Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit
Southwestern cuisine reflects a fusion of cultures—a mix of traditional American cooking with Native American ingredients and Spanish influences. Seasonality, cooking and preserving methods play important roles in this regional fare.
As a regional cuisine, Southwest cooking includes recipes and cooking traditions found in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Texas and southern California.
Its most salient characteristic is its entirely Spanish and Native American orientation. And, unlike parts of the South and New England, it is also characterized by an utter resistance to the European cooking traditions of England and France.
Ingredients and spices, especially chiles, figure prominently among its defining characteristics.
First grown in Mexico and Guatemala, the chile had an enormous impact on cooking all around the globe when Portuguese and Spanish traders first began exporting it in the 1700's. Back then, it had virtually no impact on American cooking north of the Mason-Dixon line or, for that matter, anywhere outside of Spanish colonial territory. But within the Spanish territories, chiles, in all their many forms and fires, reigned supreme.
"A la primera cocinera se le va un chile entero," goes one old Spanish saying: "To the best lady cook goes the whole chile." And so it is that the chile pepper, with a nearly infinite variety and complexity of flavors, is arguably the single most important culinary crop in the Southwest.
New Mexican cuisine
New Mexicans are famous for their green chiles that have a fresh and unique flavor virtually no dish can escape. In fact, in the recently, green chiles have grown increasingly more common outside the Southwest in everything from bagels to cheeseburgers.
While Southwestern cuisine varies from state to state, New Mexican cuisine reflects a fusion of foods typical of the region. It differs significantly from Mexican, TexMex and Mexican-California cooking in a number of ways, though. The use of red and green chiles is a major factor, but so is the balance of spices and other ingredients. For example, New Mexican food on average uses more beef than Mexican cooking. It also uses a different kind of oregano and handles tortillas differently. It does not make use of Tex-Mex style chili con carne and uses less cumin and fewer jalapenos than the Texas style. It does not make nearly as much use of rice and mixed vegetables as the California style, nor as much avocado.
Hot, spicy and delicious to the core, this back-to-basics fare utilizes a few key ingredients similar to the Latin and Southern Mexican pantry lists featured in previous issues of FM (March 07 & May 07). Some other ingredients include:
Mexican Cheeses which can provide authenticity in flavor. Some of the more common cheeses are Asadero, Cotija, Panela, Queso Freso and Queso Quesadilla. Asadero is a mild, soft cheese with the flavor of provolone and the texture of mozzarella. It melts well and is a good cooking cheese. Cotija is a firm, very salty cheese similar to dry feta. It is used crumbled and sprinkled like a condiment over soups, salads and baked dishes. Panela is a mild, moist cheese with a sweet, fresh milk flavor often used in sandwiches, salads and with fruit. Queso fresco is a soft, moist cheese with a mild saltiness and slight acidity. It crumbles easily and does not melt so it is often used as a topping or filling in cooked dishes. Queso quesadilla is a light yellow, mild cheese that melts well but doesn't ooze, making it perfect for quesadilla and other grilled dishes.
Peaches, to the Navajo Nation, are a symbol of strength and endurance. In 1864, the Navajo people were marched to captivity, and their flocks and crops, including their prized peach orchards, were destroyed. When they later returned to their lands, the Navajo replanted the peaches in Canyon de Chelly, where they quickly flourished. Today, those peach trees are a symbol of survival.
Named for its pearlike shape and size, the prickly pear is the most popular edible cactus in the Southwest. Its magenta red rut, also called a tuna, grows on the ends of the pads of the plant. Both the fruit and the pads are used in Mexican and Southwest cooking and are very nutritious.
When Mark Miller opened the doors of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe in 1987, the face of American cuisine changed forever. Blending centuries-old culinary traditions with modern techniques, Miller pioneered the emerging Southwestern cuisine we know today, earning accolades for his robust, inspired cooking.
Cooks in today's Southwest are doing what comes naturally: smoking, roasting, and grilling locally grown and sourced foods. Southwestern specialists, like Mark Miller, Bobby Flay or Barbara Pool Fenzle, often pay homage to fundamental ingredients native to the American Southwest and northern Mexico. They reach deeper into the Yucatan, central Mexico and Oaxaca where sauces are more robust, complex and balanced. They combine classic and contemporary techniques and presentation styles with an emphasis on absolutely fresh ingredients.
The crisp green flavors of chiles with their sometimes subtle sometimes stunning heat; the sweetness and pliability of ripe fruits and vegetables, and the pungency of fresh herbs have defined one of America's oldest living and constantly evolving regional cuisines.
SOUTHWEST Menu Theme Ideas
"IF YOU CAN'T TAKE THE HEAT..." — The characteristic for which chiles, the cornerstone of Southwestern cuisine, is best known is its heat. This fiery sensation is caused by capsaicin, a potent chemical compound that survives both cooking and freezing. Serve a variety of salsas with different levels of heat. Offer tips for relieving the burn, as well as highlight the more than two hundred varieties of this famous fruit.
TOUR DE NATIONAL PARKS — Offer customers a virtual tour of some of the Southwest's most extraordinary places, with exceptional cuisine matched to their locales. Want to simultaneously promote your sustainability efforts? National parks are the perfect places to find inspiration. For menu ideas check out Western National Parks' Lodges cookbook by Kathleen Bryant (Northland Publishing, May 2007).
SAVOR SANTE FE — Soft earth colors of bold stripes in pastel shades of moss, medium blue, peach and sand are reminiscent of this lovely sunbaked city. Host your own "RODEO! de Santa Fe" with simulated Barrel Racing, Calf Roping, Team Roping, Bareback Riding, Saddle Bronc, Steer Wrestling or Bull Riding!
The Santa Fe School of Cooking Cookbook
Savor the Southwest
Seasonal Southwest Cooking
The New Southwest Cookbook