This article appeared in Cooking Light Magazine in June 2004, at about the same time that the cookbook Nuevo Tex-Mex was published.
Tex-Mex first blazed across American tastebuds in the Wild West of the 1880s. In those days, young Hispanic women with roses pinned to the bosoms of their dresses sashayed around San Antonio’s Military Square peddling tacos, tamales and chili con carne to lonesome cowboys. The Chili Queens, as they were known, were famous both for their flirtatious sales pitches and for the spiciness of the Tex-Mex specialities they sold.
The Chili Queens gave Tex-Mex tacos, tamales and chili con carne a pretty exciting reputation. Of course, nobody called it Tex-Mex in those days. It was simply known as Mexican food. In fact, we were still calling it Mexican food some eighty years later when Americans fell in love with crispy tacos and tortillas chips in the late 1960s.
The term “Tex-Mex” didn’t come along until the 1970s when Mexican cooking authorities convinced us that this sort of Texan-Mexican fusion cooking wasn’t really Mexican food at all. The name was something of an insult, it divided Mexican food into two categories. Guacamole and tamales were authentic Mexican food. The gloppy, cheese-covered platters, the fast food tacos–and all the other stuff that didn’t get any respect–that was Tex-Mex. Suddenly, one of America’s oldest and most popular regional cooking styles had been demoted to junk food status.
The Southwestern cuisine movement of the 1980s and 1990s didn’t do much for Tex-Mex’s reputation either. Southwestern chefs turned the ingredients of Mexico and the border states into an elegant and refined new American regional cooking style that made Tex-Mex seem even more dated and cheesy.
But then, something strange happened. In the early 1990s, Paris, the food capital of the world, went head over heels for Tex-Mex. The unpretentious simplicity of the cooking and the Wild West image of the name sparked the French imagination. Making the cheese enchiladas with aged Gruyère didn’t hurt either.
The French did the same thing for Tex-Mex that they had once done for blue jeans–they transformed an inexpensive American commodity into something chic and fashionable. Nowadays, there are Tex-Mex restaurants in London, Tokyo, and Oman. Thanks to the enthusiasm of our foreign friends, Tex-Mex is now one of the most popular cuisines in the world.
The reality of Tex-Mex’s new-found fame is only beginning to sink in at home. When you say Tex-Mex in the United States, most people still think of cheese-covered combination plates. But that’s starting to change. Over the course of the decade, the innovations of the Southwestern cuisine have trickled down into the popular cooking style of the Southwest. Ingredients that used to seem exotic, like ancho chiles, black beans and epazote, have found their way into everybody’s cupboards.
The Señorita Platter is disappearing and a new kind of Texan-Mexican fusion cuisine is taking its place. Instead of yellow cheese enchiladas in chili gravy, we’re eating spinach enchiladas in chipotle sauce. There’s wild mushrooms on the nachos, grilled fish in the tacos and pineapple in the salsa. It’s not fancy enough to call Southwestern cuisine, and it’s not old-fashioned Tex-Mex either.
In a new cookbook called Nuevo Tex-Mex, Chef David Garrido and I have tried to capture some of the excitement of this modern north-of-the-border Mexican food. You’ll find something pleasantly familiar about Nuevo Tex-Mex because it’s actually just a modern version of classic Tex-Mex. And like the original, it’s still crunchy, spicy, eat-it-with-your-fingers food that goes great with frozen margaritas or ice cold beer. Although Nuevo Tex-Mex dishes use fresh ingredients instead of the usual, pre-packaged Tex-Mex stuff, we think you’ll find the recipes surprisingly easy.
Of course, using fresh ingredients in Tex-Mex cooking isn’t really a new idea. The Chili Queens of San Antonio weren’t serving pre-formed tacos, canned chili, or instant sauces either. In the Wild West of the 1880s, fresh ingredients and homemade preparations were a given.
Nuevo Tex-Mex may borrow a few ideas from French Tex-Mex and from Southwestern cuisine, but it’s also a return to that made-from-scratch spirit of the frontier. We hope your family and friends will be just as enchanted by these Nuevo Tex-Mex dishes as the cowboys of the old West were by the original.
Confetti Salsa If you’re looking for a colorful garnish, this yellow tomato, purple onion and roasted green and red chile combination is just the ticket. The citrus juices make it nice and tart.
1/2 cup diced red pepper, roasted, seeded and peeled
1/2 cup diced poblano chile, roasted, seeded and peeled
1 cup diced yellow tomato
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons minced serrano chile
1/4 cup chopped ancho chile
1/2 cup diced purple onion
3 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoon lime juice
Salt to taste
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Yields 3 cups
Shrimp and Corn Quesadillas
Place one tortilla in a non-stick skillet over low heat and top with 1/4 cup grated cheese. Spoon 1/2 a cup of corn mixture over the cheese and top with another tortilla. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, pressing down on the top tortilla with a spatula until you can feel the corn mixture sticking to the melted cheese. Turn carefully and cook on the other side pressing down with the spatula to stick the quesadilla together. Repeat for each quesadilla. Put each quesadilla on a plate, cut into quarters and top with Confetti Salsa. Serve with a green salad with fat-free dressing. Yields 3 quesadillas
Fresh gulf shrimp and sweet corn straight off the cob are a sensational combination. With a zesty salsa on top and a tossed green salad on the side, this makes a stunning summertime lunch.
1 tablespoon butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 onion, chopped
1 cup of fresh corn kernels, off the cob
1/2 jalapeño chile, minced
2/3 cup chopped tomato (about 1/2 a large tomato)
4 large or 6 medium shrimp, cleaned and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced cilantro
Salt to taste
3/4 cup grated Oaxacan string cheese (or mozzarella)
6 six inch flour tortillas
1 cup Confetti Salsa (see recipe)
In a medium saute pan over medium heat combine the butter, garlic, onion and corn and cook the mixture until the garlic turns light brown. Add the jalapeño and tomato and cook for 4 minutes or until the tomato is softened. Add the shrimp, lemon juice and cilantro and cook until the shrimp is opaque