It was 1997, and I was excited. A year after moving to Dallas from Mexico City, where I was born and raised, I would finally have the chance to get what Tex-Mex cooking was all about. I was visiting San Antonio, the capital of Tex-Mex, at one of its most famous Tex-Mex restaurants. And then the food came.
The large, oval combo platter in front of me was supposed to be cheese enchiladas with red rice and refried beans, but all I could see was a thick blanket of cream-colored sauce with melted, yellow processed cheese on top, threatening to spill over the plate and possibly even out of the restaurant. I couldn’t tell whether the tortillas were corn or flour, and they were barely filled; the mealy red rice had a watered-down tomato taste and an overdose of cumin; the refried beans were runny and – oh, heresy! – there weren’t enough of them to eat along with each bite. I was hungry, and curious, so I ate it all. In a strange way, it was comforting, but I was perplexed. After I finished, I told the Mexican waiter: No entiendo lo que me acabo de comer. I don’t get what I just ate.
I still think about that meal because it is emblematic of the problems people have with Tex-Mex. Mexican food purists take swipes at it, claiming it is simply bad Americanized Mexican food, while Texans rush to defend it as its own breed. What is Tex-Mex supposed to taste like? What does the term even mean? Where is the Tex, and where is the Mex?
To understand, a sweep through Texas history might help. Texas and Mexico go way back, to when they were neither Mexico, nor Texas, but for more than 300 years part of Spain’s colony of New Spain. And the mixing started: evangelization efforts to convert native people to Catholicism, intermarriage between people – and between ingredients in the kitchens. Texas went along with Mexico in separating from Spain in 1821, and the two stayed together for another 15 years.
It’s safe to guess that if Texas hadn’t become part of the United States in 1845, it would probably have developed a Mexican regional cuisine similar to that of one of its southern neighbors, Chihuahua or Nuevo Leon. But American settlers – from cowboys to ranchers to treasure hunters – brought their foodways to the table, their preference of wheat over corn, their belief that anything Mexican, be it its food or its people, was utterly inferior.
Still, Americans have always been drawn to Mexican flavors.
Tex-Mex is now so much more than a taco shell stuffed with seasoned ground meet, cheese, salsa and shredded lettuce, and it keeps growing. It encompasses chile gravy, queso dip (with its fanatics all over the world), the puffy taco, the fajita platter, chiles rellenos, breakfast burritos, all sorts of tacos, seviches and carne asada tostadas, among other dishes. As more Mexican ingredients are accepted, demanded and available, the pool of Mexican cooks is more diverse than ever before, making the Mex in the Tex-Mex that much more vibrant.
After years of living in the United Sates, I have different expectations. What I thought was a strange kind of Mexican food with too much cumin I know now to be purely Tex-Mex, a breed of its own, with strong, unique traits. And a tradition unto itself.
I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Tex-Mex’s oversauced and cheesed-up plates, which seem to represent an American affinity for abundance, just as so many Italian American restaurants load meatballs and tomato sauce on pasta in ways that Italians never do in the old country.
Whether it’s those changed expectations or an improvement in quality, I’m not sure, but I’ve had much better Tex-Mex meals than that one in 1997. I even make some Tex-Mex dishes for my boys at home.
Pati Jinich, who lives in Bethesda, Md., is the author of “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) and the star of the public-television series of the same name.
8 to 10 servings (makes a generous 11 cups)
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 pound beef stew meat, cubed or cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound lean ground pork or lean ground beef
Kosher salt or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded then coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped jalapeño pepper (seeding optional)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon mild or hot paprika
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder or chipotle chile powder
1 tablespoon sauce from canned chipotles in adobo, or more to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon tomato paste
28 ounces canned, crushed, no-salt-added tomatoes
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
4 cups no-salt-added beef broth
30 ounces no-salt-added, homemade or canned pinto beans (drained and rinsed, if using canned; about 4 cups)
Sour cream, for garnish
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Shredded cheddar cheese, for garnish
Crushed tortilla chips, for garnish
Thinly sliced scallions, for garnish
Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large Dutch oven or wide, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the chunks of beef. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the meat releases from the surface. Stir so the meat begins to brown on all sides, then add the ground pork or ground beef. Season lightly with salt and black pepper; cook for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring, so the ground meat browns and loses its raw look and its juices evaporate.
Clear a space at the center of the pot; add the remaining tablespoon of oil, then the onion, red bell pepper and jalapeño pepper, stirring to coat. Cook for 5 minutes or until the vegetables begin to soften, stirring frequently to keep them from scorching.
Clear a space at the center again; add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, paprika, chile powder, adobo, cumin and oregano, stirring to incorporate. Stir in the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, brown sugar and vinegar; cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring a few times, to form a thickened mixture.
Stir in the broth; once the mixture starts to bubble vigorously, reduce the heat to medium. Stir in the beans. Reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a low boil; cook, uncovered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally; for a thicker chili, add up to 15 minutes to the cooking time. Taste, and add adobo, salt and pepper as needed.
Divide among individual bowls. Serve the sour cream, cilantro, shredded cheddar cheese, tortilla chips and scallions at the table, so guests can garnish their own portions.
MAKE AHEAD: The chili can be refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for up 6 months.
PER SERVING (based on 10): 330 calories, 25 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar.
Poblano, Bacon and Cheddar Skillet Corn Bread
3 fresh poblano chile peppers
6 to 8 slices center-cut bacon (about 4 ounces total)
½ cup yellow cornmeal
1¼ cups flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
4 large eggs, well beaten
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups fresh or frozen/defrosted corn kernels
Place the poblanos directly on a gas burner over medium-high heat. Cook, turning them as needed, for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are charred all over. (Alternatively, position an oven rack 4 inches from the broiling element and preheat the broiler. Arrange the poblanos on a piece of aluminum foil and place on the rack to broil for 10 to 15 minutes; turn frequently until charred all over.)
Transfer the poblanos to a zip-top bag and seal, or place in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. When they are cool enough to handle, discard the blackened skin, stem, ribs and seeds, then dice the remaining flesh. (It is easier to remove the skin under running water, but some cooks say that washes away flavor.) Cut the flesh into small dice; the yield is a packed ¾ cup.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels.
Heat a 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until crisped. Transfer the bacon to the lined plate to drain. Turn off the heat, leaving the fat in the skillet.
Combine the cornmeal, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and black pepper in a mixing bowl.
Whisk together the milk, cream and eggs in a large liquid measuring cup, then stir into the cornmeal mixture until just incorporated. Add the diced poblano, the cheese and corn. Crumble the bacon over the bowl. Pour all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat from the skillet into the batter, stirring gently to incorporate.
Heat that same skillet over medium heat. Once the remaining bacon fat shimmers, pour the corn bread batter evenly into the skillet. Transfer to the oven; bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.
Cut into wedges; serve warm.
PER SERVING: 380 calories, 18 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 660 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar.
Mexican Chocolate Doughnuts
12 to 21 filled mini-doughnuts or 8 mini pancakes
1 cup whole milk
6 ounces Mexican chocolate disks, such as Abuelita brand, broken into chunks
1¼ cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the pan
1 large egg, beaten
2 to 4 tablespoons filling of your choice, such as chocolate-hazelnut spread, La Lechera brand dulce de leche (cajeta), jams or preserves
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
Seat a wire cooling rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.
Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the chocolate; cook, stirring a few times, until it has melted. Remove from the heat. Whisk the mixture just until it is foamy.
Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the 3 tablespoons of melted butter and the egg, mixing just until the mixture is evenly moistened. Slowly pour in the milk-chocolate mixture, stirring constantly so the egg doesn’t curdle; this should yield a shiny, smooth batter that’s a bit runny. After a few minutes’ rest, the batter will thicken, which is what you want.
Meanwhile, heat the ebelskivver pan over medium-low heat for 4 or 5 minutes, until thoroughly heated.
Grease the wells of the pan with a little butter. Spoon just enough batter into each well so that it’s no more than three-quarters full. Cook for a few minutes; once the outside edge of each mini-doughnut is firm yet the center is still somewhat runny, add ½ to 1 teaspoon of your favorite filling. Use the remaining batter to cover the filling and barely fill the wells to the rim. Cook for a few minutes, until the outside edges make it possible to flip each mini doughnut, using two spoons or wooden skewers; cook for a minute or two, then transfer each doughnut to the wire rack. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.
Serve right away.
COOK’S NOTE: You’ll need an ebelskivver pan, a cast iron skillet with several hemispherical indentations. The yield will depend on the size of the wells in your pan.
VARIATION: To make mini pancakes, heat a large skillet or griddle over medium-low heat until thoroughly heated. Grease it with a little butter. Use half of the batter to ladle 4 pancakes, spacing them at least an inch apart. Cook for a few minutes, just until bubbles form on the top and the bottom is cooked enough to be released. Turn them over and cook for a minute or two, until darkened on the second side. Use the filling of your choice as a topping. Repeat with the remaining batter and filling.
PER DOUGHNUT (based on 21): 110 calories, 2 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 130 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar.