Ask any bunch of Texans about the state’s signature cuisine, and you’ll most likely get one answer: Tex-Mex. We claim it as our own even though we realize that “Tex-Mex” ranges from gourmet dishes to greasy fast food. So it’s about time Jim Peyton and his new cookbook, The Very Best of Tex-Mex Cooking, came along to separate the wheat from the chaff and show us how to cook Tex-Mex right.
Tired of careless chefs giving the genre a bad reputation, Peyton’s mission is to bring “culinary sophistication to American kitchens with a collection of outstanding recipes and the lore surrounding the most popular dishes ordered in Tex-Mex restaurants.” And Peyton takes his task seriously. He carefully describes each dish, and in most cases, its history and evolution, making sure to distinguish myth from fact. (Did you know that quality lard actually has less saturated fat than butter?) As a result, the cookbook reads like an impassioned treatise for understanding Tex-Mex.
Though some of the information may be too basic for diehards (his introduction to appetizers reads, “In virtually all Tex-Mex restaurants, customers are given a free basket of tortilla chips and salsa”), there are pockets of information that might surprise even the most hardcore Tex-Mex fans. For instance, did you know that tacos date back to 500 A.D.? Or that green chile enchilada sauce is really made mostly from tomatillos?
The cookbook is divided into two main sections, first on the “Tex-Mex Combination Plate,” which includes recipes for the fundamentals such as pico de gallo, nachos, and refried beans, while the second part focuses on “Entrées and Other Tex-Mex Specialties,” such as desserts and drinks. In the back of the book discover a few recipes heavier on the Tex than the Mex; here, natives and newcomers alike can find variations on chile and barbecue standbys.
Although many of the recipes may seem familiar at first, Peyton puts a twist on them, emphasizing that “this book is about ‘the best’ and not ‘the usual.’” For the gorditas, for example, his method calls for using mashed potatoes in addition to corn masa. In his quest for the paramount, he also includes some lesser-known Tex-Mex desserts such as capirotada (bread pudding) and buñuelos (thin, deep-fried pastries) , plus the expected flan recipe.
But whether the formula is for a mainstay like quesadillas or for the more complex mock cabrito al pastor, Peyton’s recipes are user-friendly enough for novice cooks. Straightforward and plainly written, The Very Best of Tex-Mex Cooking is the 101 on Texas’ superlative cookin’.