Southwestern cuisine comes off the back burner

September 11, 1994|By Deborah S. Hartz | Deborah S. Hartz,Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel

Get ready to experience a bit of deja vu: A full decade after its day in the sun, Southwestern cuisine is back.

New cookbooks attest to the trend. Bobby Flay's "Bold American Food" (Warner Books, 1994) features recipes from the chef of New York's Mesa Grill, including chipotle mignonette, pan-fried red snapper in blue cornmeal and red chili-crusted filet mignon. "The Best of the Southwest" (Collins, 1994), by Barbara Pool Fenzl and Norman Kolpas, features such dishes as romaine and pinon salad, beef machaca chimichangas, and huevos rancheros.

This hunger for Southwestern cuisine began in the 1980s, when chefs took Mexican and Southwestern ingredients -- corn, chilies, tomatillos, cilantro, cumin, squash and tomatoes -- and used them with more traditional foodstuffs -- everything from salmon to cepes. They enriched their dishes with lots of butter and cream and charged fancy prices. But like so many hot cuisines, this sophisticated cooking became less of a rage as the '80s wore on and the spotlight moved to the regional cooking of New England, the Northwest, the Midwest and, more recently, Florida.

Even so, Southwestern flavors were so appealing that they didn't disappear. Hence, the rebirth of Mexican-Southwestern cooking across the nation. "But today's cooking is more healthful than it was in the '80s," Mr. Flay says.

Indeed, Ms. Fenzl thinks this cuisine's resurgence is due in part to its proponents making their dishes more healthful than they were five to 10 years ago. "People want to cut back on fat intake. Southwest cuisine has chilies and roasting to give flavor without adding fat," she says.

Aside from being more health-conscious, though, what is the Southwestern cuisine of the '90s?

It goes by a variety of names, with its own class structure. There's everything from Mexican (your basic tacos and tamales found at chain restaurants such as Taco Bell or small family eateries), to Next Mex (Mexican cooking prepared with an eye to lowering fat, cholesterol and sodium content), to High Mexican (chefs combining classical ingredients and techniques with ancient Mexican recipes).

If you find all that a little confusing, don't worry too much, says Michael Carr-Turnbough, chef and general manager at Florida's Rancho DeLuxe Tex Mex Grill. "After all, it's just food."

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This salad is a Southwestern creation of Dick Cingolani. He teaches it at his cooking classes and sometimes serves it at Cafe Arugula in Lighthouse Point, Fla.

Topopo Salad With Grilled Chicken

Serves 4

3 ears of corn in the husks

4 (10-inch) flour tortillas (burrito size)

1/4 cup olive oil 3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

2 (16-ounce) cans black beans

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups bite-size pieces romaine lettuce

salad dressing, to taste (I used a vinaigrette)

1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

1 small red onion, sliced into rings

3 plum tomatoes, cut into wedges

Leave corn in husks and soak in water to cover for at least 1 hour.

Heat a covered charcoal or gas grill. Place corn on rack over coals, cover and cook, turning frequently, until husks are burnt and blackened, about 10 minutes. Brush 1 side of each tortilla with olive oil and place on side of grill, away from direct heat; cook, oiled side down, until hard and crisp, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, grill chicken breasts for about 10 minutes per side or until cooked through.

Remove tortillas, corn and chicken from grill. Let corn cool and then remove corn from husks. With a sharp knife, cut kernels from cobs. Set kernels aside.

Drain beans; reserve juice separately. Place beans, cayenne, cilantro, cumin and salt in a food processor fitted with the metal blade; process into a thick paste. If too thick to spread, add about 1/4 cup of the bean liquid and process to combine. Add more liquid, if necessary, to make a thick but spreadable paste.

Slice chicken crosswise into thin slices. Toss lettuce with dressing of your choice.

To serve, for each salad, spread about 3/4 cup of the black bean paste 1/4 -inch thick on the browned side of the tortilla, leaving a 1/2 -inch border all around. Top with a layer of 1 cup romaine leaves, a layer of 1/4 cup Jack cheese, a layer of 1/2 cup corn kernels and then a portion of the onion rings. Garnish each plate with 1/4 of the tomato wedges. Top salad with a portion of chicken slices.

(Per serving: 805 calories, 61 grams protein, 20 grams fat, 100 grams carbohydrates, 98 milligrams cholesterol, 530 milligrams sodium.)

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This recipe shows off Southwestern flavors.

Spicy Flank Steak

Serves 6

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup minced cilantro

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ground cumin

HTC 1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper

1 (1 1/2 -pound) flank steak

In a large zip-seal bag, combine all ingredients except flank steak. Seal and toss to combine ingredients forming a marinade. Add steak to bag, remove as much air as possible, seal and toss or knead bag to coat steak with marinade. Let meat marinate at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours at room temperature or 24 hours in the refrigerator (remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking). Cook over hot coals about 7 minutes per side or place on a broiler pan and broil about 5 minutes per side or until cooked to desired doneness. Slice diagonally across the grain and serve immediately.

(Per serving: 287 calories, 25 grams protein, 20 grams fat, 0.35 grams carbohydrates, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 420 milligrams sodium.) Recipe from "Southwest the Beautiful Cookbook" (Collins, 1994), by Barbara Pool Fenzl and Norman Kolpas.

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