Serve it up red hot and green: Holiday fare takes Tex-Mex turn

December 16, 1992|By Ginger Mudd Galvez | Ginger Mudd Galvez,Contributing Writer

Move aside, roast turkey. You're out of here, dip and chips. Gotta go, crab balls. This month, whether it's at the family feast or the traditional holiday office party, new flavors have infiltrated our cooking and bumped some of the old familiars right off the table.

Not exactly new, really. The spicy fire of jalapeno chilies and clean tang of fresh cilantro and ginger have been familiar to fans of Tex-Mex and Southwest cooking for years. What's new for Baltimore, though, is the degree to which these ingredients and flavors have filtered into our cooking.

While most of us might not be preparing a complete Southwest dinner party yet, lots of us are using chilies, tomatillos, pumpkin seeds and cumin in dishes we wouldn't have dreamed five years ago. It's no longer a big deal to find common Southwest ingredients in local groceries, and a thriving mail-order business has sprung up for more exotic ingredients.

Nationally, salsa began outselling ketchup a year ago; on the local scene, the five Sutton Place Gourmet shops in the Baltimore-Washington corridor sell an average of 250 pounds of salsa a day.

"It's become so much a part of our culture that people don't even know it's Southwest cuisine any more," says Sutton Place sous-chef William Goldman. "You now can find salsa, for example, used in kitchens all over the East Coast, from Key West to New England. It's a sauce that you can heat up or serve cold. It goes with all kinds of grilled dishes, such as chicken and fish. And it carries well."

In addition to the ease with which many Southwestern ingredients can be used, people are eager for the gutsy flavors and visual appeal of these dishes, according to Sascha Wolhandler of Sascha's Catering.

"There's real depth in the taste of this food," says Ms. Wolhandler, who recently returned from two weeks in Taos and Santa Fe, N.M. The flavors are so strong that a condiment like salsa or hot sauce can really transform your basic roast beef or turkey dinner.

Ms. Wolhandler urges clients to consider Southwestern dishes when they entertain because "you get a very nice menu at not-great expense and you achieve a wonderful taste that's a little different.

"Rather than plain grilled chicken, for instance, you can have a lime-cilantro grilled chicken with a pineapple salsa, black bean-corn salad with salsa vinaigrette, corn pancakes and a wonderful salad with orange sections.

"The breads are really wonderful, with pairing of sweet and hot tastes, such as cranberry-jalapeno or rosemary-raisin bread. Add pitcher of sangria or margaritas, and you have a fun party with a different look and feel to it."

"Southwest cooking has tremendous eye appeal," adds Mr. Goldman. "You get a blend of beautiful colors when you use fresh ingredients like tomatoes, cilantro, onions, garlic, chilies, peppers. And in restaurants where chefs have developed a really sophisticated style of cooking, the presentation is really something. They take those gritty pottery plates and make them look like nouvelle French presentations, all while using ingredients indigenous to that area."

Travel to the source has been an important factor in spreading the Southwest gospel.

As Arlene Gillis, manager of Books for Cooks (where Mark Miller's "Coyote Cafe" cookbook is a best seller), points out, people go West, eat this food, and then come home and have to have the recipes. The food is good and fresh, and there's not a lot of fat or rich sauces; it just seems to be an appealing way to eat right now.

McCormick's group-brand manager for grocery items, Virginia Maycock, who oversees the marketing of such seasoning mixes as the spice giant's taco seasoning and chicken mesquite blend, concurs.

"Many times a trend starts in the restaurant and then moves into the home," she says. "As we follow consumer trends, we definitely find more interest in Southwest cooking. Our goal is to produce spice blends that help cooks make at home something they first tasted in a restaurant."

"Southwest dishes have definitely worked [their] way into thmainstream," says Janis Talbott, co-owner of Morton's gourmet carryout shop in the Mount Vernon area. "In our catering jobs, we often serve Santa Fe chicken stew with jalapeno corn bread. And nobody considers it unusual anymore to add chilies to corn bread."

Morton's is one Baltimore outlet that carries a new line of Southwestern spice mixes marketed under the Route 66 label by Columbia-based entrepreneur Gayle Garivaltis.

After her brother and sister-in-law bought a small New Mexico company, Ms. Garivaltis quit the corporate world to nationally market their "2 Guns Taco mix," "Panhandle chili mix," "Red Chili Sauce" and diced jalapeno flakes. Ms. Garivaltis calls Southwest cooking "the food of the '90s. It's the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. And people on the East Coast finally seem ready for these flavors.

a uniquely American culinary tradition that came from the Indian, Hispanic and Anglo people converging in the Southwest."

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