One part of our country that has a distinctive, native cuisine of its own is the Southwest, that territory comprising Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and parts of California and Colorado. Whether the true native cuisine -- which would be Indian -- ever gets translated to the rest of the country is questionable.
Real native cooking was subsistence cooking -- making do with the ingredients that grow or live within a few miles of home -- and that's probably not of much interest to people who are willing to pay $20 or so for a cookbook. Nobody who doesn't have to is going to exist exclusively on hominy and beans.
So what cookbooks about southwestern cuisine often give us is a description of how it might have been if Indians had had supermarkets, refrigeration and electric ranges.
That having been said, this stuff can really be good. With its Christmas-colored chilies, cold-hot flavors and toothy, rich textures, southwestern cuisine is a jumpstart for the palates of those of us who have grown old on hamburgers and fried perch. It's immoderate like the climate and the land it comes from, and it lets you know its intentions immediately.
Which brings us to Jane Butel, who lives in New York City and in New Mexico, and who founded and now operates the Pecos Valley Spice Company, which sells packaged southwestern foods. Butel helped to introduce the country to southwestern (Tex-Mex) cuisine and is by this time so identified with it that one friend of hers claims she jingles when she walks from all the turquoise and silver jewelry. And she spends most of her life bracelet-deep in ground chilies, being an energetic cooking teacher, cookbook writer and lecturer as well as successful entrepreneur.
Butel's new book, "Fiesta!" (Harper and Row, 1987, $15.95), is subtitled "Southwestern Entertaining," and it's designed to make life easy for cooks who want to devise southwestern-style menus for parties large and small, significant and not-so.
This book is probably not the place for the uninitiated to start, but it's a good road map for those who already know something about the territory. (Anne Lindsay Greer's "Cuisine of the American Southwest," also published by Harper and Row, 1983, $22.50, is still a classic in its field, and like many classics is now nearly impossible to find.)
Butel has married the traditional ingredients of her territory with the foods and techniques identified this year as "lighter." There are many interesting recipes for salads, desserts, vegetables and side dishes that are only marginally southwestern in style but feel good with the richer, chile- and cheese-enhanced traditional recipes. (When was the last time you saw a recipe for ratatouille in a southwestern-style cookbook?)
One problem publishers and cookbook authors have is stretching to find something new to offer world-weary potential buyers, and it's a problem that doesn't always escape this book. The microwave menu -- "Microwave Mexican for Busy Evenings" -- includes five recipes, two of which should be prepared the day before, and only two of which make use of the microwave. (And one of the microwave recipes is one that should be prepared the day before.)
Butel has laid out the facts of entertaining in grand style, however. Each menu is preceded by a plan designed to guide you through the rigors of cooking for people who don't necessarily love you already. Large portions of many of the recipes can be prepared ahead of time.
Menus are given for 27 events, from Christmas Eve to wedding to dinner party to teen-age taco party. Of course you can mix and match recipes -- it's your book after all -- but if you need complete guidance from menu planning to tablecloth color, it's all here. Butel's style is chatty but not intrusive, and she has clearly written her book with the reader in mind.
The recipes are well-written and well-edited, with few dangling questions. One dangler, however, is the question of chile powder. Butel cautions against the prepared, commercial varieties, which contain salt and other ingredients as well as ground chilies, but she leaves open the question of whether you grind fresh or dried chilies, whether to include seeds, and how you do it.
"Fiesta!," at a relatively modest $15.95, is not the place to get a complete exposition on starkly traditional southwestern cuisine, but if you're looking for party planning ideas in modern southwestern style and are already on speaking terms with chilies, you will find this book useful.
For a look at southwestern cuisine through a more Californian lens, there is a slightly older book that might be of interest. Called "New Southwestern Cooking," it's written by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger and published by Macmillan (1985, $19.95).
Dille and Belsinger and their editors have organized this book in the traditional way -- appetizers, soups, tortilla dishes, meats, desserts and so forth -- which leaves you more on your own but may also be easier to use. First-timers are treated to a rich, thorough discussion of the main ingredients of southwestern cuisine and that's a comfort. There could be few questions left to answer about chilies, for example.
The recipes here are imaginative, inviting and occasionally a bit difficult to execute. Those who keep up with such things will notice a certain nouveau quality to the combinations of ingredients -- duck burritos come immediately to mind in this category.
"New Southwestern Cooking" is less tricky than some other modern cookbooks -- no cutesy alliteration in the titles, no cheap laughs, and a serious vein when it comes to instructions. The graphics are terrific -- it's a nice book to look at and use.
And for dessert, we're having ice cream, courtesy of the hippies-grown-wiser named Ben and Jerry, whose names are well-known in ice cream circles. Among other things, the pair took on Pillsbury when that company bought Ha agen Dazs -- a direct competitor -- and apparently began suggesting to distributors that they surely would not want to carry both Ha agen Dazs and Ben and Jerry's.
Ben and Jerry, like all hippy entrepreneurs, then took out an ad in Rolling Stone asking supporters to send in $1 for a bumper sticker that read "What's the Dough Boy Afraid Of?" They settled their problems with Pillsbury out of court and in the meantime endeared themselves to all those 35-year-old former rock 'n' rollers now pushing around expensive baby strollers.
Who could distrust a pair that names one of its ice creams "Cherry Garcia" after the dissolute but legendary lead guitar player for the Grateful Dead?
In any case, Ben and Jerry's little book is sprightly and beautiful, and for $7.95 reveals all the secrets of the pair's product, now sold all over the East and West. Recipes are easy to execute, with occasional excursions into the outrageously rich. Take a look at New York Super Fudge Chunk, for example, whose ingredients approximate those of a very fancy brownie. Yum.
Simpler recipes are here too, for those who never heard of Jerry Garcia. Fruit is here, sorbet is here, even plain vanilla. Ice cream bases need no cooking, and recipes work for any kind of ice cream maker.
The book is called "Ben and Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book" (Workman Publishing, 1987, $7.95).
CHICKEN AVOCADO FETTUCCINE (6 servings)
In this recipe from "Fiesta" by Jane Butel, "the creamy-smooth texture of the Monterey Jack sauce laced with New Mexico green chilies blends luxuriously ... with the subtle flavors of chicken and avocado. Do buy green noodles, as they are the best partner for the flavors of this dish."
5 tablespoons sweet butter
2 cups fresh white button mushrooms, thinly sliced in half-moons, stems attached
1 1/2 cups cubed, poached or raw chicken breast
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
4 ounces monterey jack cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 whole green New Mexico chilies, parched, peeled, seeded, and chopped
12 ounces green fettuccine noodles
4 ounces thin natural spaghetti
2 avocados, cut into 1-inch cubes
Freshly grated parmesan and romano to taste
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large, heavy skillet. Add the mushrooms and brown lightly. Remove to a plate. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in the skillet and add the cubed chicken. Brown lightly if the chicken is raw, let it cook gently for about 3 minutes, or until it loses its raw look. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Return the mushrooms to the skillet and add 1 cup of the half-and-half, the cubed cheese, and the green chilies. Cook only until the sauce thickens, 3 to 5 minutes, over medium-low heat. Remove from heat. Cover and set aside.
About 15 minutes before serving, bring 5 to 6 cups of water and 1 tablespoon salt to a boil in a large pot. When it boils, add the fettuccine, then the spaghetti, and cook about 9 minutes, or until al dente. Meanwhile, peel the avocados by first scoring with a sharp knife, then removing the peel.
Reheat the sauce, taking care not to let it bubble up. Add remaining 1/2 cup half-and-half. Cube the avocado. When the pasta is done, drain, rinse with hot water, and return to the pot. Add the sauce and toss. Serve on warm plates with a side dish of freshly grated parmesan and romano.
From "Fiesta! Southwestern Entertaining" by Jane Butel (Harper and Row, 1987, $15.95) CORN AND GREEN CHILE CAKES (Makes about 20 three-inch cakes, to serve 6 to 10) "Brunch is a good occasion for these cakes" from "New Southwestern Cooking" by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger. "Serve them with butter, hot pepper jelly and sour cream, salsa, even maple syrup. With no embellishments, or with salsa, they accompany simple fried or grilled foods."
2/3 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1/3 cup unbleached white flour
1/3 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 extra-large eggs
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
1 jalapenåo pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 green chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
Mix together the cornmeal, flours, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. Beat the eggs lightly in a small mixing bowl. Add the milk and oil and blend well. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, along with the chopped vegetables (including corn) and cheese. Blend well with a wooden spoon but do not overmix.
Heat a lightly oiled griddle over medium heat. Drop about 2 tablespoons of batter for each cake. Cook the cakes for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until they are golden brown. Keep them warm in a hot oven while frying the rest in the same manner.
From "New Southwestern Cooking" by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger (Macmillan (1985, $19.95) NEW YORK SUPER FUDGE CHUNK ICE CREAM (Makes generous 1 quart)
This is one of those occasional excursions into the outrageously rich from "Ben and Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book."
1/4 cup coarsely chopped white chocolate
1/4 cup coarsely chopped semisweet chocolate
1/4 cup chopped pecan halves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup halved chocolate-covered almonds
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
Combine the coarsely chopped chocolates, pecans, walnuts and chocolate-covered almonds in a bowl, cover and refrigerate. Melt the unsweetened chocolate in the top of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water. Whisk in the milk, a little at a time, and heat, stirring constantly, until smooth. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar, a little at a time, then continue whisking until completely blended, about 1 minute more. Add the cream, vanilla and salt and whisk to blend.
Pour the chocolate mixture into the cream mixture and blend. Cover and refrigerate until cold, about 1 to 3 hours, depending on your refrigerator.
Transfer the cream mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze following the manufacturer's instructions. After the ice cream stiffens (about 2 minutes before it is done), add the chocolates and nuts, then continue freezing until the ice cream is ready.
From "Ben and Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book" (Workman Publishing, 1987, $7.95)