By Ron Bechtol
Tex-Mex has taken its licks in the fancy food press over the years - yet those years aren't as many as you might think. The first recorded reference in print - at least with respect to food - wasn't until 1973. And you thought you grew up on it.
As, of course, you may well have, calling it simply Mexican food - or simply not labeling it. Many of us have quickly come to embrace Tex-Mex as historical fact, but for others the term is offensive, a kind of derogatory slang. "We have never served Tex-Mex at The Old Mexico Restaurant (in Corpus Christi)," huffs the owner's daughter in Robb Walsh's The Tex-Mex Cookbook. "We only serve authentic Mexican food here."
In many ways this is the crux of the cookbook, an impassioned plea for the legitimacy of a regional style of cooking once characterized by Diana Kennedy, author of several important tomes on "authentic" Mexican cuisine, as "an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with a shrill tomato sauce, sour cream and grated yellow cheese, and preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy, deep-fried chips."
The battle lines get more interesting with the entry into the fray of Rick Bayless, America's other authority on Mexican cooking. "I love Tex-Mex. I grew up on it," says Bayless, adding that, "When people cook from the heart there isn't a right or wrong way to do it."
Each of the book's 14 chapters begins with a several-page warm-up. Chapter 1 sets the stage and offers up a glossary, and in Chapter 2 we get right down to it with "Old-Fashioned Breakfasts." The introduction begins on an early Sunday morning at Mi Tierra on our own Produce Row, and continues with a discussion of the missions and the Spanish colonization of Texas; it's as succinct a summation as any I've read, and you could easily stop there without even looking at the recipes. But any Tex-Mex restaurant is only as good as its salsa (and its beans, its tortillas ... ). The same goes for a cookbook.
The first recipe in the book, a molcajete sauce, seems to recognize this, and as it contains a step I have never heard of - soaking the chopped onion in lime juice for 15 minutes - I had to try it. This step is likely the classic Mexican equivalent of running chopped onion under hot water to tame it. Walsh calls for toasting the tomatoes, halved jalapeños, and garlic in an ungreased skillet over high heat until slightly charred, and that's standard in my book.
As the salsa's name suggests, grinding the toasted ingredients in a traditional molcajete is preferred, but a blender is offered as an alternative - blend only until chunky. Then add the soaked onion and lime juice, cilantro, and salt to taste. I used a molcajete to start, but found the toasted tomatoes too liquid (try halving them, then squeezing a little juice out), and retreated to the blender. The result? Fresh, yet with depth and just enough bite.
Walsh reveals some of his own prejudices in other chapters, such as 10's treatise on tacos (with more San Antonio stalwarts, including Henry's Puffy Tacos, at its heart), suggesting that it's okay to use packaged taco seasoning and bottled salsa as long as you fry your own taco shells. He's also cool with Velveeta.
It's hard to be comprehensive in any survey. Cabrito is treated only in the glossary, barbacoa is included, but menudo isn't even mentioned. Pralines and wedding cookies get their due, but the larger category of pan dulce gets short shrift, and the flour tortilla phenomenon is brushed over lightly. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles in context. Walsh has produced a book every Texan should be issued at birth. It won't necessarily lay to rest the squabbles over the legitimacy of Tex-Mex, but it will certainly help to assure its survival and define its future. •