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Jim Peyton's 'The Very Best of Tex-Mex Cooking'

Until recently, we were safe. Even the exotic Nonya cuisine of Malaysia was receiving more attention in the food press than our own comfortable Tex-Mex. But lately, all that has begun to change. Robb Walsh's The Tex-Mex Cookbook was the first wide-circulation treatise to hit the shelves, and now comes Jim Peyton's The Very Best of Tex-Mex Cooking. Head for the hills.

Peyton has been working up to this point for quite some time. Starting with El Norte, The Cuisine of Northern Mexico in 1990, and continuing with La Cocina de La Frontera and New Cooking from Old Mexico, he has methodically continued to plumb the Mexican roots of our hybrid, homey cooking, and it was inevitable that he would eventually put them together with the native and ranching traditions that account for fajitas and combination plates. In fact, Peyton's book springs from the very notion of the Mexican Plate #1, breaking it down into components and presenting us with a kind of make-it-yourself menu of old favorites - hold the Velveeta. Peyton is only a purist to a point, and he doesn't shrink from suggesting substitutes that maintain the spirit of a dish while increasing its popular appeal.

It's clear from the very first recipe that Peyton has taken nothing for granted. The frying of tortilla chips, preferably in corn oil at 345 to 355 degrees, with either lard (he tells you how to make your own) or bacon added for flavor, receives as much attention as more complex operations such as the making of tamales. A simple roasted salsa is the platform for talking about his preference for "lemony" serranos over jalapeños. And the notion of adding flavor to a dish at each step along the way is typified by his preference for cooking beans for frijoles de olla in water flavored with puréed garlic.

Sometimes, however, there's more information than you really want. Never a fan of chile con queso, now I know why: Some restaurants, he says, "lower their food costs by simply adding some chiles to a cheddar cheese soup concentrate that has been thinned with a little milk or water..." I think I'll continue to pass. His recipe, on the other hand, with three cheeses, tequila, and whole and evaporated milk, sounds like a vast improvement on most restaurant renditions and something you might actually like to eat.

For Peyton, "the center of the Tex-Mex universe" is the red chile enchilada sauce; a recipe he says "took me a long time and a lot of trial and error with many wrong turns to get to." With its Mexican puréed anchos and Texas butter and flour roux, it's surely where the two cultures most memorably meet. I'm not sure about adding peanut butter and green food coloring to the green chile enchilada sauce, but he justifies both, at least to his satisfaction.

Many of these dishes I'm simply never going to make at home, though all of Peyton's cookbooks are essential culinary and cultural references. Still, you have to admire a recipe entitled Much-Better-Than-Usual Tex-Mex Tacos. Again typical of his reasoned approach, Peyton prefers semi-crisp shells (he tells you how to do them) and fillings that are "layered sideways rather than stacked on top of each other." Think about how you eat a (semi-) crisp taco and all will suddenly become clear.

Though I disagree with Peyton's assertion that breakfast tacos consist almost exclusively of scrambled egg with added ingredients, his Special Breakfast Taco indeed seems special. In essence, it's an omelette served over a tortilla, and the combination of layered refrieds, omelette with chorizo, chiles, and cilantro, a slice of provolone, and a spoonful of hash browns (add salsa, fold, and inhale) sounds utterly irresistible. Presented as a sauce for huevos rancheros, but with many other possible uses (including the above taco), Peyton's salsa ranchera recipe seems like one well worth passing on. Canned tomatoes, he says, produce a thicker, sweeter sauce than do fresh.

Salsa Ranchera

2 14-oz. cans whole tomatoes, (unsalted, if possible)
2 T olive oil
1 c chopped white onion
3 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
2 cloves minced garlic
3 T tomato paste
1 t dried oregano
1/3 c loosely packed, chopped cilantro
2 T chopped fresh parsley
1/4 t ground black pepper
Salt, to taste (approximately 1/2 t if using unsalted tomatoes)

Remove the tomatoes from the cans, reserving the juice, and chop them coarsely, either by hand or, more conveniently, in a food processor. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the onions and jalapeños and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft but not yet beginning to brown.

Add the garlic and continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Before the garlic can scorch, add the chopped tomatoes, then stir in the reserved juice from the cans, the tomato paste, oregano, cilantro, parsley, and pepper.

Adjust the heat to low simmer and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened (about 15 minutes), then add salt to taste. The sauce can be prepared several days ahead and kept refrigerated.

One final comment: Though I'm a personal stickler for at least trying to get people to use tamal for the singular of tamales (hopeless, I admit), I don't condone trying to turn chili (the bowl of red) into chile as Peyton does, and the book's cover (though not its interior) seems to agree. Since the Mexicans disavow the dish, let's not use their language to describe it.

The Very Best of Tex-Mex Cooking:
Plus Texas Barbecue and Texas Chile

By James Peyton
192 pages
Maverick Publishing Co.
ISBN: 1893271331



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