Vianney Rodriguez is passionate about sharing Tex-Mex cuisine with the world. A proud Tejana, born and raised in South Texas to Mexican parents, Rodriguez grew up with the best of both worlds—chile con carne and Frito Lays. When she started the food blog SweetLifeBake, she quickly gained a dedicated following by posting the plates of her childhood. Her new book, The Tex-Mex Slow Cooker, is an ode to the flavors of South Texas, from Tejana queen Selena’s favorite enchiladas rojas to innovative strawberry and lavender cocktails focused on highlighting Texas’s seasonal produce. Because Rodriguez wants to make Tex-Mex cooking easy and accessible, she has adapted nearly every recipe in the book for a slow cooker. She hopes that the labor-saving device will keep home cooks out of the hot kitchen this summer and out entertaining the ones they love. Texas Monthly talked to Rodriguez about preserving family recipes, slow-cooking drinks, and recovering from Hurricane Harvey in Port Aransas, her hometown. Read to the bottom for a few of Rodriguez’s recipes.
Texas Monthly: How do you define Tex-Mex?
Vianney Rodriguez: Tex-Mex food is comfort food. It’s a blend of everything that’s so great about Texas and Mexico: from Texas, Ruby Reds and pecans, and then Mexico brings its corn tortillas and beans, and they just mesh so well together. I know there’s this notion that Tex-Mex is just everything laden with cheddar cheese, and everything is just sloppy and goopy, and I get it—there are certain dishes that are like that. For me, those are delicious! But there’s also an extension of Tex-Mex that is home fresh cooking, where everyone gathers around the table and you serve it family style.
TM: Why the slow cooker?
VR: There are days when I don’t even know where to start because I’ve got so many things to do. But if I can just take a few minutes and put things in the slow cooker, pop the lid on, and take off, then when I come home my house will smell the way it did after school when I would come home to my mom cooking. That is all I need.
Every Monday, my mother used to make a pot of beans, and she would put them on the stovetop. She would use those beans for the remainder of the week to make meals and pack lunches. When I first got married, my husband was in the army getting ready to deploy, and we moved with our little girl. I thought, “I would love to be like my mom, and have those beans on the stove top.” We had so many bits and pieces moving at the same time that my husband bought me a slow cooker, and said, “I know you want to carry out the tradition.” We’re carrying on the tradition in a modern way, but we still get the taste of the traditional recipe.
TM: Thoughts on the Instant Pot?
VR: I don’t know! I feel like the slow cooker has been around for so long and it’s such an integral part of my kitchen already. I mean, every tía, every uncle, every abuelita—somewhere in their kitchen there’s a slow cooker. The Instant Pot is totally on-trend right now, but I feel like the slow cooker is always going to be in everyone’s kitchen.
TM: You’ve used the slow cooker to make traditional foods accessible. For example, mole is something that is notoriously super complicated, but you’ve included a recipe that lets readers make the sauce with relative ease.
VR: I learned my mole recipe from my grandmother, and I’ll still teach my daughter the traditional recipe, but if it’s a Thursday and it’s hectic and we get home and I want mole, I’m happy to have the slow cooker. We sit around the table and it tastes like my grandmother’s, and I feel like it still passes on that tradition. I’m very passionate about sharing Mexican food, and Tex-Mex allows me to share part of my Mexican heritage. I wanted the recipes to be very easy and approachable so that home cooks would be willing to try it. I always say once they taste it, they’re going to love it.
TM: You’ve also used the slow cooker to make a ton of great drinks. How did you come up with those recipes?
VR: My first book was all cocktails, and I have this great audience who loves their cocktails, so I needed to figure this out. We concentrated on the base, which is how we got the drink syrups, and then we tried big batches. Texas is all about entertaining, so we tweaked the punches and margaritas. I’m really happy with how that chapter came together. It’s one of my favorites in the book.
TM: Hurricane Harvey hit when the book was in its final editing stages. What was that like?
VR: We didn’t get to enter Aransas for three days after Harvey. We pulled up to our house and it had the sticker that tagged it unlivable. We were in a standstill for almost two weeks where we couldn’t go into the house because of insurance. There were people coming back from riding out the storm and there was no electricity, no water. I had a friend who had recently moved to Portland, so she had no damage, and she was a caterer. I called her and said, “We need to do something. Let’s do what we do—cook.” We got together, and I reached out to some of my blogging community in San Antonio, and in less than 24 hours they raised money and drove down. We stocked up at a grocery store an hour away, and then we cooked. We fed people, and it was so healing. At that time it’s not just you, it’s everybody in your community going through something. We did that for the next two weeks. I’m glad I did it.
A big part of the healing process is that it makes you appreciate things. When I saw the book, we were staying at my sister’s house, and I hadn’t seen the first two passes, but my publisher sent me the third because we had to stay on schedule. She asked me if I wanted to make any last minute changes and I told her yes. We put in a dedication to Aransas at the back, with a picture of Rockport Beach that I had taken on my phone when we were there about a week before Harvey hit. It’s the perfect homage to Rockport and Aransas, where I grew up.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Making mole can be an all-day event, once you consider everything from grinding the spices to preparing the chiles. As much as we enjoy having mole for dinner, I decided it was time to pull out my slow cooker and create an easier recipe. I always make a big batch, serve it, and then for the rest of the week I’ll drizzle mole sauce on everything—a piece of poached chicken, pork loin, steamed cauliflower, or drizzled over mozzarella cheese melted in a corn tortilla.
Makes 6 cups
4 dried ancho chiles, stems and seeds removed
Water to cover
4 cups chicken broth
3 corn tostada shells (see note)
1 onion, sliced
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons peanut butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Mexican chocolate tablet (I prefer Abuelita or Ibarra brands)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Note: You can bake or fry corn tortillas to make your own tostadas, but to save time, I use store-bought tostada shells.
Place the chiles in a microwave-safe bowl, cover with water, and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Remove from the microwave, cover, and set aside to steep for 5 minutes.
Drain the chiles and place them in a slow cooker, along with all of the remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours.
Carefully blend the cooked mole sauce with an immersion blender or in batches using a blender until smooth. Season with additional salt and black pepper to taste, if desired, and serve.
If keeping warm, return the blended sauce to the slow cooker and reduce the setting to warm. If storing for later use, allow to cool completely and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Mole Sauce can also be frozen for up to 3 months.
Hibiscus Punch Cocktail
This is party punch at its best: agua de jamaica is spiked with vodka, lime juice, and plenty of fresh mint. I often make this punch for summer BBQ parties, on days when the Texas sun has us reaching for something refreshing.
Serves 15 to 20
2 limes, sliced, plus 10 more lime slices for garnish
15 fresh mint leaves, plus 10 more for garnish
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 batch Hibiscus Agua Fresca (See below)
2 cups vodka
Combine the 2 sliced limes, the 15 mint leaves, and the sugar in a large punch bowl and muddle gently for 10 seconds, releasing the essential oils of the lime slices and mint leaves.
Pour the Hibiscus Agua Fresca and vodka into the bowl and stir until well combined. Add ice. Garnish with the remaining lime slices and remaining mint leaves and serve.
Hibiscus Agua Fresca
Agua de jamaica was the first agua fresca I tried in Mexico as a child. I was drawn to its intense, ruby-red color. After my first sip, I was hooked. Now I make agua de jamaica by the gallon. Instead of heating up my entire kitchen, I rely on my slow cooker to do all the heavy lifting.
Serves 15 to 20
12 cups water
3 cups dried hibiscus flowers
2 to 3 cups granulated sugar
1 (4-inch) cinnamon stick (optional)
Ice, for serving
Combine the water, the hibiscus flowers, and 2 cups of the sugar in a slow cooker and stir until well combined. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours. Taste and add more of the sugar as desired. Set aside to cool completely.
Strain and serve over ice.