An American Original
by Rick Perez
Perhaps no other cuisine is as indigenous to America as that from the Southwest. In fact, Southwestern cooking might have been a precursor to what we consider fusion food today. A collaboration of foods, cooking methods and eating styles from the Native American, Spanish and American cultures, Southwestern cuisine is as about American as, well, apple pie.
The Mexican contribution to this American regional cooking style comes in the legacy of the Aztecs, who were dining on beans, corn, chiles, avocados, onions and chocolate before the Spaniards arrived in the New World. The Spaniards brought sheep, goats and cattle to the area and introduced salt pork, mutton, ranch-raised beef and cured meats of every kind. Sun-dried strips of meat, or jerky, could be eaten raw or stewed in place of fresh meat.
The Mexican and Spanish settlers refined and expanded Southwestern cuisine with the addition of wheat, melons, bell peppers, zucchini, artichokes, tomatoes, peaches and apricots. Fruits that stored well over the winter were most prized, giving rise to pastry filling based on dried apples, raisins, apricots and almonds.
With the introduction of cattle came the addition of cheese. Refried beans and thick potato soup, both topped with hot, melted cheese are favorite dishes of the Southwest.
For centuries, Native Americans laid the foundation for this cuisine with tasty dishes. Considering the sparse vegetation in most of the areas, with little rainfall in the desert and mountains, the earth yielded a substantial amount of wild edibles, like prickly pear (also called paddle cactus) and cholla buds. The fruit of the saguaro was used for making syrup and ceremonial wine. Mesquite beans were ground into flour for bread and mush. Pinion (pine) nuts have been favorites of the Navajos and Apaches. The nuts were shelled, ground and made into cakes and gruel. Ground acorns were used for thickening stews.
Corn has always been the most-important cultivated crop for the American natives, especially for the Hopi, who believe supernatural beings gave the first corn to mankind. Special ceremonies still occur at corn-planting time. Corn was also an important part of Hopi courtship and marriage customs. Hopi girls proposed by leaving blue corn piki bread on a young man's doorstep. If the bread was taken, the proposal was accepted and wedding preparations soon began.
Corn in the Southwest is grown in six colors, including red, white and blue. Blue was, and still is, the most distinctive and highly prized of these unique corn varieties. Some retail and food service markets might consider a product like chauquehue (blue cornmeal mush), a thick porridge served with eggs or meat dishes, much like grits in the South. Chauquehue is made from atole (roasted blue cornmeal). To a non-native palate, traditional chauquehue recipes are much improved by adding more salt, black pepper and a generous lump of butter to the finished porridge. Operator or retail-mix instructions might dictate spreading the chauquehue while still hot into a greased, square cake pan, allowing it to cool, cutting into squares like polenta and frying long enough so they crisp up and begin to brown. Chauquehue works well with an accent of chili Colorado or chili verde.
Southwestern cooking uses corn in many different ways: cornhusks to wrap tamales; ground kernels pressed for oil or dried and milled into flour; and kernels ground into meal to form masa, a staple -- the Mexican staff of life -- for centuries. The tortilla has not changed appreciably in the last four centuries. Treating hominy corn with lime to remove the tough skins is one step in creating posole -- a thick, hearty soup that often contains port, onion, garlic, chiles and cilantro -- a traditional New Year's Eve dish that is now enjoyed year round.
Corn, beans and squash, such as summer and acorn squash, were the only crops grown by Native Americans in the Southwest. Game -- rabbits, antelope, wild turkey, quail, deer and desert rodents -- was plentiful and used in many native recipes. Along the streams, fishing provided another source of quality protein.
Beans were also staples of the old Southwest. The traditional black-bean side dish can gain a distinctive accent with smoky chipotle chiles, possibly served in a bowl with crumbled cheese, avocado and lime. Black beans also star in tostadas -- layers of beans, cheese, tomatoes, red onion, avocado and lime juice on tortillas. Black-bean dip is another perennial favorite.
At a time when grab-and-go foods, tapas, dashboard dining and other portable eating alternatives are growing in popularity, tacos, tamales, sopes, empanadas and other Mexican and Southwestern hand-held foods have never been more timely.
Of course, Southwestern cuisine is perhaps most distinguished by the chile. Whether red or green, mild or super-hot, pickled or smoked, chiles are the source of the spice and big flavors that characterize Southwestern cooking. This is particularly true of the New Mexico green chile that has a sweet, earthy flavor and the New Mexico red chile -- basically a green that has been left on the vine in Northern New Mexico until early October to turn bright red and ripen in the crisp, fall sun. New Mexico red chiles are fleshy, hot and sweet. Processors often fire-roast these two primary chile varieties to intensify flavor; they're served fresh -- or frozen or canned.
In addition to fresh and dried chiles, such as ancho and chipotle, as well as dried versions of New Mexico green and red, chile powders are primary flavor ingredients in Southwestern cooking. Chimayo is the best-known, hottest and finest form, made from red New Mexico chiles grown north of Santa Fe, NM. Molido chili powder, also red, varies in heat from mild to medium to hot according to the amount of seed included along with the dried chiles. Molido has an earthy sweetness that, in its mildest form, can substitute for paprika.
Chiles, along with tomatoes and tomatillos, make a big, immediately noticeable color contribution to Southwestern foods. Southwestern restaurants, particularly in New Mexico, will often ask diners for a sauce preference that accompanies many dishes: red, green or Christmas (a pairing of both).
Another color accent, mole sauce, a smooth, rich, reddish-brown sauce, comes in many variations and is traditionally paired with poultry. Mole almost always includes chocolate, traditionally the Mexican variety -- although bitter chocolate makes a good substitute. One version contains red chile flakes, tomatoes, onion, cloves, sesame seeds, almonds, raisins, cinnamon, coriander, fresh cilantro, chicken broth and semisweet chocolate chips. This can accompany grilled chicken, pork chops, burgers or beef tips.
Distinctive cooking methods
Various tribes of Native Americans in the Southwestern United States often used techniques that remain unique to their cooking. For example, they developed layers of flavors simply by roasting key ingredients before final preparation. A chile or tomato was roasted over an open flame letting the skin char. The resulting smoky flavor brings a completely new flavor profile to the vegetable and to the final dish, such as adobo sauce or a salsa served with chips. Roasting garlic over medium heat in a cast-iron skillet or in an oven creates an entirely new sweet garlic flavor with fewer "hard edges" -- a flavor that is a major contributor to Southwestern foods such as a barbecue glaze for chicken or ribs.
Another technique to give Southwestern sauces a distinct flavor is grinding all the ingredients and frying in a cast-iron skillet with a little oil. This intensifies flavors and thickens the savory mixture. Care must be taken not to scorch, which creates bitterness. A combination of toasted cumin and black pepper makes a great rub for grilled meats with a hearty, earthy flavor.
Clay pottery is also a major utensil for Southwestern cooking. Cooking in clay eliminates any metallic tinge that might interfere with the flavors.
New Mexican influences
What makes Southwestern cuisine unique is its confluence of ethnic and cooking cultures refined over many centuries. Added to this mixture is the rich culinary history of New Mexico, particularly Northern New Mexico.
New-Mex is not Tex-Mex. Subtle -- but important -- differences exist, such as serving refried beans in Texas, but black beans in New Mexico. Red salsas are very much a part of Tex-Mex cooking, whereas red and green salsa characterizes New Mexican. Also, Tex-Mex foods are more likely to be greasy and fried, while New-Mex uses more fresh fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes and red and green chiles.
The New Mexican influence in Southwestern cooking reflects such ingredients as blue corn, squash and multicolored beans -- black, Anasazi, pinto, lima and many others. For example, a grilled yellow-squash-based vegetable topping, in combination with tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini, can accompany many hot foods, including pasta. A yellow-squash salsa with zucchini, tomatoes and chiles adds big flavor when served at room temperature with grilled fish or chicken. Of course, black beans are a popular New Mexican ingredient in soups, salsas and entrées, as well as a refried side dish.
Because of the availability of wheat, tortillas are more likely to be made from wheat flour than corn in New-Mex cuisine. Another variation: In Tex-Mex, chili is made more often from beef than pork. A New-Mex favorite, Santa Fe chili, uses both beef and pork for a unique flavor.
Southwestern cuisine is simple, prepared mostly with regional ingredients, relying heavily on chiles, beans, squash and corn. While corn, squash and beans are nutritious, they are bland by themselves and depend on chile peppers for spice, as well as flavor. Chiles are grown all over New Mexico and form the basis for the red and green sauces that top most of the state's dishes. The bold flavors and variety of Southwestern foods make every meal an occasion. Even if the recipe is simple, the result is an earthy, hearty, tasty experience.
Today, food designers can easily incorporate the many roasted, smoked and peeled Southwestern food and flavor ingredients into formulations. Using processed versions in shelf-stable, frozen and dehydrated forms, as well as flavor bases, pastes and powders, authentic Southwestern cuisine is surprisingly simple to achieve in large-scale operations. Good examples are chipotle-chile flavor bases, liquid smoke, roasted garlic and grill-flavor additives that all modify final food flavors to mimic many of those of the Southwest.
Also, virtually all varieties of dried beans are commercially available, as well as more-exotic ingredients, such as pine nuts, that are produced domestically as well as imported.
Masa is challenging to make from scratch, but product designers can conveniently acquire fresh-prepared masa, cornmeal and corn flour to produce basic Southwestern dishes, such as corn bread, tortillas and tamales. Prepared red and green chiles that are fire-roasted, canned or dried, or made into powders and finished sauces, are also available in a variety of flavor and spice configurations to give designers endless choices for both traditional, as well as differentiated, formulas.
Product developers can easily achieve authentic, fresh, Southwest profiles using common ingredients. For example, a salsa fresca formula might include tomatillos, tomatoes, green chiles (like jalapeños), onion, lime juice, cilantro, salt, garlic and black pepper -- all readily available, easily sourced ingredients.
Perhaps the most-difficult issue facing designers of Southwestern food products is that of heat levels. This might be one area where tradition and practicality depart. While restaurant patrons often can anticipate and even customize spice levels in Southwestern meals, product designers need awareness of general spice preferences, leaving any final spice addition up to the consumer or food service operator.
A common bread accompaniment to many Southwestern meals is green chili corn muffins. Once again, product designers can achieve authenticity using available ingredients, such as mild chimayo chili powder and roasted poblano chiles, and even premade mixes. Caution is recommended in the selection of chile powder and poblano chiles for acceptable heat levels. To offset the heat somewhat, include a hint of molasses.
New Southwestern and Northern New Mexican cooking is yet another evolution of this centuries-old cuisine influenced by creative chefs, including celebrity chefs Ming Tsai, of the Food Network and former executive chef at Santacafé, and Mark Miller of the Coyote Cafe, both located in Santa Fe. Tsai and Miller have fused other styles -- Tsai, Asian; Miller, California -- with the traditional foods of the Southwest to yield imaginative results. This blending of food cultures allows even further experimentation with other ingredients, such as Asian spices, sauces, exotic produce and more-exotic types of chiles.
Blending New Mexico's big flavors, such as chiles, with more-subtle ingredients, like fresh produce, pasta and seafood, results in entirely new eating sensations. Thus, while still conforming to tradition, the definition of Southwestern cuisine continues to evolve, reflecting its multicultural and flavorful history.
— Rick Perez is founder and director of the Ever Changing Times, Inc. culinary team, which is headquartered in Mount Dora, Florida, (352) 383-5191. He has over 25 years experience in the food service industry, including 15 years with Hilton Hotels Nationwide. As a member of the Research Chefs Association, Perez is an advocate of promoting education and professionalism in the culinary field.