There is a certain amount of regional cooking in this country, but for the most part there is not that much difference, region to region. The one stand-out cuisine is that of the Southwest, and in the Southwest I include much of Texas and exclude the populated parts of southern California. Not only is this food distinctive, but it is great food; thus we have debased versions in Taco Bells and other such establishments from California to the New York island. In this post we consider two cookbooks focussing on the food of the American Southwest, neither very recent: one is almost 50 years old, the other 30. The older cookbook is dated; today more ingredients are available almost everywhere, and I think we are all slightly better cooks than in 1968. We also expect more than just recipe after recipe from our cookbooks. However the more recent cookbook I found to be just as magical as I did back in the days when good hardcover cookbooks cost $17.95.
Ronald Johnson’s The Aficionado’s Southwestern Cooking is a book I sort of inherited; it has been on my shelf for a long time, but only now have I cooked anything from it. This is a slim book; checking Amazon, I see that there is an expanded paperback version with more than twice the number of pages and a new subtitle: New and Old. The edition that I have, published in 1968, shows its age: few cookbook authors today would have MSG as a standard ingredient. There are no recipe introductions, now almost a requirement for any cookbook. I think, though, that the recipes do represent Southwestern cooking, circa 1968, and there is a lot here that looks interesting and tasty. Who knows: maybe every New Mexico kitchen in the 60s had a shaker of MSG.
I am still buying tilapia, despite most tilapia being farmed by prison labor; I keep thinking that I should quit using it, but tilapia is such an inoffensive easy fish. So I used tilapia in the recipe “Fish Fillets with Chile and Wine” (page 15). The fish is lightly pan fried, then covered with sauce and popped in the oven. As advertised, the sauce has chili powder and red wine, but also tomatoes, capers, and olives. The sauce was perfect with the bland fish, so if one is going to eat tilapia, this is a great way to do so. Obviously, though, other fish could be used. [Go to the recipe.]
Recipes for chilaquiles attract me, but then usually disappoint me. Ronald’s recipe (page 39) was better than most, but still, ultimately, a disappointment. I substituted fake meat for the chorizo in the recipe, and I will admit that the fake meat itself might have been the biggest problem. Despite my issues with this dish, at least one of our guests, Evan C, expressed his approval.
I find myself liking more and more Southwestern-Mexican type green sauces, so I decided to try Ronald’s “Green Chile Sauce—Cold” (page 98). This sauce is made by blending together tomatoes, scallions, garlic, parsley, jalapeños, coriander, and roasted green chiles; for these I used poblano chiles. A sauce like this cannot fail to be good, although I must admit that this was not the best sauce of its type that I have made. I originally intended using it in some sort of egg dish, but I ended up using it with the hominy, below.
It seems that avocados should have uses other than as a garnish or salad ingredient or mashed up into guacamole, but so far all my efforts to do something else with avocados have not exactly been failures, but not resounding successes either. An avocado tart was okay, but nothing I wanted to make again; avocado soup was like a very thin guacamole with minimal avocado flavor. Still, I have not given up, so the the recipe “Avocado Soufflé” (page 113) beckoned. This recipe is also on the back of the paper jacket of the book, so clearly someone else also thought this recipe was attractive. The soufflé was a standard sweet soufflé with a light green color; four of us ate it all up in one sitting with no problem. And yet… . For an avocado and soufflé combination, I think that I would have way preferred a chocolate soufflé after eating a salad with lots of avocado in it.
“Mango Floating Island” (page 108) is not what I usually think of as floating island. According to Wikipedia, floating island is a dessert consisting of poached meringues on a crème anglaise. Ronald makes his floating island by pouring a custard sauce over mangoes, then topping with whipped cream. The first problem I had was that I could not find mangoes, but Whole Foods had apricots in their produce section, so I thought that apricots might be a good substitution. This was a mistake; the problem is that the fresh apricots that end up in Michigan are tasteless. I am willing to believe that amazing apricots exist, but I doubt that they exist in this state. So I threw in some cherries for taste. The next problem was the custard sauce. I was not that careful with mine, and it curdled some. Although I strained the custard, it was still still somewhat grainy. But I also don’t think the custard recipe was that good; Ronald might have had a better sauce with egg yolks, not whole eggs, and he really could have used a little more sugar. The end product was not merely a forgettable dessert; it came too near to the category of bad desserts.
The Feast of Santa Fe: Cooking of the American Southwest, by Huntley Dent, is a beautiful cookbook, beginning with the vivid blue color accenting the cover (unfortunately, not on the paperback edition). When I first acquired this book, I was reading Louise Erdrich’s The Beet Queen; looking at the blue on the covers of these two great books at night before I went to sleep made me feel so rich. Huntley’s book is the opposite of Ronald’s book; there are lots of words well put together; we learn just what the different foods mean to the cooks of Santa Fe. Huntley is delightfully opinated; I thought of Ronald’s avocado soufflé when I read in the section on avocados that recipes for avocado mousse, avocado ice cream, and the like “definitely do not appear in this cookbook.” There is something for everyone (even Ronald Johnson, just not avocado soufflé) in this cookbook. Thirty years ago I found a number of good meat recipes; I particularly liked the “Spiced Ground Beef with Raisins and Almonds–Picadillo” (page 101). But there is still plenty for the vegetarian; this traditional food is, after all, the food of people who must carefully conserve their resources, and so not kill a sheep every day for a meat feast.
It’s not winter, but that did not stop me from putting “Winter Salad of Jícama and Oranges” (page 175) on the table. What did stop me, though, was that Whole Foods Market had no jicamas. Undaunted, I tried to think of a jicama replacement; my first idea was celery, but then I decided to try fennel, and I think this worked out very well, probably even better than jicama. The salad is simple: just jicama (or fennel), sectioned oranges, scallions, and cilantro, with a simple dressing. This salad was very refreshing, just what a salad should be.
“Radish, Onion, and Green Chili Salad” (page 176) is indeed a salad when first made: radishes, scallions, red onion, and bell pepper are mixed with salt and vinegar; jicama is an optional ingredient. This makes a tart and crunchy salad when fresh. But let this salad sit for even a few hours and it begins morphing into a pickle; still tart and crunchy but with an entirely different character. I think this tastes better as a pickle, but is much prettier as a salad.
Cheese soup has always impressed me as decadent, so it was with a thrill of guilty pleasure that I made “Cheddar Soup with Green Chilies” (page 190). Huntley describes this as “a chile con queso in soup form,” which quite accurately sums up this soup. It’s delicious, and how could it be otherwise, with butter and tomatoes, chilies and cream, cheddar and fake chicken broth? It’s blended together, so even picky eaters such as Henry have no excuse not to like this soup.
I could not cook from this book without exploring “Traditional Specialties,” and so I decided to make “Red Chili Enchiladas” (page 216). Sometimes when I have made enchiladas. I have only dipped the tortillas in the sauce, but this time I followed Huntley’s directions. I dipped corn tortillas first in hot oil, then in “Adaptable Red Chili Sauce with Tomatoes” (page 79). Next I rolled up onions and cheese in each tortilla, put them in a baking dish, and topped with the leftover sauce and more cheese. These were certainly good; I think that the taste is worth the mess and calories of dipping first in oil.
Hominy, corn treated with lime, is a food much under-appreciated in many places. When coarsely ground, we get hominy grits. A finer grind gives the masa used to make corn tortillas and other corn doughs. Unground, we get hominy itself, which can either be purchased dried or cooked and canned. When I am in cholent making mode, I often like to throw a handful of hominy into the cholent pot. Huntley uses canned hominy in his “Creamed Hominy with Cheese and Green Chili” (page 206); I had some dried hominy so just cooked that. I combined the cooked hominy with the green chili sauce from The Aficionado’s Southwestern Cooking, cream, butter, and cheese. This made a very enjoyable dish, and one different from what usually appears on my table.
It’s hard to go wrong with fried potatoes (unless you are one of those strange and unusual people like Henry who actually don’t like potatoes); this is probably why French fries are so popular: grease, starch, and salt are the best! At home, it is lots easier to pan fry cubes of potatoes, often precooked, than to deep fry potato sticks; you can still get the same grease, salt, and starch combo. I have several Indian inspired fried potato dishes in the repertoire; Huntley offers a Santa Fe fried potato dish: “Fried Potatoes with Green Chili” (page 206). This is a simple dish with onions, pre-cooked potatoes, and canned green chilies; I omitted the salt pork, but the potatoes were still good.
The recipe for “Spanish Rice” (page 305) is not the tomato based concoction that most of us are used to; rather, this is merely rice cooked in broth, after first browning in oil with a little onion and garlic. Huntley does offer some variations, some with tomatoes, but I followed his basic recipe. I used “Better than Bullion” vegetarian paste, and ended up with a simple but savory rice side dish.
Canned beans are easy to use, and don’t taste that bad, but I have found that cooking one’s own dried beans is not that much work and usually leads to superior results. But there are a few dishes for which I don’t mind canned beans (but maybe just out of habit); one such dish is “Pureed Chick-Peas” (page 303), the baked variation. This dish ends up tasting way better than, by all rights, it should, for not only do we use canned chickpeas, but canned green chilies. I’m a little embarrassed to produce really good food from cans. The chickpeas and green chilies are combined with onion, garlic, oregano, cumin, and cream, and topped with cheese, then baked in the onion. Not too mild, not too spicy, creamy with a little bit of texture: these are some of the reasons I like this dish so much. [Go to the recipe.]
Years ago, before Danny became a salaryman, he experimented with cooking. One of his best recipes was from The Feast of Santa Fe: “Boiled Lemon Cake” (page 327); he made the orange variation, as did I when I made this this cake. This is a very eggy cake, with only a small amount of flour; it uses all the peel from one orange, which is ground up in the food processor. The cake you end up with is moist and perfect with whipped cream. Danny indeed has an eye for good recipes; maybe he will start cooking again in years to come!
“Piñon Tiles” (page 351) are tuile type cookies, thin cookies that are draped over a rolling pin or broomstick when warm and soft in order to form “tile” shaped cookies; curved red tiles being the type used in Spain or Mexico (or so Huntley tells us). Although Huntley gives us the directions for forming the curved tile shapes, he also excuses us from doing so, as in Santa Fe we find flat adobe roofs, not curled tiles. My first attempts at curved tiles were not that successful, so I just went for the flat tiles. The cookies were acceptable, but not that amazing in taste.
Alan broke the flan barrier in our house; after his first delicious flan, I have tried a number of other flan recipes. Huntley’s “White Cocoa Flan” (page 356) gets its chocolate flavor from white crème de cacao (although I used dark crème de cacao, all I had in my cabinet). A flan with this mild chocolate flavor accented with a hint of cinnamon was a good idea, but I have come to appreciate the smoothness of flans made primarily with egg yolks; Huntley uses four eggs and two yolks. So this was a good flan, but there was room for improvement.
Fish Fillets in Tomato Chili Sauce
Adapted from Ronald Johnson, The Aficionado’s Southwestern Cooking
1½ pounds mild white fish fillets (e.g., tilapia)
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 14-ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes
1 cup red wine
½ teaspoon oregano
2 tablespoons minced parsley
12 green olives, pitted and chopped
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Sriracha or other hot sauce (optional)
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and cook the fish on both sides. Remove from the pan. Using more olive oil if necessary, add the garlic, cumin, and chili powder to the skillet, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes, wine, oregano, olives, parsley, and capers. Simmer for 10 or 15 minutes. Add salt and hot sauce to taste.
Layer the fish and tomato sauce in baking dish, ending with the tomato sauce. The dish can be refrigerated at this point, or cooked right away. When ready to cook, put the dish in a preheated 350º oven until hot and bubbly.
Adapted from Huntley Dent, The Feast of Santa Fe
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon pepper
2 14-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 3-ounce can chopped green chilies
¼ cup cream
4 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 300º.
Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Cook the onion until it softens. Add the garlic, oregano, cumin, pepper, and salt to taste (start with maybe half a teaspoon) and cook a few more minutes. Pulse the chickpeas in a food processor; with no food processor, mash with a potato masher. You may pulse the chickpeas with the onions if you want; I usually do this because I don’t want very big chunks of onion in the finished dish. Be sure to leave some texture, though. Add the chickpeas and green chilies to the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. Stir in the cream. Spread the chickpeas in a shallow baking dish and top with the cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly, about 20 minutes.