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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.


William Blake prescribed seeing the world in a grain of sand. As I try to take in a fraction of his vision, I must be content with reflections in a bowl of soup.

I love to make soup. It’s one of the truest improvisational arts, fueled by ken and emotion and intuition. Soup is just as much Zen as it is Rococo, flowing like the Tao through a cup of miso and floating among the penne in minestrone. It has a soul of its own, an offspring of the Universal Soul itself.

When I make a good soup, I feel compelled to call a friend to come share it. It’s an intimate thing which requires confidence in the midst of vulnerability.

So, a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing to teach a soup class at CAS, I felt a tinge of trepidation. How do you put all of that in a recipe?

Well, you don’t. You can print “1 heaping cup of love” in the list of ingredients, but that just sounds kitschy and therefore insincere. “Go with the flow” doesn’t translate finitely, nor does “just groove on it.” Standard directions cover only the technical side of soup-making. To really capture the process, I’d have to say things like, “caramelize the onions with great sensuality,” or “use a vegetable stock that has the spirit of black tea.”

For this class more than others, I realized that I needed to listen to my Writer’s Mind: that is, I needed to “show” more than I needed to “tell.”

We spent the first hour talking about food, about common threads that ran through all of our lives. We talked about the journey we were each on. We spoke of space, openness, honesty, and acceptance. We remembered great soups we’d each had, and what made them special. The Community Table—ubiquitous throughout Europe, but sadly missing in most US restaurants—was a touchstone for us. It provided a segue into a discussion of partaking from the same pot, a simple act which tells us much more about soup than any recipe can.

That is the starting point: the realization that soup, in its very essence, binds everyone who partakes. Instantly but securely intimate, as soulful as the primordial soup from which the universe itself formed.

Having established our context, any recipe was merely an application of the concept. “See how it applies itself to Miso with Udon…look at how it fills a pot of Lentils & Vegetables with Filé…watch as it binds Vichysoisse…”

There were some solid technical tips, of course, like adding the filé only after you’ve taken the soup off the fire. I also told them that if you use good homemade stock, take time with your onions, and go easy on the salt, you will have a great soup. Beyond that, use what you have on hand, express yourself, and share it with others. The recipes are only starting points, as always.

Soup adapts to our lives. It winds through our personal progression and species evolution, keeping us rooted in ancient traditions. It helps us maintain a bond with the first human to ever hang a pot over a fire.

While we can make it as mystical as Blake, it is also as everyday as Sandburg:


I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.

When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.