Damn the tacos, full speed ahead.
There's more to Tex-Mex food than the usual Anglo-amalgamated tacos, burritos, enchiladas or even chiles rellenos of the fast-food circuits. Tex-Mex is not limited by interchangeable combinations of meat, cheese, beans, shredded lettuce and chopped tomatoes somehow wrapped in or piled on top of a tortilla.
It's a vastly underestimated cuisine. So raise your consciousness and put that tortilla press aside for a moment. Tex-Mex can be light and lovely--a collage of colorful, aromatic foods that are "Mexican" by virtue of the ingredients used to create them.
There are no absolutes, no Tex-Mex doctrines.
Ingredients like avocados, beans (pinto, kidney and garbanzo), green and red picante sauces (hot sauce-relish made of jalapenos, chilis, onions and tomatoes), chili powders, fresh chorizo (highly seasoned link sausage), chilis and tortillas (corn and flour) are versatile and can enhance your everyday culinary creations.
Don't be afraid to experiment with chilis and chili powders. Adding a conservative amount of the hot peppers to a soft-spoken souffle' can change the entire personality of a dinner from ordinary to downright charismatic. Because Tex-Mex food is growing in popularity, most of the ingredients can be found in local groceries. However, items such as chorizo and picante sauce are a little more difficult to find, and you should check Spanish markets.
It's not difficult to imagine that for breakfast your soon-to-be-educated Tex-Mex palate will crave heaps of picante sauce on those routine eggs, instead of salt and pepper. Taken a step further, lunch will be cheese- and sausage-filled flour tortillas to dip into a mess of refried beans, instead of yet another humdrum ham sandwich. For dinner, try a lively fish-chili pudding accompanied by a festive avocado-sweet pepper salad, followed by a light mango delight. And welcome to the land of Tex-Mex.
AVOCADO-SWEET PEPPER SALAD (4 servings) 2 16-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained 2 large ripe or 3 small avocados, peeled and cut in cubes 2 red bell peppers, seeded and thinly sliced 1 cup chopped parsley
For dressing: 1 cup olive oil 1/2 cup cider or wine vinegar 1 tablespoon prepared spicy mustard 1 teaspoon garlic, minced 2 teaspoons fresh coriander (also called cilantro or Chinese parsley), finely minced (optional) 1 teaspoon basil Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Gently toss together chickpeas, avocados, bell peppers and parsley. Mix together oil, vinegar, mustard, garlic, coriander and basil; pour over salad. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and toss.
JILL VEXLER'S MANGO-MANGO (6 to 8 servings) 2 15 1/2-ounce or 1 29-ounce can mangos, drained, liquid reserved 8 ounces plain yogurt 8 ounces cream cheese 1 cup orange juice 2 1-ounce packages unflavored gelatin Oil for pan
Whipped heavy cream and shaved bittersweet chocolate, for garnish
Drain mangos, reserving liquid. Blend the mangos in a food processor or blender until pure'ed. Pour into bowl. Blend the yogurt and cream cheese together and add to mango pulp. In a saucepan, bring 1 cup mango juice (reserved liquid) and 1 cup orange juice to a boil. Dissolve gelatin in 1/2 cup warm water and add to boiling juices, stirring until thickened. Allow thickened juices to cool to lukewarm. Thoroughly combine the cooled juices and mango mixture. Pour into lightly oiled 2-quart mold and let chill until solid, about 2 to 4 hours. Unmold, slice and serve with generous amounts of whipped cream and sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
Note: For a more mousse-like dessert, fold 1 cup whipped cream into the thoroughly combined juices and mango mixture and pour into a 2-quart mold or individual parfait glasses. Chill until solid, about 2 to 4 hours. Serve with whipped cream and sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
FISH-CHILI PUDDING (6 servings) Butter or olive oil, for pan 2 to 4 pounds boneless fish fillets* 1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined (substitute scallops)
For Pudding: 8 tablespoons butter 1 onion, finely chopped 4 canned jalapeno peppers, rinsed, drained and chopped (substitute fresh jalapeno peppers with stems removed, seeded and chopped)** 4 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup cream 2 1-pound cans creamed corn 6 eggs, separated 2 tablespoons cumin 1 teaspoon hot chili powder (less if very hot) Paprika and chopped parsley, for garnish
Generously butter or oil the bottom and sides of a flat pan at least one inch high, that will hold the fish fillets side by side, (I use the bottom of a broiling pan). Pat the fillets dry with a paper towel and place in pan skin-side down.
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan and saute' the onions and chopped pepper until the onions are tender. Remove them from the saucepan and set aside. Melt the remaining butter and add the flour. Stir with a wire whisk until the flour has thickened and is well-combined and smooth. Continue to cook slowly and stir constantly while adding the cream. As soon as the sauce is smooth, add the creamed corn, onions and peppers. Cook until thickened and very hot.
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks, then stir in a little of the hot corn mixture. Pour the contents of the bowl back into the saucepan, add spices, stirring constantly, until the mixture is well blended and again thickened by the yolks. Do not boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to lukewarm. Whip the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold the whites gently into the warm corn mixture until light and frothy.
Spoon the pudding over the fish fillets, making sure that it is spread over the entire pan and covers the fillets up to the edges of the pan. Press the shrimp or scallops into the pudding (you want them peeking out of the puffed-up cooked pudding). Sprinkle the top of the pudding with paprika and parsley. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center of the pudding comes out clean. Serve immediately, accompanied by hot flour or corn tortillas and picante sauce.
*Note: The amount of fish you use depends upon the density of the fillets. Swordfish, for example, is denser than flounder, and 2 1/2 pounds of swordfish would be fine for this recipe. Other suggested fish include: halibut, haddock or flounder.
**Note: Use care in handling jalapeno peppers, as their volatile oils can irritate your eyes and skin. Be sure to wear kitchen gloves and to keep your hands away from your eyes after touching the peppers.
CHEESE AND SAUSAGE-FILLED FLOUR TORTILLAS (4 servings) 2 pounds chorizo, thinly sliced 1 fresh jalapeno pepper, chopped (optional)* 1 cup potatoes, cooked and diced 4 tablespoons butter or oil 4 medium or 2 large flour tortillas 4 eggs, scrambled (optional, for a breakfast tortilla) 2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese Liberal amounts of red or green picante sauce
Using a frying pan large enough to cook a flat tortilla, fry the chorizo, jalapeno pepper and potatoes together until the sausage is cooked. Drain on a paper towel and set aside, but keep the mixture warm. Heat the butter or oil in the pan, spreading it around the bottom of the pan. Using your fingers, flip a tortilla from side to side in the melted butter, until both sides are covered and the tortilla is slightly limp (it only takes a few seconds). If using small tortillas, place 1/4 of the chorizo mixture in the center; if using large tortillas, use 1/2 mixture. (If making breakfast tortillas add some scrambled egg.) Cover with cheddar cheese and picante sauce. Cover pan. When the cheese starts to soften, fold the tortilla in half and press it down with a spatula until the melted cheese holds it together. After a few minutes carefully flip it from side to side, cooking until the outside of the tortilla gets brown and slightly crispy. Serve with or without refried beans.
*Note: Use kitchen gloves when handling jalapeno peppers.
FRIJOLES REFRITOS (Refried Beans) (4 servings) 4 tablespoons butter 2 onions, chopped 1 fresh jalapeno pepper, chopped* 16-ounce can kidney beans 16-ounce can pinto beans 4 tablespoons red or green picante sauce Salt to taste
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Saute' the onions and pepper together until the onions are soft. Add the beans and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and transfer about three-fourths of the beans to a bowl and mash, using a potato masher or blender. Return the mashed beans to the saucepan and combine with the remaining beans. Stir in the picante sauce and cook the beans until they are very thick. Add salt to taste.
*Note: Use kitchen gloves when handling jalapeno peppers.