Texans are much misunderstood. Whey they are boastful or ornery or otherwise offend the sensibilities of people hereabouts, usually it is because they are hungry or, worse, have just been fed badly. And, according to most Texans, being fed badly in this area happens about as often as a young heifer moos for its mother.
They speak badly of the caliber of "Mexican" food served in local restaurants and often are antagonistic about "Mexican" food products sold in supermarkets. There may be ways to magically manipulate these canned and frozen ingredients into something special, but you can't expect a grumpy, homesick Texan to share such secrets. So the discussion usually dwindles into macho claims and counterclaims about the proper way to make chili and how hot is "hot" when seasoning food.
A few years back (the exact date is now hidden in the misty clouds that surround sagebrush legends) several couples living here but with roots in Fort Worth and West Texas struck out on a different couse. They began gathering on Sunday evenings at irregular intervals to share food and recipes from their homeland. The group never has evolved into a formal organization, but its reputation has spread. "People think we are some sort of secret society," said one of their number with a laugh during a recent gathering at the Arlington home of Ardon and Rue Judd.
The very opposite is true, as you will discover by continuing as far as the recipes they share so willingly. Nonetheless, this Texas castle does have walls, although they are made of glass, and there is a ruling hierarchy underpinning the democratic structure.
The host couple may be the Judds; CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer and his wife, Pat; oil and gas executive Wayne Gibbens and his wife, Beth; Gene and Ann Worley, or Roy and Kay Faussett. Some of the original eight couples have left the area, so others have been drafted to take their places. With guests, the number present on any one evening will generally be around 24 and never exceed 30. They are called together six or eight times a year.
The hostess coordinates each event. The more adventurous members volunteer recipes, while others will be assigned tasks. Mostly it is the wives who contribute, though two of the most respected cooks in the group are men, lawyer Jim Langdon and Danny Prescott.
On a typical Sunday, there will be three or four appetizers and six dishes on the buffet table. Each cook or team of cooks prepares the recipes at home and brings it to the dinner, so no one shoulders the burden of preparing an entire meal of Mexican recipes, a task one cook described as "pretty stupendous." The food is reheated or finished while cocktails and appetizers are served and then, in true Texas fashion, inhaled rather than eaten. As a result, the meal is soon over and couples with their empty or almost empty casseroles in hand are heading home soon after 10 p.m.
"The dishes change," said Pat Schieffer, "but some things are brought back by popular demand."
"Everybody participates and, with all the experimenting, we've never had a bad meal," Rue Judd added. "We had a bad dish once, though. So sometimes, if someone is new or not very sure of herself, we'll ask her to chop the onions. We serve margaritas sometimes, but after a few, especially in hot weather, people just wander off into the night."
There were no margaritas at the Judds' gathering. There were, however, empanadas , nachos and picadillo before the meal and a crowded buffet table held, on one side, a tortilla casserole called chilaquiles , chicken enchiladas, tamales imported from Ft. Worth, a salpicon of beet and burritoladas , filled crepes covered with an enchilada sauce. On the opposite side were the ingredients necessary to create a proper chalupa : crisp fried tortillas, refried black beans, sour cream, shredded chicken, grated Monterey Jack cheese, hot sauce, shredded lettuce and guacamole , the popular avocado dip.
Even among such amiable company there was some disagreement over the proper order in which to assemble these ingredients atop the tortilla, but universal accord that each one was essential.
"People don't do this at home in Texas," one person said in answer to a question. "They don't need to. They go out at least once a week - the whole family - to eat Tex-Mex in a restaurant or to bring it home. It's the same thing people do with Chinese restaurants up here.
"When a new Mexican restaurant comes along, we always run out eagerly to test it.Nothing measures up." (An informal poll produced a consensus that a small place in deepest Arlington called Speedy Gonzales produces "pretty good" food. The almost total lack of decor in the restaurant appears to exert a strong nostalgia factor, however.)
To a first-time guest, a restaurant would be hard put to equal the group's efforts. Top-quality ingredients had been used to create a sophisticated mix of flavors and textures far more stimulating than what one finds on the usual "combination plate." The cooks said they drew inspiration from a number of sources, including the Junior League cookbooks produced in Houston and El Paso, "Elena's Secrets of Mexican Cooking" and the two books written by Diana Kennedy.
As the pralines were passed, one of the founders confessed that a difficult decision was soon to be made. "Word's gotten out about us and now some Californians want to come." She paused a few seconds to let her listener absorb the full implication of Texans trying to come to terms with what passes for Mexican food in California, then said, "We don't know about that."
Somehow it sounded like a veto coated with guacamole. JUNE JACKSON'S CHILAQUILES (Serves about 15) 2 dozen tortillas (frozen are satisfactory), cut into quarters Oil for frying 4 cans (12 ounces each) green chiles and tomatoes 2 to 3 pounds chorizo or other link sausage, sliced and fried (or substitute boiled chicken) 3 pints sour cream 2 pounds Monterey Jack cheese with jalapenos, grated 3 green tomatoes, cut up 3 onions, chopped
Fry tortillas lightly in oil and drain on paper towels. Layer a large baking dish with a third of the tortils. Add a can of the green chiles and tomatoes, a third of the sausage and top with a quarter of the sour cream and a third of the grated cheese. Make two more layers in similar fashion. Place green tomatoes, onion, remaining can of green chiles and tomatoes and remaining sour cream in a blender. Process to make a sauce. Pour over casserole and bake for about 30 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven. LINDA BUSHELL'S CHICKEN ENCHILADAS (Makes 12 to 16) 2 chicken (4 to 5 pounds each) 2 ribs celery, cut in pieces 2 carrots, cut in pieces 2 garlic cloves, peeled Salt and pepper 1 to 2 tablespoons ground cumin 2 green peppers, chopped 2 medium onions, chopped 3 tablespoons vegetables oil 1 can (4 ounces) green chiles, cut up 2 teaspoons chili powder 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated 12 to 16 tortillas 2 cups chicken broth 1 can (5 1/2 ounces) evaporated milk 1 can (10 1/2 ounces) condensed cream of chicken soup 1 can (12 ounces) tomatoes (Rotel brand preferred) 1/2 pound Monterey Jack cheese, grated?
Make a broth with the celery, carrots, garlic, salt and pepper and several quarts of water. Add the chickens and poach them until cooked, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove chickens from broth. When cool, remove meat from bones and shred it. Stir cumin into broth and put it aside.(This can be done ahead. If it is, reheat broth.)
When ready to construct the enchiladas, saute the green peppers and onions in oil. Scrape into a bowl and mix in green chiles. Combine chili and garlic powders and put into an empty spice bottle or another container with a shaker top.
Dip a tortilla in chicken broth briefly to soften it. Then spread on it small amounts of chicken meat, the peppers and onion mixture, grated cheese, and a generous shake of the chili and garlic powder seasoning. Roll up the tortilla. Pour broth in a casserole or baking dish to barely cover the bottom. Place each enchilada in the casserole as it is rolled making a single layer.
Pour 2 cups of broth with the evaporated milk and condensed soup into a sauce pan. Stir together and heat to make a sauce. Pour it over the enchiladas. Add the tomatoes (undrained) and place the casserole in a preheated 325-degree oven. Cook for 45 minutes, or until heated through. Add Monterey Jack for final 10 minutes. RUE JUDD'S HOT SAUCE (Makes about 3 cups) 1 large onion, chopped 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 cups peeled ripe tomatoes, chopped (3 or 4) 3 jalepeno peppers (or more or less to taste), finely chopped 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 clove garlic, crushed
Saute onion in oil until softened. The pieces should not be browned. Add tomatoes, peppers, salt and garlic and simmer sauce for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until thickened.
Note: When ripe tomatoes are not available, substitute 2 cans (12 ounce size) Rotel tomatoes and green chiles and omit the jalepenos. JIM LANGDON'S SALPICON (16 to 20 servings) 8 pounds top sirloin roast 2 cloves garlic, peeled 2 bay leaves 1 tablespoon black peppercorns 1 "handful" dried red chiles 1 can (12 ounces) tomatoes 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro" Salt and pepper to taste 1 bottle Italian salad dressing 1 1/2 cups chopped green chiles 1/2 pound Monterey Jack cheese, cut in 1/2-inch squares 2 avocados, peeled and cut in slices 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Cilantro, also called Chinese parsley or fresh coriander, is sold in Oriental and Latin markets. Its special flavor is essential to this dish.
Place beef in a large pot. Cover with water, add garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, red chiles, tomatoes, 1/4 cup cilantro and about a tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 5 hours. Remove meat and cool. Cut into pieces roughly 2 inches square, then shred pieces by hand. Arrange in a 9-by-11-inch baking dish or another container and cover with salad dressing. Marinate overnight.
Top beef with chopped green chiles and cheese squares, then decorate with avocado slices and sprinkle on remaining 1/4 cup cilantro and chopped parsley. Place in a 325-degree oven and bake until meat is heated through, 20 to 30 minutes. KAY FAUSETTS AND M.V. DYE'S BURRITOLADA (Makes 12) 1/2 cup yellow corn meal 1/2 cup boiling water 3 eggs, beaten 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour 1 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted 3/4 cup milk 1 large onion, chopped 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 3 cloves garlic, crushed 3 small serrano chiles, chopped 2 cans (8 ounce size) tomato sauce 3 tablespoons chili powder Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 pound cooked ham, chopped 2 cups sour cream (about) 2 cups guacamole (about) 1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Combine corn meal and boiling water. Stir well and let cool. Add eggs, salt, flour and melted butter. Mix until smooth, then stir in milk. Use this batter to make 12 crepes. Set aside.
Saute onion in oil until softened. Add garlic, serrano chilies (these are very hot), tomato sauce and chili powder. Cook over low heat for an hour. Taste and season with salt, pepper and more chili powder, if desired. Divide this sauce equally between two bowls and stir the ham into one of them. Line each crepe with equal amounts of meat sauce, sour cream and guacamole and roll up. Place in a single layer in a casserole or baking dish and cover with meatless sauce and shredded cheese. Place in a preheated 325-degree oven until heated through, about 30 minutes. DANNY PRESCOTTS GUACAMOLE (Makes about 6 cups) 12 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted 1 to 2 teaspoons ground coriander Salt and pepper to taste Hot pepper sauce to taste Juice of 4 limes 2 ripe, peeled tomatoes, chopped 9 green chili peppers, roasted, peeled and seeds removed 1 small onion, finely grated
Mash avocados and mix in remaining ingredients. Serve as a dip, use as a garnish or in recipes calling for guacamole. MARY RAETHER'S TEXAS PICADILLO (Serves 16 to 20) 1 1/2 pounds ground beef 1 medium onion, chopped 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 teaspoon salt 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon chili powder 1 can (8 or 10 ounces) tomato sauce 1 can (8 ounces) mushrooms, drained 1 can (16 ounces) tomatoes, undrained 2 tablespoons vinegar (garlic vinegar preferred) 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 cup raisins Pinch ground clove 1/2 cup sliced almonds
Cook onions in oil until soft, then add beef and saute until browned. Add all remaining ingredients except almonds. Stir well and simmer, covered, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Mix in almonds and serve warm as an appetizer with tostados or doritos. PAT SCHIEFFER'S PRALINES (Makes about 3 dozen) 2 pounds light brown sugar 2 cups granulated white sugar 3/4 cup light corn syrup 1 cup milk 3 teaspoons vanilla extract 1/2 stick (2 ounces) butter 1 pound pecan halves or pieces
Cook brown and white sugars, corn syrup and milk to soft ball stage (240 degrees) without stirring. Remove from heat and add vanilla, butter and nuts. Beat by hand until mixture drops easily from spoon. Spread waxed paper on a baking sheet or countertop and drop mixture, a generous tablespoon at a time, onto the waxed paper. Candy will set and harden quickly. (If mixture hardens in the pan, add a very small amount of hot water and stir until it softens.) Remove and store in a cookie jar or other tightly closed container until ready to serve.