Foods of the American Southwest

The foods of the American southwest are strong and bold, evolving in a harsh land with many cultural influences, including Indigenous, Spanish and European. It’s a cuisine that’s satisfying and straightforward, eaten for pure pleasure, not analysis.

The current popularity of southwestern cooking in the U.S. constitutes nothing short of a culinary revolution. It’s part of our craving for real food, real taste, and real texture. The boom of Tex–Mex dishes have widened the cook’s choices of ingredients needed to produce the real thing, and the winds of change smell like mesquite, cilantro, and chilies. America’s newfound appreciation that Southwestern food consists of more than tacos and chili con carne has paid off in the supermarkets.

Here’s a brief guide to some of the more readily available southwestern ingredients found in most supermarkets today:

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    Dried Beans
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    Not all ingredients for southwestern cooking need to be hard-to-find. In fact, much of what is used is to make ordinary, the everyday authentic southwestern fare is all around you. Some of these include nuts, particularly pine nuts, pecans, peanuts and pumpkin seeds; citrus, such as lime; tequila; garlic; beans of all kinds; cornmeal and corn kernels, and fruits, both fresh and dried.

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    Blue Cornmeal

    Blue Cornmeal
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    You may be tired of hearing about this southwestern staple, but don’t dismiss it as trendy. Indigenous peoples have been grinding and cooking with this for centuries. You can use it in place of yellow cornmeal in most recipes. Blue cornmeal has a slightly nuttier flavor than its yellow counterpart.

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    Chile Peppers

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    Fresh chilies are very perishable and will turn up only where grocers are certain they will sell quickly. Some of the more common varieties you’ll find include the following:

    • Jalapeño, a hot to very hot chile that’s good raw or cooked and can be roasted to remove the skin and add a smoky flavor, also called chipotle chilies.
    • Serrano peppers are used in the same way but are smaller, thinner and extremely hot. Remove the seeds and ribs to control the heat.
    • The Anaheim chile is the common workhorse to the southwestern kitchen. Five to six inches long, pale to intense green, narrow and somewhat twisted, the chile can be stuffed to make chile rellenos, or roasted and cut into strips and added to soups and stews like chile verde.
    • Poblano chilies have a great flavor that can range from mild to hot. At their best, they can be roasted and peeled, stuffed or shredded and simmered in long-cooked dishes, tossed in salads, folded into omelets and salsas, or scattered over chicken, fish or cheese dishes for flavor and color.
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    You either love or hate this pungent herb, but its popularity is such that you certainly won’t be able to avoid it. The fragile leaves should be unwilted (usually sold in bunches with the roots still on) and stored in the refrigerator upright in a jar of water like cut flowers.

    Drape a plastic bag over the herbs for extra protection and plan to use within 2 days. Cut just before using. Cilantro is chopped and used in an assortment of dishes, including chili, salsas, soups, and salads.

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    Cumin Seeds
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    This is hardly a new spice. In fact, it’s been available in the supermarket for years, but Tex-Mex fever has increased its usage. In truth, our heavy application of cumin separates the US from the subtler Mexican approach to this seasoning. For a nuttier, richer flavor, toast the seeds, stirring them over low heat in a small heavy skillet for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Grind the seeds just before using.

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    These so-called Mexican green tomatoes are relatives of the Cape gooseberry. The firm round, green fruits, about the size of a large cherry tomato, are enclosed in papery husks, which are removed before cooking. Commonly used raw or briefly cooked in salsas, the tomatillo has a tart, sour, berry flavor. They keep well. Store them in the refrigerator up to 3 weeks.