Cultures blend beautifully in fare of Southwest

May 04, 1994|By Jan Ellen Spiegel | Jan Ellen Spiegel,Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph

Take a little bit of Southwest and a little bit of Italy and the result may be avocado pasta with shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, goat cheese and pinon nuts.

Not exactly something an American Indian or Italian would have dined on 100 years ago. But that's the idea behind Southwestern cuisine today: It has evolved from indigenous foods, borrowing techniques from other cultures along the way.

A new, beautifully photographed cookbook uses huge color photographs and more than 200 recipes to paint a culinary picture of the evolution of Southwestern cuisine. Though its illustrations make it perfect for the coffee table, "Southwest: the Beautiful Cookbook" (Collins, $45) deserves a place on the kitchen counter.

"It's using a combination of techniques from all cuisines, mainly French, with ingredients available locally," says Barbara Pool Fenzl, who compiled the recipes for the book.

Southwestern cuisine's original ethnic roots -- American Indian, Mexican and Anglo-American -- can still be traced, yet they've combined in unique ways to create whole new products, says co-author Norman Kolpas, who wrote the background and historical information sprinkled between recipe chapters.

The earliest ingredients -- squash, corn and chilies -- have been native to the Southwest for more than 5,000 years. They were among the few foods that could survive the harsh desert climate. Beans came later, Europeans introduced wheat flour and dairy products, and cowboys added their itinerant on-the-road fare to help mold Southwestern food into sturdy stews and earthy dishes.

Many of the cooking techniques were born of necessity. Slow-cooking meat with chilies tenderized tough cuts. Corn was used for flour because it was easier to grow.

And the evolution continued, borrowing more recently from the techniques and styles of classic cooking -- French, Italian and others.

The result? Ingenious hybrid dishes such as pastas, fish and salads not typically seen in the Southwest, combined with sauces, garnishes and preparation techniques that are. They're the modern, sophisticated cousins of the region's original peasant fare -- tamales, enchiladas and other corn, bean and chili dishes.

Native Southwestern vegetation such as prickly pear cactus, juniper berries and pinon nuts are becoming grocery-store staples that not only add to the dish's taste, but also to its look.

Ms. Fenzl knows some of the ingredients are still hard to find, and that personal tastes vary greatly for things like hot chilies, so she frequently provides substitutes for ingredients and urges cooks to experiment.

Southwestern ingredients also have become more healthful, Ms. Fenzl and Mr. Kolpas note. Most cooks no longer use the lard and heavy frying prevalent in traditional Mexican cooking.

"It relies on beans, corn and rice. It relies on lively seasonings such as chilies. It relegates animal proteins to a small part of the meal," Mr. Kolpas says. "It's healthy."

Neither author thinks Southwestern cooking is a fad. Because it's rooted in the region and long-established classic cooking techniques, they believe it will continue to evolve.

The authors point out that the "haute cuisine" influence on Southwestern food is most pronounced in desserts.

"There are not many desserts in this part of the country that would be considered native. It's usually just fresh fruits," Ms. Fenzl says. "It was sort of a challenge, but fun to do."

Combinations such as a classic French apple tart spiked with jalapenos, prickly pear sorbet or pinon cookies take the blending of Southwestern and haute cuisine a step further.

We tested many recipes from "Southwest: the Beautiful Cookbook." These are a few favorites.

*

Pumpkins have been a southwest staple for centuries. This soup variation combines a spicy broth with a cool garnish.

Pumpkin soup with lime-ginger cream

Serves 10 to 12

1/4 cup unsalted butter

2 cups finely chopped onions

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1 1/3 cups milk

3 cups pumpkin puree

6 cups chicken stock

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1/2 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons grated lime zest

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add onions and slowly saute until translucent. Stir in the cayenne and transfer mixture to a food processor or blender. Add milk and pumpkin and process until smooth. Pour mixture into a saucepan and whisk in chicken stock. Bring soup to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add salt and pepper.

In a small saucepan, cook lime juice and ginger over medium heat for 2 minutes. Strain into bowl and discard ginger. Whisk sour cream into remaining liquid. Put mixture into a squeeze bottle. Ladle soup into bowls. Decorate by making designs with lime-sour cream. Sprinkle with lime zest.

*

This lamb has orange overtones which can stand alone, or it blends nicely with a not-too-hot green chili sauce.

Marinated leg of lamb

Serves 6

1 leg of lamb (about 5 pounds) boned, butterflied and trimmed

MARINADE:

1/2 cup olive oil

1 1/3 cup fresh orange juice

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