Cebollas and Champagne

Julia Child may not know it, but Tex-Mex can be the stuff of a real gourmet spread.

TEX-MEX IS A GASTRONOMIC EXPERIENCE as commonplace as a friendly “hidy y’all” to the native Texan. Homesick transplants in the North have been known to wire home for cans of green chiles—” Airmail, Special Delivery” to Grand Central Station. Green chiles are the magical secret ingredient which can transform even the lowly egg into an Event. Uncle Bob Kleberg of the King Ranch carries a silver snuff box of the little devils at all times and can Tex-Mex any meal with a flip of the lid.

Mexican food, served up Texas style, would surprise a native of Monterrey almost as much as it would a visitor from Nebraska. Tex-Mex is the regional food of Texas, found in restaurants and cafes allover the state. The variation from Panhandle to Valley is broad, but Tex-Mex has a common mix of chile peppers and corn products no matter where you find it, and is unique to the Texas terrain. As a part of his initiation into our culture, that unwary visitor from Nebraska or New York may be innocently offered a tostado dipped in fiery hot sauce by his Texas host. Yankees generally respond by going pale and grabbing for a glass of water. That same Texan sees nothing irregular in Masa Harina flour next to the Gold Medal at the supermarket. A Savannah gourmet transferred to Houston would probably be as stymied in using this basic as a Texan would be faced with a wok.

Although many natives content themselves with frequent trips to their local Mexican restaurant for this Texas fare, it can be prepared at home easily with ingredients carried in most grocery stores in Texas. It is probably the least expensive dinner party fare you could find once you eliminate spaghetti and chicken casserole.

When at all possible, barring famine, flood, or an onslaught of after the game football fans, start with the raw materials indigenous to Tex-Mex cooking. Fresh green chiles which are found in the produce market of even the lowly 7-11, Masa Harina (which makes lumpy, funny looking tortillas with your untrained hands—but a delicate flavor you won’t believe), dried pinto beans, vine ripened tomatoes, and the best cheddar cheese you can find (never, never, never a processed Velveeta type). Allow yourself plenty of time and elbow room. Remember those Mexican mamas sit all day in the sun grinding the corn…so who are you to complain?

The Basics

FRESH CHILE PEPPERS, PEQUIN OR largo, roasted at home produce a flavor you’ll never get by cranking the can opener. First, open each pepper with a prick of a fork, place on a cookie sheet and place in a 350-degree oven. Leave chile peppers until skins blister (20-30 minutes). Remove from oven. Wrap in a towel. After 5 minutes, the peppers can be easily peeled with the fingers. For cowards and Yankees, discard seeds and veins with a knife as these are the hottest part of the chile. Never substitute boiling for roasting chiles to remove skins; the flavor will be different. Be sure to wash your hands before rubbing your eyes.

Homemade tortillas can be made easily by following the directions on the side of the flour sack. Masa Harina makes corn tortillas, Masa Trigo makes flour tortillas.

In all recipes calling for fresh tomatoes—skinned—this is easily accomplished by dipping the raw tomatoes in boiling water for a couple of minutes. The skins slip off readily after the tomato is cool enough to handle.

One of my mother’s daily chores as a girl growing up on a Panhandle cattle ranch was to pick the beans. She makes quite a production to this day of removing even the half beans in the search for rocks, varmints, or other foreign matter. I’ve never understood what was wrong with the halves but do recommend that you poke through the beans for rocks, et al., before you start.

Frijoles (Pinto Beans)

1 Ib. Pinto Beans
1 12 quarts water
Salt to taste
12 c. bacon drippings

Soak beans overnight in water. Add more water to cover, salt and cook slowly until very tender. Mash with a potato masher, add very hot bacon drippings and continue cooking until all the fat is absorbed by the beans. Serves 6 to 8. Or see “The Truth About Beans,” by Ronnie Dugger [ TM,August, 1973].

Frijoles Retritos (Retried Beans)

Heat fat in frying pan (recommend an iron skillet), add mashed and fried beans and cook, stirring until beans are completely dry.

Chile gravy keeps well in the refrigerator and can be made up well ahead. If your breakfasts are a little ho-hum throw some leftover gravy on your eggs. This gravy is the basis for enchiladas, can be poured over tamales and can be used as a basis for Chile Con Carne.

Chile Gravy

2 T. salad oil
2 T. flour
12 to 1 c. water
14 tsp. salt
2 12 T. Chile powder

Melt oil in skillet. Add flour and seasonings and combine thoroughly. Add the water and stir until thickened.

Sopa De Arroz (Mexican Rice)

2 T. bacon drippings
1 c. raw rice
1 c. peeled tomatoes
3 c. water
Few grains salt
Green chiles to taste

Heat bacon drippings in heavy black skillet. Brown rice, stirring constantly. Add water and cook covered ‘til rice absorbs all the water. Add tomatoes and heat. Serve with chopped, roasted green chiles.

Hot sauce, made right, will warm the cockles of your heart, and your nose, and your eyes and even your toes. For this you need a Mexican Mixmaster—otherwise known as a mocajete. You’ve seen them at Pier I—the grey rock mortar and pestle—hecho en Mexico. Buy yourself one.

Hot Sauce

Mash together in mocajete these finely chopped items:

1 Chile pequin (small green chile-roasted as directed)
1 pod garlic
1 medium white onion
1 large peeled tomato
Salt to taste.
Chill before serving.

While you’re chopping the items, save all the juice and add to mocajete. Taste as you go along and feel free to alter proportions to suit you.

La Noche Fiesta

To get your guests in the spirit, serve them

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