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For a fresh, easy and colorful Fourth of July feast, how about Tex-Mex?

It is, after all, the best-known “American” Mexican food. Many of the foods we think of as Mexican are actually Tex-Mex: chili con carne, nachos, fajitas, hard-shell fried tacos, Fritos and bean dip, breakfast tacos, rolled enchiladas filled with ground meat, piles of sour cream and guacamole on “combination plates” — all are distinctly Tex-Mex. A heavy use of ground beef, white flour tortillas, long-cooked brownish “salsa,” yellow cheddar cheese, and chili con queso are also ingredients that are Tex-Mex, not Mexican.

In general, Tex-Mex is the food of prosperity and even excess. And it’s tasty.

A recent visit to San Antonio, Texas — America’s seventh-largest city and the heart of Tex-Mex food — was a revelation.

We visited during Culinaria, the city’s celebration of food and beverages. We attended some fancy meals where the chefs tried a bit too hard; had a magnificent meal at the new Éilan Hotel; enjoyed glorious street food and San Antonio’s first food truck gathering; went to a barbecue, burger and beer festival; and were there for the wonderful Taste of Mexico celebration. The visit especially brought Tex-Mex food into focus.

Many people understand that the food of Mexico is far more diverse than what is popular in the United States, but they may not realize that the Mexican food served in different parts of America was traditionally distinctive, too.

Those differences have been softened as chains like Taco Bell, Chipotle and El Chico have spread popular items — admittedly Americanized — around the states, but anyone who eats Tex-Mex in San Antonio, stacked enchiladas in Santa Fe, chimichangas in Phoenix, fish tacos in San Diego, or giant Mission burritos in San Francisco will still find many differences.

Although many purists consider these foods to be

bastardized versions of “true” Mexican dishes, some experts regard them as legitimate regional Mexican foods, just different — like how food from Yucatan is different from that of Chihuahua.

After all, the whole Southwest was part of Mexico until the U.S. decided its “manifest destiny” was to occupy the continent from east to west and started wars to steal half of that country.

Differences arose among Mexican dishes eaten here — largely because American versions of Mexican food were influenced by the foods of the adjoining parts of Mexico, but also because immigrants (and those who lived here before it became America) often couldn’t get the ingredients that they had back home. So they adapted the food to what they could get.

A few foods stayed there, particularly San Antonio: puffy tacos, a local invention, but also authentic Mexican cabrito (roasted kid) and barbacoa (meat, traditionally a cow’s head or mutton, cooked in an underground pit like a luau pig).

We were lucky to encounter a great guide to the differences: chef Johnny Hernandez, who specializes in the food of “interior” Mexico, his term for food from north central Mexico but not the border area.

Best known for his La Gloria restaurant, Hernandez recently opened an event center where he serves that “authentic” food, and yes, we had cabeza barbacoa — though fortunately, the slow-cooked cow head was shredded away from our eyes.

Hernandez notes that the Texan version of barbacoa is less complex and layered in flavor than that of Mexico, and less identified with a wide variety of chilis. “They used what they had,” he said, “notably chili powder,” a mixture of ground dried chilis, salt and other spices like cumin, oregano and garlic powder.

He adds that you can find more “authentic” regional Mexican food in cosmopolitan Austin, “the Berkeley of Texas,” but San Antonio is the queen of Tex-Mex.

Whether you consider it authentic or not, Tex-Mex food can be addicting, if not for the faint of heart or those on a diet. If you visit San Antonio, why would you eat anything else?

 

 

Puffy Tacos

Diana Barrio

Makes 14 tacos.

3 cups masa (dry corn tortilla mix)

1/2 Tbsp. salt

2-1/4 cups warm water

Optional fillings

Cooked ground beef or shredded chicken, guacamole, whole or refried beans, shredded cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes

Mix masa, salt and warm water in a large bowl.

Roll mixture into dough balls the size of Ping-Pong balls. Using a tortilla press lined in plastic, press out the dough.

Meanwhile, heat a deep pot filled with cooking oil 2 inches high to 250 F.

Drop a flat tortilla dough round in the hot oil and repeatedly douse with the oil. When it puffs up, turn it over and make an indention in the middle with a spatula to form a slot. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

Repeat with remaining tortilla dough rounds.

Fill cooked tortillas with cooked ground beef or shredded chicken, guacamole, beans and shredded cheddar cheese. Top with shredded lettuce and diced tomato.

 

Fajitas

Paul Franson

Marinade for steak

1/4 cup lime juice

2 Tbsp. neutral oil

2 tsp. ground red chili

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped coarsely

Combine marinade ingredients and pour on meat. Refrigerate for one hour.

1 lb. marinated strip steak (see above), cut into strips

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper, cut into strips

1 red bell pepper, cut into strips

8 flour tortillas

Optional toppings

Sour cream, guacamole, salsa, shredded lettuce, shredded cheddar cheese

Sauté peppers and onions in oil until tender. Remove and set aside.

Sear meat until ready, then add onions and peppers back to pan.

Spoon meat and vegetables into tortillas.

Serve with bowls of optional toppings such as sour cream, guacamole, salsa, shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese.

 

Barbacoa Norteña

Johnny Hernandez

This is something you can find in San Antonio’s Mexican neighborhoods — but it’s traditional Mexican, not Tex-Mex.

It is traditionally served for breakfast with corn or flour tortillas with garnishes of chopped onions and cilantro, limes, avocado slices and salsa. It makes an excellent taco filling or accompaniment to huevos rancheros.

5 lbs. beef cheeks (if you can’t find a head)

1 white onion, quartered

2 sprigs thyme

2 sprigs oregano

4 dried avocado leaves

2 sprigs epazote

1/4 bunch parsley, stems removed, chopped

Banana leaves to cover

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Rub the cheeks with salt and pepper and place in a large oven-safe pot.

Add enough water to cover three-quarters of the way up the meat, then add onion, thyme, oregano, avocado leaves, epazote and parsley.

Cover with the banana leaves and cover pot with a tight-fitting lid.

Place pot in oven and cook until the cheeks are soft enough that you can pull them apart and shred, approximately 3 hours. Serve with desired accompaniments.

 

Texas Caviar

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2 cups black-eyed peas (fresh cooked or canned)

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 small can chopped green chilies

Dash of cayenne pepper or hot sauce

2 Tbsp. onion, minced

2 Tbsp. celery, minced

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1/4 tsp. salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 Tbsp. fresh cilantro, minced

2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced

Drain black-eyed peas, rinse with cold water and drain again.

Combine olive oil, chilies, cayenne, onion, celery, vinegar, salt and pepper, and mix well. Pour over peas and stir gently.

Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. At serving time, add chopped tomatoes and cilantro, and mix carefully.

 

Chili con Queso

This easy nacho recipe popular in Texas uses Velveeta and Rotel Tomatoes and Green Chilies, both of which are available at Safeway.

1 lb. pasteurized processed cheese spread (Velveeta), cut into 1-inch cubes

One 10-oz. can diced or whole Rotel Tomatoes and Green Chilies

In a saucepan, combine ingredients.

Stir over low heat until cheese spread is melted.

Serve with tortilla chips, crackers or vegetables.

 

Frito Pie

Paul Franson

3 cups Fritos corn chips

3/4 cup yellow onion, diced to 1/4-inch pieces or smaller

1 cup mild cheddar cheese, grated

2 cups chili, homemade or canned

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Spread 2 cups of Fritos in a baking dish.

Sprinkle half of the onion and half of the cheese over the Fritos.

Pour the chili over the onion and cheese.

Sprinkle the remaining onion and cheese over the chili.

Top with the remaining 1 cup of Fritos.

Bake for 15 or 20 minutes, until cheese is bubbly. Serve hot.

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