Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Tex-Mex in the Southwest

Tex-Mex in the Southwest—
With a Side Dish of Racism 

I love Tex-Mex food, but I can’t even think of it without also thinking “Cassius Clay” and wincing. And this is why... 

Those two naïve young friends from New Zealand are in the Southwest, and her lovely uncle, beaming all over his face, has promised us Mexican food at a friend’s house.
    Gosh, it’s a gorgeous house. Not like the other American houses we’ve seen so far, at all, which have varied as to the ages of the inhabitants but not that much in architecture or décor, being mainly timber-clad, whether bungalow or two-storeyed, and blandly comfortable—I suppose what would be Middle American—throughout. Some with more emphasis on flowery chintzes, some with less. All with completely luxurious bathrooms. I’m more used to the constantly-open window, hard piece of green Palmolive soap style. The aunties—get this—have even got carpet in their American bathroom! So far all the kitchens have been darkish, curtains either drawn or so elaborately draped over their small windows that they might as well be, with the lights on. Most of the sitting-rooms similar, in fact we were getting quite used to the drapes-drawn, dim-light look.
    This house is different. Modern, and what I assume is the sitting-room (later to realise it must have been the family room) is full of light, with big glass windows giving onto a terrace (later recognised as a patio). They’ve got these giant terracotta tiles in their wonderfully smart kitchen, it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen in those McCall’s Mum used to get!
    The host and hostess are welcoming but preoccupied. The feast is being laid out buffet-style and after some edgy fussing and an incomprehensible conversation with the uncle and a couple of other guests, the host switches the huge television set on. (In the family room, open-plan with the kitchen, natch.) Phew! It hasn’t started yet!
    Huh? What sort of people invite foreigners from half a world away to a meal and then sit down to watch TV?
    We’ve no idea what’s on and as the others are now clustered so tightly round the TV that we can’t see anything anyway, we just eat some of the strange, colourful food. Mm, these crispy things with the salad and meat inside them are yummy! The uncle explains what they are. Tacos. Mexican. 

    As the distracted hostess hurriedly sits down in front of the set, the uncle explains with a twinkle in his shrewd eye what the programme is.
    Boxing? My old school friend and I exchange incredulous glances. See, we’d assumed, the uncle and his wife being lovely, normal people, that they wouldn’t know the sort of people that are avid sports followers. Our families back home don’t follow sports—sports are synonymous with raucous drunks and raucous, drunken rugby crowds. Added to which, what sort of people invite foreigners from half a world away to a meal and then...
    The show begins and our ears ring as loud, scornful and vicious remarks about “that Nigra” are passed by the TV watchers. What? I mean, bad enough they’ve invited us and are ignoring us completely, but my God! Blatant racism and then some. And the hostess, never mind the distraction, seemed like such a nice lady!
    Still with a lurking twinkle, the uncle kindly removes us, leaving the rest of them to it.

    Yes, well, it was the Southwest in 1967. Racism was still completely overt amongst the nice middle classes. “That Nigra” was the great Muhammad Ali. And yes, our fellow-guests without exception still referred to him as “Cassius Clay.”
    I can’t swear to what fight it was—but it was early 1967. And Muhammad Ali and Ernie Terrell met to end the debate about who was the legitimate heavyweight champion on February 2, 1967. Ali won. So sucks to the white racists of El Paso! 

Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016
Here he is. This photograph was taken at almost the exact time we two innocents missed seeing him fight. Wonderful, wasn’t he? 

These days there are loads of recipes around even in the depths of the Antipodes for Tex-Mex food, though it still tends to be called “Mexican”, as the Americans did back in the Sixties. It isn’t, of course, it’s been bowdlerised. Those hard, crisp, packet-bought things sold as tacos—and that we certainly ate as such back in 1967—aren’t really, at all. A taco is simply a fresh tortilla, folded. You can put anything you fancy on it and fold it up. Depending on whether you roll the tortilla up and serve it with a sauce, or eat it flat, open-sandwich style, it may then get other names.
    The crisp ones that we know today, the “hard-shell tacos” are a North American creation: 

“The style that has become most common is the hard-shell, U-shaped version described in a cookbook, The good life: New Mexican food, authored by Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca Gilbert and published in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1949. These have been sold by restaurants and by fast food chains. Even non-Mexican oriented fast food restaurants have sold tacos. Mass production of this type of taco was encouraged by the invention of devices to hold the tortillas in the U-shape as they were deep-fried.” (“Taco”, Wikipedia) 

But it doesn’t really matter: if you like them, eat them! Tex-Mex food is great fun. It doesn’t have to be super-hot, either.
    The fillings that have become traditional Tex-Mex are chili con carne or refried beans. Add a bit of salad (“salsa” if you fancy yourself as rather fancy) and maybe a little cheese. These are good, but not the only options.
    Try a bit of cold chicken, sprinkled with just a little ground cumin seed and a shaking of Tabasco sauce, with any salad combo you fancy. And there’s a glorious, if completely over-the-top, recipe for “Bite-Size Chipotle Chicken Soft Tacos (tinga de pollo)” on the Epicurious website (http://www.epicurious.com/). Check it out for its nice combination of spices—but it’s basically cooked chicken with a spicy sauce topped with a little cheese! It’s served on small pieces of warm tortilla, but would be equally good in a taco shell.
    Pork is popular in Mexico and the way of cooking it called Carnitas, “Little Meats”, produces tender meat which can be shredded for a taco filling. It’s first simmered in water to barely cover with the usual Tex-Mex flavourings of oregano, cumin, and coriander, together with onions and carrots, for about 2 1/2 hours, then well drained and baked in a moderate oven for up to an hour.
    There’s nothing to stop you putting fish or other seafood in your taco, either, but I wouldn’t go for the terrifically over-elaborate recipe with the misleadingly simple name, “Fish Tacos,” that the Australian SBS television channel’s website has favoured us with. It’s got 20-odd ingredients—and the inspired creator can’t spell Baja. He claims it’s a Californian recipe:Fish tacos are now the quintessential taste of California.” I never met anyone in California who ate raw white cabbage—however. It’s a big state.
    Here’s my easy take on refried beans: 

Refried Beans (Frijoles Refritos) Tex-Mex Style
1 tin red beans, pinto beans or cannellini beans;
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Drain off some of bean liquid but not all.
2. Mash beans well with potato masher or fork, or whirr in blender until puréed.
3. Heat oil in electric frypan or heavy frying pan on medium heat.
4. Add bean purée, mix well and heat, stirring, until beans are thick and oil is absorbed.
Use warm in Mexican tacos, tortillas or burritos.
This basic recipe can be varied in any number of ways, and if you like, served as a dip. Some suggestions:
] Sauter a little bacon in the pan before adding the bean purée; or:
] Sauter half a finely-chopped onion and 2 cloves crushed garlic in the pan before adding the bean purée; or:

] Add 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder with the oil and warm through. Then add the bean purée, stir well and add 1 teaspoon dried oregano or marjoram and stir again; or:

] Add half a cup grated Tasty cheese with the bean purée, stir well till melted. 

Want chili con carne? Don’t make it too fiery, you won’t taste it. Let the hot pepper maniacs add Tabasco to their helpings if they like. The chili con carne fanatics claim the meat should be diced rather than minced but hey, all these versions are bowdlerised. Anyway, have it the way you like it! This is more or less the way I make it; I’ve used the recipe so long I don’t know where the original came from. 

“Chilli Con Carne”
1/2 kg lean beef mince; 1 tin tomatoes;
1 tin beans (red kidney, borlotti, pinto or cannellini beans), drained;
1 large onion; 2 cloves garlic, crushed; 1 cup water;
3 tablespoons tomato paste; 2 teaspoons cumin powder;
1 teaspoon chilli powder (or to taste); 1 tablespoon paprika;
teaspoons dried oregano or marjoram; 2 tablespoons oil
Heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan on medium heat, add finely chopped onion and fry till golden. Take out of pan.
Turn the heat up to medium-high and brown the meat, doing only a small amount at a time.
Add all ingredients, bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours or longer till the mixture is thick.
Alternatively, you can do this recipe in a slow cooker. In this case, don’t add the cup of water, but after browning the meat put everything into a slow cooker. Check the liquid level. If it looks too dry add about 1/4 cup of water. Cook covered on low for about 6 hours—longer if convenient. 

Some recipes tell you to add the beans just before the end, but this doesn’t let the flavours mix. I don’t use salt but you could add 1/2 teaspoon. The recipe is very flexible: you can use more or less mince.
    If you’re serving this with tacos make sure it is isn’t too runny! 

Easier Still
Alternatively, just fry some mince till nicely cooked, pop it in the taco shell with a sprinkling of cumin, oregano and chilli powder or Tabasco, add a little grated cheese and a spoonful of salad! Easy-peasy! It’s incredibly good if you can add a large slice of avocado, but they’re never in season and at the right stage of ripeness when you want one, are they? 

Do it Yourself?
Wanna make your own tortillas and tacos? The real Mexican ones use a special flour made from maize: masa harina. Naturally it’s impossible to get in most of Australia—ignore those pin-headed cookery-show gurus, it might be available from some very special (read, totally obscure) Mexican grocery in Sydney, but it ain’t sold anywhere near where I live, mate. 

Over the Top and Down the Other Side
But I have made my own, yep. Back in the day. Well, Stan the Man was overseas, and I had some American friends who were really keen on Tex-Mex and into dinner parties—actual socializing, I’d never come across it before in EnZed, my parents never went out to dinner.
    So I figured out how to make sort of tortillas, with the aid of the Sunset Mexican Cook Book. When they’re made, if you pop them in a shallow pan with a bit of hot oil and let them crisp up nicely, not only are they very yummy, you can call them tacos. 

Corn Tortillas
1 to 1 1/4 cups fine corn meal (fine polenta);
3/4 to 1 cup plain flour (NOT self-raising);
1 1/2 cups warm water
1. Mix corn meal and flour together.
2. Gradually add warm water and mix until dough is firm and holds well together.
3. Using your hands, shape dough into a smooth ball.
4. Divide dough into 10 to 12 equal-sized pieces, then roll each into a ball.
5. Shape each into a flat circle about 10-12 cm in diameter. Either use a tortilla press or a rolling pin. 

To Use the Tortilla Press:
1. Open the press and set a ball of tortilla dough on it, slightly off-centre, towards the edge farthest from the handle.
2. Flatten it slightly with the palm of your hand.
3. Lower the top half of the press and press down firmly on the lever until the tortilla measures about 10-15 cm in diameter. (Mine are usually about 10.)
Makes 10 or 12 tortillas.

To bake:
1. Heat a flat grill, heavy frying pan (preferably iron), or heavy-based electric frypan to medium-hot. Do not grease it.
2. Bake each tortilla until it starts to looks dry and is lightly flecked with brown specks. Turn it a couple of times as it cooks. It should still be soft when done: takes only about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
3. Serve tortilla immediately while still warm, or cool and then wrap in plastic cling film to store in refrigerator or freezer.

To fry:
1. As the tortillas are rolled out, stack them with waxed paper between them.
2. Heat about 1 cm oil in a frying pan on moderate heat.
3. Gently drop each tortilla into the oil and cook until the surface bubbles up. Quickly turn and cook the other side for a few moments until the edges are crisp and just starting to brown.
4. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with a topping of your choice. 

    You’re right: you would only do this if gone totally bonkers—or on a very cold, wet weekend in Wellington, NZ, with your aged lover on the other side of the world.
    Or both? Oh, yeah.