained and rinsed, if using canned; about 4 cups)

 •  Sour cream, for garnish

 •  Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

 •  Shredded cheddar cheese, for garnish

 •  Crushed tortilla chips, for garnish

 •  Thinly sliced scallions, for garnish

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large Dutch oven or wide, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the chunks of beef. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the meat releases from the surface. Stir so the meat begins to brown on all sides, then add the ground pork or ground beef. Season lightly with salt and black pepper; cook for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring, so the ground meat browns and loses its raw look and its juices evaporate.

Clear a space at the center of the pot; add the remaining tablespoon of oil, then the onion, red bell pepper and jalapeno pepper, stirring to coat. Cook for 5 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften, stirring frequently to keep them from scorching.

Clear a space at the center again; add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, paprika, chili powder, adobo, cumin and oregano, stirring to incorporate. Stir in the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, brown sugar and vinegar; cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring a few times, to form a thickened mixture.

Stir in the broth; once the mixture starts to bubble vigorously, reduce the heat to medium. Stir in the beans. Reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a low boil; cook, uncovered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally; for a thicker chili, add up to 15 minutes to the cooking time. Taste, and add adobo, salt and pepper as needed.

Divide among individual bowls. Serve the sour cream, cilantro, shredded cheddar cheese, tortilla chips and scallions at the table, so guests can garnish their own portions.

Nutrition information per serving (based on 10): 330 calories, 25 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar Mexican Chocolate Doughnuts  •  1 cup whole milk

 •  6 ounces Mexican chocolate disks, such as Abuelita brand, broken into chunks

 •  11/4 cups flour

 •  2 tablespoons sugar

 •  2 teaspoons baking powder

 •  1 teaspoon baking soda

 •  Pinch kosher salt

 •  3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the pan

 •  1 large egg, beaten

 •  2 to 4 tablespoons filling of your choice, such as chocolate-hazelnut spread, La Lechera brand dulce de leche (cajeta), jams or preserves

 •  Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)

Seat a wire cooling rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.

Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate; cook, stirring a few times, until it has melted. Remove from the heat. Whisk the mixture just until it is foamy.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the 3 tablespoons of melted butter and the egg, mixing just until the mixture is evenly moistened. Slowly pour in the milk-chocolate mixture, stirring constantly so the egg doesn’t curdle; this should yield a shiny, smooth batter that’s a bit runny. After a few minutes’ rest, the batter will thicken, which is what you want.

Meanwhile, heat the ebelskivver pan (found at specialty cooking stores) over medium-low heat for 4 or 5 minutes, until thoroughly heated.

Grease the wells of the pan with a little butter. Spoon just enough batter into each well so that it’s no more than three-quarters full. Cook for a few minutes; once the outside edge of each mini-doughnut is firm yet the center is still somewhat runny, add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of your favorite filling. Use the remaining batter to cover the filling and barely fill the wells to the rim. Cook for a few minutes, until the outside edges make it possible to flip each mini doughnut, using two spoons or wooden skewers; cook for a minute or two, then transfer each doughnut to the wire rack. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.

Serve right away.

VARIATION: To make mini pancakes, heat a large skillet or griddle over medium-low heat until thoroughly heated. Grease it with a little butter. Use half of the batter to ladle 4 pancakes, spacing them at least an inch apart. Cook for a few minutes, just until bubbles form on the top and the bottom is cooked enough to be released. Turn them over and cook for a minute or two, until darkened on the second side. Use the filling of your choice as a topping. Repeat with the remaining batter and filling.

Nutrition information per doughnut (based on 21): 110 calories, 2 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 130 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

Yield: 10 servings Yield: 8 to 10 servings Yield: 12 to 21 filled mini-doughnuts or 8 mini pancakes Jinich, who lives in Bethesda, Md., is author of “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking” and the star of the public-television series of the same name.

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