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Speaking Southwestern

Last week, I taught a full-day workshop covering “Southwestern” cuisine. Talk about a big topic. For that term, limited though it sounds, refers to not only foods prominent in the southwestern US states, but also those in the northwestern states of Mexico. They are part of the same gumbo, to mix culinary metaphors. Federal borders aren’t real: imaginary lines on paper do nothing to stop the migration and sharing of foods, flavors, attitudes, and techniques.

When you think of the food plants that are native to the Americas, and which form the foundation of this cuisine, it continues to be dazzling: chiles (hundreds of varieties tucked into that little word!), sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squashes, beans, tomatillos, nopales, wild herbs like epazote…it’s like I was signing up to talk about every known food in the western world.

As for techniques, I was able to keep it simple, yet not less universal. With roasting, smoking, grilling, using open flames, comales, and hot ovens, it reaches across the planet during a simpler times, when we knew that cooking was a very basic matter: apply fire.

All of these things have existed for millennia, long before Mexico, the US, or the coming nations glimmered in a politician’s eye. But geography and ancient heritage were not the only challenging aspects of teaching this class.

The real challenge was in expressing something that I have been immersed in my whole life. Culturally, it seemed like teaching a Martian about Hank Williams. There’s a significant gulf between a Princeton, NJ, kitchen—the site of the class—and the soul food of the Southwest.

Thankfully, I took in a solid posse of chiles and masa. With amigos like these, one can only succeed.

Here’s the first section of my handout. It was a respectable beginning, I believe.


What is Southwestern Cuisine?

Peppers on Open Flames
Signs of good beginnings in the Southwest.

The cuisine of the Southwest is a bold, multi-lingual synthesis of methods, foods, and attitudes from native North America, old Spain, and the westward push of the US. The US-Mexico border is not its boundary; rather, the border is its central, invisible highway. It’s a scenic and aromatic route through indigenous ingenuity, the Spanish adventure, and the wild Texan fantasy of world domination. It might be tied to a region, but it contains many cultures.

Its ancient traditions bring us chiles, frijoles, corn, calabacitas, wild herbs, and fire. Though timeless, these traditions defy canonization, for they are malleable and sensual, demanding that the cook feel what is being done, rather than read what is being done. It encourages us to improvise around the elements, not to obsess over the sacraments. The individual cook must draw from her or his own experience and expertise. This food is about the richness and depth of life; through the cook’s life come new applications.

It is a hearty and earthy cuisine. It is to the southwest what soul food is to the southeast: richly flavored, hearty, earthy, spirited, accessible. It is family-informed, but open to interpretation.

It is equal parts El Paso, Santa Fe, and San Antonio; cowboy, friar, and medicine man; pueblo grandmother and ranch cook.

To me, it is the essence of cooking: knowing your materials, working within a framework of ideas, far from French rigidity. It favors easy mastery of key ingredients and techniques, and the ability to create from scratch.


Here is a small selection of recipes, so that you may have a bit of fun yourself.


Black Beans with Roasted Sofrito

Yields: 4 Servings


1 onion
1 poblano chile
1 red bell pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground annatto
1 tablespoon oregano, dried
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon chile powder, optional
2 cups cooked black beans
1/4 cup cilantro or parsley, minced

Roast onion, poblano, and red bell over open flame, in broiler, or on a comal. Remove each when skin is evenly charred.

Sweat the poblano and red bell, then remove skins.

Remove skin from onion. Dice onion, poblano, and red bell.

Warm the olive oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic, annatto, oregano, cumin, and optional chile powder. Sauté for 3 minutes.

Add onion, poblano chiles, and red bell. Stir well to incorporate.

Add cooked black beans, with as much of their cooking liquid as desired. Heat to simmer.

Add cilantro and turn off the heat.

Tomato, roasted and diced, is an excellent addition. Likewise epazote or smoked paprika.



Yields: 1 cup

Use as a marinade, or as an additive to cooked rice or beans.


3 guajillo chiles, dried
3 ancho chiles, dried
1 de arbol chile, dried
1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 stick cinnamon (Mexican canella is preferred)
1 1/2 teaspoon oregano, dried
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Heat a comal over a medium flame.

Slit each chile down one side, and remove the stems and seeds. Toast chiles on the comal for about 3 or 4 minutes, flipping over at least once.

Place chiles in a shallow bowl and cover with hot water. Add a weight to press them down into the water. Let them soak for 20 minutes or until they are soft. Discard the soaking water.

While the chiles are soaking, place onion and garlic on the comal and toast until charred. Peel garlic.

Place chiles, onion, and garlic in a food processor fitted with the ‘S’ blade.

Toast the cumin seeds and cinnamon stick for only a few seconds. Once their aroma is released, remove from the comal and place in processor.

Add remaining ingredients to the processor. Process until adobo reaches the desired consistency.

At this point, adobo can be used as a marinade or a simmering sauce.

A single batch is enough to marinate 1/2 pound of seitan or tempeh.


Tempeh and Two-Bean Chili
Tempeh and Two-Bean Chili

Tempeh and Two-Bean Chili

Yields: 8 Servings


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound tempeh, crumbled
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cups cooked pinto beans
2 cups cooked kidney beans
1 cup corn kernels
2 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups vegetable stock or liquid from cooking beans
1/2 cup parsley, minced

Warm the oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and sauté till translucent.

Add carrot, garlic, cumin, chile powder, oregano, paprika, and black pepper. Sauté for 5 minutes.

Add tempeh and cook for 5 minutes.

Add tomato paste and mix thoroughly.

Add beans, corn, salt and stock. Bring to a boil then lower to simmer. Simmer till heated throughout.

Mix in parsley just before serving.


Red Chile Sauce

Yields: 1 quart


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons chile powder
4 cups stock or water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup masa harina
3/4 cup cold water

Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat.

Add onion, garlic, and chile powder.

When onions are soft but not caramelized, add stock and sea salt.

Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Whisk masa harina into cold water. When all lumps are gone, whisk this mixture into the simmering chile.

Continue to simmer until sauce thickens, about 10 to 20 minutes.

If you want a completely smooth sauce, pass the onions and garlic through a food processor with the ‘S’ blade prior to cooking. Alternatively, blend the final sauce in a blender.

Great additions include Mexican oregano and cumin. Experiment with adding cacao.

As an alternative to chile powder, use 2 or 3 dried whole chiles. Toast them briefly on a comal then remove the stems and seeds.

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