THE ELDERS of the tribe sat atthe back of the auditorium in the Indian school, their arms folded across their chests. Stray dogs roamed the hall; a few children darted in and out.
At the front of the auditorium Jane Butel demonstrated how to make Indian food on modern electric appliances while 80 Indian women looked on in total silence.
It was 1960, the first time the women of the Santa Domingo pueblo in New Mexico had been invited out alone in 700 years, since the pueblo was founded in 1250. Not until Butel turned the tortillas with a pair of tongs did she elicit any response from the women in the audience. One of them came up to her at her electric stove and indicated tht tortillas had to be turned with the hand. Otherwise, she said, there was no way to know whether or not they were done. After that the ice was broken and many of the women gathered around to ask questions.
Butel, a home economist for Public Service Company of New Mexico, had come to the pueblo to show the women how they could use electric appliances. The pueblo had been hooked up to the city's electrical supply, but the electricity was being used only in a few of the public buildings. "Can you imagine," Butel said in a recent interview, they had such abundant energy they wanted to do anything they could to sell electricity.
The moment Butel learned to turn tortillas with her fingers she realized she could learn as much from the women as they could from her. It was an opportunity to discover the culinary secrets of Southwest Indians. It was the beginning of her exploration of what Tex-Mex cooking really is.
On Butel's first visit, to make arrangements for the cooking demonstrations, she had met with tribal elders. In her honor they served Hydrox cookies and white bread. When Butel eats cookies she prefers bischochitos; her bread choice is bollilos.
One way or another, everyone in her family has been interested in cooking, particularly of the Southwest and Mexico. Butel has lived most of her life in New Mexico. After graduation from Kansas State University in 1959, with a degree in home economics and journalism she took a job with the electric company in Albuquerque.
Almost immediately her classes in New Mexican cooking were a success. On her staff there was one Mexican woman and another who was a descendant of the Spanish conquistadores. From them she learned many more dishes which combine the influences south of the border with those of the state. Most of the recipes never had been written down. So Butel started compiling them.
After 10 years in New Mexico, and several career changes, Butel arrived in New York via Kentucky. Her work took her away from chiles and chimichangas into the corporate realm of American Express. Her view changed from desert and tumbleweed to the East River, but she continued to compile recipes native to the state and the rest of the Southwest.
Two years ago Butel left American Express, took off her business suit and white blouse and put on her jeans, her turquoise blouse and Indian jewelry. She became a consultant, most often to Mexican restaurants, the importer of pure Mexican spices under the Pecos River brand (named for a ranch in New Mexico in which she once had an interest) and author of a cookbook with a misleading title.
"Jane Butel's Tex-Mex Cookbook," (Harmony Books, $12.95) makes one think of chili con carne and combinations plates-tacos, enchiladas and tamales, all filled with the same ground beef mixture. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"The title of the book bothers me," Butel said. "It was not my preference," but the publisher told her "people who don't come from the Southwest wouldn't understand."
That is true. Most Americans know little of the differences that exist among Mexican-based cuisine as it is prepared in Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico. "There's a lot of border rivalry," Butel explained. "New Mexicans don't like Texans, but Texans love New Mexicans. They can't wait to move to New Mexico," Butel laughed and then added, "I won't make any friends in Texas that way. New Mexicans consider Texas food hybridized. The Indian and Mexican cultures are more highly developed in New Mexico."
No matter how harsh those words may sound to a Texan's ears, outsiders who have sampled each state's adaptations of Mexican food are inclined to agree with Butel.
In her book, she explains that Texans "often cut back on ingredients and make their cooking as easy as possible, whereas the cuisine has been innovatively developed in Arizona and California. These last two states use fruits, vegetables, sour cream and olives in greater abundance and tend to combine more foods creatively than in other Mexican border states.
"New Mexico, however, has retained more authentic dishes and traditional methods. It is more purely Mexican and Indian influenced than the other border states. The New Mexican natives have a 350-year-old tradition of adapting Old Mexican foods to their liking." The heart of Butel's book is New Mexican though there are many recipes from the other three states as well as Mexico itself.
There is useful information about fresh chiles and other ingredients that are needed for this kind of cooking. The book explains the degree of hotness in the chiles, but during the interview Butel added some interesting mathematical calculations on her company's dried chiles (available at Ambrosia on Wisconsin Avenue). According to the American Spice Trade Council, the Pecos River mild chiles have 5,000 heat units, slightly above that of bell peppers; hot chiles have 8,000 heat units; chile caribe, 12,000 heat units; chile pequin, 40,000 heat units.
Washington is fortunate to have access to most of the ingredients used in Butel's book, not only in Spanish markets, but in regular supermarkets which are located in neighborhoods where there is a sizable Spanish-speaking population.
Because most "Tex-Mex" food freezes well, Butel gives freezing information with each recipe. Here is a recent dinner she prepared from the book. Margaritas Tostada With Chile Con Queso Hermosillo Snapper Mexicali Salad Bolillas Bischochitos And Fresh Fruit BOLILLOS (Mexican Hard Rolls) (makes 3 dozen hard rolls) 1 package active dry yeast 2 teaspoons sugar 1 3/4 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees) 1 teaspoon salt 6 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Stir yeast and sugar together, then dissolve in warm water. Add the salt, then the flour, 2 cups at a time, beating well after each addition. After adding the fifth cup of flour, add flour slowly until the dough becomes too stiff to handle. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead until satiny. Place in a lightly greased bowl, being sure to grease the top of the bread, then cover with a sheet of wax paper and a towel.
Let rise in a warm place free of drafts until doubled in bulk. When dough is doubled, punch down and allow to double again. Form into long slender rolls, twisting each end. Some like to roll the dough into very long ropes about 2 inches in diameter and snip off 3- to 4-inch pieces of dough, twisting each each. For authentic-looking rolls, they should be rather flat with twisted ends. Lay rolls about 2 inches apart on a lightly floured baking sheet. After shaping the rolls, gash the tops with a sharp knife or scissors. sCover with a towel and again allow to double in bulk. When nearly doubled, preheat oven to 400 degrees and lightly oil the tops of the rolls.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until lightly browned. Serve piping hot with lots of butter.
Maximum Recommended Freezer Storage: 3 months. MEXICALI SALAD (4 to 6 servings) 2 cups vinegar and oil salad (see below) 1/2 cup sliced hearts of palm 4 1/2 ounces pitted ripe olives, halved crosswise 3 scallions, shopped 2 dozen cherry tomatoes, halved 1 large head of romaine lettuce 1 large avocado 2 garlic cloves, crushed 1 teaspoon lime juice 1 green chile, chopped 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup sour cream Freshly ground black pepper 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds 1 cup tostados
The day before serving the salad, prepare the salad dressing and set aside. Place the hearts of palm, 2/3 of the sliced olives, the chopped scallions and cherry tomatoes in a large jar or plastic container. Add enough salad dressing to cover, then shake ingredients together and refrigerate.
During the morning before planning to serve the salad, rinse the romaine and tear into medium-size pieces. Refrigerate until ready to use. Prepare guacamole, using your favorite recipe or by combing the avocado, garlic, lime juice, green chile and salt. Thin with sour cream to the consistency of mayonnaise. About 5 minutes before serving, sprinkle lettuce with freshly ground black pepper and toasted sesame seeds. Add the marinated vegetables and the marinade and toss together. Arrange salad in a large serving bowl. Place the guacomole in the center of the salad. Encircle the guacamole with the rest of the black olives. Top the salad with the tostados and serve. Vinegar and Oil Salad Dressing (Makes 2 cups) 1 1/2 cups olive or salad oil 1/2 cup red wine vinegar 1 teaspoon sugar 1 tablespoon tomato paste 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place all ingredients in a small deep bowl and whisk together until foamy and well mixed. Taste and adjust seasonings. HERMOSILLO SNAPPER STUFFED WITH SHRIMPS (4 to 6 servings) 1 fresh red snapper, 3 to 4 pounds 1/3 pound fresh shrimps 1/4 pound mushrooms 2 tablespoons butter 2 green onions, finely chopped 2 celery ribs, chopped 1 teaspoon minced fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon 1 teaspoon minced fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried basil 1 teaspoon minced fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried savory 1 teaspoon minced fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme Salt and pepper Dry white wine Snapper Sauce (recipe below)
Rinse out red snapper and set aside. Shell shrimp and coarsely slice mushrooms. Add shrimps and mushrooms to melted butter in a skillet. Add green onions, celery and herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute until shrimps are pink and mushrooms tender. Stuff mixture into cavity of red snapper reserving about 1/4 cup, then skewer closed. Place fish in a large roaster with a lid. Just before popping into a preheated 350-degree oven, drizzle with wine. Cover the pan. Baste fish frequently with wine in roaster as it bakes. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until done. Snapper Sauce
Prepare sauce in the same frying pan as you used for sauteing the stuffing. Remove the reserved shrimps and mushrooms to a small bowl and finely mince with a knife. Set aside. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the pan and melt. Then add 1 chopped green onion, tops included, and saute until clear. Add 2 tablespoons flour and stir until lightly browned. Add 1 cup light cream and stir until thickened. Then add the minced reserved shrimp and mushroom mixture and stir to blend. Add a tablespoon of sherry, a pinch of thyme, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some freshly ground black pepper. When fish is done, remove to a heated platter. Add drippings from the bottom of the pan to the sauce and cook until it bubbles. Serve sauce separately. TOSTADOS (Crisp-Fried Tortilla Quarters) (Makes 48 tostados) 1 quart lard or cooking oil (approximately) 12 corn tortillas 1 garlic clove, crushed (optional) Salt Ground pure red chile (optional)
Heat lard or oil, 2 inches deep, in an electric deep-fryer, skillet or other heavy large pan. Using kitchen shears, cut the tortillas almost into quarters, leaving the center portion intact, pin-wheel fashion (for ease in turning). Fry the tortillas in deep fat until crisp, frying only one or two at a time. Drain on absorbent paper toweling. Break into quarters. Combine garlic with salt in a brown bag and shake tostados to coat. And chile if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Maximum Recommended Freezer Storage: 6 months. CHILE CON QUESO (Chile Cheese Dip) 1 cup monterey jack cheese 1/2 cup cheddar cheese 1/4 cup heavy cream 1 medium-size fresh tomato, peeled and finely chopped 1 medium-size sweet onion, finely chopped 1/4 cup chopped, parched green chiles (recipe below) 1 garlic clove, crushed
Melt both cheeses together in a heavy saucepan or double boiler over low heat. After cheese melts, add cream, stirring constantly. Add chopped tomato, onion, green chile and garlic. Stir to blend all flavors. More cream may be needed; if so, add only a few drops at a time. Serve warm in a chafing dish or a dish set over a candle warmer. Serve with tostados.
Note: If ever there's any leftover dip, save it for instant nachos made by scooping the chili con queso onto tostados and heating. Chile con queso makes an excellent sauce or filler for omelets, enchiladas and hamburgers.
Maximum Recommended Freezer Storage: 4 months.
To Parch Green Chiles: Rinse the chiles and drain. Pierce each chile close to the stem, using a sharp, pointed knife, toothpick or ice pick. If chile is large, pierce twice, once on either side.
Place chiles on a cookie sheet covered with foil and place under a broiler. If using an electric range, place rack so tops of chiles are 4 to 6 inches from broiler unit; if using a gas range, place broiler rack in top position closest to the flame; if using charcoal, do not use foil and place rack about 5 inches above the heat. Rotate chiles as they turn amber and the skin develops blisters. Blister uniformly.
Remove chiles from cookie sheet and place in a bowl or clean sink and cover with a cold, damp towel for 10 minutes. This steams the chiles and makes peeling much easier. Starting at the stem end, peel the outer skin downward. Remove the seeds and ribs after taking off the stem.
To Freeze: Chiles can be frozen either before or after peeling. I usually freeze them unpeeled because they peel much easier after freezing, and they retain their shape better.
Maximum Recommended Freezer Storage: 12 months. MARGARITA (Makes 1 drink) 1/2 ounce lime juice (juice of about 1 lime) Salt 1/2 ounce Triple Sec 1 1/2 ounces tequila Ice
After lime juice is extracted, rub the lime rind around the edge of a chilled goblet or wineglass. Invert rim of glass onto a generously salted surface and rub the edge of the glass into salt so as to form a salty crust on the rim. If time permits, freeze the glasses to gain a frosty appearance. Shake all ingredients together with ice or blend together in a blender. Taste and add more lime or Triple Sec if desired. Pour into the salt-rimmed glass.
Variation: For an extra frothy Margarita, add about 1/4 of an egg white to the mixture before blending, and whip until forthy.
Maximum Recommended Freezer Storage: 1 week. BISCHOCHITOS (Spicy Cookies) 6 cups sifted flour 3 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1 pound lard or butter (lard is traditional and makes more tender cookies) 1 3/4 cups sugar 2 teaspoons anise seeds 2 eggs 1/4 cup brandy or more 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Cream lard with 1 1/2 cups sugar and anise by hand or with an electric mixer at medium speed. Beat eggs until light and fluffy; add to the creamed mixture. Add flour mixture and brandy and mix well until blended. Use only enough brandy to form a stiff dough.
Knead dough lightly and pat or roll to 1/4- to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into fancy shapes. The fleur-de-lis shape is traditional for these cookies.
Dust tops of cookies with a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar and the cinnamon. Bake for 10 minutes, or until very lightly browned.